88-149 bhapte15 January 20, 1990

If you make no self-comparisons, you will feel no sadness; that's the point of this chapter in a nutshell. A recent body of research0.1 confirms that this is so. There is much evidence that increased attention to yourself, in contrast to increased attention to the people, objects, and events around you, is generally associated with more signs of depressed feeling.

Some people are forever checking their Life Report to see how they rate. They want to know the score after every point in ping-pong, they examine their reflections in every mirror they pass, they know at every moment what their grades are in each course in school, and they constantly update their estimates of their bosses' opinions of them. Other people pay much less attention to their evaluations of themselves.

Evaluating yourself can give you pleasure if your actual state stands favorably with respect to your benchmark comparison state. But if you have a propensity to evaluate yourself unfavorably, then each such evaluation is a source of pain and sadness for you. For such people, the frequency of self- evaluation determines the amount of pain and sadness, and the depth of depression. We depressives not only have a propensity to make negative self-evaluations, but we also have a tendency to make them frequently.

Some evaluations of how you are doing are crucial in keeping you on the right course of action. If you don't check how well you are doing when you are engaged in any productive activity, you have no way of directing your actions so that they will be fruitful. "How am I doing, Ma?" may be a funny line at times, but getting feedback evaluation from others and from yourself is crucial in keeping you from walking onto dangerous thin ice, and it is necessary in making a living. If you have an independent income and no responsibilities to others, you can afford to enter a monastery or a private world in which you refrain from evaluations of your activities. Yet most of us--and especially depressives--can afford to reduce the extent of self-evaluation very considerably without much (if any) loss of useful direction.

The title for this chapter comes from the Zen question, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" That question (like all the rest of Zen) aims at making no self-comparisons at all, which is the subject of this chapter. Ceasing to make comparisons is a key element in much of Western religion, too, as well as in many secular psychological approaches to mental suffering.

Jean Piaget taught us that as a baby grows from earliest infancy, it develops the striving abilities in order to survive. When you strive you classify, abstract, and especially evaluate. The act of evaluating is central to all survival and achievement --the evaluation of this path rather than that one, which tactic will produce the desired result, whether a pile of blocks will hold one's weight, and so on.

The importance of the distinction between the mode of experiencing and the mode of evaluating and comparing was long ago noted by philosophers. According to John Dewey, evaluation ("criticism" is his term)

occurs whenever a moment is devoted to looking to see what sort of value is present; whenever instead of accepting a value-object wholeheartedly, being rapt by it, we raise even a shadow of a question about its worth, or modify our sense of it by even a passing estimate of its probable future.... There is a constant rhythm of "perchings and flights" (to borrow James' terms) characteristic of alternate emphasis upon the immediate and mediate, the consum- matory and instrumental, phases of all conscious experience.1

A stimulus to action--for a baby, hunger or a painful jab of a pin: for an older child or an adult, an insult or a challenge or a neg-comp --puts you into the active survival mode. And if the stimulus is painful, the non-depressive's first reaction is take steps to get rid of the cause of the pain. If, however, it seems to you as if you cannot manage to get rid of the painful stimulus, the mood turns to anger, and then to aggression against the actual or imagined source of the pain. And if you come to think that you are helpless to escape or prevent the painful stimulus2, however, the rage becomes sadness.


Stop Thinking About Yourself

Bertrand Russell once wrote that the secret of attaining happiness and avoiding unhappiness is not to think about yourself.

"I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide.... Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life...with every year that passes I enjoy it more.... (V)ery largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself."3

By itself, not thinking about yourself does not seem to be a clear or sensible prescription. But let us re-interpret Russell as saying that one should get into the habit of avoiding comparisons of the self with counterfactuals, which is a common form of "thinking about oneself."

