Mary S – chronic depression and anxiety
Adaptation practice is a way of living a good life even though you feel depressed and anxious a lot of the time. It does exactly what its name suggests – it helps you adapt to the way your mind works instead of always trying (in vain) to change the thoughts that it delivers to you.
Whereas cognitive behavioural therapy endeavours to alter thought patterns, AP endeavours to help you accept them just as they are. Adaptation Practice is refreshingly non-sectarian but nevertheless is in harmony with ancient traditions of living in the present moment and meditation, which are of course found in both all the major world religions.
How can this acceptance come about? The answer is elusive and, interestingly, quite incomprehensible to someone who is not depressed and worried (because they don’t have a problem with acceptance). But a gradual understanding of AP has helped me to put my energy and creativity into leading life in the present tense, as it occurs, rather than putting them into “trying to get my worries under control”.
Paradoxically, the more I try to control depression and worry the more obsessive and tenacious they become: they end up controlling me instead and stopping me freely engaging with other things. AP shows me a way out of this trap, and it truly is a trap. Far from trying to bring ungovernable feelings under control, I have learned to let them be, to let myself feel them, to let them sting. Once the control response is interrupted I then find that I can indeed get on with life whilst continuing to feel anxious and unhappy.
Through this practice, I have learned to willingly put up with unwanted feelings – not liking them of course, but enduring them much better. This in turn enables me to see that although I am not feeling good, there is no need to let it paralyse me. Dr Clive Sherlock puts it rather well: “Don’t even give your thoughts the time of day. Acknowledge them but don’t try to avoid or suppress them”.
I try to realise that feeling frustrated, disappointed or angry when things are not the way I want is normal and should be seen as that. Sometimes I feel guilty about being depressed and that it is my fault. But Ap indicates that this perception is also a pointless waste of time. Rather than taking part in a futile battle to alter or corral these negative feelings, I try to root myself in the present moment and do whatever I am doing in the very best way I can.
One of the difficult things about Ap is that at no point does it promise to get rid of worry and depression. It is tempting to be hoping against hope for this outcome, but Ap is above all realistic and instead it teaches a much more enriching philosophy: that I can lead a reasonable life alongside these undesirable states of mind. Realising this takes away any disappointment that may occur at not being “cured”.
After 10 years doing Adaptation Practice, I would say that much of it has become absorbed into my everyday life. Self-discipline is an important part of the practice and involves a range of strategies, from saying “I’m fine thanks” when I’m not, to completing everyday jobs with dispatch and without procrastination. Self-discipline involves no bleating about my depression or venting anxieties to some unfortunate listener, because that is spectacularly unhelpful and only sets me up for needing further reassurance later on.
Practice concerns doing rather than thinking – this is the bedrock, really. It militates against the seductive path of deciding “I’ll do that once I’ve sorted out/changed my unhappy feelings/worries (by thinking about them yet again)”. I often try to control the uncontrollable (almost always anxieties about family) by worrying and it often feels as though I’m on the brink of finding a resting point inside my head. But of course this can never happen; it is Task Impossible. Also, it inexorably leads to putting off doing all sorts of things that need to be done and failing to partake in social events wholeheartedly.
One often hears advice that one should “let go of your worries” but much more to the point is letting go of the recurrent desire to control these worries. With the AP approach, the anxiety can reside in me unmolested and unanalysed, while I get on with daily life. Inevitably there are many times when old thought-patterns reassert themselves, but at least I now have a method for rescuing myself from them and on many occasions can ignore feeling ill at ease.
Mindfulness is important in the practice but is only an introduction, you have to be looking at what you are doing. In this area I do not succeed very far because I have never been able to develop the skill of meditation. Even in the most perfect surroundings I cannot do it and my mind continues to race away on all sorts of topics other than the present, quiet moment. What I seem to use in its place is a form of patience. For example when I can’t sleep at night I have taught myself to be more patient, not to fight the insomnia, to keep very very still and to reinforce in the front of my mind that “this will pass”. The practice has helped me to do this.
Everyone will have their own idiosyncratic interpretation of Adaptation Practice according to their temperament and life experience. But it is unpretentious, deals with universal truths and with determined practice can be accessed by anyone in a personal way.
Mary S – Birmingham 24 August 2011