Robin Williams, Depression, and Mindfulness
It's so strange that the death of someone I've never met could have the kind of impact that the passing of Robin Williams has had on me over the last few days. If I look closely enough, sadness has dominated nearly every private moment I've had since hearing the news. I'm finding myself devouring article after article trying to find something--anything--to contextualize all this; but it just seems like one of those situations that is truly beyond words. That, unfortunately, is the nature of depression itself.
About a year ago, I finally began to climb out from underneath the crushing weight of the depression that had borne down on me for much of my life. (I would never be so bold as to declare myself completely out of the woods, but I take it day by day.) Up until last fall, however, it had been an omnipresent terror for my entire adult life. And I can absolutely vouch for the fact that it's just as bad as indicated in everything you've read about it in the past week.
Interestingly, there's a strange but notable irony to be found in the aftermath of this week's tragedy for those who still aren't able to fathom what depression is like. Virtually all of us, to at least some degree or another, have experienced in the past few days what it's like to be depressed.
We're all hurting over Robin Williams' death. Even the more stoic or judgmental folks who say, "He was a coward. He was selfish." They're hurting, too. But what these people don't seem to be seeing is the fact that they are essentially experiencing a minor (perhaps very minor) depressive episode themselves.
If you're a human being with any sense of empathy at all, sadness has likely colored your past few days in at least some meaningful way. Look carefully at that feeling when it arises. Examine it closely.
Over the last week, have you found that the thought of Robin Williams has entered your mind, even for just for a few brief moments here or there? When you think of him, how does that thought emerge in your mind? Do you get an image of him in your mind's eye? Do you hear his voice in your head, maybe delivering one of your favorite lines of dialogue? Is there a voice in your head that wonders what it must have been like for him to be in such anguish that he felt suicide was the only way out? Do you suddenly find that there's an emotion attached to these thoughts and images? A sadness? Perhaps even a mild feeling of terror? Maybe a bittersweet feeling, recalling the joy of the funny moments? Does it sometimes feel as though these emotions might even manifest in some physical way, like through the act of crying? Maybe you have even been driven to tears at some point in the past week?
And perhaps of utmost importance to notice--do you have any control whatsoever over when and how these thoughts and emotions arise? Are you consciously conjuring them up in any way, or do you just find yourself struck by them? Don't they simply arise, without being intentionally invoked? Aren't you just suddenly taken in by them?
I suspect anyone introspective enough to notice, willing enough to admit, and empathetic enough to have been affected by this week's tragedy will have acknowledged that these are the sort of patterns that arise within the mind. Images and thoughts arise, along with emotions and bodily sensations. And this is a pattern over which none of us has any control. We are on the receiving end of all of this.
Anyone who has experienced sadness, I would argue, has already experienced depression to at least some slight degree.
Depression is essentially the melancholy we have all experienced over the last few days--sorrowful thoughts and emotions, and physical manifestations of these phenomena, like crying for example--except to the nth degree, and on a constant loop. Run of the mill sadness is more or less a temporary and more tolerable form of major depression.
Put yourself in the shoes of those who do live with depression--just imagine what it would be like to walk through each day in a much more severe version of the melancholic state that you've known for the past few days. Consider what that must be like, to be suddenly struck with a terrifying image in your mind's eye; let's say, a harrowing picture show of your own demise; to suddenly hear the sound in your head of your loved ones eulogizing you; to feel your muscles tense up and react in horror; to live each and every day with these kinds of uncontrollable thoughts and images and bodily sensations exploding into consciousness, ad infinitum. Till it physically hurts. Which further worsens the mood. Till it keeps you up at night. Which further worsens the mood. Till it affects your appetite. Which further worsens the mood. Endless. Endless. Endless.
After a while of being battered by your own mind in this way, would there not come a time when you might begin to say enough is enough?
I speak from experience when I say that depression is utterly debilitating. Crippling. Excruciating. And at a certain point, it begins to feel like the only way out is to make it all stop, once and for all. Suicide.
This is why it isn't wise to simply dismiss depression-related suicide as cowardly or selfish. While an element of choice cannot be denied when it comes to suicide, there should be no ultimate burden of harsh judgment, blame, or hatred laid on the shoulders of those who have chosen to end their struggles in this way. They were not the ultimate authors of these thoughts and emotions and sensations. They were on the receiving end of them. They were essentially victimized by them.
The mechanism of depression, as I've learned, is incredibly complex and varies greatly from person to person. In my case, what finally loosened its stranglehold was my discovery of mindfulness meditation (which I hope to discuss in detail in future blogs).
