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:
10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works
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.
(If you want to improve your meditative skill, you can start right now with a free mini-course on qigong, or you can dive into a longer course called Battling Depression and Anxiety with Qigong.)
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! Best regards, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong (pronounced "chee gung") to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. Today, I'm the director of Flowing Zen, an international organization with students in 48 counties. I've been teaching qigong since 2005, I've served on the board for the National Qigong Association, and I’ve helped thousands of people to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. If you're ready to get started with qigong, there's no better way than my best selling book, which comes with free videos and meditations. The sooner you read my book, the sooner you can start healing! Click here to see my book on Amazon.
Lovely!!!!! Thank you!
We are on the same page… Just brought this up at work:
What’s the story you’re telling yourself?
Is it true? Is it kind? Would you tell it to someone you love?
You deserve a kind, true, loving story.
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Cynthia, that sounds very similar.
What I’ve found is that a lot of depressives have a knee-jerk reaction against the word “deserving”. They don’t feel that they deserve goodness.
This technique seems to bypass that for some students because it allows them to objectively see that the voice in their head is being rude without getting bogged down in feeling undeserving.
This is very pertinent to me right now, it compliments some self love exercises I’ve recently started doing with great results (Louise Hay’s mirror work) – thanks for sharing! 😀
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
I’m glad it was helpful! I’m not familiar with the “mirror work” but if it works, it works!
Ludo Cools says
Aka don Miguel Ruiz. Confluent with NeiGong. Look after the Anger underneath the depression. Let the Inner Child talk. And the Eternal Child sits on his lap. Let us free ourself. Of anxiety and anger.
Reminds me of Shunryu Suzuki’s story about Zuikan, a master who would address himself to interrupt his own distractions. “Zuikan!?” “Yes?”
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Maggie Horosky says
Thank you, Sifu Anthony. Your posts are thought provoking and touching. I, also, battle with negative thoughts. What I can control. What I can’t control. All your posts help me to be better today than I was yesterday. And, I am striving to do that very thing, and learning along the way.
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Thank you, Maggie! I’m so glad to hear that my posts are helpful. You just made my day. 🙂
Hi, Anthony! I loved this piece. It coincides very much with my own teeny, tiny enlightening from cancer last year. I finally “woke up” to the fact that my loving of other people and leaving myself out of the equation was a form of violence – and one that was killing me. I have turned my “loving mother” self’s eyes upon each part of myself I previously despised and tried to change. I realized at some point that the desperate need I had for others to love and approve of me was a gift I could give to myself, every day, all day. Thanks for your thoughtful writing and sharing from experience. Let’s get the self-love message out there!
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
I’m glad it was helpful, Lora! You might also be interested in my wife’s blog. She is also a cancer survivor. She doesn’t write very often, but she’s got a few gems:
Vasanthi vanniasingham says
Anthony this is a great article. It is direct, frank, and simple to read.
The message is clearly from your heart . It’s solutions are also very accessible like the qigong you teach
Vasanthi Vanniasingham, AP
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Thank you, Vasanthi!
David Barnett says
LIke so many posters here, I’ve had the same struggle. And for as long than you’ve been alive I know that my Zen practice, as intermittent as it’s been over the years, has helped keep the inner asshole in check, although not completely defeated. If I’m going through a rough patch it’ll come back with “See? I told you so”. But it eventually gets swallowed up by the voicelessness behind it all.
Tong lai man says
Tong lai man#
I do not have depression, but self-love is really important. As there is a saying that you do not know how to love others only if you know how to love yourself first.
Suzy Langley Brannan says
As a Christ-follower, I try to follow the commandment of “love your neighbor as you love yourself” in everything I do. I find the second part more difficult than the first part most of the time. It is essential to do this however. I very much enjoyed your blog today. I especially like the heart-shaped leaf. One of my favorite things to do as I walk outside (whether at home or on vacation) is to discover heart-shaped leaves, stones, or other objects in nature that I believe are God’s way of telling me He loves me and I’m important to Him.
Lizz Brooks says
Great post! I’ve been working on becoming aware of the space between my thoughts or rather my reaction to my thoughts and it’s very powerful. I’ve found that the moment I recognize the thought as being ‘the jerk in my head’ the connection is broken. That’s liberating. Now, to be gentle with myself for not doing this perfectly each time, LOL!
