Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Innate tendencies of the brain and depression

I am reading The Mindful Way through Depression and found one part intriguing. The book describes the mind as a kind of “difference engine,” frequently comparing where we are right now and where we want to be. This is a very helpful feature when measuring our progress towards a goal and in ultimately achieving that goal. So for example, if you are traveling from point A to point B, the mind is continually monitoring the progress (“half way there” “just one more mile” or “oops, made a wrong turn. Correct course!”) until you make it to point B.

But what happens when this difference engine gets applied to our emotional progress? Let’s say one person’s goal is to be calm, live in the moment and enjoy the company of others. But in actuality, they beat themselves up about the past, get anxious about the future and take care of others at their own expense. For this person, the difference engine will let them know that they have a long way to go. If this person also has a tendency to view themselves in an harsh and unforgiving manner, the result will be depression. The internal dialogue might be “look at how screwed up you are” “Why did you say (or do) that?” “Wow, you have a long way to go!” This internal dialogue builds up and strengthens indelible pathways in the brain. Over time, it becomes easier and easier to get onto this neural pathway and harder to get off. Temporary depression morphs into long term depression.

How might someone overcome this innate tendency to measure their emotional progress?

First, unconditionally forgive yourself for all past actions. Make amends, acknowledge your mistakes but free yourself from any guilt or shame. And when you make amends, don’t forget yourself as among those who you may have harmed. Whatever you may have done, it was the best you could do at the time. As Maya Angelou says "At the time, I did what I knew to do, and when I knew better, I did better."

Second, unconditionally accept all future outcomes. No doubt, this is a tough one. We all want to have control and determine the final outcome. But in the end, all we can really control is our efforts. So go ahead, do your very best and then let go. When you make peace with all the possible outcomes, is there anything left to be afraid of?

If you get this far, you have let go of the past and stopped fearing the future. All that is left is the eternal now. Become like the strong, unmoving bridge that dispassionately observes the waters of time rushing by. By staying completely in the current moment, the "difference engine" has only one point in time to reference and the endless comparisons must end. And you will be freer as a result…