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Transforming Anxiety, Depression and Other Difficult Emotions with Ven. Amy Miller

Venerable Amy Miller, Buddhist Nun and Teacher

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Venerable Amy Miller is a Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher who’s managed several Buddhist retreat centers, including the Vajrapani Institute in California and Vermont Milarepa Center. She’s the co-author of Buddhism in a Nutshell, and currently a resident teacher and board member at Land of Medicine Buddha in Santa Cruz.

A skillful, powerful teacher, Venerable Amy talks to me in this episode about how we can practically manage anxiety and depression with Buddhist meditation and mind training techniques.

[00:00:56] Scott Snibbe: Venerable Amy Miller, it’s a pleasure having you on the podcast. I appreciate everything you’ve done over the years as a Buddhist teacher and as a leader of Buddhist organizations. So thanks very much.

[00:01:07] Ven. Amy Miller: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Anxiety from a Buddhist perspective

[00:01:09] Scott Snibbe: So you’ve agreed to talk to us about anxiety and depression today, which you’ve led classes on. These are topics of great interest to a lot of people today. I wonder if we could start out talking about anxiety and what it is from a Buddhist perspective?

[00:01:25] Ven. Amy Miller: Yes and you know, when you really read about the mind and mental factors, Tibetans don’t necessarily clearly define anxiety and depression. They don’t exactly have those kinds of experiences. But both of those experiences—we’ll first talk about anxiety—are rooted in the false concept we have of ourselves.

We have this inflated, exaggerated notion of ourselves, what we might call the I—the letter I—and that me, myself, and I experience that is so important in Western culture and not just in Western culture, but throughout the world. It’s amazing how it’s a source of all of our suffering. And this fundamental ignorance that it’s based in, what I would call a misknowing; we misunderstand, but we really misknow something. It’s how that sense of ourselves really exists. And we don’t have any balance.

girl with red lighting sitting in room anxious

So as soon as that “I” gets threatened, anxiety comes in. I go out and I buy a belonging or I buy an expensive house or I buy a car. It’s an extension of myself. I have a child, it’s an extension of myself to a great degree. And anything that threatens that, anything that interferes with that agenda—it can be from the very minor, irritable anxiety to huge fear, consuming people. So I just see it as more of that misknowing of how that “I” really exists.

[00:03:13] Scott Snibbe: And in Buddhism, we see that misknowing of that false sense of self, a separate solitary independent self as the root of all our delusions. Is there something that specifically differentiates anxiety, compared to other delusions: fear and craving and so on?

[00:03:31] Ven. Amy Miller: I do think they’re all rooted in this false holding that we have of the “I,” the false appearance of the “I.” But everybody has their own components to it, how they show up based on the propensities in their consciousness, in their mind. So this is a big stretch in Tibetan Buddhism, compared to the conventional world. Buddhism talks about everything coming from the mind.

A lot of the conventional world—Abrahamanic religions and faiths, Christianity, Judaism, Islam—has a God, the creator, who is separate from you. And they are in a large sense creating the experience of the world, making decisions whether you live or die, or whether you have a happy life or not.

Now granted, the essence of a lot of those religions is very similar. It’s also about your participation in them, to lead what might be called a righteous or virtuous life. It’s the same. But this notion that everything comes from the mind then—what are you putting into your mind—because Buddhism has a belief in karma.

So you have this law of cause and effect, karma, the Sanskrit word that means action, the action that is the movement of your mind and consciousness. So the Buddha says the mind has thoughts, the mind has experiences, and each of them is imprinting in the consciousness. What’s hard for us as Westerners is that we want proof of that. We want to know how that imprinting process works.

But in some ways with karma, you need to have a more highly realized consciousness to fully understand all of its sophisticated qualities and workings. At our levels, we understand some basic characteristics of it, but we have already built some faith in other parts of Buddhism in the Buddhist path.

We’re not about blind faith, but you might say, It makes no sense why horrible things happen to good people. You wonder, Why do these people suffer and these people don’t suffer? So again, Buddhism says we all have our own makeup based on the imprints and our consciousness. As a result, that will turn up different delusions for you.

If you have more imprints in your consciousness of irritation, frustration, and annoyance that has culminated into full-blown anger, unchecked, then you’re going to have more imprints of anger in your consciousness.

That delusion will be bigger for you.

If you’re somebody that has imprints of more fear, worry, and anxiety, those imprints are going to be swimming more in your consciousness. And sometimes you can actually notice with a young child. This is somebody who is 2, 3, 4-years-old. So they really are learning about their experience in the world. Maybe they came from the same parents and they have a sibling who’s a little older and somehow you end up with two completely different beings from the same parents, same circumstances.

