Mindful Way Through Depression

I share a lot of resources with my students, and this book, The Mindful Way Through Depression, is one of them. Given to me by my therapist well over ten years ago now, it’s probably one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

Having completed graduate work myself (as a first generation college student nonetheless) and now working in higher education, I’m acutely aware of many of the challenges students face in completing their degrees. As a McNair director, the central charge of my work is to encourage low income, first generation and underrepresented students to pursue Ph.D.’s. This path is not for the faint of heart, nor is it the best path for a lot of people, but for those who feel called to be a creator of knowledge, it’s the only way to go. As such, I’ve grown even more interested in learning more about what these journeys are like for our students, as well as questioning the very nature of academia and the extreme stress and hardship that many endure.

Just google “graduate students and mental health” and you’ll find various articles on the topic, highlighting recent studies pointing to higher rates of anxiety and depression among the graduate student population. The experience of graduate school is a complex one, and certainly one that is unique to each individual given their program, area of study, quality of mentors and advisors, peers and support networks. It’s complicated and many factors impact the process, but my bottomline question is: does it have to be this way and what can we do to alleviate some of the suffering?

Suffering is a strong word, I know. But having recently witnessed about forty or so Ph.D. graduates of color share their experiences achieving their degree, I would say suffering is an accurate term. These students persevered, and we should be thankful because we need their voices, but at the same time, should the process really have to entail traveling to the darkest depths of one’s soul in order to persevere?

I’m typing off the top of my head here, but I think this to be a legitimate question. I also realize this isn’t necessarily the case for all students; however, it seems to be a legitimate concern for many.

Coming back to the topic at hand then, addressing the issue of mental health in graduate education and using all resources and approaches available, this notion of mindfulness and how it can help students maintain greater health and wellness is a useful one. I personally suffered from my most significant bout of depression post-grad school; I also utilized many different tools in dealing with it, including medication and exercise, as well as experimenting with mindfulness meditation.

More Ph.D. students are talking about this important topic and I’m really happy about that. As a matter of fact, part of my writing along this topic area is an opportunity to contribute to this conversation through The PhDepression. I’ve always been interested in helping our students explore the benefits of mindfulness, through yoga and more recently, through meditation. And so I’m really excited to be able to reach an even greater number of students, to provide support and encouragement in their graduate journeys, and help pass along resources + tools that I’ve personally found absolutely transformative in my own journey.

I welcome your thoughts! Please feel free to email me at lynn.curry.619@gmail.com or use the contact form on this site. I’ll be sharing more experiences and conversations as I revisit this important text, The Mindful Way Through Depression, and perhaps go even deeper into my own continuing struggles.

Letting ourselves emerge

One of the things I love about attending a yoga class is being prompted to think in new ways. In addition to queuing the different poses, a teacher will usually weave in a particular “theme” or “language” meant to elucidate a certain concept or idea typically related to the philosophy of yoga. In essence, the goal of yoga is becoming more in tune with your true self.

Today, we were invited to consider how much of our “true selves” we actually show to the world on a regular basis. True, there are probably parts of ourselves that are easy to share, certain qualities, beliefs, manners of being. Perhaps even truer are other parts of ourselves more easily kept hidden. Perhaps they fall beyond what is considered “the norm” or maybe we are afraid that if we show who we really are or what we really believe in, we won’t be accepted by others. We are afraid to stand in our own truth for fear of being judged and rejected.

When we are mindful, we can usually start to notice how we only allow certain parts of ourselves to show, depending upon the situation we find ourselves in.

What’s interesting about a yoga practice is that we explore such topics through breath and movement. We take a look at these “more subtle notions” through tangible things like breathing and moving our bodies.

Today, we were encouraged to embrace the totality of ourselves, flaws and weaknesses, in all. Strengths too. By observing our mind as we move from pose to pose, we learn to lean into the discomfort of simply being ourselves, just as we are. We have lots of “stories” we tell about ourselves. We aren’t good at this, we aren’t good at that. This happened and so I’m this way because of that.

Today in our yoga practice, we were encouraged to let go of these stories (that “ticker tape” constantly running in our heads), and instead, embrace the present moment of who we are. Right now. At this moment.

Can I stand in my own truth of who I am as an individual?

Maybe.

The real opportunity comes from challenging those stories, or in many cases, “limiting beliefs,” we hold so dear. Today our practice culminated with a pretty challenging pose. Immediately, my internal “ticker tape” began saying, it would be easier to just stick with the simpler version of this, you probably can’t get your leg up like that anyway, it might be too strenuous.

Instead of listening to that ticker tape, I tried it. It didn’t look pretty, especially in relation to the two beautiful teachers surrounding me and going into the fully realized version of it, but I tried it. Then I refined how I tried it, on the second side, with feedback from my teacher.

It was probably a “smidge” better on that second side, but the deal is, it was *my version* of that pose for today. Sure, my teachers’ versions still appeared “more better” (vocab from my 8-year-old, smile) in my mind’s eye; but I dropped that story, if just for the moment, and recognized myself for having tried and having accomplished “my version” of that more advanced yoga pose, for today.

heather

Heather doing “the pose” quite beautifully. This is “her version” of the pose.

I’m doing this in CrossFit too. Just yesterday I back-squatted 120 pounds. Five more pounds than I did last week. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I tried it. I focused and leaned into the discomfort involved in trying something I hadn’t done before; something I, in the back of my head, was already second guessing I could do. Darn ticker tape running and doing its job, like it always does.

And so I did that too. And maybe it wasn’t perfect, but I did it. And as a result, I inserted this notion of being able to do it, into my brain. Cool thing is, next time around, my “ticker tape” might just resurrect this belief instead!

My teacher then read an excerpt from The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo:

“Like many of us, I seem to be continually challenged not to hide who I am. Over and over, I keep finding myself in situations that require me to be all of who I am in order to make my way through. Whether breaking a pattern of imbalance with a lifelong friend, or admitting my impatience to listen to my lover, or owning my envy of a colleague, or even confronting the self-centeredness of strangers stealing parking spaces, I find I must be present – even if I say nothing. I find I must not suppress my full nature, or my life doesn’t emerge.

Aside from the feeling of integrity or satisfaction that comes over me when I can fully be myself, I am finding that being who I am – not hiding any of myself – is a necessary threshold that I must meet or my life will not evolve. It is a doorway I must make my way to or nothing happens. My life just stalls.”

What it comes down to is leaning into the discomfort of new territory and discovering who you really are, even if it’s scary and even if it’s easier to stay right where we are. When we do this (especially on a regular basis), we expose, more and more, our true selves and who we really are as individuals.

It’s how we grow.

It’s how we shed our stories and allow ourselves to evolve.

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