Another question about ‘spiritual bypassing’ and meditating with anxiety and depression

A student writes:

I was reading your recent question and answer about spiritual bypassing and wanted to ask you a bit more about it in relation to meditation.

Our meditation instructions encourage us to acknowledge our thoughts, feelings and emotions but not to get involved with them, letting them go and coming back to the present. We use the analogy of greeting guests at a dinner party but not spending too long with any one of them.

I think I’m wondering when it comes to persistent emotions (such as anxiety and depression) whether this is enough and actually dismisses them too soon? Whether to reach a place of calm abiding they need to be given more attention and engaged with more deeply. I’m thinking now of practices like ‘Focusing’ and ‘Internal Family Systems’ (IFS) where you actually engage in dialoguing with these different aspects of oneself.

Perhaps it isn’t the role of meditation to be a remedy for psychological issues such as depression and anxiety. I know Chogyam Trungpa said meditation was about making friends with oneself, but I wonder if in some cases it isn’t enough or needs to be used alongside other techniques. Do you have any thoughts about this?

Lama Shenpen responds:

Thank you for this important question about whether meditation alone is enough – especially with things like anxiety and depression and mental illness in general. Traditional texts talk a lot about preparing our minds ready for meditation, we need to have reached a certain level of stability and integrated-ness in our being – our life and behaviour – that is shila, usually translated as ethics or morality or discipline. I think it also needs to have a sense of keeping one’s word in the translation – one needs to be integrated and balanced enough to be able to follow through on what one has committed to doing (presuming of course it is ethical or karmically positive).

So, when we decide to sit to meditate for ten minutes for example, then we know we have it in us to carry that out and that is what we do. This helps deepen and strengthen that stability and so the mind becomes naturally quiet and settled so that insight can arise, and we can keep focused on that.

I personally think that we need to commit ourselves to times for reflection and often when we sit to meditate opportunities for reflection come up naturally. At first in a meditation session, we probably need to reflect a bit about what we are doing there as we sit to meditate. After meditating for a while we might need to reflect a bit more about what exactly we are doing and how we are putting effort into it or not, and whether that is somehow hindering or helping in some way.

Then we might need to reflect on some teaching that gives us a hint about what it means to be sitting there in a meaningful way and that all helps us to settle into a meditation session with a sense of aliveness and wakefulness, a sense of heart and aligning to Heart Wish and openness and wakefulness and just being present.

I find there is a natural rhythm to how my mind slips in and out of reflection as I sit in meditation. If I reflect too heavy handedly I go into heady thinking rather than opening up and out from the heart – but if I just keep letting go of thoughts I start to develop a kind of aversion to thoughts as if they are getting in the way of my ‘meditation’.

So, you are right it is important to take note of what is happening and often persistent thoughts and patterns of thinking and emoting can be freed up by using some of the wonderful methods that are emerging in the West these days.

I know Tibetans have their own way of dealing with thoughts that are connected to their ideas about faith, adhistana, punya and purification and so on. I am not sure they always work that well even for Tibetans but for us in the West the way we think can be accessed by various means such as Focusing, Internal Family Systems, even Non-Violent Communication, NLP and the Lightning Process and so on.  Counselling and therapies of various kinds can help a lot especially where there is strong trauma involved.

Perhaps the best place to start for many people is with Focusing because that is how you learn the basic skill needed for all the other methods – but I think the kind of work Yonten is doing in the Body Awareness group [a teaching and practice group within the Awakened Heart Sangha] can get to the same kind of place – a kind of inner awareness of oneself and one’s immediate experience in a light and playful way – and yet potentially very profound and insightful. 

So, the answer to your question is that I think there are a lot of ways we can help create the conditions for deepening and strengthening our practice of Shamata and Vipashyana meditation to augment what we are learning from the traditional teachings.

I wouldn’t rule out taking medication sometimes if it helps stabilise and manage extreme anxiety and depression. I believe these days there are all sorts of new techniques and systems of medication being made available.  I wouldn’t rule out trying anything with a good track record and properly supervised.  We all need all the help we can get.

Your question is an important one and one we will no doubt keep coming back to again and again as a Sangha and as we find ourselves dealing with the kind of problems you mention.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

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