You see the younger child is full of worry about everything and there’s nothing a 2, 3, 4-year-old really has to worry about when raised in a relatively peaceful setting with food, clothing, and shelter. But from a young age, you see them just constantly obsessing and worrying. So then you have to ask yourself, The older child doesn’t have it. They don’t have that kind of anxiety. Where does it come from? It could just be the propensities in the mind of that individual.

young child looking worried

[00:07:19] Scott Snibbe: From a secular perspective, someone could say you have a genetic predisposition to anxiety, which wouldn’t even rule out karma because your genetic predisposition came from a karmic imprint.

[00:07:32] Ven. Amy Miller: The thing is you could say genetics, but what happens when you have two kids a year and a half apart, from the same parents and the same situation? And one suffers from anxiety and the other one doesn’t. Is it genetic then? Maybe the two parents don’t have anxiety, then where does it come from? Because I’ve seen that at times, where the child has some traits similar to the parents, but some traits not at all like that.

[00:08:01] Scott Snibbe: Oh, yeah, it’s amazing. We have a daughter and it’s trickier when you have one child because you can tend to blame the problems more on yourself as a parent. But I think as soon as you have two kids, you relax a little more because you see how different they are and how they just had certain propensities.

But then the other thing about karma or mental conditioning is that the more we reinforce that, the more we retread that thought and the more the groove gets into our mind. This is also reinforced by neuroscience, right? Dr. Rick Hanson says that neurons that fire together wire together. So every time you reinforce a thought of anxiety or fear, it makes that habit a little bit deeper.

[00:08:38] Ven. Amy Miller: That’s right, absolutely. 

Listening to your anxiety

[00:08:42] Scott Snibbe: So I have a question for you—Tara Brach is a great example, she talks a lot about disturbing emotions and she’s very gentle, she says that the emotions are telling you something. So I wonder, when we’re feeling anxiety, how much of it is a problem to be solved and how much of it is telling us something? Is there something beneath that strong feeling that we need to listen to in some way?

[00:09:05] Ven. Amy Miller: Absolutely, a great point. I’ve read some books on the beginning of mankind and different things. And so there is something psychologists are noting now; when we were in the prehistoric days and there were these incredibly large animals moving around, you’re living in a cave, and don’t have a lot of protection necessarily.

So you’re going to have a heightened level of awareness with anxiety, to protect yourself that’s built-in. If you’re going out and hunting and gathering and working outside with a fire and living in a very simple kind of experience, and there are many things out there that can kill and eat you. And the way animals are now on the planet, you’ll see a wild animal the way they eat sometimes, always looking around.

So part of it is a built-in, primordial instinct to protect ourselves. And I find it more helpful to note that in dealing with depression and anxiety, especially anxiety, to know that there is going to be an edge. Part of the edge now, if you wanna fast-forward to modern days, keeps us competitive. It also keeps us aware and conscious.

I think if we’re really wired in the right way, anxiety keeps us compassionate to have an alert system.

When you see somebody else troubled or struggling, we can move that primordial anxiety to survive into a compassionate mode to say, Oh my goodness, I have to help this person. I am connected to them from primordial days, but also due to just our general interdependence, I must help them. 

And that’s what I love about Buddhism. And really those finer qualities of all the religions are about helping your neighbor and realizing they’re not unlike yourself.

So you need to realize, I’ve got to keep the edge because sometimes I’m walking down the wrong street in the city, at the wrong time of night, and I need the protection. I need to be alert because I’m wired in that from primordial days; it doesn’t trigger in everyone, but that’s there. So let me use it in a skillful way, to get myself to a better street with more lights. 

dark city street

When it counters too far is when you go home and you’re safe and you’re still completely apoplectic about, “I can’t believe I was on that street.” Then it has to be countered with some more positive analysis.

What are some Buddhist techniques that help us move out of anxiety?

[00:11:55] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, so there’s a healthy level of self-preservation and that would naturally dial up or down, depending on the genuine danger of your situation. But when that becomes too high or mistuned or present when there’s nothing to worry about, that’s when it becomes more of a psychological problem.

So from the Buddhist perspective, what are the techniques that help us move out of anxiety?

[00:12:21] Ven. Amy Miller: If we’re just dealing with anxiety right now, we first have to analyze it. And obviously, one of the best things would be to analyze that sense of yourself, the overinflated, the gripping onto “me,” things like that.

Meditation on emptiness obviously is a solution to nearly everything. And again, of the 84,000 discourses the Buddha gave, all of it was to drive us into emptiness, to get us to understand the nature of reality. That’s how important it is.

What does it actually mean? It’s very obscure for a lot of people. They hear about it, but it’s very mystical. It’s really quite basic on one level, once you start studying it, but you do need classroom hours on it with an authentic teacher that knows what they’re talking about. Then you need to effectively learn how to meditate on emptiness.

