"Perhaps, says SYLVIA BOORSTEIN, "these days of less sunlight are opportunities for more contemplative time, more looking deeply to see what can only be seen in the dark."
These are especially hard days for people whose minds are burdened with the fatigue of depression, the grief of loss, even the relatively mild Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that seems directly related to the amount of daylight. Someone once said to me, "The view out the window looks like the inside of my mind. Hopeless." Right after Thanksgiving, therapists I know begin saying, "I can't wait until the holidays are over. Everyone feels worse. It's such a problem to try to be happy if you're not."
So for these darkening days, here are some thoughts about varieties of mind fatigue, how psychotherapy is sometimes helpful, how meditation is sometimes helpful, how medication is sometimes helpful, how patience is always helpful.
A friend of mine, a woman I'll call Eve, began mindfulness meditation shortly before I did, twenty-five years ago. Eve is a psychologist, successful at her work. I met her at my first retreat. She told me that she had the same clinical depression that her mother and grandmother had before her. Eve's particular depression came and went in cycles of several month intervals, not predictable by season or situation. She had been in psychotherapy for long periods of her life, and said it had supported her through some very difficult times. Eve began to meditate years ago hoping it also would help her depression. She went on retreat often and had a regular meditation practice at home.
I particularly remember her enthusiasm for practice, which was evident even as she told me, all those years ago, "I still have the same cycles of depression. They are not different, but I am different. First of all, I see the cycles coming on more clearly than I did before, and I adjust my work schedule so it's easier for me to manage. I'm also less anxious about them because I know they will pass. I'm just more relaxed about it all."
These days there are drugs to treat Eve's depression and she takes them. And she still has a regular meditation practice. "The difference," Eve said to me recently, "is that I used to end retreats just balanced enough to keep on going. Now I start reasonably balanced. My mind has energy in it. I'm starting to see things I hadn't seen before. I'm surprised, especially after all these years of looking at myself, to see parts of my own psyche that I never saw before. I'm even starting to see the habits that set up extra suffering in my mind, and I'm not doing them so much. Now I feel like I'm really meditating."
I think Eve was always really meditating. It was enough that the quiet and seclusion of her meditation times, on and off retreat, was soothing to her, and that her determination to try to concentrate created enough energy so she could say, "I feel balanced."
Mindfulness, in my experience, does not cure clinical depression. But when the mind is balanced and energetic, mindfulness supports the development of insight. And even when the mind lacks energy, paying attention soothes the anxiety about the fatigue. Any lessening of suffering is good.
Grief is different from depression. Grief is the intense sadness associated with the loss of something dear—the death of a loved one, the failure of a relationship, the collapse of a career, the unexpected onset of an incurable illness. Grief is the natural reaction of the mind to a shock. My own experience of it is that the mind feels numbed. Maybe the numbness is the body providing temporary anesthesia for the pain.
Mourning, when the mind is ready to acknowledge the loss, seems the beginning of the process of healing, and it takes however long it takes. My friend Judi told me that the first year after her partner Meg died was the hardest. She said she needed to do one Thanksgiving, one Christmas, one Valentine's Day, one of everything they had done together, by herself, before she began to feel like herself again. It's different for everyone. Another friend of mine told me she needed to wait five years before she was able to even begin to cry about her mother's death.
Talking about sadness is good for the mourning process. Having someone who is able to witness grief with compassion, someone who isn't frightened by pain, eases the burden of keeping it unspoken. Loving friends are good. Grief counselors are good. Grief isn't an illness. Usually it does not need either therapy or medication. It needs time.
Meditations that are comforting might be helpful. Silent meditation retreats, I've discovered, are helpful for some people and not for others. Someone I know came to Spirit Rock Meditation Center a week after the death of his teenage son some time ago. Now he comes every year, for that same week. The silence and seclusion allow him to feel safe enough to cry. For others, the sense of isolation and the absence of stimuli seem to magnify the pain. The insight of impermanence, the deep down sense that everything, including current grief, mercifully passes, is comforting. It doesn't erase sadness. It supports the ability to be sad. It is unwise, though, I think, to remind grieving people of impermanence. They feel unheard. The insight arises by itself, as part of the natural mourning process, in its own time.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a relatively new term in the psychology lexicon. People used to call it Wintertime Blues. It's a good thing that scientists have named it, and figured out that the absence of daylight is a probable cause. Maybe it is that. Legitimizing Seasonal Affective Disorder makes it possible for people to talk about it, and not feel they need to hide it. It also gives people courage to wait it out. It will pass, soon, after the solstice.
And maybe we also experience Seasonal Affective Disorder because this is a time of endings, and there is a melancholy about endings, especially if some hope for what might have been has not been fulfilled. Perhaps it's a good thing to let ourselves be sad, at least enough to recognize the losses in our lives that we've avoided seeing. Perhaps these days of less sunlight are opportunities for more contemplative time, more looking deeply to see what perhaps can only be seen in the dark.
As we move toward the solstice, and the return of the light, blessings for the new year.
Sylvia Boorstein is a founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. Her new book is Pay Attention, For Goodness' Sake: Practicing the Perfections of the Heart, The Buddhist Practice of Kindness.