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Secular Meditation: Both Restful and Active (Something I Forgot In My Post on Meditation and Depression)

There’s something I forgot to mention in my previous post about secular meditation and depression. It’s one of the qualities of meditation that seems to help me with my depression — and frankly, just with my life. I strongly think this would be a useful thing even if I didn’t have depression. So I wanted to share with the rest of the class.

It’s this: Meditation is both restful and active.

Meditation fills my need for activity, for something to do. And it also fills my need for rest, for quiet time and down time.

Meditation is weird. It both is and is not an activity. When I meditate, all I’m doing is sitting quietly and being aware of my breath (or my body, or the silence in the room, or one of a few other things). And yet it’s not like lying on the sofa spacing out and thinking about whatever. It is a focused activity, requiring attention and concentration and conscious work.

So when I’m meditating, I feel like I am simultaneously resting and being active. And when I’m done meditating, I feel like I’ve gotten the benefits of both rest and activity. I feel calm and refreshed, the way I do when I’ve had good rest; I feel alert and engaged, the way I do when I’ve been happily and productively active. And I get that sense of having done something valuable, something worth doing, that I get from both rest and activity.

So what does this have to do with depression?

feet on balance beamWhen I’m having a depressive episode, or when I’m teetering on the brink of one, one of the hardest things to manage is the balance between rest and activity. If I’m not active enough, I get torpid and foggy, and I tend to fall into a vicious circle where I can’t muster the motivation or the energy to do the very things that would make me feel better. If I’m too active, I get overwhelmed and irritated and exhausted. In general, I’ve found that it’s best for me to err on the side of activity — but it’s a tricky balance even at the best of times, and when I’m having a depressive episode or am teetering on the brink of one, the range between “too much rest” and “too much activity” gets very narrow indeed. I have to be very careful to get it just right. It’s like walking on a balance beam, over an abyss.

And one of the hardest things about a depressive episode is that neither rest nor activity feels good. If I’m active, I feel tired and overwhelmed and groggy and like I want nothing more than to sink into my bed or my sofa. If I’m resting, I feel anxious and twitchy and like I should be doing something, anything at all, other than just sitting or lying there. Sometimes I even feel this as a physical twitching in my muscles, where every tiny ache or tension becomes intolerable and has to be relieved immediately. (I especially get that when I’m trying to fall asleep, which really and truly sucks.) It’s one of the defining characteristics of depression for me: literally no matter what I’m doing, it doesn’t feel right, and I want to be doing something else.

dreaming faceBut meditation feels right. It feels like I’m doing something, and it feels like I’m doing nothing. There is something about consciously focusing my intense awareness on the activity of doing nothing at all: it gives the nothingness a richness, a vividness, that lets me savor the experience of rest and really absorb it. (In fact, sometimes when I meditate, that’s what I focus my awareness on — the experience of rest. I sit quietly, and I say to myself, “Feel yourself resting. Let the restfulness sink into your muscles. Let it sink into your brain. Let yourself take it in.”) And when I finish, it’s the exact opposite of the depressed feeling, where I feel both restless and torpid: when I’m done meditating, I feel both rested and engaged.

It is hard sometimes. It’s hard to just sit with my twitchiness, my torpor, my sense that nothing is right. Especially at the beginning of a session. It’s sometimes excruciatingly hard: when my brain is screeching at me, “Do something else! Do something else! Whatever you’re doing, do something else!,” it can be excruciatingly hard to simply sit, to notice the screeching and observe it without judgment and continue to sit, quietly, doing nothing about it.

But I don’t think I have ever meditated during a depressive episode — or any other time, for that matter — and come out of it regretting it. I don’t think I have ever meditated during a depressive episode and not come out of it feeling better. Not cured, not perfect, not “depression all gone now” — but better. And I almost always come out of it feeling both like I’ve been doing engaging and productive work — and feeling like I’ve had a good night’s sleep.

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