And it’s really helpful if you can do some longer retreats—maybe once you’re settled on your own—to be able to get more into that meditative space. And you actually need a fair amount of that every day, as much as you can. Then when you’re not in formal retreat—when you’re not in meditation or studying or reading books about emptiness—you’re poking reality as you’re going through everyday life. You’re questioning how things exist, when you can.

But the thing is, the more your mind is soaked in that perspective—misknowing this particular colleague I don’t like, misknowing the story—the more you’re questioning and analyzing that from the background of emptiness, the more we can rebalance our mind out of anxiety and depression.

If that’s challenging for people, which it can be, let’s review a few basics. Basic mindfulness or self-awareness can help with anxiety. And what I mean by that is you begin to watch the arrival of the emotion in your mind. Mindfulness is a really big, hot topic right now. Many people are very drawn to that type of practice, which is great. I don’t necessarily call it dharma, unless you’re countering delusions in your mind. Just to be mindful of my anger is one thing, but if I’m not doing anything and then acting out, it’s not that helpful. But mindfulness or self-awareness can be really beneficial when I’m watching the anxiety come in. 

Then what I have to do is just explore and notice what is happening. Can you transport it into bubbles of anxious thoughts? So bubbles have no weight. Can we just let them fly off? Watch some fly off. I might notice a bigger bubble, a bigger anxiety, but I’m gonna practice over and over and over letting them fly. What happens with normal anxiety, worry, and fear, is they’re not light.

bubbles floating in sunset

I then grab a hold of it and start ruminating over and over the thought. So now I’ve dug a very deep trench of anxiety, fear, and worry in my mind. That is not constructive. And what happens is because that’s a deep trench, it becomes a pattern, a deeper habit in the mind. So as soon as a certain trigger happens, I go right into the trench and I hear people say about themselves, I’m an anxious person. I’m a really fearful person.

So here’s a second thing. Can you just remind yourself of the nature of the mind? If you’re starting with, “I’m a fearful person,” let’s de-identify with that emotion.

So instead of, “I’m a fearful person,” “I’m a really anxious person,” replace that with, “I just have a lot of anxiety in my mind at times.” It’s a very different approach just noticing if there is a lot of worry in your mind.

It’s very different when you de-identify with the emotion.

Just to go back to mindfulness for a second, what I’m doing is I’m noting fear and anxiety in my mind as I can catch them. I know that that’s already one of my predispositions and I’m simply inhaling, “I’m uncomfortable,” I’m exhaling, “I’m uncomfortable.” You might need another breath and another, maybe deepen your respiration and maybe you can actually start working with your exhalations. Let go of some of that fear and anxiety. Maybe imagine it flowing out of you in different colored light rays that represent different images.

And maybe as I inhale now, I’m bringing in positive qualities of mind. So as different exercises, you can just use your breath and try to dismantle a little bit, disengage the unhealthy thinking, and it does take effort. It does take effort. So those are a couple of initial things I’d say just to lightly start that process.

[00:18:01] Scott Snibbe: You also talked about anxiety as a bridge to compassion. Is that something you can do in the moment, as you’re experiencing anxiety, the way you talked about using mindfulness?

[00:18:12] Ven. Amy Miller: So I would say the more—and this is very much from Lama Zopa Rinpoche as well—you can think of others, it’s very hard to stay rooted in a lot of those delusions, especially depression. 

So here’s another thing that happens with delusions, especially depression and anxiety. You’re experiencing this wave of emotion and then sometimes thoughts follow of, “I’m the only one who feels this way.” “I’m the only one going through this.” Which is simply not accurate. Again, because I’m the only one going through it, it comes from the imbalance of the “I” again, the imbalance of myself.

Holding myself to be more important. So if I can start just interjecting some thoughts—it takes a little time to exorcise them—that other people experience this as well; I’m not the only one. This is something I would use a lot in self-compassion courses, the concept of shared humanity, our common humanity, we’re all on this planet together. To think you’re not the only one experiencing depression or anxiety.

So then again, if I could use a basic tonglen practice using my breathing, tonglen giving and taking is a very profound meditation. What I first wanna do is imagine the people on the planet who are also experiencing anxiety or depression—and you can just be sitting in your living room—and I’m going to inhale all that fear and anxiety and depression from them.

I’m not gonna take it into myself, but at my core here, at my heart. And imagine a constricted knot, which I’m going to call self-cherishing. This is all your self-absorption, all that focus on the self. That’s another source of our problems; it’s another thing that makes us unhappy.

So I’m going to drive all of that anxiety and depression from other people onto that self-cherishing and minimize that. Just purify that, because that also keeps me from connecting to others. It keeps me rooted in my negative rumination. Then maybe as I exhale, giving because I’m minimizing, purifying this self-cherishing and I come out to more spaciousness. Then let me offer that to all these beings with fear, anxiety, and depression, as much as I can.

