Meditation or Medication?

“Allow dark times to season you.” Hafiz

25 years ago I took a hesitant step into a psychiatrist’s office. My boyfriend at the time was worried about my mental state and urged me to seek help. My grandmother had just died, preceded in death by my mother and my father. My grandmother was my last close family connection and I felt utterly alone. I had no idea what was happening to me as I sunk further and further into a dark hole of despair.

The psychiatrist said I was clinically depressed and wanted to prescribe anti depressant meditation. This threw me. I had been living with depression for so many years it seemed like an irreparable part of me. I had come to accept that I was chronically depressed and perhaps always would be. But as we talked, and I assessed my mental state more objectively, I knew in my heart that I couldn’t go on this way any longer. At that very moment I decided I would try meditation. I let the shrink know I would not be taking him up on his offer of medication, but I did agree to begin seeing a psychotherapist to help me deal with childhood trauma and grief from my losses. This was a vital step for my mental well being. But I knew therapy alone wouldn’t be enough. In fact, my new therapist was very supportive and encouraging that I had begun a meditation practice.

Taking up meditation was an easy decision for me. Looking back, I have no idea why I was so confident. 25 years ago there wasn’t nearly the volume of information on meditation and the brain that there is now. But I had always been inspired by Buddha’s emphasis on meditation as a part of the path to freedom from suffering. Intuitively I knew meditation was for me, but I also knew I would have to commit myself to the practice with my whole heart.

As a meditation teacher I frequently meet people who are seeking relief from stress and depression through meditation. Often they’ve read encouraging studies and scientific papers and they hope to see the same results. But it works for only a few. Its not that meditation isn’t effective; what I’ve consistently observed is that only a small number of people truly commit to the practice wholeheartedly. If relieving depression is the only reason to meditate, most people will become impatient and doubtful too soon to experience any significant change. Others will practice only sporadically, yet still expect results. This won’t work.

For some, meditation isn’t the right path, at least not initially. Certain mental illnesses need to be treated clinically and sitting in the midst of grief and depression may overwhelm or intensify anxiety. Some may combine medication with meditation initially. Longer term, meditation can be a wonderful way to further steady the mind and begin to see and relieve the roots of human suffering, of clinging and aversion.

When I began my meditation practice, I committed to sitting a minimum of 30 minutes each day. I gave myself no leeway at all on this. No matter what, I meditated daily. Sitting through grief, anxiety and fear, along with joy, equanimity and bliss. The practice itself stabilized my mind enough that I could stay present in my experience without being overwhelmed. As Thich Nhat Hanh explained, “when we go home to ourselves with the energy of mindfulness, we’re no longer afraid of being overwhelmed by the energy of suffering. Mindfulness gives us the strength to look deeply and give rise to understanding and compassion.”

I quickly forgot about whether meditation was helping with my depression. I became so interested in the process itself that my mental state actually took a back seat. Not that it was unimportant, but it wasn’t my primary focus. Studying and seeing my mind, as well as the world around me, in such an intimate way each day fascinated me. Those moments when I broke through a barrier to deeper insight into my heart and mind had a liberating and profound effect on me.

Gradually, almost without even noticing it, my depression lifted and I became less isolated and lonely. Even today, daily meditation is a foundational element of my mental health even though it isn’t the primary reason I’ve continued to practice.

Some people will take up a serious meditation practice at a very dark and desperate time in their lives and it works – they begin feeling better and slowly their meditation practice falls away. Maybe it was all they needed and they had no further aspiration with this form of practice. Personally I’m glad I didn’t stop. I so appreciate the clarity that arises when I witness and experience the myriad manifestations of thought and emotion I encounter. Most of all, this path has helped me deepen compassion for myself and others, to pierce the illusion of a separate self, which allows me to be more kind, open and receptive to life in its ever changing forms.

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