Non-depressives usually have well-developed skills for shifting their attention away from situations that might produce unnecessary negative self-comparisons. In a report on more than three decades of life histories of a hundred Harvard students, starting before World War II, George Vaillant tells the story of a man who shifted dimensions effectively:

A California hematologist developed a hobby of cultivating living cells in test tubes. In a recent interview, he described with special interest and animation an unusually interesting culture that he had grown from a tissue biopsy from his mother. Only toward the end of the interview did he casually reveal that his mother had died from a stroke only three weeks previously. His mention of her death was as bland as his description of the still-living tissue culture had been effectively colored. Ingeniously and unconsciously, he had used his hobby and his special skills as a physician to mitigate temporarily the pain of his loss. Although his mother was no longer alive, by shifting his attention he was still able to care for her. There was nothing morbid in the way he told the story; and because ego mechanisms are unconscious, he had no idea of his defensive behavior. Many of the healthiest men in the Study used similar kinds of attention shifts.4

Research has also shown that depressives tend to have more self-evaluating and self-comparing thoughts than do non- depressives.5 This is additional evidence that reducing the number of self-comparisons is a logical tactic against depression for depressives.

An example of how one can force oneself to avoid negative self- comparisons and thereby prevent sadness: Link S. himself a depressive, has a son, Daniel, who worries more than do most kids about school work, though Daniel is very good in school and Link tells Daniel not to let school performance worry him.

One night Link asked Daniel to "promise" not to worry about school the next day. Daniel reported it worked. Then Link said to his son, "I ought to try the same thing myself." Daniel suggested that they exchange promises that each would have a happy day on the morrow. Link thought it was a lovely idea, and agreed. And it worked, even though Link was in the midst of a bad period at work. Since then they exchange such promises frequently, and Link - because he feels a responsibility to keep promises to his children - works extra hard at keeping himself in a sadness-free mood, banishing negative self-comparisons whenever they come into his mind, and turning his thoughts to family, specific work problems, and nature. This is evidence of the efficacy of the tactic of avoiding negative self-comparisons. It also shows again how one's mood depends both upon external conditions and also on one's mind set.

Will Your Attention Awau from the Depressing Thoughts

All of us have very considerable powers to refuse to make evaluations and self-comparisons, and to influence our moods by sheer decision and force of will, as this small anecdote shows. The Jewish Sabbath is the center of our family's life, and an oasis of delight, especially for my wife and me. Please understand that this is a purely personal matter, and has nothing to do with any supernatural belief or religious obligation, but it is nevertheless very important for us. One Friday afternoon recently (after I had ceased being depressed) I was on an airplane due to make a tight connection with another plane and arrive at home before the meal that would begin the Sabbath on Friday evening. I fell asleep in my seat just before take-off, but awoke fully 45 minutes later to find the plane still on the ground. My neighbor told me that a broken seat was in the process of being fixed, and we could not leave until it would be fixed. The plane was already so late that I would miss my connection according to the schedule, and it was the last connecting flight that night. The fixing took another 20 minutes or so. I then asked the stewardess if there was anything that could be done to hold the connecting plane. She asked if there were others in the same shape, and she found eight or nine others. She then wired ahead, but told us that there was little chance that the connecting flight would wait.

As I sat in my seat, beginning to be very anxious about whether we'd make the connection, and very upset about the possibility of having to spend the Sabbath in a hotel away from my family and the bliss of the Sabbath, I could feel anger and then depression coming on. Then I thought as follows: If I stay calm and refuse to get upset, and if I miss my connection, will I lose anything by being upset? No. If I let myself get upset and we do make the connecting flight, will I later feel that I have been foolish in allowing myself to approach the Sabbath in a turmoil? Yes. Therefore, since being anxious and upset can do no good, and might be a foolish and misplaced internal commotion, why let yourself be upset?

I therefore determined not to let myself be upset. To that end I concentrated on making small talk with my neighbor and her children, breathing deeply in my belly to relax myself and make myself feel good, thinking about the lovely time I would have on the Sabbath if I did get home, and enjoying my airline meal. My anxiety broke through my pleasant calm from time to time, but when it did I firmly pushed it out of my mind and went back to breathing deeply or chatting.

And - it worked. Even more wonderful, by unusual air traveler's luck, the other plane was somewhat late anyhow, and it was held. I got home only slightly delayed, and in good time for the Sabbath meal. I was overjoyed at that good fortune, and additionally pleased that I arrived home in such calm and good cheer because I had not allowed my anxiousness to get home upset or depress me and then ruin my festive mood.

