Some mornings I wake up and there’s no denying it—I’ve got the blues. I may not even be by myself when the blues descend on me, but they always make me feel isolated. It’s part of their “flavor.” (The blues is to be distinguished from a heavy or dark mood that goes unchanged for weeks at a time. The latter could be a sign of clinical depression in which case you should consider seeking the advice of a healthcare practitioner.)
Here are six suggestions for helping with those periodic blues.
1. Don’t engage in “comparing mind.”
Engaging in what Buddhist’s call “comparing mind” can make the blues worse. It may seem as if others don’t share our moods, but human beings are more alike than we realize. That neighbor who’s always cheerful probably gets the blues. That friend who’s in the “perfect” relationship probably gets the blues. Billionaires get the blues. In my experience, neither money nor loving relationships make people immune from the blues.
No matter what public face we see on other people, we don’t know what their inner life is like. The odds are, it’s not so different from our own. This is because we all experience what the Buddha called dukkha—usually translated into English as “suffering”—and referring to the difficulties all of us face at one time or another in our lives. For one thing, we are all are subject to illness, injury, aging, and separation from those we love. Billionaires don’t get a pass on these. No one does.
In addition, we’re all products of our past conditioning and our life experiences. For most of us, that means we have our share of recurring painful thoughts and emotions. If a parent always told us that what we did wasn’t good enough, we’re likely to have internalized that conditioning and, as a result, repeatedly subject ourselves to self-criticism. No wonder we wake up with the blues on some days! Most of the time, I don’t know the source of my blues; I’ve decided that’s okay. I just know they’ll intensity if I engage in comparing mind by telling myself how blues-free everyone else must be.
2. Don’t try to force yourself out of the blues.
Trying to force the blues away is likely to intensify them. Part of the reason for this is that underlying that attempt to force them away is the negative judgment: “I shouldn’t feel blue.” Ordering yourself not to feel a certain way almost guarantees that you will! So, just be mindfully aware, without judgment, that the blues have come to visit, maybe even saying to yourself, “Ah yes, the blues again. I recognize you.”
Exposing them in this friendly way to the sunlight of awareness can reduce their intensity. “Friendliness” is one of the translations for the word metta which is usually described as the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness. Sometimes though, the word “friendliness” hits the spot for me. I don’t need to love those blues, but treating them with friendliness allows me to hold them more lightly until they run their course and go on their way.
3. Try Weather Practice.
I describe this in my book, How to Be Sick. The practice grew out of the Buddha’s insight into the impermanent and changeable nature of all phenomena. The weather is impermanent, changeable, and unpredictable. So are moods. The blues settle in and then lift, just like a dense fog. Seeing the impermanent nature of the blues keeps us from identifying with them as a fixed part of who we are. This insight enables us to simply see them as part of the ebb and flow of life. They arise in the mind, stay awhile, and then pass. Seeing this, we can calmly and patiently wait for those blues to lift and blow away.
4. If you can, go outside.
Changing environments can change a mood. Outside, the air has a different quality and the sights and sounds are different from those inside; we feel part of the larger world around us. Take a short walk or just sit for a while.
Going outside is one of my sure-fire ways to change a blue mood. There’s an espresso place a few blocks from my house. On a day when the blues have come to visit, I go to my special place, get a drink and sit outside unless it’s raining. Just the brief interaction with the barista helps take my mind out of that blues groove it’s fallen into!
5. Reach out to someone who’s having a tough time.
The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön said that sorrow has the same taste for all of us. I think the blues do too. Connecting with someone else who is struggling can help us realize that we’re not alone. In addition, reaching out to someone takes us out of our self-focused thoughts. The simple act of helping another can stir up a wind that will blow those blues right away.
6. Treat those blues to a fun time.
Without trying to force the blues to go away, but also knowing that they’re as impermanent as the weather, take them with you to an activity that’s just plain fun, no matter how silly. For you, maybe it’s sudoku puzzles or playing a game on your smart phone. I have a few movies I love to watch over and over, like a favorite piece of music. When the blues settles in, I put one of them on (Groundhog Day, Best in Show, Gosford Park). The characters in them are like old friends and, with their company, I can patiently wait out my mood. Quite often, by the time I’m finished indulging in my little pleasureful activity, those blues have lifted and blown away!
I’ve found that it’s good to have some “blues strategies” at the ready, because the blues are never polite enough to announce ahead of time that they plan to spend the day. The good news is that, as the Buddha said, all phenomena are impermanent. And so those blues of today may become that cheerful day of tomorrow.
© 2013 Toni Bernhard
Toni Bernhard is the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers. Her new book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Until forced to retire due to illness, Toni was on the faculty of the University of California—Davis School of Law, serving six years as the dean of students. Her blog, “Turning Straw Into Gold” is hosted by the website of Psychology Today. She can be found online at www.tonibernhard.com.