Mindfulness and Depression

Even though the event that triggered this post (which originally appeared on my Facebook page) occurred quite a while ago, the message is timeless.

Many people have written about Robin Williams’s propensity for depression. I would only recommend that we be cautious and compassionate in our pronouncements. No one, not even those closest to him, can really know what was going through his mind when he chose to end his own life. Clearly, he must have been haunted by some extremely negative, hopeless, despairing thoughts that he didn’t know how to handle. Perhaps a particular incident put him over the edge. Or possibly the accumulation of numerous difficulties and disappointments—his open-heart surgery, the canceling of his TV show, his struggle with addiction—finally took their toll. (As we know now, he had recently been diagnosed with a debilitating illness similar to Parkinsons's.)

Most perplexing is the question of how–in the Bay Area, birthplace of cutting-edge psychotherapies; in Marin County, home to two world-renowned meditation centers; with good friends like Zen priest Peter Coyote—Robin could have failed to avail himself of the resources at his fingertips. Yes, we need to lift the stigma that still hovers around depression. Maybe we could begin by finding a softer, more embracing term than “mental illness,” which still reeks of the loony bin.

But perhaps most important, we need to let it be known as widely as possible that there is a simple, powerful antidote to depression that has been rigorously tested and proven effective: mindfulness meditation. It has no negative side effects, costs nothing to practice, requires just 20 minutes or so a day, and has numerous additional benefits, like better health, improved concentration and creativity, and enhanced overall enjoyment of life. Let’s do our part to spread the word about mindfulness to our family, our friends, our co-workers, not as proselytizers, but as fellow-travelers on the gnarly path of life who have found something of inestimable value that we feel moved to share.

Of course, Robin may have been so enthralled by the negative voices and so reluctant to reach out to the people who loved him that he simply couldn’t access the support that was all around him. As his daughter Zelda has written, “I’ll never, ever understand how he could be loved so deeply and not find it in his heart to stay.” This inability to connect with the goodness and love is one of the hallmarks of depression and makes it so elusive–and so seductive.

From a deeper perspective, we can't know that what Robin did wasn't exactly what needed to happen, and our attempts to wish it away are merely our struggles against a mystery vaster than our minds can comprehend. Reality has its own intimitable way of determining what’s right and best in each moment, and our attempts to impose our agenda, however well-intentioned, only end up causing more disappointment and suffering. Many blessings, dear Robin. Please know that we love you.