I have been spending half an hour a day meditating with a friend who is having a lot of difficulty with clinical depression at the moment. While they say they’re finding it helpful, it’s also teaching me a few lessons.
Firstly, I have never done guided meditation for another person so often, and it is amazing to find what comes out of the mouth. The idea that I was ‘making up my own meditation instructions’ was blown out of the water when I listened to the Headspace app, out of curiosity and because so many people use it; a large amount of what the speaker said was verbatim to what I say in guided meditation, down to the intonation. It was both encouraging and amusing, seeing that with very little preparation that the mind can use the depths of its experience to create, and that the flip side of that is that it is another example of ‘not me, not mine’- not ‘my’ wondrous creation out of nothing, but another tissue of spontaneous original connections between unoriginal received information.
I also had to be careful to not go into therapist mode. I wasn’t there to fix my friend’s depression. I was there to further my own contemplative practice, foremost. The additional conventional benefits of meditation that my friend was finding useful and that also apply to me were secondary. Not that my friend’s needs were not important; but that my own contemplative practice should not be watered down to just a relaxation technique. Possibly more importantly, it was important to focus on the contemplative side for me to check my ego; my friend had not asked for some pseudo-initiation into the sometimes weird and wacky world of my own practice and beliefs, into the religious side of things, or to be ‘taught’ heavy duty meditation theory. They simply wanted to practice and had some curiosity about the inner workings. I had to state very clearly that my way of meditating is not interested in blotting out the negative or only seeing the positive. It is not about eradicating particular feelings. Especially, it is important not to fall into the trap of reifying those feelings as The Problem; negative feelings are symptoms at worst and simply part of causation at best.
It reminded me that breathing meditation seems to be a sticking point for me. Unfortunately it seems to have got attached to a lot of anxiety, compulsivity and black and white thinking, which is to say that I find it genuinely painful as I find myself trying to control the breath and instead my chest seizes up. I’m not trying to do hardcore vipassana at the moment while I focus on a more broad base to the pyramid as I’ve implied before, a stronger foundation to my practice that contains better sila; but relatedly, I’m not trying to ‘just let things be’ as Rob Burbea suggests, but to explore samadhi more actively. This has been useful for both myself and my friend, as we can do a samatha practice that involves letting go into the broader awareness of the body, allowing the mind to calm, and then fine-tuning effort to stay with it rather than dissolve into dullness or become fixated on sharp mindfulness. I have a feeling this can lead to jhana if I keep up my other concentration practices, which largely revolve around having this relaxed attention to everything in everyday life rather than disappearing into thought or becoming hypervigilant.
For my friend it is about cultivating pleasant feelings so as to combat depression. For me, the fact that positive feelings arise automatically when the negative is less obsessed about is more telling. ‘We do not care for excessive joy’ says Shunryu Suzuki, and I can see why he does; this demand for high octane pleasure is the same trap as the fear of the unpleasant, and as usual a third way is becoming more clear. What might seem like neutrality, or dullness, or boredom, is in fact the removal of artificial and unnecessary layers over my experience. The desire to be special, to have amazing meditation experiences, to be a perfect person; all of these are unreal filters and expectations I have put onto life that prevent me from enjoying it as it is. All I have to do is have faith that, without those accretions, life will be more amazing than I ever imagined it could be. And starting to experience again those many aspects of life that I have, for various reasons, shut out in my adult life in order to survive the more difficult ones, I do have that faith.