Ceilings and The Dynamics of Depression

Ceil­ings and The Dynam­ics of Depres­sion — depres­sion is sim­ply a label, and for most of us, not a help­ful one. Let’s explore depres­sion and see if there’s a link between neg­a­tive sto­ries and depression.


So, I received a question:

Recent­ly start­ed to fol­low your blog. I’ve been inter­est­ed in Zen Bud­dhism for many years and enjoy your writing.

You fre­quent­ly ask about sug­ges­tions on sub­jects, mine is depres­sion. I’ve suf­fered it most of my life. Is this anoth­er series of sto­ries that we tell ourselves?”

Delighted to make this our topic!

There are sev­er­al things here. A lit­tle med­ical talk, a bit of auto­bi­og­ra­phy, a slice of Zen — and we’ll see where we come out.

Medical

We need, first of all, to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between brain sci­ence and what the drug com­pa­nies want us to believe. 

There was an arti­cle some years ago, Newsweek, I think, that talked in glow­ing terms about how sci­ence was on the verge of being able to cre­ate design­er brain drugs. All was going to be imme­di­ate­ly fixable!!!

Two decades lat­er, not so much.

Some years back, a researcher in Europe exam­ined depres­sion drug stud­ies (Pax­il, Prozac, etc.), and… shock­er! Anti depres­sants are 2% more effec­tive than place­bos! In oth­er words, they don’t work.

This is pre­dictable, as much of what we call depres­sion is actu­al­ly not a brain chem­istry issue, but sad­ness writ large

Sounds so much more dra­mat­ic to be depressed than sad, though.

There’s likely 8% of the population that has significant brain chemistry issues — enough to need some form of medication.

Back in my youth, what is now called Bipo­lar Dis­ease was called Man­ic-Depres­sion. Treat­ed, back then, with lithi­um. This is “true depression.”

One fam­i­ly friend was a clas­sic “suf­fer­er.” When in his man­ic stage, he was one of the best sales guys for Pru­den­tial Life Insur­ance. He’d bring home strangers, feed them, play pool with them. He’d fig­ure, “I’m cured!” and stop tak­ing the drugs. Next thing you knew, he was strapped to a gur­ney in a hos­pi­tal. Went on like clock­work, his entire adult life.

This is the real thing. Not, though, what most peo­ple, includ­ing me, label depres­sion. read on!


History

Blue, blue, my world is blue…

I had what I refer to as a depres­sion, back in 1978. Sat in a reclin­ing chair for 3 months, bare­ly speak­ing, bare­ly inter­act­ing. Almost non-functional. 

BUT, I would say that it was not a true depres­sion, as in some­thing treat­able with drugs. I was as mis­er­able as I have ever been — and I also am painful­ly aware of how I cooked up the dra­ma, and kept myself in it, plas­tered to that damn recliner.

After a couple of months, I decided to change what I could change — my behaviour — my actions. 

I decid­ed that my career as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er was over, and that I should get anoth­er degree. So, I went back to school, and became a min­is­ter. (Only a “depres­sion” could lead to that choice, he says with a shudder…) 

I fol­lowed that one up with a degree in Counselling.

I wrote a book­let, called “The Watch­er,” to detail my process for deal­ing with depres­sive thoughts. It’s 99 cents, and avail­able for download.

I made a deci­sion about myself, and that deci­sion was that my base-line per­son­al­i­ty is “not happy.” 

A few years back, I read some­thing from Pema Chodron, where she described her­self as a “cheer­ful melan­cholic.” I thought that per­fect­ly described me.

What I have learned, over the years, is that there is no altering one’s baseline “self.”

How we are, at sev­er­al lev­els (things like mood and tem­pera­ment, lev­els of pain tol­er­ance, our place in the intro­vert — extro­vert scale, etc) — these things are fixed — per­haps at the cel­lu­lar level.

This is what brain sci­en­tists are attempt­ing to “fix.” So much so that they’re doing clin­i­cal tri­als on a drug designed to “erase painful memories.” 

I can see where that one is going. Who gets to decide what gets erased? Your doc­tor? The local Q‑Anon crowd?

We need to stop expect­ing drug com­pa­nies to fix us. 

It is no coin­ci­dence that, every time a study for a new “mind alter­ing drug” comes out, the clos­ing para­graph reads, “10–13 ses­sions of talk ther­a­py is just as effective.” 

Talk­ing things through, get­ting a han­dle on the games we play — stun­ning­ly effective! 


Here’s the Zen part

It is all about focus, as in, what we choose to “look” at.

There are always bet­ter things to focus on than the ceiling

I was watch­ing the French movie, “Water Lilies” the oth­er day. The pro­tag­o­nist and her girl­friend are lying in bed, star­ing at the ceiling. 

The pro­tag­o­nist goes off on a “French-movie-like” speech (they have to have a philo­soph­i­cal nugget to be a French movie…) about ceil­ings, and how 

The ceil­ing is prob­a­bly the last thing most peo­ple see” before they die. 