This example from Alcoholic Anonymous's "Big Book" is instructive even though the aim was to avoid taking a drink rather than a neg-comp:

There have ...been numerous times when I have thought about taking a drink. Such thinking usually began with thoughts of the pleasant drinking of my youth. I learned early in my A. A. life that I could not afford to fondle such thoughts, as you might fondle a pet, because this particular pet could grow into a monster. Instead, I quickly substitute one or another vivid scene from the nightmare of my later drinking.6

Substitute a depressive's propensity to dwell on a neg-comp that affords the gratification of self-pity, for example, instead of the alcoholic's thought of a drink, and the anecdote providesguidance for avoiding depressing thoughts.

Change the Subject

A device that can be useful in reducing negative self- comparisons is simply changing the subject of your thinking and internal conversation - from a work failure to family, from war in Africa to a technical question, from a sick child to tennis, or whatever. Do you wonder whether you can do this? Of course you can - just as you can often (but not always) convince someone else to change the subject of conversation. Of course this means that you must be willing at times to turn away from subjects of interest to you when they cause you pain.

Vaillant thus typifies the behavior of the middle-aged men who had made successful psychological adaptations of their circumstances: "[I]f you cannot bear it, forget it." And he noticed that the only two men in his study who did not use this or any "neurotic" devices to avoid painful thoughts were the two men in his sample who described themselves as "chronically depressed."11

Young persons often believe that purposely ignoring unpleasant facts is in some way "dishonest" and "untruthful." Certainly it can be dishonest to deny unpleasant facts. And sometimes it is unwise to ignore unpleasant facts if they will cause greater harm unless you deal with them. But for those facts which you cannot alter - a chronic ailment, perhaps, or a low pay level in one's chosen occupation - then there seems neither practical nor moral virtue in keeping oneself constantly aware of the fact and of the negative self-comparison it produces; to do so is simply foolhardy and counterproductive.

Think About Work Instead of About Yourself

One of the best ways of avoiding self-comparisons is by substituting work thoughts, which by their very nature focus you on objects of thought outside yourself, rather than on yourself and comparisons with benchmark counterfactual states. After my first year of terrible depression, my ability to dive down into work for two to four hours every morning dragged me up from permanent occupancy at the bottom of the pit, and gave me some respite from the constant pain of sadness and awareness of worthlessness. Many depressed people do not manage to work, however. This may be because they feel hopeless that the work will amount to anything. But others may not work because they are not aware of the enormous therapeutic possibilities of work.

Composer Liz Swados is another depressive who finds refuge in her work. "Even in her depression, she worked - and found salvation in work."7

Observe that it is almost impossible to sing and be depressed at the same time. (Singing even a blues song removes the blues!) Does this mean we should sing all the time? The prescription "sing" is not a perfect cure for depression for at least two reasons: 1) The prospective singer must be willing to give up the benefits of depression. 2) It takes the energy involved in "will power" to force yourself to start singing when you feel sad, energy that depressed people often lack.

Helping Others Can Help You

Altruism - which implies thinking about other people's welfare instead of your own, and comparing their numerators to their denominators instead of your own - has saved many people from depression. Vaillant8 documents how turning to altruistic activities saved several of the men in the Grant Study from adulthood hells. Perhaps this is a fair translation of what Jesus meant when he said that in order to save one's life one must lose it - that is, by giving it to others.

How may one become altruistic? All I can suggest is that you may decide to do so, either because you come to realize that one of your most important values is to be altruistic, or because you are so anxious to cease being depressed that you are willing to give part of your time and strength and thought to others, or some combination of both.

Avoid Situations That Induce Negative Self-Comparisons

Staying out of situations that force negative self- comparisons upon you is a habit that can help depressives. Arnold K. is an applied scientist who has done work that is innovative but that has mostly failed to catch the interest of his profession. Every time he picked up any one of three particular technical journals he was depressed for a day or two, because the field covered by those journals proceeds with practically no reference to his work though he has researched and published a large quantity of material in that field. Then he built the habit that each time his eye or hand lights on one of those journals, he turns his eye and hand away and re-directs his mind to his family, which is a source of great satisfaction to him. At first he found this hard to do, but after trying it and finding it pleasurable, it got easier and more habitual each time. (But this habit-building has the disadvantage that if he doesn't look at those three journals, he is hampered in contributing anything more to that field, or in trying to keep his past work in that field from disappearing altogether. This is a drawback of some types of habit formation and behavior modification.)

