Dharma Topic: Winter Blues and Mindfulness

Dharma Topic: Winter Blues and Mindfulness

Discussion date: Thu, Feb 16, 2006 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

Some of us, who are normally rather buoyant, may encountersome deflated days or weeks this winter. Perhaps we feel lethargic, sad, orpessimistic. Others of us, especially if we have a history of or tendency towarddepression, may get hit much harder: a bereavement-like grief, accompanied bydiscouragement, self doubt, difficulty sleeping, withdrawing from socialcontact, and other strong symptoms.

As practitioners of mindfulness, how do we work with theWinter Blues, whether they be slight and transient, or heavy and persistent?This will be the topic of our program this Thursday, February 16.

Winter Blues / sadness / depression are complicated topics,full of moral undertones. There is a tendency in our society to blame the victim- “You shouldn’t be that way – your symptoms are a sign of failure.”or even “I shouldn’t be that way; my symptoms are a sign of failure.”Additionally, there is confusion around how it develops, with some peoplebelieving firmly in a physiological / genetic explanation; some people believingjust as firmly in a psychological / “it’s a way of thinking”explanation,; and some people open to exploring just how the physiological andpsychological interact and shape each other over time.

Looking at what happens each winter, it seems clear thatwhatever else is going on, the Winter Blues are related to how we in Washingtonexperience Winter: there is less sunlight and, for most of all, less outdooractivity. It is well documented that Winter Blues are much less common inFlorida than in Maine.

I would like to suggest that as mindfulness practitionersthree of the many responses to Winter Blues we might consider are:

  • Sitting with our Winter Blues: When we sit in meditation, or calm ourselves throughout the day, we become more aware of what we are experiencing in each moment. We can develop our capacity to separate our experiences from our thoughts, diagnoses, and judgments about our experiences.

  • Becoming more aware of how we respond to our Winter Blues: At any given moment we can’t change what it is we are experiencing, but we can change how we respond to what we are experiencing. The Zen teacher Cheri Huber (in The Depression Book) sums this up by saying: “We are responsible to how we feel rather than for how we feel.” It seems to help a lot if we can respond to our sadness or depression with a loving and compassionate attitude – just as most of us would like to respond to the pain in a loved one.

  • Understanding what feeds our Winter Blues: When we pay attention we notice that our emotions and moods are affected by a many things we have done, not done, consumed, or not consumed.. The Buddha said, “This is because that is. This is not because that is not. Once we see what is related to what, we have within our grasp the power to change many of the resultant emotional and mental states. We can, for example, intentionally keep our exercise program going in the winter, buy a light box, schedule appointments with a therapist during the winter months, pay close attention to our diet, see more of some people, see less of some people, go on a trip, or take on fewer commitments to reduce our the stress we carry. We can figure out what works for us. Excerpts from Thich Nhat Hanh and Cheri Huber on working with sadness and depression are below.

You are invited to come this Thursday to share yourexperiences with Winter Blues. The best times to join us on this Thursdayevening are:

  • Just before the first sitting at 7 pm;

  • At 7:25, at the beginning of walking meditation;

  • or, At 7:35, at the beginning of the second sitting.

Please note upcoming Still Water Community events:

  • Settling Into Silence, our first Still Water MPC Silent Retreat, will take place on February 24-26 at the Charter Hall Retreat Center near Perryville, Maryland. More information is available on our website under “Upcoming Events.” We are almost full and need to finalize arrangements: if you have been thinking about attending and have not yet told anyone, please contact Lynda Martin-McCormick, the registrar (lyndamm@verizon.net).

  • Blessings tea for Sandy and Rita (and their soon to be arriving babies): March 4. RSVP to Mitchell at Mitchell@StillWaterMPC.org.

  • First Still Water Spiritual Cinema, March 10. See website and RSVP to Annie at annie@buddingyogis.com.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher

Cheri Huber from The Depression Book

If I’m committed to a spiritual practice, and one day I findmyself depressed, I can begin to focus on how I do this process of depressing.

I can notice that I have always responded to depression incertain ways, and I can decide to respond in a different way.

What will that be like?

The way I think about this is that I am going to become theperson who is going to help me with this. I’m going along in life never havingfelt strong or supported, and, suddenly, someone comes into my life who wants tohelp, who wants to give me support, who wants to listen and talk and explorethings with me. On top of that, this is someone who loves me unconditionally andis willing to be with me ALL THE TIME.

This person never criticizes me or tries to change me orthings I should be different.


It would be wonderful if heaven would open up and dropsomeone like that into my life, but have you even noticed how seldom thathappens:

So I realize that I can be that person for myself.

I can come back to a centered place, move into unconditionallove and acceptance and have the same attitude toward myself that I have towardanyone else I love.

Thich Nhat Hanh (From a Question and Answer session onJuly 20, 1998)

Suppose you have a depression and you want to get away fromit. How can you get away from it? You have to embrace it and look deeply into itand identify the causes that have brought it to you. Then you can learn fromyour depression, and then you can enjoy the non-depression, the well being thatyou can afford to have. If you know how to cut the source of nutriment that hasbrought on your depression, then you are on your way to emancipation, and youbegin to enjoy your non-depression. It is like your toothache. I hope that inthis moment you don’t have a toothache, yet you don’t enjoy your non-toothacheuntil you have a toothache. Suffering from your toothache you get enlightened:you say: “It’s wonderful not to have a toothache.” So, how to enjoyyour non-toothache? Just remember the time when you had a toothache. Sufferingplays a very important role in helping you to be happy. That is why even whatyou call suffering, loneliness, meaninglessness, sadness, fear and despair canbe wonderful, because it is thanks to them that you have an opportunity todiscover what freedom, stability, friendship, interbeing and love are.

So let us not run away from our garbage; we should learn theart of making compost. Using that compost we will grow a lot of flowers. Don’tthink that without compost you can have flowers. That is an illusion. You canhave flowers only with compost. That is the insight of interbeing – look intothe flower and you will see the compost. If you remove the compost that becamethe flower, the flower will disappear also. What you are looking for, freedom,joy, and stability, you know that suffering plays a very important role in it.So be aware that we cannot just run away from our problems. In fact, we have togo back to our problems. The practice of calming, of concentrating, ofembracing, of looking deeply into the nature of our pain, is absolutelynecessary for us to get the transformation, the healing that we need so much.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Feb 16, 2006