She went on about her guess that 90% of peo­ple die star­ing at the ceil­ing (as opposed, one thinks, to star­ing into one’s lover’s eyes…) and that the last thing you see is imprint­ed on your retina. 

Imag­ine the num­ber of peo­ple with ceil­ings in their eyes.”

What you focus on becomes your reality, plain and simple. And the way we get lost, and end up focussing on the “ceiling,” is through our story-telling.

The ques­tion that kicked this arti­cle off allud­ed to this. Is depres­sion a “series of stories?” 

Zen, in a sense, would say “Yes, and so is every­thing else that is not ‘real.’”

Real is what is right in front of you, and some­times, real is sad, heart­bro­ken, angry, shut down. In oth­er words, just what our soci­ety tells us we ought not to be.

Here’s how it plays out: we feel what we feel, and rather than keep it sim­ple, and say, “Boy am I sad,” we think we are com­pelled to jus­ti­fy the feel­ing (any feeling.) 

We invent “evidence” to support how we are feeling.

My per­son­al favourite sto­ries are vari­ants of 

  1. I’m all alone and no one likes me, and 
  2. I’m a fail­ure, and it’s all my fault. 

Now, I could tell you a sto­ry about grow­ing up a favoured only child, and how I was treat­ed as being supe­ri­or to every­one, how I nev­er learned to fail grace­ful­ly, etc. But they’d just be sto­ries to sup­port my stories.

In truth, when things don’t go my way (my sto­ry of how things ought to go,) I sad­den myself, and some­times anger myself. The anger comes out as, “I quit. I’m going to take my mar­bles and go home.” 

I quick­ly head to the whole poor, unap­pre­ci­at­ed Wayne thing. I have been doing this since I turned 18.

If I let myself, one story builds upon another, and soon I’m recalling other times I’ve felt hard done by. In 1978, I pushed this drama so far that I ended up in the reclining chair.


These days, I find I’m not interested in my stories, at least not for very long

Sure, because my nature is melan­choly, I see shades of gray where Dar­bel­la sees fuch­sia. The stand­ing joke in Cos­ta Rica was, Dar would say, “Que tal?” (how are you?) and I’d most­ly reply, “Mas a menos,” (more or less — mean­ing OK-ish) while she most­ly was “Muy bien” (great!)

Zen teaches us to simply observe — the feelings that arise, the stories we tell — and to let them drift past like clouds. Not easy, which is why meditation helps to get your ass settled down for the show.

You learn to watch with­out freak­ing your­self out — with­out adding anoth­er lay­er of sto­ry to defend what you do not want. You begin to explore the sto­ries, to dis­sect them, to see them as sim­ple men­tal games, and as you see this, you can choose to let them go.

Yes, choice

Being a sad-sack, a poor, help­less vic­tim, is pop­u­lar in our cul­ture. And being depressed has cachet — bet­ter than, “I just decid­ed to make myself mis­er­able and then blame you!”

To admit you are blue, sad, angry, bored, etc. takes courage, as you will face the ques­tion, “Why?”

Because it’s my nature” will cause others to, at least, raise their eyebrows.

But this is the case. What I feel is what I feel, and has noth­ing to do with the expla­na­tion I cre­ate. This is why, when con­fronting the same sit­u­a­tion, 2 peo­ple react or respond dif­fer­ent­ly. It’s not the sit­u­a­tion — it’s the base­line per­son­al­i­ty and the stories.

I’m not making light of depression… true depression is debilitating.

I’m sim­ply stat­ing that most peo­ple who are sad are not depressed. I no longer find it help­ful to claim depres­sion, even though my behav­iour was clas­sic depres­sion. The label leads in strange directions.

Instead of labelling, have a look at your patterns. 

  • What sto­ries do you tell your­self, which are designed to make your present sit­u­a­tion into a curse? 
  • How do you build upon what’s hap­pen­ing right now, (instead of sim­ply deal­ing with it…) and end up with a life sto­ry that leads into a hole? 
  • Who do you blame, and what do you gain, by the rep­e­ti­tion of the theme?

Explore your options, includ­ing accept­ing that maybe you’re just not wired to be “hap­py.” You like­ly, as I have, can find solace in con­tent­ment, while not freak­ing out that you’re often blue.

It’s not “about” any­thing. Accept­ing that, you, as I do, can make bet­ter, moment-by-moment choic­es to con­tin­ue to engage ful­ly, instead of run­ning away, blam­ing, or sit­ting in a green Nau­gahyde chair.

Because while who we are at our cores is fixed, there’s always this moment… and choice.

The Watcher

Check out my book­let, The Watch­er,” avail­able for 99 cents. You’ll learn how to set up a Watch­er voice to help you set­tle your­self when the voic­es in your head are giv­ing you grief. 


About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is known on the web as the Sim­ple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Pri­vate Prac­tice Coun­sel­lor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the lat­est being The. Best. Rela­tion­ship. Ever.

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