How Spiritual Practice Transforms Anxiety and Depression

Many spiritual teachers advocate things like "turning into" your feelings, or finding a deeper truth "under" them. What if it was possible to actually transform negative emotions, so that you were never again a victim to your own feelings?  

A provocative excerpt from The Heart of Zen.

Keith Martin-Smith [KMS]: So we haven’t touched on depression or anxiety, or other powerful feelings that people struggle with on a daily basis. 

Can you spiritual practice transform negative emotions? 

Jun Po Roshi [JP]: Your life is the very door through which you must walk to achieve liberation. 

KMS: Okay. But let's take depression. It seems to be a real modern scourge, a feeling that can rob people of the very motivation they need to figure out what’s wrong.

Jun Po Roshi [JP]: Only if you stay on the surface will it, by definition, keep you from diving deeper. What I ask people who come to me with depression is to be willing to look at it the same way as with our other emotions. Feeling is information, but emoting is conditional. There’s nothing special about depression. The same is true for anxiety.

     I like to use a ringing phone metaphor. When the phone rings, we know that to stop it from ringing we need to pick it up, right? There’s information on the other side of the call. With depression, the phone is ringing, but someone refuses to take the call. They say they’re just too depressed to answer. Anxiety means you’re running around, jumping up and down, frantic that the phone is ringing. “The phone is ringing! The phone is ringing!” Well, pick up the goddamn phone!

KMS: So, you’re saying to ask, “What’s the information that’s being transmitted?”

JP: Exactly. What is the depression trying to show you? The reason you may be depressed is that you simply don’t want the information that’s waiting for you. Depression is safer than facing the truth.

KMS: Would you treat depression the same if it were over, say, the death of a loved one or something complex like an existential crisis?

JP: [nodding] Feelings aren’t as complicated as the stories, structures, and emotions around them. So at its root someone is experiencing depression, right? A heaviness. An unwillingness or inability to look at life with energy. So we slow it down. What’s the information in the feeling? Do you realize you are choosing your reactions to your feelings, that no one has ever made you depressed?

     Depression from an Enlightened point of view can be said to not even be a feeling, but instead a denial of the information within the feeling. It’s an unwillingness or inability to get to, to accept the truth within the feeling. The feeling is the ringing phone, depression is a conscious or unconscious refusal to answer the phone.

     There’s information in the feeling, and the information with depression is that something needs your attention, and you can’t, or are unwilling to notice it. Then you end up depressed. So what’s the information? The question is what? What? What I do I need to understand? How do I find out? What is unresolved? What is it I cannot accept?

     In the case of death, it’s the loss of someone who is loved, of course. In the case of existential spiritual depression, I would ask someone which one of the three Buddhist marks have they failed to understand, embrace, and realize. Is it the truth of impermanence? Of sickness, old age, and death? Or the truth of selflessness that will set you free from your ego attachment? Ho exciting, you’re depressed . . . wake up!

     Depression is ringing the bell to deeper life. Return to life and answer that phone call. At some point, if we don’t get the information in the feeling, something like grief or anxiety can turn on itself and become an endless story of the ego. You become attached to your suffering; you may even identify with it. And then it’s not really about the dead thing, is it?

KMS: It’s about me.

JP: [nodding] From foundational Buddhist teachings, attachment is the root of suffering.

KMS: Just to be clear: what about depression over other things? Like a career or life that seems out of balance, excessive debt, or something you can’t even put your finger on?

JP: I hate to break it to people who are depressed, but it’s not an excuse to only complain about things, and to not do anything! Research is showing that, big surprise, anti-depressants don’t really work. That’s because they don’t help you to get the information in the feeling. What is it you don’t want to, or are unwilling to see?

KMS: What if one’s sadness or depression, or anxiety, is so strong that it’s in the way of practice, or of insight within the practice?

JP: It’s tricky. We’re very fast in this culture to say, “Maybe it’s just bad brain chemistry.” Okay. Maybe. But then you’re stuck, a victim to your own dopamine and serotonin levels. Someone who claims to be too depressed to do anything is in some kind of self-imposed pinball machine.