Two similar examples are given by psychoanalyst Rubin:

I had a patient who had been through a devastating love affair and who for a long time diligently avoided films, plays and books which depicted idealized love relationships, having learned that these filled her with self-recrimina- tions which she could not yet control. This does not constitute avoidance of reality or denial of a problem. It simply, but very importantly, provides pain-free time in which to gather strength for constructive purpose.

I remember a period of time during which I felt particularly vulnerable. I studiously avoided news pro- grams that were especially full of horror then because they demoralized me still further. Again, this is not sticking one's head in the sand ostrichlike. It is effect- ing a block to self-hate, and this or any kind of block, especially of an early and even anticipatory nature, is a definite form of compassion and constructive caring for self.9

Rubin's method is sound, even though his arcane psychoanalytic language and concepts ("self-hate") are not necessary here.

Writing plays is, of all types of work, the one which most requires that one keep checking the effect of the work on the audience, in the course of the play's being readied for production. Yet such checking the results can bring forth negative self-comparison. Famous playwright William Gibson puts it this way:

I learned...that success is no good and failure is worse - an old wisdom, the work must be done for itself, which in this system is the counsel to "act, but detach from the fruits of action." That is, act without a feedback of conflict over the outcome. But of all the arts the theatre is the most public, it does not exist without an audience, and the will to success is ingrained in its practice. The wooing of the audience is half of the art.10

Study Your Thoughts

Examining your thoughts in an objective fashion, the way you would study someone else's thoughts if you wanted to understand them, can be another powerful device, similar to meditation which we shall talk about below. Watching one's thoughts tends to objectify the process and reduce the sadness attached to the thoughts (if they are negative self-comparisons.)


Still another device useful to some is praying, or a prayerful attitude, which may or may not involve belief in a deity. These passages by a Christian minister are illuminating:

When we are melancholy, it is impossible for us to evaluate correctly our personal contributions to our loved ones, our work or to society at large. When we learn to anticipate a bad mood and to accept it philo- sophically when it comes, when during the period of depression we are wise enough to suspend judgment as to the worth of our achievements, we have made sincere practical advance in managing our troublesome moods.

It helps to speed the waiting process when we force ourselves to assume a fresh viewpoint. This entails shutting the door of our minds to hopeless and despair- ing thoughts and deliberately to appropriate a confident, cheerful attitude. This is an extremely difficult assignment for the person who allows himself to be car- ried away by his depressed moods, but through discipline of emotions and patient practice it can be accomplished. By an act of will it becomes possible to turn our minds away from gloom and to center them elsewhere....

Another method involves the practical use of affirmation and prayer. If our prayers have seemed ineffectual in combating our low moods, perhaps we have allowed them to become sporadic or stereotyped and should give them a fresh cutting edge. On awakening in the morn- ing, for example, in the first moments of consciousness, we can begin the day with an affirmation of confidence and hope. Although this may seem trivial, in reality it helps set the emotional tone for the entire day. We may find it helpful to repeat a sentence from the Psalms, such as, "This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it," or a line from the Dox- ology, "Praise God, from whom all blessings flow," or words from a favorite hymn - "Spirit of God, descend upon my heart."...

The habit of starting the day with an affirmation of trust and cheer will tend to lift our spiritual hori- zons and to turn our thoughts outward, away from the chasm of dejection and toward the Source of power.12

Creating the Proper Habits

Once again, Self-comparisons Analysis directs us to a useful tactic in fighting depression - in this case, reducing negative self-comparisons by avoiding any self-comparisons. Yet the willingness to exert the effort, and the implementation of the decision to exert the effort with habit formation, are also crucial. This adds up, then, to the following prescription: When you recognize a negative self-comparison entering your thoughts, tell yourself to direct your thoughts toward a work project or an altruistic activity - and do it.

Habit-formation may be more effective in suppressing comparisons than one thinks at first. Drawing upon my own experience, now: Even after I banished my daytime depression I often woke early in the morning - at 4:00 or 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. - and would lie half-asleep and half-awake with thoughts of past failures and future difficulties. The evil genius of the depression seemed that even if I could fight it when awake, I had no defense against it seizing me when unconscious with sleep. And I was convinced that habit-building tricks therefore could not help, because such tricks require consciousness and "will."

To my delight, I was wrong. It began when one of my children told me of his device to avoid bad dreams: Before falling asleep give yourself a pleasant subject to think about, such as a beaver or a swallow (this son was interested in animals). I took the suggestion, and it helped, though my subject is a family pleasure rather than an animal.

