Therapists who try to help depressed people have a problem. Depression is characterized by a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. In other words, a depressive doesn't think his actions will make any difference. He's quite sure of it. He feels his situation is hopeless. He believes he can't do anything about his situation or his depression. He feels helpless about it.
The therapist knows better. If the depressive would change the way he thinks, he could reduce or even eliminate his depression. But here's the catch: Changing the way he thinks would take effort. And effort requires motivation. And motivation requires the assumption that his actions can have an effect.
In other words, before the depressive can get over his feelings of helplessness, he must first get over his feelings of helplessness.
Cognitive-behavioral therapists have actually found a way to do this. They give the depressive an antidepressant drug and then while he's feeling more hopeful and less helpless, they help him change the way he thinks.
Then they take away the drug and he doesn't (usually) lapse back into depression because he no longer thinks depressingly about his circumstances. Research has shown that the combination of antidepressants and cognitive therapy works better than either alone.
Now here's my point: Meditation does the same thing for the "normal" mental illness we all have.
Abraham Maslow wrote that in his studies of psychology, he came to the conclusion that many of the most cherished "laws of psychology" often turned out to be "no laws at all but only rules for living in a state of mild and chronic psychopathology and fearfulness, of stunting and crippling and immaturity which we don't notice because most others have this same disease that we have."
He wasn't the first to have noticed this. Freud wrote of the "universal neurosis in man." Buddha said that "all worldlings are deranged."
There is a kind of craziness we all share and it's hard to get out of it. The craziness is a self-perpetuating trap similar to the depressive's dilemma.
Most of us wish we could be more peaceful, feel more contentment, be better listeners, feel more forgiving and patient, and so on, but our own physiology defeats us. It's frustrating because we know we could be that way, but somehow, no matter how great our insights are on a relaxing vacation, when we get back into our daily lives, we are unable to be the people we want to be.
You know what I'm talking about, don't you? The problem is, you constantly release stress hormones into your body in response to the crazy world (and your ingrained mental responses to that crazy world). It is almost impossible to ingrain any new mental patterns because the anxious, agitated, frustrated, discontented state of your bodymind will continually thwart you. You're saturated with stress hormones and it causes the "psychopathology of the average" you can't seem to escape.
However, there is a way out. Meditation lowers stress hormones. Specifically, it reduces cortisol and lactate drastically. Read more about that here. So when you meditate a couple of times a day, twenty minutes a pop — enough to keep your stress hormone level low — you become calm. And in your new, calmer frame of mind and body, new habits of mind can form.
In this calmer state, you naturally and inevitably develop more serene, loving, and peaceful points of view and habits of action. These new ways of thinking and looking at the world and behavior can become natural and ingrained when you keep up your meditation practice, so even if you were to skip a day of meditation, your new habits would sustain your serenity and sanity.
It is worth taking the time to filter out your cortisol by meditating. It is the fastest, most efficient way to reduce your stress hormones.
If you did nothing, the cortisol in your bloodstream would eventually get used up or filtered out. The problem with just waiting is that while they are in your system, the stress hormones have an influence on your behavior. And the stress hormones influence your ways of thinking. They influence how you interpret the events of your life. And those actions and thoughts can make your body produce more cortisol.
Because your stress hormones have not yet been filtered out, you might snap at your spouse, for example, and that makes you a little more upset, especially when your spouse snaps back. It puts more cortisol in your system. It makes your life a little more upsetting, a little crazier. In this way, the craziness tends to perpetuate the craziness.
That new jolt of cortisol also stimulates more anxious thoughts or frustrating reactions, which come right around and boost your cortisol level some more. It is a cycle of insanity that is hard to get out of.
But meditation is a reliable way out of the madness. Read the literature to convince yourself. Or simply try it.
A tremendous amount of research has been done on the physical effects of meditation. This is not guesswork or based on mere anecdotal evidence. The research is solid and there is a lot of it. And the results all point in the same direction.
Meditation can make you an oasis of sanity in a crazy world. Learn how to meditate here.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.