Depression is a common condition that affects most of us at some time in our life. For most of us, these depressive episodes pass through like a rainstorm, but eventually they resolve themselves and we bounce back to our normal state of balance. For some, the patterns of anxiety reactions do not lift so easily and the same negative thoughts repeat over and over like a broken record player. This reliving and re-experiencing emotional agitation and pain is a major source of stress and leaves us feeling exhausted and unable to cope. We become apathetic and feel our life energy draining away.
Depression and other anxiety disorders have an internal structure in the form of habitual cognitive reactions to which we have become blindly attached through the process of identification. The negative thought arises and then we become the thought. A worry-thought arises and we become worried. Anger arises and we become angry. Fear arises and we become afraid. This process of becoming happens quite automatically and is sustained by the fact that we are unaware of the reactive process of becoming. The thought arises and literally grabs hold of us and pulls us into a predetermined state of consciousness against our will or choice. Habitual reactions thrive on our unawareness of them and will continue indefinitely so long as we remain unaware. So, clearly the very first step in overcoming depression requires that we reverse this process and train ourselves to become aware of our negative emotional reactions. As the saying goes, “no consciousness, no choice; partial consciousness, partial choice; complete consciousness, complete choice.” In mindfulness psychotherapy this is called awakening to our reactivity.
We may think that we are aware of our thoughts and emotions, and this is true up to a point, but the issue is that we are seldom aware of our reactions in the moment that they arise, only after the fact when we are consumed by becoming the reaction. Our awareness is not immediate and direct, but delayed, and the delaying factor is unawareness. Mindfulness is first and foremost a deliberate effort to change this and awaken to our reactions as soon as they arise. In fact, we learn to recognize the impulse to react that precedes the thought form itself. Each moment in which we become mindful of our impulse to react creates a space, a brief interval in which there is freedom and choice. Sometimes this is all it takes to interrupt the reactive process altogether and we are able to choose to think or act differently. Other times, the impulse is so strong that we are tempted back into becoming the reaction again. Nevertheless, each moment of mindfulness strengthens and cultivates this inner state of freedom, and with conscious effort and repetition, the space of inner freedom will grow. What we are learning to do is to refrain from feeding the beast, the inner structure of habitual reactivity. If you stop feeding a reaction by becoming identified by it then it will begin to lose power to sustain itself. It will also lose its power over you.
Now that you have gained some freedom from your reactivity, you can do something quite remarkable and actively turn your attention towards the suffering, towards the feeling energy that fuels the impulse to react. This is the second part of mindfulness practice and a very important part of the method of Mindfulness Meditation Therapy. We literally make the emotion, itself, the focus of our meditation, which is why we use the term Mindfulness Meditation Therapy.
When we are in the unaware reactive mode of consciousness, we do anything but turn towards our pain. We react further to the anxiety, fear or depression with secondary reactions of avoidance, resistance and aversion. We seek positive distractions; we try to drown our sorrows in drink, obsessive sensory stimulation, or work. We become aggressive and project our inner suffering onto others and even onto those we love. But, through mindfulness, we are able to avoid the secondary reactions of aversion, wanting and distraction and come back to the simple process of being present with our pain. You may think you are present for it, but if you look more closely you will probably see that you are not really present, but reactive. Even the act of thinking about why you are upset or worried is NOT the same as being fully present for the feeling. Mindfulness is the art of being awake to every subtle movement of mind that tries to take you away from being present.
So, through the practice of mindfulness, we learn to be more and more present with our experience, including our direct experience of suffering. This has a remarkable effect on the configuration of emotional energy attached to the negative thought or belief. The feeling energy begins to regain mobility and malleability and in the inner free space of mindful-awareness, the emotion begins to change. We create, what I call a therapeutic space around the emotion, and in this space the emotion responds positively by undergoing therapeutic change. An emotion is an unstable configuration of energy, and the psych will always seek to resolve instability as long as it has the freedom to change. Mindfulness creates this inner freedom and this is why mindfulness is so therapeutic. As we say, “reactivity sustains suffering; mindfulness resolves suffering.” We do not have to try and change the suffering; it changes itself – as long as we stay mindful.