Additionally, I have now found that the habits I developed during the day began to work when half-asleep, too, shoving away intruding ugly comparisons even when half-asleep.

By now, though depressing thoughts still break into my sleep occasionally, my habits are almost always powerful enough to protect my tranquillity and allow me to return to sleep.


Having pleasure, and feeling good because of it, is partly a matter of the events that occur to you. But even more important is whether you keep the thoughts of pleasant events in your mind long before and long after they occur, or whether you turn your mind to other things except when experiencing the event. Having thoughts of pleasant events in your mind affects your depression in two different ways, both very important. (1) As with meditation, work, and exercise, thinking about happy events substitutes for the negative self-comparisons that cause you to be depressed. (2) Even more important, perhaps, is that having pleasure in fact and thought - in memory and in expectation, as well as in actual experience - is a terrific reason to stay alive, and to believe that life is good. As Dostoyevsky remarked, one really good memory will go a long way - if you make good use of it.

It is a characteristic of depressives that their thoughts dwell on self-comparisons and do not dwell upon memories of past pleasures and expectations of future pleasures. But this is a tendency that can be changed if you decide to do it, if you "allow" yourself to do it, and if you practice it. Oil-company junior executive Rollie G. always had his mind working on "productive" thoughts about his job-- whom he had to instruct to do what, what he had to remember to check before sending out the products, the job evaluation forms he had to fill out for his assistant, and so on. He felt that he "ought" to be "taking advantage" of spare moments to get more done, and he constantly did so - except when negative self-evaluations flooded his mood and made him sad, and that was often. Then he came to realize that there is no necessity to make a maximum production machine out of himself. And he trained himself to spend five minutes or a quarter of an hour alone or with his wife, reminiscing about the lovely times he had had with his children, and about such upcoming events as the children's confirmations, the good meals that they had had, and about trips past and future. These pleasurable thoughts pushed out negative self-comparisons, and gave him the real stuff of life to lean upon and to make life worthwhile.

How can you get yourself to spend more time remembering and expecting those happy events that are in everyone's life? By working at it, and teaching yourself the habit of doing so, that's how. Train yourself that when you start to ruminate over your failings, shift your thoughts to the happy times, and stay in those happy times for a few minutes, before moving on to other thoughts.


A comparison is the basic element in any evaluation or judgment. And comparing is a process of developing and using abstract concepts to deal with the sensations that your mind receives from inside and outside your body. In contrast, the various forms of meditation, and of Eastern religious practices generally, are devices to orient you away from abstraction, judgment, comparison, and evaluation, and toward the "primitive" sensations themselves. The other side of the coin is that meditation points you toward the judgment-free perceptions of the sensory world, and perhaps toward cosmic imaginations that often arise from the elementary experience in meditation.

As the greatest interpreter of Buddhism to Westerners put it, not just meditation but Buddhism in its entirety "is a method...for the correction of our perceptions and for the transformation of consciousness" rather than a theology.13 The purpose and effects of Buddhism and Hinduism, in which meditation is the key spiritual element, are more like Western psychotherapy than like Western religion. And indeed, meditation can remove sadness and depression, at least temporarily.14

By "meditation" I mean to include all the sorts of meditation described by Buddhist and Hindu writers as well as by such popularizers as the Maharishi of Transcendental Meditation. More specifically, I include both the sort of meditation in which one shuts out all outside stimuli, and the sort of meditation in which one lets all stimuli in. For more details about the nature of meditation, see such writers as Humphreys (1970), Wood (1949), Suzuki (1907-1963), or a delightful narrative account by Gibson (1974-1975). In the 1970's there also was a rash of discussion of meditation by psychologists, e.g., Naranjo and Ornstein, 1971 and Benson (1975).

Getting rid of suffering by one's own mental efforts in meditation is an idea found in the Western tradition, also. The psychologist James quotes with approval this statement by the artist Carlyle:

Once more, then, our self-feeling is in our power. As Carlyle says: "Make thy claim of wages a zero, then hast thou the world under thy feet. Well did the wisest of our time write, it is only with renunciation that life, properly speaking, can be said to begin."15

Western religious mystics in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions also have practiced meditation; among the most famous are Meister Eckhart, the Cabbalists, and Sufis, respectively.

