Winston Churchill called depression his “black dog”.
I can’t use that term.
I have an actual black dog named Ziggy who is the opposite of depression.
Long before Ziggy came into my life, before I ever heard Churchill’s quote, I was using the term “dark demon” to refer to my depression.
A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but it works for me.
I believe that depression is an epic, personal battle against the darker forces of the human spirit.
I’ve been battling these dark forces for my entire adult life — mainly with my favorite weapon, qigong.
Recently, after an unexpected Zen-like awakening, I got my metaphoric hands on another weapon to use in my battle against depression.
I now wield a mighty weapon called self love.
My Teensy-Tiny Awakening
Satori is a Japanese word that means awakening. (The Chinese term for the same thing is wù, 悟.)
On their path toward nirvana, Zen students often experience a series of satori of varying degrees.
The final satori is what leads to full enlightenment.
Zen is sometimes called the school of sudden enlightenment. In fact, there are a bunch of fun stories about a Zen student suddenly experiencing a satori and reaching enlightenment.
Here’s an example:
A monk told the Zen Master Joshu: “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
Joshu asked: “Have you eaten your rice porridge?”
The monk replied: “I have eaten.”
Joshu said: “Then you had better wash your bowl.”
At that moment the monk was enlightened.
(from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection Of Zen And Pre-Zen Writings, Pickle Partners Publishing, Kindle Edition.)
My epiphany was not the BIG enlightenment. I am not a Buddha.
But it was sudden, and it was an awakening — a teeny, tiny, wee-little mini-enlightenment.
And it was awesome.
I’ve never seen a Zen story about depression causing a satori, but that’s exactly what happened to me.
Before I talk more about my little awakening, let’s shift gears for a moment and talk about self love.
Apparently, Self Love is Important
I’m sure you’ve heard that you should love yourself.
You can only love others as much as you love yourself…
Yada yada blah blah blah.
It’s not that I don’t agree that self love is important.
Unfortunately, the “love yourself” advice is just an empty platitude for most depressives.
We know that we should love ourselves more, but the advice doesn’t seem to work for us.
We’ve tried our hardest. We’ve tried to love ourselves, to change our dark thoughts, to use positive self talk.
But it doesn’t work.
Why You Suck at Self Love
I now know why self love is so hard for us depressives to learn. (The same is probably true for non-depressives as well.)
Self love is hard because you can’t think your way out of thinking.
And that’s exactly what we try to do. We try to think our way out of negative thought patterns.
It doesn’t work.
In fact, it will never work as long as there’s a jerk living inside your head.
The Voice In Your Head is an Asshole
Dan Harris, the ABC news anchor who fell in love with meditation, said that his first choice for the title of his book was:
The Voice In My Head is an Asshole
Unfortunately, the publisher rejected that title and chose a different one:
I prefer the original title. The book is still worth reading though.
For those battling depression and anxiety, I think Dan’s original description is much better than both Churchill’s “black dog” and my “dark demon”.
And that’s because it’s such an accurate description. The voice in my head really IS an asshole.
Maybe you can relate?
The Space Between Your Thoughts
After you practice meditation for a while, you start to acquire a skill that Victor Frankl calls “the space” between thought and reaction.
(If you haven’t read Victor Frank’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, then put it on your book list!)
Intellectually, you may know that you have a voice in your head. But the space that Frankl is talking about is not intellectual.
It’s something you feel — a palpable separation between thinker and observer.
The thinker is the voice in your head. Often, this voice can be an asshole.
The observer is…well that’s a metaphysical discussion for another time.
The point is that when you are able to easily shift into observer mode, you develop the amazing ability to CHOOSE how you react to your thoughts — and not just during meditation, but all day long.
If you can’t yet easily shift into observer mode, don’t worry.
The technique that I discovered during my epiphany will help. It requires very little meditative skill to use.
(Hopefully, it will also encourage you to pursue some form of meditation, even if sitting meditation isn’t for you.)
Don’t Talk To My Wife Like That!
Before I show you the technique, let me quickly tell you how I discovered it.
My wife is not depressive, but like most people, she sometimes beats herself up.
“God, I’m so stupid,” she might say out loud when she forgets to do something.
Over the years, I’ve developed a fun way to deal with her negative self talk.
If she says it out loud, I’ll cut in and say: “Don’t talk about my wife that way!”
It makes her smile, and reminds her to be kinder to herself.
You see, my wife knows that I am protective by nature. She doesn’t need protecting. She’ll punch you in the face faster than I will.
But if someone were to say, “God, your wife is so stupid!” I certainly wouldn’t keep quiet! I would give that asshole a piece of my mind!
The Zen Art of Yelling at Yourself
Can you guess my epiphany yet?
Recently, as I stepped in to defend my wife, it hit me like a Zen truck.
I suddenly realized that I was yelling at the asshole in her head.
Why couldn’t I do the same thing for the asshole in my head?
It’s hard to describe an epiphany in words, but that’s as close as I can get, at least for now.
Later, I came up with a simple technique, which I’ll describe in 3 steps.
- Step 1: Beat yourself up in your own mind (or out loud)
- Step 2: Notice that the voice in your head is being an asshole.
- Step 3: Yell at that asshole!
Step 1 is easy for depressives. We are masters of this.
Step 2 will be more difficult if you don’t practice meditation. The good news is that you don’t need a ton of meditative skill to make this technique work.
Step 3 is easy! Once you realize that the voice in your head is an asshole, it’s surprisingly easy to yell at him or her!
Life Without an Asshole in My Head
Thanks to this technique, plus years of meditation practice, I no longer have an asshole living in my head.
For years, he called me stupid and made me feel worthless. He told me that I was weak, that I was a failure.
But then, once I started yelling at him — he just packed up and moved out.
Good riddance. Life is much better without him.
And here’s the most important part of this article, the part that will hopefully give you some hope:
Without an asshole in my head, it’s much easier to love myself.
What Self Love Is
For the first time in my adult life, I truly understand WHAT self love is.
I see now that self love is not something different. It’s not a special kind of love that I am lacking.
It’s just love.
Love is an energy, and when it flows, it flows in every direction, including inward.
It’s the same as the simple and pure puppy love that I get from my dog, Ziggy.
It’s the same as the loving kindness that I feel toward a random child on the street.
It turns out that the problem is not learning how to love yourself.
The real problem is the voice in your head.
Get rid of that asshole, and you’ll see how simple self love can be.
Speaking of which…if you found this post helpful, then please show me a little love by liking, sharing, or commenting! Mindfully yours, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen and a board member for the National Qigong Association, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.