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About five years into practicing meditation, I had an experience that gave me a clear perspective on how it was improving my life. For as long as I could remember, I struggled with depression. I had patches where I felt ok, then one day I would wake up in a fog. A sad, numb, heavy blanket had wrapped itself around me in the night, seemingly out of nowhere.
So, when I woke up one morning to discover that familiar fog had rolled in, I felt a wave of dread. I wondered how long it would stick around and saw my time being stolen by a murky bandit. I remember getting out of bed and feeling that combination of dull, throbbing blues and sleepiness. Fortunately for me, I was never struck with such force that I got knocked flat by those waves. I was always able to get up and go about my day. But it was extra hard work.
I needed to pick up some things at the grocery store, so I got myself together and headed over to Whole Foods. I was rolling my cart down the produce aisle when it happened. Leaning into my cart, I let it prop me up as I walked. A woman was coming towards me from the opposite direction. As we glanced at one another, she gave me the kind of perfunctory smile you give someone when you pass them in the grocery store aisle. It was an automated response. There was nothing heartfelt or particularly genuine about it, just the result of trained social politeness.
Which is why what happened next was so startling. I had caught her smile out of the corner of my eye and returned it, as you do. How often had I walked past someone in the grocery store or on the street and had an exchange just like this one? But this time was radically different. When I caught that woman’s smile, I caught it completely.
Have you ever watched a drop of dye in a glass of water? You can see the dye spread out until eventually the water is uniformly colored by the dye. But try dropping dye on an ice cube. When you know yourself as separate, you walk around impenetrable as an ice cube.
The instant that woman smiled at me, I fell into a high state of concentration. When you experience high concentration, the solid sense of self melts away. You were a block of ice, but now you've become fluid and porous. As you become fluid, your world does too.
The moment that woman smiled at me, the experience of her smile spread completely through me. I felt that tiny drop of social pleasantry seep into my whole being and as it did, my mood couldn’t help but lift. Because it was met with high concentration, her quick and careless smile became a sunbeam of joy, boring it’s way through my cloudy disposition. And the shift wasn’t fleeting. A bout of depression that would normally have lasted weeks abruptly came to an end. The moment had jolted me out of the groove my mind would normally have gotten stuck in and I learned something new about my innate resilience. I got a little more bounce!
Does that mean I never got depressed again? I still get depressed sometimes. In fact, I’m having a little wave today. But depression doesn’t have the same grip it once had, because even when I’m experiencing it, I feel more fluid than solid. Every case is different, so I can’t generalize my own results. I can only speak about what I’ve found helpful and why.
Mindfulness practice is curious. Sometimes as you sit, you feel like you’re spinning your wheels. But you’re actually accruing perpetually redeemable concentration miles. You begin going on journeys in daily life that can radically shift your perception. As you continue to practice, those experiences increase in frequency and depth until they reverse your understanding of who you are. You come to see that what you used to call “normal” was just the habit of knowing yourself and your world, as separate and solid.