Dharma Ocean Discusses Using Depression as a Gateway to Insight

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This is adapted from a Dharma Ocean podcast of a talk given by Dr. Reggie Ray at the Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado. Dr. Reginald “Reggie” Ray is the Director of the Dharma Ocean Foundation, dedicated to the evolution and flowering of the somatic teachings of the Practicing Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.  He teaches in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. The author of many books, audio courses, and online series, Reggie’s work, and teachings draw from his background as a Buddhist scholar and practitioner. With a Ph.D. in the History of Religions from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago (1973),  he was the first full-time faculty member and chair of the Buddhist Studies (later Religious Studies) Department at Naropa University. Over nearly four decades he grew the department and played various leadership roles at Naropa, developing with Trungpa Rinpoche many of the initiatives and projects that became part of Naropa’s unique identity as a Buddhist-inspired university.  He began explicitly working with dharma students in 1995 and now devotes all his time to transmitting the teachings of the Vajra dharma of his teacher.

From a certain point of view, the meditator never takes anything for granted. It doesn’t matter if you run into the same state of mind you think you’ve had a million times; it’s a new thing, always, and we have to find out what it is. If you can do that with a state of mind like depression, it is very, very fruitful. When we run into a low state of mind, a mind with zero inspiration or light or even a will to live, which we call depression, it appears to be a complete absence of energy. Usually what we do at that point is check out— “Oh, I’m depressed,” and “Oh, no…”—and then we start thinking about it as usual and trying to figure a way out.

In fact, depression is an extraordinarily powerful energy. It’s an energy that is dark and hidden and low. What we do, because we can’t handle the intensity of this energy, is to think, “Oh, I’m no good, and my life’s never going to be any good. Everybody else is living their life and having these great things happen, and here I am at the bottom of the well, the depths of this deep fathomless pit,” and on and on.

However if we take depression as something to be explored, we begin to find that within it there are a lot of subtleties. If we can let go of the fact of the idea that we’re depressed and simply take depression as energy or as a manifestation of our awareness, then there’s a real journey available. Depression is powerful because you actually have to let go of pretty much everything in order to explore it. You have to let go of your hopes, your fears, your dreams, your ambitions;  the things that are working, things that aren’t working, your whole world. That’s why depression is so powerful, because if you step into it, it is actually a process of letting go of your entire known self, your entire known reality. Few are the people that have the courage to actually do that.

If you’re willing to relate to it in the way I’m talking about, you may be willing to give up that last reference point of “Poor me.” That’s the last shred to hang on to. Are you willing to let go of “Poor me”? The story of, “I’m the victim. I’m the pitiful, the pitiful remnant of humanity,” or whatever your approach is; are you willing to be with the energy of it as a meditator and do what we’re talking about here, which is take your depression as your object of mindfulness and be with it, surrender to it, and look at it. And then you begin to see in the dark. If you’re always looking up at the world that you think exists then depression is just this black hole. But if you’re willing to actually go into the depression, you begin to be able to see in the dark. There’s something going on there, and there’s a very powerful invitation to enter into the arena of death, the death of self.

So depression is maybe the most difficult of all the energies. What’s true with depression is true with all of them; that when we leave the discursive thinking behind, or at least slow it down to the practice of mindfulness, we discover all kinds of things going on in us, and we pay attention to them, be with them, open to them, and just be. And then there’s a journey that starts to unfold. It’s our journey. And it’s a journey that passes through many, many phases as we go.

When you feel very depressed, of course, the last thing you want to do is meditate because the experience of depression can be very painful, and one that we certainly would like to get rid of and avoid at all costs—not one that we want to sit down and be friends with. The technique, in this case, is to sit down in a meditation posture. If we’re familiar with Somatic Meditation bodywork, we can lie down. We can do five or 10 minutes of breathing deep into our lower belly, working directly with the body itself and bringing our awareness out of our personal narrative about our depression and into the body.