So just to start to imprint that thought in your mind of giving and taking: giving hope, happiness, positivity and taking fear and negativity. It is a fantastic mind space to think of taking others’ suffering and giving them happiness.

I find it can be quite helpful to think about our common, shared humanity and that we’re not the only ones going through this.

Depression from a Buddhist perspective

[00:21:28] Scott Snibbe: You brought up depression. Can you talk about what depression is from a Buddhist perspective?

[00:21:33] Ven. Amy Miller: Yeah, depression doesn’t have a really formal definition in Tibetan Buddhism, but is, once again, because of the mistaken notion of how I exist. It can be at a time of too much thinking about the self in a negative way, thinking of all of my negative qualities, and all of the negative circumstances that have ever happened to me.

And I stay there rooted in that; hopelessness and despair are related to this. So now the other thing is that we have to remember karma and the reason is that you may have past moments in your consciousness. So rather than getting anchored into the depression and deepening that depression again, creating that deeper trench again, is acknowledging that this is just your karmic makeup.

Some people come in with extreme anger, some people come in with a heart of bodhicitta, of this incredible compassion for others. Some people come in with a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety. So for some people it’s depression and for people that do suffer from long-term, chronic depression, it’s quite serious because they never have a context of that’s how their mind is.

And they end up on medication, which sometimes can ease a little bit of the depression. As long as you have a mindset that you’re not going to be on medication for the rest of your life, if it’s possible. Because there are ways to fix depression and anxiety in our minds; Tibetan Buddhism says it is absolutely, totally fixable.

But again, just acknowledging the previous imprints that happen to be showing up in this life for various reasons, because karma’s very sophisticated, and as a result here I am with the depression.

[00:23:28] Scott Snibbe: Is there a point where depression does become physiological or is there a point where the meditation isn’t enough?

[00:23:35] Ven. Amy Miller: I do think with some people it does manifest even as physiological, in depression and anxiety. I think there’s no question. And even physiologic, I’d even say environmentally. 

If you were living in Ukraine now, and bombs are falling around you, your anxiety level is going to go way up. Let’s say you’re a child. Let’s say you escape Ukraine. You end up in a very safe country and you have every positive thing happen. But when loud noises go off, it may trigger post-traumatic stress disorder for you. And suddenly you’re anxious about somebody popping a balloon nearby.

So you can understand there are environmental reasons as well, physiologically, possibly as well. So some people are under a doctor’s care and they’re working with a therapist, but they wanna try some medication to see if it alleviates the pattern of depression; it could be helpful provided they want to use some other tools to eventually move through the depression and get off of the medication if they can.

blue and white pills spilling out of glass

Because a lot of those medications have strong side effects. One of the biggest things that we do in our tradition is purification practices, which are quite effective. There’s a variety of them you can do depending on your makeup, what you’re interested in, and what your teacher may advise you to do.

I would say from my own experience, in working through a number of these practices on a longer-term basis, is that I’ve really seen shifts in my mind for the better. Not necessarily related to depression and anxiety, but certain other habits I may have wanted to change. And it is quite significant.

The thing is it does take effort, and Westerners have no trouble, especially in the States, making an effort. But we tend to make effort in the wrong direction. If we could invest some of our busyness and work ethic into a stronger, consistent spiritual practice, I think it could be incredibly powerful for people and their minds, in changing some of these patterns.

Healing depression

[00:25:50] Scott Snibbe: Are the antidotes different for depression than anxiety in meditation or are they the same?

[00:25:55] Ven. Amy Miller: There’s somewhat similar, but here’s a couple, if I wanna go into specifics. One thing I did wanna say in general, for both of those experiences, is mindfulness or self-awareness. So the same could be applied to depression. I’m breathing in, “I’m feeling depressed,” I’m breathing out, “I’m feeling depressed.”

Now what mindfulness does in that context is it simply keeps you there in the discomfort. It’s not about making you more uncomfortable. You’re already uncomfortable because of the emotion. Yet just staying there with it actually starts changing the discomfort a bit. What happens for most Westerners is we want out of the discomfort immediately, get it gone. I don’t want this, take it away. 

But the thing is, a lot of my spiritual practice is actually showing up for the discomfort, analyzing it, then it starts dissolving. Then I find that I’m more comfortable. It’s really about getting more comfortable with your discomfort.

Another thing that’s helpful in dealing with depression and anxiety, is if we remember the nature of the mind. In Tibetan Buddhism, we see that the mind has two characteristics, clarity and awareness. Clarity fools a lot of people, we feel normally that our minds are busy, cluttered, and full of stuff. So you can remind yourself that that’s not the real nature of your mind, it’s actually clarity.

There’s a clear space of awareness and the mental issues of depression and anxiety, they are simply impermanent situations, like clouds coming through the consciousness. These experiences appear and disappear. They come and go. They’re not permanent. They’re not fixed entities. 

