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Pathologizing Difficult Thoughts And Emotions

In late August, The New York Times printed an op-ed piece by Richard A. Friedman (professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College) entitled, "Are You Depressed or Bored?". As all good headlines do, this one caught my eye and the article that followed did not disappoint.

As noted by the author, "life has taken on a stultifying quality of sameness" because of the pandemic. Groundhog Day (the tremendous movie, starring Bill Murray), is getting a bit too real. But more thought needs to be given to Mr. Friedman's observation, as he goes on to wonder out loud, "I worry that calling this a wave of clinically significant depression or anxiety might be premature. What if we're just bored out of our minds?".

Point made, and quite effectively. "Being bored [he continues] might feel intolerable, but unlike clinical depression, it will never seriously impair your function or kill you....". Mental health is a complex and multi-nuanced thing.

Here comes my pitch for mindfulness and meditation, and the benefits of sitting with difficult thoughts or emotions. To echo the oft-quoted phrase attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn: The waves are inevitable, but we can learn to surf. It's a simple image, but for me, it conveys the essence of both meditation (the means) and mindfulness (the end).

Let the bad stuff come (as it most certainly will)-- we can't control it, nor should we try. We can, however, suspend our judgment of the situation, and choose (in non-medical instances) the manner in which we respond--  that's where the regular practice of meditation really helps. It's brain-training at the most elemental level, and can even help us deal with boredom!

The quoted op-ed goes on to make the point that, "self reflection can be intrinsically aversive, and we have a near hysterical dread of boredom". Maybe we should take a shot at mastering our aversion, and try sitting with the boredom? Maybe be curious about it, rather than be averse to it? Maybe we respond, rather than react?

Clinical assistance is clearly appropriate for some of us. But not all of us. "Mr./Ms. (fill in the name), meet you"-- you might just become the closest of friends!


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