     They’re getting knocked all over the place by their own bumpers. What this person would need to do is drop under the malaise to see what’s really there. If he or she were to drop into the depths of their sadness, go under it, they would find the meaning. Remember that feelings within an Enlightened mind are simply information.

     For most of us, it’s safer for the ego to feel depressed than to face the intensity of what’s really wrong, which might be a marriage gone sour, a job that no longer serves us, or an unwillingness to look at middle age or old age honestly. It can be 1,000 things, you see. It’s not the story that matters, it’s the fact that there is a deeper care and fear underneath. It’s really no different than reacting with anger, or shame. We have these deep feelings that we don’t want to face, because from the ego’s perspective they can be overwhelming.

KMS: How does one bring meditation into this? To help instead of to hide?

JP: One uses meditation to slow down the reactivity, so you can see depression arise rather than just “be depressed.” It also gives you access, with enough practice, to the imperturbable part of your Clear Deep Heart/Mind that will not turn away from whatever information might be in the depression. You are, right now, resting in dhyana witnessing perfection, moment to moment.

     We don’t stuff sex or alcohol or Prozac into the hole, trying to do anything but see what’s really going on. You get the information in the feeing. You finally experience, understand, and accept the truth of your impermanence. Remember, feelings are ringing phones, answer the phone and get the message in the feeling.

     This can lead to complicated places, don’t get me wrong. Depression over a marriage that is ending might leave someone in a very vulnerable place. They may have to go into therapy to work through the relative pain and disconnection and fear they are experiencing. But I caution people in therapy to not substitute a bad made-up story for a good made-up story. Get enough help to strengthen your ego and deepen your meditation practice. Then you can see through the illusion of your separate self, and find the endless compassion, boundless love, and undying unity of your true nature.

KMS: Because all the stories are made up?

JP: That’s right.

KMS: And this process is the same for something like anxiety?

JP: Exactly the same. You and I could go through it, but I would simply be substituting the word “anxiety” for “depression.” It’s the same.

KMS: The Rolodex for negative emotions is pretty big. Lust. Greed. Envy. Boredom. Cruelty. In the interest of time, let me cut to the chase: are you saying that this process can be done for any limiting emotional reaction we may experience?

JP: I’ve never found one it doesn’t work for. [leaning forward, bringing his face within a few inches of mine] Listen to me: Nothing impermanent that arises in your mind can make the Witness that watches turn away. This is Shunyata. Nothing can cause your huge heart of compassion to turn away from the deep care you are really feeling, moment to moment. Watching and caring is what you are, right now.

     Nothing can move the timeless, eternal, deathless emptiness out of which this witness arises; dhyana mind, turiyatita, nondual. The very mind of God does not and cannot turn away, not from your petty little depression, your so-sad fucking story. Boo-hoo. [shaking head]

A little perspective, please.

     [pause, then laughing] This is meant as a challenge to you, not an insult or to seem uncaring to your suffering—I sometimes worry my tone isn’t going to translate into written form! It's about caring, it's about compassion. I care about you, and I care about the end of your suffering. That's why I'm in this game.

     So let me be very clear: We must finally realize the truth: Emptiness is empty. It’s just this. Everything is as it is, and it can be no other way. That temporarily includes all my wholly conditioned hysterical-historical negative emotions, stories, thoughts, and actions. If I have the will and the willingness to look under them, I will find what I seek. And my suffering can end, at long last.

     You are not a victim to your lust, or your pettiness, or your greed, or your willful ignorance. You are not forced into depression by life. Anxiety doesn’t come and get you. Your finances do not depress you. The patriarchy doesn’t make you feel oppressed. Your mother does not make you ashamed. Your father didn’t screw you up. The president doesn’t make you angry. No. No! NO!

[pause]

Know! K-N-O-W. Know these are choices that you make. Yes, perhaps as unconscious reactions at first, but eventually conscious choices to turn away from your precious human life.

Why would you turn away from what is? Don't you understand?

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If you're interested in how these principles and ideas can be applied to your own life, let's set up a free Discovery Call for a coaching conversation today. 

Keith Martin-Smith is a published author of fiction and non-fiction, a Shaolin Kung Fu lineage holder and teacher, and an ordained Zen priest. He helps leaders, creative visionaries, and entrepreneurs clarify their goals and overcome obstacles.

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