Painful moods and emotions can be confusing: “Am I just sad about a relationship breakup or am I falling into real depression?” “Do I need to change my life or change my attitude?” And, “How long have I been feeling this way?” As I said to my therapist recently, when struggling with my moods, “It’s not unreasonable to take a very negative attitude about much of what goes on in the world.” Sometimes I can talk myself into a bad mood just by reading the newspaper. But when I find that I’m doing that every day, I have to begin to wonder if it’s the world’s fault or my own.
Fundamentally, then, one question is whether we are just in a difficult part of our lives situationally, or whether there is an underlying mental state or condition that is feeding negativity into our thoughts and feelings. I’m not sure we can answer a question like that without the help of someone else, particularly a therapist. But a daily mindfulness practice, both as formal meditation and as a check-in throughout the day, can help us to detect if our thoughts are in a rut. Responding to virtually every situation with the same attitude—negativity, anxiety, anger, or some other distressing emotion—can be a big clue that there’s some underlying unresolved issue or condition that needs care and attention.
Recently, having been stuck for quite some time in negative moods and depressive states, I went on a two-week silent retreat. Just three or four days into the retreat, I started to notice not so much that I felt happy per se, but that I was having increasingly positive thoughts. Part of the painful moods had been negative projections about the future, and now I started to notice pleasant fantasies appearing in my mind. Ordinarily, I would want to drop fantasies on a retreat, but under the circumstances, I was grateful and realized that they reflected a shift in my underlying mind states.
At the same time, I started to notice that I was enjoying the beauty of nature at the retreat center more than I had when I arrived. This was another shift. Before the retreat, I had been aware that I wasn’t really enjoying life, and now I was—simply because I’d spent a few days meditating. I wasn’t making an effort in meditation to be in a better mood; I was simply doing the mind training of building mindfulness and concentration. Clearly, that training was having a tremendously positive and healing effect on me. Even though I’ve been practicing for more than 30 years, I’d never had such stark proof of the beneficial effects of meditation. Coming out of the retreat, I felt as if I’d pushed the restart button in my mind, back to what felt like a normal state—one not clouded by sadness and negativity. It also gave me as much proof of the benefits of intensive meditation practice as I’ve ever had, and it reinforced my faith in its healing power.
Another practice that has helped me is noticing the times when I’m not depressed, whether it’s just walking down the street, enjoying a meal, sitting in a 12-step meeting, or any other moment in my day when I’m not stuck. This reminds me that my moods are not permanent despite the way they might feel. This can also show me which activities weaken the depression, so I can focus on doing those things more often. Life is often difficult. For addicts and alcoholics, it may be even more difficult than for the ordinary person. We need to bring effort and energy to maintaining or regaining pleasant moods.
For me, recovering joy isn’t about ending painful moods forever. Instead, it has many dimensions: a focus on activities and attitudes that enrich my life; a long-term view that creates positive karma despite any transitory anxiety, grief, or despair; a short-term view that insists on doing what needs to be done no matter how I feel about it; doing energetically and emotionally uplifting activities; and accepting my own emotional “set point,” as well as learning to hold moods in a spacious, forgiving, and compassionate way.
Excerpted from Recovering Joy: A Mindful Life After Addiction, by Kevin Griffin. Sounds True, June 2015. Reprinted with permission.