So if I can remind myself of the clear nature of the mind that is beneath all of those delusions arising, it can also be helpful. And that ability to deidentify so that instead of me being a depressed person, knowing that you just have a lot of depression in your mind right now; if it’s a chronic situation of depression. So that can be helpful. 

One last general antidote, before getting into more specifics, is being nonjudgmental. This means that you may notice at times that certain thoughts and emotions arise, like depression and anxiety. And you don’t like those, so you label a very heavy self-criticism about it.

“I shouldn’t be thinking this,” “I’m horrible to have this in my mind,” and “I’m a depressed person.” But instead, when you see your mind caught up, what about cultivating a sense of equanimity? So this is an equal regard with each of these experiences that arises and creating a more loving awareness and acceptance of whatever is arising in your mind. 

Because we are human, we make mistakes at times and we’ll have less than generous thoughts about ourselves and others. It’s normal. For those people that are depressed, they’re going to have more depressive, self-critical thoughts in their mind. That is just the way it works. If you’re anxious, you’re gonna have more of those thoughts in your mind, creating more anxiety.

So again, just by observing, using mindfulness initially, saying, There’s a depressed thought. There’s a lot of depression. Reminding yourself of the nature of the mind. My mind is clear. Depression is not my mind. It’s not innate in my mind. I’m just experiencing this right now from previous moments of this in my mind. I’m okay. 

If a good friend of mine were experiencing this and feeling this, I would be very gentle and compassionate with them. So why not with myself? From that place, practice loving-awareness and acceptance, as much as possible.

Then Tibetan Buddhism asks that we move into some more specific antidotes. So we have a couple of main kinds of meditation in Tibetan Buddhism. The standard one most people associate with meditation is placement or stabilizing meditation; the word is shinay in Tibetan, calm abiding, samatha in Sanskrit. This is where we’re placing our mind on something and keeping it there stably. That’s what most people think of as meditation.

But we have a second type of meditation called analytical meditation, where we are analyzing something to come to a deeper insight. You need to examine in the face of depression what your mind is saying and try to correct whatever’s not realistic. For instance, with depression, you’re going to have negative, repetitive, self-critical thoughts. “I’m worthless.” “I don’t deserve to be loved.” “Nobody likes me.” “I never do anything right.” If you want to be honest with yourself, look at these thoughts; they’re not entirely accurate.

You want to change the recording in a sense. Years ago, I would have some negative self speak and I pictured myself with my finger on the button of the recorder. “Oh, you’re playing that recording again. Aren’t you tired of that?” And eventually—this was in the old days where we had cassette tapes or micro cassette tapes—I started pushing a different recording button to play more positive, realistic thoughts.

tape recorder

And eventually, I could just throw the tape out and visualize for myself, but it takes time. We have to make that effort to realize that it’s a two steps forward, one step back spiritual practice. So I’m going to make some headway, but then I’m gonna fall down again and notice the negative, self-critical speak come up.

It’s very normal. But again, working on cultivating this acceptance, self-compassion, perfectly is a great part of the path as I examine what the mind is actually saying.

The second thing I wanted to mention is something I call thought-interruption and thought-replacement. With thought-interruption, you may visualize actually throwing a wrench into cogs that you’re visualizing and saying to yourself, Stop thinking, when the negative rumination, depressive and worried thoughts, or panic starts.

Then what you want to do is you’ve interrupted, stopped, thinking, right? But you need something to replace the thoughts with, something joyful, something you feel joyful about. Best to put it into your own imagery. For instance, I have a friend that suffers from a great deal of chronic depression.

Her image is that she’s in a small room filled with puppy dogs. So that works for her and that makes her happy, but she has to consciously bring it to mind and keep herself there at times of the day when she can visualize that. Sometimes she can’t visualize it in the middle of a business meeting, but she will make time during the day to interrupt the other negative self speak with this.

So come up with your own image, maybe lying on a beautiful beach or visualizing a beautiful flower vase, whatever your happy place is, over and over bringing this in a little bit more readily; whether you’re in the middle of a business meeting or something, using that imagery. So you’re stopping the negative speak and replacing it with something that uplifts the mind. On a more traditional level, we might meditate on appreciating the positive circumstances of your life, appreciating your positive qualities.

This is something I wake up with; the first couple minutes of my day is a wave of appreciation, soaking through my body and mind.

How to shift your consciousness

[00:34:58] Scott Snibbe: You talked about how to create a kind of happy place in your mind, you’re calling it thought-interruption. You also talked about cultivating positive thoughts about yourself too. Now this may sound silly or not, but for a person who’s having trouble thinking of positive thoughts about themselves, could you give some examples of that?

[00:35:20] Ven. Amy Miller: So how to cultivate that thought if you’re not feeling that way?