This is such a great post. I’m going to try this yelling at the rude voice thing!! I’ll let you know how it goes. 🙂
I also love the idea of getting onto the negative self talk of those around you. That’s a really helpful thing, to look out for those around you in this area, as well as have them look out for you! My daughter is at this pre-teen phase where I’m hearing a lot more negative self talk coming from her, and I LOVE the idea of saying to her, “Hey, don’t talk about my daughter that way!” when she’s doing it. 🙂 <3
Love this post so much. I'm sharing it. <3 <3
John K. says
Thank you for continuing to be both real and vulnerable..
There is fiction in the space between
The lines on your page of memories
Write it down but it doesn’t mean
You’re not just telling stories
Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! 🙂
Self Love. Smile from the heart, bring out your inner smile, be happy, …. For what? When we love ourselves, when we love, we smile! That voice in our head is cultured and educated it has power… The masters said to weaken the mind…the baby has no power yet he is a magnet. This is so nice if we can come up with the image. But you , Sifu , came up with something simple and practical , easy to hang on to, easy to talk about.
It feels good to conquer the demons!
Thank you for this very straight forward and clear article coming straight from the heart..I’ve never thought about self criticism this way. The “asshole in my head” is probably more about fear; fear that I’m not smart enough or fast enough etc. I will work on that!
Arya Warsitha says
Thankyou Sifu. That is my problem in my qigong training, to throw away asshole from my head.
For me, this is one of the most powerful articles you have written. Thank you.
I’m 66 and have been struggling with depression on and off for most of my life, except for a brief period when my children were young, and I was enthralled with watching them grow. Now I have many worries, along with chronic pain that is fortunately not debilitating physically, but keeps me from ever sleeping well.
I’ve been practicing qigong, for several years, and I find this moving form of meditation much easier than sitting practices, as the movement helps me to quiet those negative thoughts. Thank you for posting your insights here. I find my emotional struggles now, at my age, to be much more difficult than when I was younger, as my place in the world is actually very vulnerable, and my task is to somehow ignore this frightening reality. I’m hoping that your qigong course for anxiety and depression will help to lift me out of a very dark place, so I will sign up when I’m able to. Thank you for being so open…makes me realize that I’m not completely alone.
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Hi Karin. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and thanks for being vulnerable.
I know what it’s like to have chronic pain that interferes with sleeping. At one point, I felt like I hadn’t slept in a year!
I will do my best to help you, whether it’s through the “Battling Depression and Anxiety” course, or our Facebook support group for those battling depression and anxiety, or in any other way that I can be helpful.
You are definitely not alone!
Thanks for sharing this. It is a brilliant technique that I will use on myself but also a few of my Mental health clients that have the challenge of negative berating voices. You are right. We must get rid of these horrid way of speaking to ourselves for things to change.
I’m so happy I came across this page as it feels like me. I’m in a place of complete sadness, not knowing how to love myself and where to ever start and this felt like a shining beacon at a needed time.
I totally relate to the negative thinking and beating myself up all the time and each time I try to “be happy or positive” my mind allows it for a short period of time before reminding me again that I cant do it or I’m not meant to be that way. Its soul destroying and I want to live a healthy fulfilling life with happiness. I will definitely be trying Qigong out and trying to tell the asshole in my head to go away. Maybe one day it’ll listen!
Sifu Anthony Korahis,
As I read through this article, I had several epiphanies. I felt the rush that came with the air of enlightenment’s run towards me.
Would love to learn more.
This article describes exactly how I’ve been feeling lately. Being a college student and adjusting to so many changes in my life i have truly learned what it means to love yourself. Enjoying your own company, and not relying on anyone for your happiness is invigorating. Dealing with depression almost makes you feel as though you can’t find happiness within yourself so the only way you can feel it is from other people. It feels really good to be content with who you are for once rather than how others make you feel. Great article!
Ray Morneau says
Sifu Anthony, Zen Wizard, Thank You for sharing your wisdom!!!
[… and Ziggy … and Akemi, too!]
I talk to myself and the Universe frequently … this will help me be more forcefully engaged!