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Depression Is Beautiful – A Zen Koan For Depression?

By Tom WoottonJune 08, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

With the popularity of mindfulness based cognitive therapy, many people have begun to take a look at Buddhist practices with the hope that some of them will help with their depression. It doesn’t take long before you find many varieties of Buddhism and many interesting practices. A form popular in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, China, and in many other places is called “Zen Buddhism.” A koan is a fundamental part of the Zen practice and is thought to help people to see much deeper into themselves.

In the West, there are many who think that a koan is a meaningless statement meant to confound the mind, but it only seems meaningless until you work with it. As you keep churning the phrase in your mind, you go through a progression of feelings along with various interpretations of what you think it means. If you stick with it long enough, the mind eventually finds great meaning in it and begins to see the world in a new way.

I have said “Depression Is Beautiful” thousands of times. I know it makes no sense at all to many people, but I have seen how it works enough to keep using the phrase. I am starting to recognize a pattern in how people work through it and have seen it create changes that most would think impossible – they actually begin to see depression as a beautiful part of their lives.

When people first hear it, they think it makes no sense at all: depression is a horrible and painful experience that destroys lives — how can it possibly be beautiful?

Often right away, but usually within a month, the next reaction is anger: People get very upset with me for saying such an absurd thing. It pushes back against what they have been taught, what they have experienced, and what they believe is true. They resort to calling me dangerous or a masochist because it is easier than trying to figure out what I mean.

The next step for many people is to come up with a simple explanation. “He is talking about the beautiful understanding we gain after surviving it.” “He doesn’t really mean the experience is beautiful, it is a way to get our attention.” This is often enough to justify not thinking about it any more. They want to convince themselves that suffering depression is easier than trying to understand it.

If they are lucky, they run into someone else that says “Depression Is Beautiful” and it really freaks them out. It has a profound effect when they realize I am not the only one that sees it this way. For some, it gets them to finally decide that it is worth figuring out. What would be different if you could see depression as beautiful instead of continuing to complain about how it is ruining your life?

Many people just blow it off as an eccentric statement, but I often hear from someone two years later that she is still thinking about it. “Depression Is Beautiful” has a way of getting under your skin. You have to wrestle with it a long time before it starts to make sense.

Why do I do it if it upsets people? My answer is another koan: When you see depression as beautiful, everything changes. You see every waking moment as beautiful whether you are happy or sad, winning or losing, in sickness or in health. Even if you wake up in a deeper depression than you have ever experienced, you understand it so profoundly that you can function normally, are comfortable being there, and you value the experience so much that your life would be immeasurably diminished if you could not experience depression and every other part of life to its fullest.

When you understand depression so deeply that you see beauty in it, you realize that those who refuse to consider the possibility have condemned themselves to a diminished life and will live in fear of depression’s return for the rest of their lives. You feel tremendous sadness that too many people understand it so little that they think the only solution is to try to make it go away.

Depression can be a living hell or a beautiful part of life. Living hell is easy, just keep following the advice of those who experience it that way. Beauty is much harder, you have to accept the possibility that what I am saying is true. When you are ready, I can share many tools with you that have worked for others.

Tom Wootton (follow on Twitter or Facebook) is CEO of Bipolar Advantage. Along with experts in complementary fields, including doctors teaching the next generation of therapists, their mission is to help people with mental conditions shift their thinking and behavior so that they can lead extraordinary lives. Tom is the author of three books: The Bipolar Advantage, The Depression Advantage, and most recently, Bipolar In Order: Looking At Depression, Mania, Hallucination, And Delusion From The Other Side.

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