One of the things that we often do not see about depression is the conceptual thinking that generally accompanies it. Sometimes, when we think about our depression, we have the impression that it is just a kind of heavy, sinking, dark feeling that’s pulling us down. But the fact of the matter is that what is actually the most painful thing about depression is the storyline that goes along with it. We feel heavy. We feel sunken. We look around at our life and all we see is kind of gray colors. We feel that all of the things that we used to find meaning in are meaningless, and the friendships seem empty and hollow. The projects that we were excited about seem to be completely pointless. And instead of staying with that feeling, which is actually extraordinarily insightful from a certain point of view, in other words, the basic experience of depression is that we are actually seeing through the usual overlay of kind of candy-coating that we put on our life, and we’re seeing that life is rather empty, or really empty,and a lot of the things that people preoccupy themselves with are meaningless, and they’re not going anywhere, and they’re not going to yield the results that everybody is hoping for.

Instead of staying with the wisdom of that experience, which is actually extraordinarily profound, we start thinking and conceptualizing and having all sorts of bad thoughts about ourselves and our life; we start running ourselves down, and we start loathing ourselves, hating ourselves for this experience that we’re having, which is actually extraordinarily insightful. So we turn against ourselves, and we begin to think, “I’m worthless. I’m no good. My life is never going to be any good. Look at everybody else, how happy they all are. They all are having a great time and their life is meaningful, and I just can’t do it, and there must be something terribly, terribly wrong with me.” And all of that thinking that goes on in depression is self-referential. In other words, it’s always feeding back and we’re using that experience of seeing the emptiness of everything as a way, strangely enough, of solidifying our own ego as a kind of a dark and kind of negative situation.

So the practice, as I am saying, is that we sit down or lie down, do our breathing, come into our body, and when we’re in our body, we leave the storyline on the surface. It’s as if we’re swimming on the surface of the ocean. It’s covered with  oil and dead fish and seaweed, dead, decaying seaweed, and disgusting eddies of discarded plastic, whatever, which is our ego. Then at a certain point, we just let ourselves give up and sink down, descend beneath the surface and we leave all of that junk behind, and go down into the deep, peaceful, clear, quiet sea beneath; that’s what we do with the Somatic Meditation bodywork. We leave the debris of ego on the surface of our conceptual mind and descend into the body.

We do that in working with depression, or any emotion, and having done that, we begin to invite that feeling of depression in—not the storyline and self-flagellation and self-loathing, but simply the raw texture of the depression itself. We’re inviting in the actual feeling component of depression, which is just a quality, strangely enough, of energy and insight arising from the emptiness of our own nature. Trungpa Rinpoche once said that depression is the closest samsaric state to nirvana, to enlightenment. It’s potentially the closest state of mind to real enlightenment and an experience of egolessness. And when we feel very depressed, it’s actually helpful to call that kind of comment to mind, because what it does is it gives us a certain sense of the dignity and nobility of what we’re experiencing and it can be very encouraging to us in terms of sitting down with that emotion and being with it fully.

So we sit. We invite the feeling and we sense it in our body. We sense the heaviness. We sense the weight. We might do some the somatic practice of earth descent, breathing into and feeling the quality of the earth beneath us, holding us up, and we begin to roam around in our body, and roam around in the earth, simply feeling deeper and deeper into what we call depression, but really, when you take away the mental aspect of it, it’s not depression anymore. It’s just pure energy of a certain kind, and moreover it’s energy that’s extraordinarily intelligent. And then a journey begins to unfold from there, and if we look into the depression, we try to see what is it about this that’s depressed? What is the exact quality of the feeling? What is really going on in my body at this moment? What am I actually experiencing apart from what I might think about it? And what kind of gifts might this experience be holding for me just now?  We stay with that and a process begins to occur. And this becomes an analogy of how we could work with any challenging emotion that we might experience.

About Dharma Ocean

Dharma Ocean Foundation is a non-profit global educational organization that focuses on somatic meditation as the way to help students – of any secular or religious discipline, by teaching them the importance of embodiment in both meditation and their daily lives as taught in the “practicing lineage” of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The foundation was established in 2005 by scholar, author, and teacher Dr. Reggie Ray, and is located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Southern Colorado.

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