It is of fundamental importance to understand that the nature of meditation is not mysterious scientifically, though one's thoughts in meditation may (or may not) be mystical and full of awe at the mysteries of life and the universe. Rather it is a process of concentration and controlled imagination.

The Technique of Meditation

Scientific writings on meditation have performed a considerable service in removing the mumbojumbo and metaphysical clap-trap from it.16 Benson and Klipper have invented the felicitous and non-mysterious label, "Relaxation response" for the processes that occur in meditation, and they have boiled down the necessary conditions and instructions for meditation as follows:



Ideally, you should choose a quiet, calm environment with as few distractions as possible. A quiet room is suitable, as is a place of worship. The quiet environ- ment contributes to the effectiveness of the repeated word or phrase by making it easier to eliminate dis- tracting thoughts.


To shift the mind from logical, externally oriented thoughts, there should be a constant stimulus: a sound, word, or phrase repeated silently or aloud; or fixed gazing at an object. Since one of the major difficulties in the elicitation of the Relaxation Response is "mind wandering," the repetition of the word or phrase is a way to help break the train of distracting thoughts. Your eyes are usually closed if you are using a repeated sound or word; of course, your eyes are open if you are gazing. Attention to the normal rhythm of breathing is also useful and enhances the repetition of the sound or the word.


When distracting thoughts occur, they are to be dis- regarded and attention redirected to the repetition or gazing; you should not worry about how well you are performing the technique, because this may well prevent the Relaxation Response from occurring. Adopt a "let it happen" attitude. The passive attitude is perhaps the most important element in eliciting the Relaxation Res- ponse. Distracting thoughts will occur. Do not worry about them. When these thoughts do present themselves and you become aware of them, simply return to the repe- tition of the mental device. These other thoughts do not mean you are performing the technique incorrectly. They are to be expected.


A comfortable posture is important so that there is no undue muscular tension. Some methods call for a sit- ting position. A few practitioners use the cross-legged "lotus" position of the Yogi. If you are lying down, there is a tendency to fall asleep. As we have noted previously, the various postures of kneeling, swaying, or sitting in a cross-legged position are believed to have evolved to prevent falling asleep. You should be confortable and relaxed....

(1) Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
(2) Close your eyes.
(3) Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed.
(4) Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word, "ONE," silently to yourself. For example, breathe IN...OUT. "ONE"; IN...OUT, "ONE"; etc. Breathe easily and naturally.
(5) Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.
(6) Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace. When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating "ONE." With practice, the response should come with little effort. Practice the tech- nique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal, since the digestive processes seem to interfere with the elicitation of the Relaxation Response.17

Practicing the technique of meditation need not be limited to sitting positions during fixed periods of the day. One may breathe deeply, focus the mind, and relax oneself whenever one feels stress - say, just before an athletic contest, as many athletes do - or when one recognizes the onset of a negative self-comparison. When, while walking the dog or driving to work or trying to sleep, a negative self-comparison comes into your mind - "what an immoral louse I am," or "I just can't do anything right" - then you may turn off the comparing mode and turn on the experiencing mode as follows: Breathe in with your diaphragm so that your midsection inflates deeply and slowly, and then deflate slowly; then continue to repeat the cycle. At the same time focus your attention on your breathing, or on a leaf, or on some other unemotional stimulus, perhaps saying to yourself, "Don't criticize" or "I don't need to compare." Soon you may find yourself smiling - just as I now am smiling as I am breathing in accord with the instructions I've just written. (It is difficult to believe how powerful and exciting such breathing is until you have taught yourself to do it. I hope someday to write a humorous piece entitled "Confessions of a sensual breather").

It is helpful to know what not to expect of meditation. One will not quickly (if ever) learn to produce a state of mind in which thought seems to stop, and in which perception focuses down to a single unchanging point for prolonged lengths of time. If you try for that and fail to accomplish it, meditation may thereby be discredited with you. This is what I call the shattered-window fallacy, that as soon as a stray thought crosses the mind the meditation is "broken." Not at all true! Even the most experienced meditators find errant and unwanted thoughts breaking in from time to time. One must learn how to deal with these thoughts in such manner that they do not disturb the meditation; gently inspecting them, and then putting them aside and perhaps saying to oneself "I'll deal with that later," is one effective way.

