Practical Mindfulness: The New Witness Protection Program

Mindfulness: a straightforward tool to help abate depression

Posted Nov 02, 2009

For about 3 hours now, I've been sitting cross legged on my green comforter, staring at the TV. Someone, a woman, with too much lipstick and over-plucked, penciled-in eyebrows squeaks and hiccups about the ‘greatest' buy shoppers could ever hope for. Something about this season's must-have girdle that sweats away fat. Oh gawd. I am watching... The Shopping Channel.

Then I notice that familiar feeling that's been sinking into my chest, dawning into my arms, and trailing into my legs. What I fear and respect most shows its edges: Depression.

But I've learned that doesn't mean I will spiral out of control, descend under its black sheet. If I gently albeit nervously invite the demons in for tea and watch them, the power they threaten to hold over me dissolves. Or at least lessens. I have learned this through the art of mindfulness.

As a nanny ‘minds' a baby with tenderness and care, attending to the needs of a wee bright being, so too is the practice of mindfulness. At its most basic, mindfulness is observing what is happening in the present moment.

Practical mindfulness, one tool I use to manage the emotional storms of my mood disorder, involves something more: a purposeful, ‘unconditional friendliness' and awareness towards the inner goings-on of my mind, the subtle shifts in my emotions and body, ideally, just as the microscopic changes from ‘normal' mood into depression begin.

Under this warm light of compassionate witnessing, unspoken, almost unbelievable, transformations start to take place.

Practicing this art daily, when things are going well or especially when they're not, increases clarity, compassion, patience, and allows well-being to unfold. Mindfulness is not a substitute for medication and intelligent counseling. It is however, a most potent ‘power tool' to maintain recovery and prevent relapse. Repeated studies prove this: MBCT "substantially reduce(s) the risk of relapse in those who had 3 or more previous depressive episodes (from 66% to 37%)". Teasdale, Segal, Williams, Ridgeway, Lau & Saulsby (2000).

Often associated with ‘Insight' or ‘Vipassana' meditation, a tradition dating back two and a half thousand years, mindfulness of mood, mind and matter is easily practiced without any of its Buddhist trappings.

"Mindfulness (in relation to preventing depression)," explains Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph. D., founder of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), "is based on the meditative view that change and health come about through acceptance of whatever is happening, no matter how painful, frightening or undesirable. Acceptance," he notes, "does not mean resignation, but actively coming to terms with things as they are and learning creative ways of working with one's situation."

I am still sitting slumped on my bed but with knees aching and back sore. Self-reproach, for reasons unknown surface. My thoughts are slow and menacing. I inhale; focus on the rise and fall of my belly; try to be aware, without judgment, of the whir of the ‘mean-mind' of Depression.

This is not easy: a massive understatement when fighting depression. Self-acceptance, I can barely remember, let alone practice.

Mindfulness...teaches how to make simple yet radical shift(s) in our
relationship to our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations
that contribute to depressive relapses. - Jon Kabat-Zinn

Managing a mood disorder requires us to know what warning signs. Mindfulness is a straightforward tool to help note even the slightest changes.

I shuffle towards the kitchen: dirty plates are piled high, coffee stains on the counter, pizza crusts from binges gone by. A familiar loop of potentially crippling remarks circle: "I'm so stupid...I'm such a loser...I'm so stupid...I'm such a loser..."

I do my best to stay present and observe as they dart and pinch the corners of my mind. I try to see them for what they are: thoughts and feelings only. Not facts about who I am or edicts of what I'm worth.

But they seem so real. Feel utterly convincing. I inhale, and continue watching. They are thoughts and feelings passing through me. Nasty, mean, horrible ones, but just thoughts and feelings. Not the Truth. Not me.

If I believe the story they tell me or try to wrestle them into submission I loose my center and loose myself. And I become vulnerable to the onslaught of a full depressive episode. So, I practice watching these demons and basement dwellers.

Using this ‘witness' perspective, I don't feel so suffocated. Mindfulness has this uncanny ability to shift distortion into discernment. Thoughts and feelings, which used to send me into tailspins, loose their draw.

This ‘witnessing' has literally become a ‘witness protection program' for me. The more I witness (with compassion) the malevolent thoughts, the more I am protected from falling deep into their clutch.

Common sense tells us though that feelings of inadequacy, anxiety or hopelessness will not magically evaporate with the skill of insight. But they often cease to escalate if the ‘fire is not fed'.

To stay awake to the ‘mean-mind' of Depression, to refuse to flee, fight or freeze takes fortitude and practice. It is, as Pema Chodron, Buddhist author and teacher calls it, a warrior's skill. It is also one I have learned over time. Years to be exact. Mindfulness is cultivated, not innate.

I'm at the sink now, rinsing sticky bowls. I step back in my mind, allowing thoughts of self-hate to float in and move about as they wish; noticing these rowdy characters jostle for attention. I watch with as much patience, as much kindness, as I can muster (which at this point, isn't a lot - but it is enough).

I swish a soapy dishcloth over plates, and the cruel thoughts and foul emotions begin ever so slightly, to soften.

A therapist I worked with, taught me to mentally catalogue my thinking patterns, note the most common themes. Anxiety and self-loathing? Despair and disdain? Then, like a teacher with an unruly class take role call: "Ah yes... despair ... oh and audacity and arrogance. There you are. Hmm...isn't that interesting. Haven't seen you guys in awhile." And so the watching goes.

Because mindfulness at its best is done with friendly curiosity, it teaches me to embrace my humanness, awkwardness and all. To welcome home my quirks, my warts, my shine. That brilliance and darkness we all possess, and all try to hide.

This arms-wide open position allows me to hold all my aspects. Those I hate. And those I love.
Even when I refuse to be kind to myself, demand I berate myself and whip myself into perfection, this too I can watch. Perhaps with less warmth, but still I can watch. And slowly, more light begins to creep in and more healing takes place.

© 2012 Victoria Maxwell