[00:35:25] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, so if you’re thinking so much about your negative qualities, negative problems. Just for anybody listening out there, some very concrete examples of positive ways to think about yourself. I know it may sound silly.

[00:35:37] Ven. Amy Miller: No, so it could be, have you ever treated someone to a meal? Have you ever been a caring friend where you made time to listen to a friend who’s struggling? Have you been a pretty good daughter or son? Where you’ve showed up for your parents? Did you ever buy your parents a birthday present once in a while? 

And what depression wants to do is say well, I missed that one birthday with my mother, and it’s gonna hold onto that. What about all the other times you sent a card or you called, why not focus on that? What we need to do is give equal air time and depression doesn’t want to do that.

Depression only wants to focus on the negative, so you have to balance. If you have a negative thought about yourself, find the other side of the scale, you’ve got to counter with a positive. I would ask people that really suffer from depression for every negative thought they’ve had about themselves; “I missed my mother’s birthday the last five years.” Then you’ve got to counter with two. “But I sent her a card and I sent her chocolates on that thing and I sent her a card on Valentine’s Day.” So you’ve got to have a couple of things like that. Have you ever bought anybody flowers? Have you stopped at a four-way stop sign? 

And I’m not kidding, I was driving with Lama Zopa Rinpoche across San Francisco many years ago and San Francisco is a city filled with four-way stop signs, if you haven’t noticed. So we were late for a program across town, we had rented a large church; this was when I was living at Tse Chen Ling Center. And I’m driving Rinpoche alone and I’m getting more and more irritated at the four-way stop signs as we’re traversing town. And at many of the stop signs, there’d be four people pulling up at each corner. Then you’re waiting and it’s supposed to be the person on the right who goes first, but we’re all on the right of somebody.

smile stop sign

So everybody’s waiting and we’re late. And we stop at the next stop sign. And what does Rinpoche say? I don’t say anything. I’m not saying I’m irritated, I’m angry. Rinpoche says, It’s so kind how everyone stops at the stop sign, so kind. So immediately cutting my irritated mind, who is just thinking of me and we need to get across town, “we’re late, me, me, me.”

Instead, there’s basic kindness in the fact that you stop at a red light or a stop sign. Of course you do it because you don’t wanna get hit yourself, but there’s an order to the planet. You know that when you go to the grocery store, you line up behind the last person in line. I think that’s kind. Maybe you look around a little bit and let somebody go that just has the one jar of mayonnaise.

So there’s many things you can focus about yourself, but you have to consciously do it, if you’re finding that you’re rooted in the negative self speak.

[00:38:36] Scott Snibbe: I think that’s really helpful. And just to bring it home, the idea that you directly counter the negative thought about yourself and your suggestion is to think of something related. If it’s, “I didn’t send my mom a birthday card,” then you think “I did last year and the year before and for, 30 years before that.”

So thank you for all those practical examples. I love the one on the stop sign. I never heard that before. And sadly, I actually have a friend whose son was just injured in a stop sign accident. So you’re potentially saving someone’s life every time you stop at a stop sign. So it’s a very beautiful thought.

[00:39:12] Ven. Amy Miller: It’s simple, those things. You never think about it, but there’s so many simple, wonderful little treasures every day we go out and do something. But again, the minds of anxiety and depression wanna keep you rooted in a kind of negative experience. So it’s going to take some effort, but we all have stuff we’re working on. You’re just like all of us, you’re not any more special.

The depression wants to hold you as more special because you’re chronically depressed. That’s just a device of the negative parts of your ego.

[00:39:46] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, so this is all good advice to us as an individual, if we’re depressed or having self-critical thoughts. When you go to tell a depressed person, Hey, cheer up, think positive, that doesn’t always go so well. So as a non-depressed friend of a depressed person, what can we do? What is a skillful way to approach being a good friend?

[00:40:07] Ven. Amy Miller: It’s not helpful to say to somebody, Oh, just feel better. People that have never been depressed find it’s very hard to really understand the sinking in the mind and how the mind loves to take a hold of itself and stay there. 

So we’ve got this self-cherishing going on, self-grasping, and basically we need to try to get them to analyze. I’ll give you an example, the first thing is empathy. “I’m so, so sorry you’re experiencing this. I’m so sorry it’s been going on for so long. Can you tell me what it feels like?” Really get in there with the person.

So empathy is different than pity. Pity is I’m standing up here on the outside of the trench, looking down at you in the trench of depression. And I don’t really wanna get my hands dirty. So I say, Oh, I’m so sorry. And then pity might say, Is there anything I can help you with? But you don’t really wanna get down there. 