Another misconception about meditation is that the meditator should fall into a trance. Not so. As a famous Chinese Buddhist put it:

There is...a class of foolish people who sit quietly and try to keep their minds blank; they refrain from thinking of anything and then call themselves 'great.' Concerning this heretical view, I have no patience to speak.... When we use the mind we can consider every- thing;"18

What Meditation Does

Exactly what happens to a person while meditating is beyond general description, and varies from person to person. We can say, however, that in meditation of all sorts one does not think in normal Western everyday ways. Perhaps the basic difference is that one ceases to make comparisons between one's actual and benchmark- hypothetical situations. In this manner, the source of sadness is removed during meditation. Another difference is that one ceases to strive but relaxes instead, which leads to pleasant physical sensations incompatible with sadness. Furthermore, meditation often leads to a radically altered perspective, for example a cosmic rather than an individual perspective. Within such a cosmic perspective the contemporary events which are the grist for the mill of self-comparisons appear insignificant and unworthy of attention; this works against making negative self-comparisons.

The mechanism that leads to the state of meditation is a shift from the active flight-or-fight survival mode of thought in which one classifies and evaluates and makes comparisons, to the passive experiential state in which one simply takes in sensory experiences without classifying or evaluating or comparing them (see page 000 above). In the striving mode one abstracts a limited set of elements from the sensory input, using various already-established intellectual patterns; these abstracted inputs are the materials which one compares, and which may lead to negative self-comparisons. In contrast, in meditation one makes oneself aware either of all stimuli or of just a single element. The latter is the "one-pointed mind" of Zen in which, even outside of meditation proper, the person is aware - but fully aware - of the sensory experience, and is not "intellectualizing." When I eat I eat, and when I sit I just sit, Zen Buddhists say.

That is, when one meditates, one's mind and body are mostly off duty; they no longer are serving as watchers and laborers in keeping one alive in a biological and social sense; rather, one's body and mind relax as they surrender these tasks. The same kind of effects, though much milder in intensity, occur when a worker relaxes on a coffee break, or when a student leaves off reading a hard text and dreamily looks out the window, or when in the woods one's attention is absorbed by nature. Religious services often produce the same sorts of feelings with prayers, music, and beauty of setting; they take one out of the world of striving and surviving, into the world of sensing and absorbing. Sabbath observers put themselves "off duty" for an entire day (at least those religious groups for whom the Sabbath is not a stern ascetic day).

Sometimes people worry that ceasing to make comparisons implies quietism and leaving ordinary life. Indeed, some depressives avoid the pain of neg-comps by giving up their fundamental goals, which leads them into apathy. But this is an unlikely occurrence in the present context of discussion.

During periods of relaxation from striving -- whether very deeply with meditation, or less deeply in religious services or absorption in nature - the force that makes for sadness and depression is absent: One does not make comparisons - and especially negative self-comparisons - when one is in an experiential mode rather than in a survival mode.

Even non-theistic people sometimes arrive at the thought of God when meditating, because their experience transcends everyday concepts. For example, for me the knowledge that in meditation I can relax into the cessation of mental pain and the existence of physical pleasure is so wonderful, and the state itself is so awesome, that sometimes I refer to this inner refuge as "God," though I am quite without belief in the usual Judaic-Christian concept of an active God. (More about the word "God" below.)

Meditation also has links to the making of art. In creative moments the painter or composer or poet tends to suspend willful direction of the mind, letting thoughts drift as if they have lives of their own. But the artist continues to maintain a general supervisory control over the thoughts - like the director of a play who is out of sight in the wings, but who is nevertheless keeping a watchful eye on the stage. The artist's trick is to exert that supervisory control without worrying about it, to be thinking freely without striving for that freedom. In the most successful moments the artist often feels as if the work gets done by itself, without effort by the artist - just as a skilled athlete sometimes comes to feel that the game is played effortlessly, without any feeling of "trying" to play well. Athletes call this feeling "being in the zone". This is commonly experienced as a moment of pure joy.

There is an apparent logical contradiction between the artist letting the mind be totally free, and supervising the mind at the same time. This pair of apparent opposites is "equivalent to the Buddha's enjoining his disciples to stop desiring, which would of course put them in a state of desiring not to desire."19 But "freedom and "desire" are complex multi-layered words, and in fact there need be no psychological contradiction in these matters.