One of the goals of the practice of mindfulness is to notice thoughts for what they are. (I can almost guarantee that I'll be losing a few people here, as I'm about to go through in paragraphs what would take many pages to properly explain. But I'll give it a shot, nonetheless.)
From the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we go to sleep at night, each of us has a voice in our heads with which we find ourselves in near-constant interaction. It is so automatic and hypnotic that most of us fail to even realize that this conversation is taking place. I know this was true in my case. I had never even recognized this voice in my head (which dictates my every waking move, often quite critically and even nastily) as anything other than just me. But this is a fallacy.
The practice of mindfulness helps to break down this fallacy and cut through this illusion. If you begin to notice thoughts as they arise, you will begin to realize that they are not you, but are merely things to be witnessed at any given moment. We have such a tendency to self-identify with our thoughts. When confronted with a disturbing image or bit of language in our minds, we might wonder, "What is wrong with me? Why do I do this to myself?" as though we have intentionally conjured up these thoughts. This is a mistake. Simply put, our thoughts are not what we are. Once this truth is fully realized, it forces us to reconsider our relationship to thoughts themselves, and in turn, emotions and physical sensations and the full gamut of moment-to-moment experience as well.
Thoughts are transient and insubstantial in nature. They arise, they pass away, and the only power they truly have is the power that we give them. And we give them a whole lot of power when we don't notice them for what they are, or when we get particularly attached to them.
When I first began to meditate, it was quite a shock to me to find that if I reserved myself to just notice the thoughts that entered my mind without reacting to them or trying to interact with them--just non-judgmentally allowing them to exist and pass away--the thoughts actually will pass on their own. Each and every one of them. This was an incredibly powerful revelation to me at the time. In all the years that I had been depressed, it had simply never occurred to me to just observe these terrible thoughts without judgment. Whenever a particularly painful image would find its way into consciousness, I would immediately default into a state of semi-panic.
Once I began to see firsthand that thoughts themselves are not quite what I had always believed them to be--that they are not me, that I am not to blame for them arising in my mind, and that they will pass through the mind if they're allowed to do so--it had a profound effect on how I responded to them. I no longer found myself self-identifying with the thoughts that passed through my mind. I no longer found my body tensing up in fear every time a particularly disturbing image entered into consciousness. Eventually, the conditioned emotional reactions of sadness, fear, frustration, and anger began to fade away as well.
Simply put, I no longer suffered the way I had for so many years of my life.
I know much of what I just said probably sounds like New Age horseshit to any skeptic worth his salt, but I promise there is something to all this if you're willing to take the time to look closely enough. Mindfulness meditation certainly isn't easy by any stretch of the imagination, and it took quite a bit of practice before I was able to acknowledge these insights firsthand. But in my experience, all the hard work was well worth it.
Mindfulness is certainly not the only solution when it comes to coping with and mitigating the effects of depression, but it has worked wonders for me so far. I would implore any reasonable person to at least investigate mindfulness meditation for themselves and see how it works. (I'll post some helpful links at the bottom of this post.)
Regardless of whether mindfulness is right for you, if you do suffer from depression, please know that you are not alone. And I mean really know it. The nature of the beast is that you feel like you're lost in a wilderness without a single soul for miles around. But just know, if only intellectually, that this is truly not the case. There are many of us out there who have gone through and are going through what you are experiencing. You really are not alone.
And if you know someone who is depressed, there's no right answer as to how you can best help them, except to say that you should approach them in the spirit of kindness and empathy.
Each situation is different, but compassion is truly the only engine powerful enough to propel us all in a better direction. If you are going through the hell that is depression, I hope these words have helped in some small way. Keep your head up. You're not alone.
Here are a few resources that I've found extremely helpful in regards to mindfulness. (Let it be known that I've damn near paraphrased these folks throughout my blog post.)
This one is a blog post by author/neuroscientist Sam Harris--the man responsible for turning me onto meditation. I am incredibly grateful to him for his work on this subject.
This post is a written step-by-step set of instructions on how to practice mindfulness meditation.
Here is another post by Sam Harris; this time, two guided meditations--where he helps walk you through the process in real time.
Here is a guided meditation by mindfulness teacher and co-founder of Insight Meditation Society, Joseph Goldstein.
This is a wonderful new book by Nightline anchor and self-professed skeptic Dan Harris, entitled 10% Happier:
And here is a great book by Buddhist scholar and teacher, Stephen Batchelor, entitled Buddhism Without Beliefs: