One of the most common experiences among depressed individuals is the self’s ability to negate itself, to see ‘negative’ within one’s own performance. A bright student does not think she is smart enough; a hard working mother believes she does bad parenting; an administrator only sees mistakes in his work and the list runs on. There is a general feeling that where one is at presently is not where one ought to be. And in this place, one experiences alienation.

This aloneness only drives depressed individuals to find ways to fit in, to try to be a part of, to find a place to belong and one keeps trying and striving because in the midst of these attempts one’s self-assessment is colored by one’s chemical make up generating negativity. Perhaps for this very reason any striving by a depressed person only ends up negating one’s aim. Is it possible that may be one way to cope with depression is to not try, to do nothing?

In this article I would like to try answering three questions:

1. Why depressed people need to cope with negativity?
2. What is the mechanism of negativity?
3. Why “do nothing?”

The need to cope with negativity

Depression affects a quarter of the population. Of these individual affected, only one quarter will receive appropriate diagnosis. Of the quarter that receives appropriate diagnosis, only a quarter will receive appropriate treatment. Hence out of one hundred individuals 25 will be depressed. Of these 25, 6.2 will receive appropriate diagnosis and 1.5 will receive appropriate treatment.

Depression is not only prevalent; the relapse rate is rather high as well. Fifteen percent of in-patient depressed population and twenty percent of those in out-patient experience only a single episode. Many studies also indicate that as much as 50% of recovered patients will experience relapse within two years. Further studies also show that even after successful treatment, depressed individuals still function at one standard deviation below the norm.

What this suggests is the chronicity of depression. In the book, Psychological Aspects of Depression, Ian Gotlib and Constance Hammen comment, “Only recently have we come to understand that for many sufferers of major depression the disorder is recurrent, if not chronic,” David Karp, a sociologist, reflecting on his own experience of depression states, “For me, depression has a chronicity that makes it like a kind of mental arthritis; something that you just have to live with.”

The mechanism of negativity

To understand how negativity affects us it is important to learn its mechanism. Based on years of research Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pzyczynski outline the following stages:

1. The pain of depression leads to self-focused attention. It is like having a tooth-ace, one can’t think of anyone else but oneself.
2. Self-focused attention results in self-consciousness and the questions am I good enough? What can I do to be good enough?
3. Self consciousness leads to the process of comparison.
4. Comparison leads one to set standards for oneself.
5. Once the standard is set, one self-regulate in order to achieve one’s goals. According to Greenberg and Pzyczynski a person cannot deactivate self-focus attention until he or she arrives at the standards, goals. An individual self-regulate because he/she often attach a sense of self-worth to standards and hence without achieving these standards one feels worthless.
6. In the process of self-regulation, depressed person negates every attempt at achieving these standards.
7. Because of negation, the gap between one’s goal and one’s self-perception gets bigger and bigger.
8. When the gap gets bigger a depressed person will engage in self-perseveration and the downward spiral takes place.

Doing nothing

So what should a depressed person do? My answer is, do nothing. The concept of doing nothing or wu wei comes from the teaching of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and is associated with Taoism.

What is the Tao? The Taoists masters often replied, “The bird is flying. The dog is barking. A cat is meowing. The water is flowing.” The answer that does not seem to make sense points to the belief that ultimately the Tao just is.

Chao-Chou asked, “What is the Tao?”
The master [Nan-ch’uan] replied, “Your ordinary consciousness is the Tao.”
“How can one return into accord with it?”
“By intending to accord you immediately deviate.”
“But without intention, how can one know the Tao?”
“The Tao,” said the master, “belongs neither to knowing nor to not knowing. Knowing is false understanding; not knowing is blind ignorance. If you really understand the Tao beyond doubt, it’s like the empty sky. Why drag in right and wrong.”

In a sense it means Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu is saying “what is good.” It is good as it is. The problem we face in our society is that we do not like what is. We do not like what we have, we do not like who we are. We live in a world that is not happy with what is. I’m too fat. I’m too thin. I’m too poor. My hair is too long. My hair is too short.
When I went back to Thailand, my students saw me and said, “you’ve put on a lot of weight.” I did not like to hear that. I told my sister. She said, “do not wear light color; wear dark color shirt.” So I learned to deceive others in order to look good. I bought a lot of dark color shirts because I did not like who I was. I wanted to be something else.

This is the problem we face in our society. We do not like what we have. When we do not like what we have we start discriminating. This is good and that is bad and with this type of thinking we inflict pain on ourselves. If we look at many standards we created in this society we realize that we have been inflicting pain on ourselves based on things that are mostly socially constructed. Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu tell us that Tao is the Way. The Way just is. We do not like what is. We depart from the way. We experience pain. Hence wu wei, is the way to the Way.

If the depressed person understands that what he or she is striving for is socially constructed and that the task therefore is not to strive but to learn to remain in the present and embrace oneself, this art of doing nothing can help reduce the gap, lessen the need to self-regulate, and thus makes possible for the depressed individual to deactivate self-focused attention. When one does not need to focus on oneself, spontaneity emerges and to this spontaneity Chuang Tzu calls ‘wu wei’ or ‘doing nothing.’

Author's Bio: 

Siroj Sorajjakool is a Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Counseling, Loma Linda University.

For further discussion on the meaning of ‘doing nothing’ please see Siroj Sorajjakool, Do Nothing: Inner Peace for Everyday Living (Reflections on Chuang Tzu’s Philosophy) (PA: Templeton Foundation Press, March 2009) and visit my “Do Nothing” blog at