There is a crucial difference between on the one hand, meditation, and on the other hand, habit-formation and count-your- blessings exercises to combat depression, though they may seem similar in some respects. Meditation seems to produce increased energy in some people, whereas counting your blessings and such habit-formation devices as behavior-modification therapy seem to use up energy in the exertion of "will power" to alter one's behavior. When meditating, you husband energy because you are not "trying" to do anything. It is a state in which you feel no "ought," ; you purposely "let it all hang out" (really, hang in). This unusual cessation of activity for all your striving and physical mental faculties produces a sense of deep restedness afterward.

The Limitations of Meditation

If meditation can have such anti-depressive effects, and if - as seems to be the case - almost everyone can learn to meditate, why is meditation not the perfect cure for depression? For some people, lengthy meditation may in fact be an excellent therapy. But most people cannot leave the workaday world and remain in the world of meditation. Even if one can financially afford to do so, many people feel an urgent need to work for its own sake, as a contribution to society or because one's ability cries out to be used. Another reason that people will not choose to forego involvement in the workaday world is that they hope for joys as well as pain, and full-scale Buddhist-type meditation implies putting aside the craving for joys and the joys themselves.

Zen prescribes that you should do your best at whatever you do, but you should not feel sad when you fail to succeed. This is marvelous advice, but it is a prescription for walking a tightwire so thin and so high that few of us can balance ourselves on it. To strive to do well requires evaluation of how you are doing. But not being sad requires not evaluating how you are doing. So unless you are capable of extraordinary skill in compartmentalizing your thoughts, this prescription is not a perfect cure for most of us - though trying to take the prescription will certainly help all of us somewhat.

Another way through the horns of this dilemma is to restrict your evaluation to your act, and refraining from allowing the evaluation of the act to become a judgment of yourself as a person. It is certainly possible to evaluate that a tennis stroke was hit badly without judging the hitter to be a bad person or even a bad tennis player. This separation of the evaluation of the act from evaluation of the actor is exceedingly valuable mental hygiene for everyone, at all times. And it reconciles Zen doctrine and practice with active participation in the everyday world.

Happiness and unhappiness are not simple mutually-exclusive opposites as light and dare are. Attaining happiness and getting rid of unhappiness are related but not identical goals. Watts wrote that "happiness is associated with relaxation...the essential principle (in achieving happiness) is one of relaxation."20 That is not correct, I believe. It is indeed true that relaxation induced by meditation or other means can replace sadness with a feeling of inner peace. But for most people - especially in their younger years - "happiness" means excited pleasant feelings - work achievement, sexual success and sexual experience, falling in love, bearing children, athletic or political victories. Peaceful relaxation is not an acceptable substitute for these aspirations in the minds of most Westerners (and Easterners, too), especially in the first half of one's life.

Though meditation may not be a total cure, a depressed person can be cheered considerably by receiving relief in meditation from time to time, and from knowing that such relief is possible without braving the dangers.


If you make no self-comparisons, you will feel no sadness.

If you have a propensity to evaluate yourself unfavorably, then each such evaluation is a source of pain and sadness for you. For such people, the frequency of self-evaluation determines the amount of pain and sadness, and the depth of depression. We depressives not only have a propensity to make negative self-evaluations, but we also have a tendency to make them frequently.

Reducing the number of self-comparisons you make is a powerful and effective way of fighting sadness and depression. There are many ways of reducing self-evaluations and self- comparisons including focusing on work, engaging in altruistic activities, meditating, praying, and simply shifting one's attention to other subjects. And one can form effective habits of shifting your thoughts in such fashion. All of us have very considerable powers to refuse to make evaluations and self- comparisons, and to influence our moods by sheer decision and force of will.

Some evaluations of how you are doing is crucial in keeping you on the right course of action. If you don't check how well you are doing when you are engaged in any productive activity, you have no way of directing your actions so that they will be fruitful. But much of our self-evaluation is not needed for survival.

Once again, Self-comparisons Analysis directs us to a useful tactic in fighting depression - in this case, reducing negative self-comparisons by avoiding any self-comparisons. Yet the willingness to exert the effort, and the implementation of the decision to exert the effort with habit formation, are also crucial. This adds up, then, to the following prescription: When you recognize a negative self-comparison entering your thoughts, tell yourself to direct your thoughts toward a work project or an altruistic activity - and do it.