The 6 Life Skills Meditation Teaches Best: PART 3 – BECOMING SKILLFUL WITH ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION
Beyond relaxation or stress relief, why do so many people make meditation a part of their day? It’s not to become good at meditation, sitting on a cushion 20 minutes a day! Meditation is a way to become more self-aware, caring and wise, and to bring those strengths into your relationships, your work and your way of being in the world. In this six-part series, Meditation Teacher Ann Vrlak looks at the core life skills you can develop or strengthen through a meditation practice.
In the first two articles in this series, I looked at two meditation life skills: Gaining perspective and Self-compassion. In this article, I’d like to talk with you about how these two skills can help if you’re one of the many people who experience mild to moderate anxiety or depression.
I mentioned in those articles that there’s a paradox at the heart of meditation: that calm, compassion and wisdom grow through gaining objectivity on your thoughts and emotions and, at the same time, by becoming more open and present to them.
If your thoughts and emotions are sometimes like a rushing river, meditation can show you how to stand on the shore. You learn to observe them, rather than being caught in the current and swept away by them. You can’t see wise or compassionate ways to respond to your life when you’re overwhelmed.
ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION
These two meditation skills of gaining perspective and self-compassion taken together help you to cultivate what is sometimes called the “compassionate witness.” It’s a wonderfully balanced experience and one that has the power to heal.
When you are your own “compassionate witness,” you treat yourself with compassion, but also with enough objectivity not to be caught in victimhood. But, you also don’t have so much objectivity that you’re indifferent to your own pain. You still care, very deeply.
The compassionate witness is an indispensable friend when we’re coping with everyday anxiety and depression. Both are responses to life situations that have wide-ranging effects on your body, thinking, emotions and sense of self. And both can become a painful cycle.
A stressful phone call creates anxiety and a clench in your stomach. Your thoughts start to swirl with worries about the future, and you feel immobilized with fear and grief. Your fear creates a tightness in your neck, that triggers more anxiety.
And the cycle tightens and worsens. You feel bad about yourself, helpless, unable to cope.
When you’re in the grip of a cycle like this, there’s no space between your thoughts, emotions and sensations – you just know you feel bad. If you’re like most of us, you want to run away from the whole experience, by surfing the web, eating, or some other distraction.
The sad reality is, though, that “not showing up” for yourself, ultimately intensifies anxiety and depression.
Enter the compassionate witness.
HOW MEDITATION CAN HELP
You can start by trying the meditation practices in the Gaining Perspective (Noticing and Naming) and Self-compassion (Noticing and Caring) articles. They’re short, step-by-step practices on being aware of and accepting what’s happening for you.
The following breath and body practice is good medicine for anxiety and depression. This deceptively simple practice is powerful. It soothes all parts of the anxiety or depression cycle: your body, thinking, emotions and sense of self.
When you can improve any part of the cycle you’ll feel better. Affecting all of them will have a deep impact on your well-being and happiness.
I’ll describe the breath practice to you and then how it reduces anxiety and depression.
Coming soon! Ajna Wellbeing Zabuton Meditation Mats
SOFT BELLY BREATH
- Take a minute to sit in a comfortable way, on a chair or sitting on a cushion.
- Adjust your breath so the in breath, out breath, and the pauses in between all last for a count of four: in breath, pause, out breath, pause.
- If four seconds feels too long, you can reduce the counts to three.
- Centre your breathing in your lower belly, rather than up in your throat or chest. Feel your belly filling and emptying with each breath.
- When your attention strays, gently come back to counting and feeling your breath.
- Do this for 10 breaths.
- Finish with a few deep, relaxing breaths. Notice how you feel.
THE EFFECTS OF THIS PRACTICE:
Focusing on your breath has a de-stressing effect on your nervous system. Your body will start to send relaxation messages and chemicals throughout your body and brain.
In this practice, you bring your focus gently back to your breath over and over again when you’re pulled away. You don’t actively suppress thoughts or emotions or sensations; you don’t try to make them go away. You simply shift your focus. If you’re in the clutches of an anxiety or depression cycle, a break from your troubling thoughts will be a huge relief–and you may be amazed to see just how much they contribute to your stress and pain.
Anxiety and depression can bring with them a whole range of emotions from fear to grief to anger to hopelessness. By reducing your physical stress and turning down the volume on your stressful thoughts, you create a small space between “you” and your emotions. And the compassionate witness in you wakes up. Because you can actually see your own pain more clearly, you care deeply about it. I’ve found that, if I can truly feel and connect with an emotion, I automatically feel compassion for myself. And that compassion starts to calm difficult emotions.
SENSE OF SELF
All of these shifts open up your experience. Where there was once a dense ball of pain, you gain some wisdom about these components of your anxiety or depression. You see you have the ability to help yourself, to approach yourself rather than running away. That you’re stronger than you think. You discover a part of yourself that can observe from a place of stability, caring and strength. That gives you confidence to work with your anxiety or depression in ways that you may not have felt able to before.
MEDITATION HEALS ON MANY LEVELS
When you practice meditations like these, you’re bringing awareness and healing to all parts of who you are. Even small shifts and openings, can make all the difference in your well-being and happiness, and encourage you to keep going with a practice that speaks to you.