Empathy is down there in the trench, not meaning you have to experience depression yourself, but simply saying, Can you tell me a little bit of how it manifests for you? How do you feel right now? Do you have a color that kind of defines it for you or a feeling? Do you have any triggers that might suddenly pop, make it happen more for you? Do you notice when you’re around these people? Or is it always when it’s raining, do you ever feel depressed when it’s sunny? Do you feel depressed here or here where you’re living here or here? 

So I just try to get a little bit better understanding. So they feel heard as well, that somebody is really listening because when they realize you’re really listening, they’re a little bit more receptive.

The second level, when you feel they’re readier, is to start to have them analyze. Is it accurate? What’s your mind telling you when you’re in this space and they might say, Oh, I never do anything right. I messed up at work. My boss said this project wasn’t what they wanted. And I might say, Has your boss ever said that there was something positive that you did? Or have you gotten other feedback at work that there was something positive? 

And generally there is, depression may not want to acknowledge it, but there is. Or they might say something personal about their lives, then you remember a positive thing that they’ve done. Then you can bring up the positive thing. “I know you made that mistake, but I remember when you were dealing with that person that was really difficult and you got them laughing and you made a positive relationship with them. And I was amazed how you did that, it was so skillful.” 

A friend of mine was chronically depressed for about 40 years and I knew her before the 40 years, when she wasn’t depressed. So when she would tell me, it’s always been like this, then I reminded her, remember when I visited you and I spent the weekend with you and your parents? 

And we remembered we went out and I reminded her of all the fun things we did. And then she was remembering and laughing. Then I said, You weren’t depressed then. It stopped her in her tracks to remember that depression was not always in her mind. This gives you hope that you can actually get past it, to return to the mind without depression.

How to parent an anxious child

[00:43:26] Scott Snibbe: That’s very helpful. Yeah, thank you. I wanted to return to something that you were saying with anxiety. I’m a parent and I know a lot of parents, and our kids are quite anxious. I think maybe more kids than average are anxious right now. So as a parent of an anxious child, could you talk a little bit about what we can do to help?

[00:43:48] Ven. Amy Miller: That’s a great question. I feel for the younger population; the last couple of years have been very bleak and very challenging for a lot of people, even the privileged ones. Certainly for the non-privileged, it’s been a nightmare. Younger people seem to be affected about global warming, what’s their future going to be like, it’s very real.

A lot of people have said this, so it sounds cliche now, but is it possible to establish limits on their use of their devices? I hate to say it, but sociological studies have been done at universities and colleges in the States; in one of them the kids were off their devices for two weeks, absolutely no phone, computer tablet, internet, nothing. It was a part of a sociology class and they had to chart all kinds of different aspects of their lives: homework study habits, interpersonal relationships, eating habits, exercise habits, levels of happiness, levels of unhappiness, coping mechanisms. It was fascinating. After two weeks the reports came in and they were all doing really well, excelling in every single one of the categories, sleeping better, better health habits, feeling better, better interactions with their families, things like that. 

I think they were allowed use of the telephone only or in-person with family members. But as soon as it was over and they were allowed to go back to the devices, the habit is so strong and also the FOMO, fear of missing out. So immediately, they were back on, but some of them were able to limit a little bit.

Also I would highly recommend exercise, getting out into nature; exploring nature with more awareness, really pointing out to kids as you’re walking with them, Look at that flower. Oh, look how the mud here, this looks like a hoof print of a deer, just showing them other stuff. Some kids are not gonna be overly interested, but if there’s a routine that every Saturday at this time, I go out for a walk with my parents, or we’re gonna explore something like that.

dad backpacking with child

Some other type of activity, maybe it’s even creative, where they’re painting something or you’re painting something together. You’re constructing something together. Or you’re volunteering, taking your kids to volunteer with you. Any way they also get a sense of a bigger purpose in life, of their interconnectedness, to all of this reality where they can give back and they see it through their parents. If the parents are volunteering and take them with them, showing that this is an important aspect of life. Either philanthropy, if you’re privileged and wealthy, you don’t even need to be that wealthy, but showing them that part of their birthday money, they can donate.

I think it really shows them that the source of happiness is from helping others. It’s a key part of their mental wellbeing. So the planet is not hopeless. There’s many things they can continue to contribute over time, over life, and also trying to drive them into selecting positive vocations of right livelihood, where they will glean great meaning for their lives.

I think it can be helpful for kids. Have them at an early age analyze the anxiety. For instance, have them go in and say, Okay, let’s look at what you’re really worried about now. Is it reasonable to have this fear? The fear may not be reasonable. But also ask them what would be reasonable with a good motivation that you could take care of this fear right now.

Is there anything you can do about it? They might say it’s just a fear of that guy they like in class is gonna show up. So if you’re gonna be focused on this person, you want to have some more social relationships. What about your own friends? Are you building a strong social network from your own friends who are always going to be there when the intimate relationships may not? So exploring that with them to make sure that they’re grounded and rooted with a good friend basis and social networks.

