Comedian Pete Holmes on depression and negative emotion
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Everyone’s experience with depression is different, but for comedian Pete Holmes the key to living with depression has been to observe his own thoughts in an impartial way.
Holmes’ method, taught to him by psychologist and spiritual leader Ram Dass, is to connect to his base consciousness and think about himself and his emotions in the third person.
You can’t push depression away, but you can shift your mindset to help better cope with depression, anxiety, and negative emotions. If you feel depressed, you can connect with a crisis counselor anytime in the US.
Pete Holmes is a comedian, writer, cartoonist, “Christ-leaning spiritual seeker”, and podcast host. His wildly popular podcast, You Made It Weird, is a comedic exploration of the meaning of life with guests ranging from Deepak Chopra and Elizabeth Gilbert to Seth Rogen and Garry Shandling.
PETE HOLMES: You woke up in a conundrum. You were born into a conundrum. And I don’t care how we label it or lower our anxiety by going, well, it’s this and it’s not this, and it’s that — let’s just talk about this shared mystery that we’re soaking in. I want to be careful here, talking about depression, because I had a friend who was very depressed, and I remember talking to him, out of love, trying to explain some of these ideas, some of these ways that we can think and interpret our suffering. And sometimes when someone is suffering, the last thing they want is for you to go, ‘Hey, there’s another way to look at this.’ That’s later. None of this is to be imposed on anybody, and I don’t want to belittle or just say, ‘You know your brain is — it’s your attachment to your desire to not be depressed that’s causing you–‘ no, none of that. That is not what I’m saying at all. We can give space to someone’s depression. We can love them, we can honor — we can just eat some noodles, we can watch some movies, whatever it is. We can just sit and not talk. That’s real stuff. It’s a real — I don’t know if you call it a disorder, a disease, but it’s happening, and we don’t need to coach people through with ideologies.
That being said, if you’re in a place to talk about this, usually when you’re not depressed, I found it helpful to step inside what I call the witness. And other traditions call that your soul. I believe science might just call it the phenomenon of your base consciousness. If you think about when you were born — I have a baby girl now; she’s not thinking in ideas yet. She doesn’t know she’s American. She doesn’t know she lives in California. Just like a ladybug doesn’t know it’s Italian. You know what I mean? It’s just awareness. So she’s just there. But slowly over time, we build up what Jung and others called the false self. So we have the story of who we are. I’m a man and I’m a comedian and I’m a tall man, I have big teeth, and all these things, and I like the first two Batman movies, and I don’t drink coffee, or whatever it is. So you build up this identity. And oftentimes, in that identity is where things like suffering are occurring, sometimes. I can’t speak for everybody. But I will say that for me, when I’ve been depressed — and I get depressed. I have irrational bouts of anxiety. I have random FedEx deliveries of despondency. Just like, “I didn’t order this. Oh, well, keep the PJs on, cancel everything you’re doing today. It’s time to take a sad shower.” That happens to me. So I’m speaking for me with full respect to other people’s processes and their experience.
When I’m depressed, if I can get into that quiet space, it’s the space that’s noticing the thoughts. So if you think, ‘I’m hungry’ — we always just think that ‘I’m hungry’ is the thought in the animal, and then we eat, and then it goes, ‘Thank you.’ Who’s talking to who, really? I would say that the thought is talking to your awareness, your base awareness, your witness. So that’s what’s watching your thoughts. And if you can get into that, you see how impartial and unswayed by your life circumstance this witness really is. It’s just there. It’s neutral. It’s just is-ness. It’s just this. And it’s just watching. It’s compassionate, it’s involved, it’s invested. But it’s not really as connected and tied to the events of your life story as you are, as your false self is. So when those depressions happen, I found it helpful — and this is something Ram Dass taught me — is instead o…
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