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Vanquishing depression and anxiety

By J. B.

Big blue sky with fluffy clouds above the tree line
In mindfulness meditation, you become the observer of your thoughts, not a reactor.

I’m not quite sure where going to prison stands on the list of traumatic life events; I’m sure like everything else, it probably ranks behind public speaking. Prison is however, a crushing, devastating experience, not only for you, but for your family. The moment those handcuffs are snapped around your wrists your life changes forever and you begin an emotional downward spiral into despair.

As I progressed through the system, through a succession of city and regional jails and finally to federal prison, I fell into a deep fog of depression and anxiety, and witnessed others struggling with the symptoms. Having been diagnosed with depression and anxiety several years ago, I was all too familiar with the signs: excessive sleeping, not eating, overeating, lethargy, anger, suicidal thoughts, obsessiveness and hopelessness. I had felt them all myself.

After years of psychotherapy and various medications resulting in only minimal relief, I experienced abatement of these mental afflictions when I began practicing Buddhism and meditation. Buddhists believe we all have Buddha nature, a pure, clear mind full of compassion, wisdom and bliss. But this clear and knowing nature becomes clouded by our sense of self. We taint ourselves and our experience by clinging to formations and phenomena, thus creating suffering. We formulate opinions and comparisons, “He’s such a jerk!”, “I hate when she does that!”, “My life is horrible!”, which become our reality. The true clear nature of our mind and of all phenomena is obscured.

Through meditation I began to understand just how my mind works, how I generate my depression and anxiety. While I may indeed have a chemical imbalance which makes me susceptible to these mental states, I observed how negativity arose and pervaded many of my thoughts and perceptions.

By sitting quietly in meditation and focusing your awareness on your breath or an object, you begin to observe how thoughts arise, often with alarming randomness, out of your consciousness. The trick is not to react to these thoughts, just watch them. In mindfulness meditation you become the observer of your thoughts, not a reactor.

I observed how I would “train” thoughts together into a story often resulting in a deepening depression or an anxiety attack. A typical story would go like this: “The transmission in the mini-van is acting up. What if it needs to be replaced? How are we gonna afford $2000 for a new transmission? The van is getting old; maybe it’d be better to buy a new one. But that would mean a huge car payment. Then we wouldn’t be able to save for the kid’s college. They won’t be able to go to college and get good jobs. They’ll be unhappy and unsuccessful.” I’d ruminate like this until our entire civilization would be doomed because our van slipped a gear.

There’s a Buddhist saying that goes, “The past is past and the future does not exist.” As I honed my awareness, I saw how much time I spent in the past and in the future; full of guilt about my mistakes and apprehension about what the future held. Much of my depression and anxiety resulted from my time traveling.

So, I sat and observed the stream of thoughts that arose. I’ve read that there are 65 thoughts in a finger snap—lots of opportunities for clinging, aversion, depression, and anxiety. But, I became more able to just observe the multitude of thoughts, acknowledge them without clinging, and let them dissolve back into the clear essence of my consciousness. I learned not to grasp onto these thoughts and run wild with them; I could sit, fully aware, within the ebb and flow of my mind stream and not react.

Gradually I was able to transfer my new-found awareness from the meditation cushion to everyday life. I began experiencing calm and clarity, far fewer bouts of depression or fits of anxiety. When those negative thoughts did arise, I was more proficient at just acknowledging them and letting them go; not sinking into a quagmire of despair.

I also discovered that by meditating on the antidotes for the disturbing attitudes, gradually my overall outlook became much more positive. I didn’t view events and situations through dark glasses. For example, if I’m struggling with anger, I meditate on patience and love. The antidote to aversion is compassion; meditating on impermanence is the antidote for attachment and clinging. Currently I’m doing Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion, meditation which truly helps adjust your selfish outlook to a more altruistic one.

I’m not blissfully walking around with a rosy attitude 24/7, but more and more, I’m experiencing less and less doom and gloom. Often I catch myself actually feeling contented, imagine that, finding contentment in prison.

You can transform your mind. You can vanquish negativity and cultivate a positive outlook. That is the promise within the Buddha’s path. Buddhism provides you with an owner’s manual to your mind; complete with regular maintenance tips, mindfulness meditation, and troubleshooting measures: meditating on the antidotes for disturbing attitudes.

One of the first Buddhist texts I read concerned the four noble truths. These tenets truly spoke to me; our existence is suffering which we create with our view of self. We can cease our suffering by following the Dharma, studying the owner’s manual.

Like the Buddha said, don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself.

Incarcerated people

Many incarcerated people from all over the United States correspond with Venerable Thubten Chodron and monastics from Sravasti Abbey. They offer great insights into how they are applying the Dharma and striving to be of benefit to themselves and others in even the most difficult of situations.

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