Then there may be something where they talk about global warming and you go, Okay, what can we do about it? Let’s look at how we recycle. Let’s look at our vehicle. Let’s look at how we use technology. Are we turning off lights? Are we being wasteful with energy? What they can do.

Then the bigger thing, if you can’t do something, teach them how to let it go. Because there’s nothing you can do about it. Teach them breathing meditations, visualize those thoughts sifting out, different colored light rays and visualizing bringing in hope to empower them to continue to live wisely on the planet, exhaling fear and that kind of ruminating mind.

[00:49:06] Scott Snibbe: Wow, these are great answers because they’re mostly all, very deep, long-term ways of cultivating a healthy mind.

[00:49:14] Ven. Amy Miller: It does take time and patience to work with themselves and their minds. This doesn’t happen overnight, that everything changes and they feel better. It’s a process.

Finding lasting happiness

[00:49:25] Scott Snibbe: That’s wonderful. Is there anything else you’d like to add about anxiety and depression?

[00:49:29] Ven. Amy Miller: One thing I would add is—I talk about this a lot in classes—especially earlier in life, but you can do it at any time, is to understand what lights you up inside. So this is about finding deeper meaning in life. It’s very, very important. And what I mean is it’s not superficial happiness.

Years ago, I had an idea that a beach holiday was really fun and that’s what I really wanted to do long-term. So I would save money, save up my holiday time—this is long before the dharma—then I’d get time on the beach. I’d go with my friends, rent a house for a week and it was delightful.

beach vacation houses on shore

There were many wonderful things about it. But sometimes after seven days, eight, if it went on too long, it could get boring. There was an aspect for me that said, This is okay. You have the beach holiday. But are you really deeply happy here? If it went on for longer and longer—because something that brings you lasting happiness means the longer you’d have it, the happier you’d get. But I actually one time checked and had a longer beach holiday. And I was like, this isn’t it, this is great, but this is not it.

Then years later I was running Vajrapani Institute. We were hosting a very big retreat with about 80 people for a month, Lama Zopa Rinpoche was in attendance. I noticed about two weeks into the retreat, everybody seemed pretty happy, retreat was going really well. Rinpoche seemed very happy with what was happening.

The retreaters seemed very happy. The staff was very happy. I was like, this is fantastic. And people seemed to be really getting a lot out of the retreat. So I felt incredibly happy to be able to support this with the staff. And we finished the last session of the retreat one evening and we went out, at Vajrapani there’s a big shrine called a stupa. We went out and a few of my very close friends were turning around the stupa before we were going off to our different living spaces. It was just a beautiful night in the redwoods with the lights out and on the stupa and it was just beautiful. And I was thinking, I just felt higher than I had ever felt.

I was so deeply satisfied and happy. And really, and I remember making this prayer of, May I continue to do more of this. May I continue to support these kind of activities or participate in these kind of activities, as long as it’s beneficial for as many beings as possible. And as long as it pleases the minds of my teachers. I realized that’s what really lit me up. So I’ve really tried to direct my life in that way.

I would say to people to please find meaning like that in your life now, which I feel very much involves helping others as much as possible. And don’t wait any longer.

If you’re not clear, find what really lends that support for your happiness, because then you’ll really be happy in what you’re doing. It doesn’t mean it’s perfect; this is samsara. Nothing’s perfect, but you basically can continue to contribute and participate in that way. I think is really helpful.

[00:53:01] Scott Snibbe: That’s wonderful. So Venerable Amy, thank you so much for talking to me about anxiety and depression. I really appreciate it. And I think our audience is gonna benefit a lot. 

And for people listening too, if you want to make a donation, I’d encourage people to send some of your funds to the Land of Medicine Buddha where Venerable Amy is the chairperson of the board because they’re working on rehabilitating their finances after the COVID era. And we’ll have a link to that.

[00:53:32] Ven. Amy Miller: Yes, and also if people are interested I have a website, amymiller.com. So if you’re interested in coming to some of those programs, which are around the planet via zoom, sometimes in-person, you can check up there like that.

[00:53:52] Scott Snibbe: Fantastic, yeah we’ll share a link. You’ve led weekend courses on this topic and other structures. So if you wanna go deeper with Venerable Amy we’ll have links to that on our website.

[00:54:02] Ven. Amy Miller: And that website is connected to a YouTube channel. So a lot of these programs are recorded and they’re categorized by topics. So people can go into a certain topic if that’s helpful.

[00:54:15] Scott Snibbe: Fantastic, thank you again. I really appreciate your time.

[00:54:18] Ven. Amy Miller: Absolutely, thank you.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry
Marketing Direction by Jason Waterman
Digital Production, Marketing, and Social Media by Isabela Acebal
Illustration by Dall-E 2 “meditation on anxiety and depression in futuristic style optimistic


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