Buddhism and Depression

My recent book, “Froth and Goblets”, tells the story of how a Buddhist adept helps a princess deal with her depression. The story is a parable, but as many parables do, it contains some serious teachings. In this essay, I thought I might explore in a little more depth, some of the basic tenets of Buddhism and how they might apply to such an affliction.
To begin with let us briefly sketch depression and how its malaise impacts on us. People with depression ruminate over their unworthiness, incompetence and (usually exaggerated) imperfections. They are normally good people who have undue expectations of themselves. When such expectations are not met they fall into despair and lassitude. This debilitates them to such a degree that they find it difficult to cope with life and its normal vicissitudes.
What causes depression? Well, we really don’t know. But we can with some confidence surmise that depressive behaviour is, like almost all other behaviours, built from a platform of our genetics and our socialisation. Certainly if you had a parent that suffered from depression your likelihood of being depressed is increased. How much of that behaviour is genetically acquired and how much is learnt in your formative years from unconsciously adopting the behaviours of a significant other is difficult to tell. But it is reasonable to suppose that depressive behaviour is partly determined by our biological history and partly learnt unconsciously.
As the famed Australian psychologist, Dorothy Rowe has written (and she has written many books on depression) depressives are self-obsessed. Don’t get me wrong here. Many of those we hear of being self-obsessed are egotistical and narcissistic people who want to promote their egos to an external world by contriving to show how wonderful they are. Those who are depressed obsess on how awful they are. They aspire to be very good, but when they realise that (just as the rest of us) they have faults they fall into self-denigration.
It has been said that well-adjusted people don’t think less of themselves, but think of themselves less!
How might Buddhism help here? Well, to begin with it might give us more realistic expectations about life. Buddha proposed the “Four Noble Truths.” The first of these related to suffering.
The Buddha asserted because of our human condition, our impermanence and the transitory nature of our existence and many of the things we have to deal with in our life, suffering is inevitable.
In a similar vein, the psychologist, M Scott Peck began his famous little book “The Road Less Travelled” with the statement:
“Life is difficult
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult–once we truly understand and accept it–then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
In Buddhism, our inevitable suffering is not looked upon as a burden but as a learning opportunity.
My good friend, the good Dr Phil echoes these sentiments. He says, “When you go through trauma, make sure you come out better and not bitter!”
Buddhists tell the story of the teacher Lama Atisha. This fabled Buddhist journeyed from India to Tibet in the early eleventh century. This was a long and difficult journey. As a result he brought with him a large retinue that helped him make the dangerous passage. One of his attendants was his cook. In contrast to the benign and serene demeanour of Atisha, his cook was a difficult, surly fellow that nobody liked. Because of his aggressive manner and general intolerance, Atisha’s other attendants urged him to dismiss the cook. But the sage refused.
“Why would you want to keep such a difficult person with you when he alienates all who meet him?” they asked.
Atisha responded, “Because I value him as a teacher.”
They shook their heads in disbelief. “What on earth could this surly wretch teach you?” they asked.
“He teaches me patience,” responded the sage.
And Atisha was right. Viewed objectively, adversity is a great teacher.
Buddhism teaches us that our sense of well-being does not come from the external world but from our state of mind. In many ways Buddhism is not a religion but a psychology. (It is interesting that in some Asian universities if you wish to study Buddhism you need to enrol in the Psychology Faculty.) Buddhism affirms that our sense of well-being is not dependant on the outside world but determined by the state of our internal world. Consequently Buddhism does its essential work by training our minds.
Now this effort is not to be confused with the “Pop Psychology” approach which promotes the “power of positive thinking” and similar jingoistic quick-fix remedies. Certainly Buddhism exhorts us to be aware that our lives can be positively changed by its mind training techniques and without conviction that this is worth the effort few of us would try. But unlike many of the “New Age” recommendations for attaining well-being, this approach requires discipline and effort in the techniques to train the mind. There are no “silver bullets”, easy solutions to bring us relief from the suffering that the world inevitably brings us.
Using various meditation techniques and other practices to train the mind, Buddhism enables us to quieten the self-talk of mind chatter and improve our awareness of the world not only around us but within us. Buddhists call this heightened state of awareness “Mindfulness”. This is helpful to someone with depression in a number of ways. Firstly it enables them to curtail the rumination, the continuous negative self-talk that reinforces their depression. Secondly, once awareness is heightened they are able to notice the onset of negative emotions and not to identify with them. They are able to detect sadness or despair starting to impinge on their mental well-being and not be inexorably drawn into the lake of depression, but to watch it from the banks of the lake. They are able to think, for example, “Here comes that sadness again.” That is a far more useful notion than thinking, “I am sad.” In the book I have used a common Buddhist metaphor to help you understand this concept.
Augustus, my little Buddhist hero takes the Princess outside to look at the sky. He asks her what she sees. She describes a blue sky with clouds scurrying across it. He tells her that the blue sky represents her essential self, and the clouds moving across it are her negative thoughts and emotions. He reminds her that it is important to know she is not the clouds but the sky. The sky is always there. Sometimes it is obscured by the clouds, but it is helpful to remember that the clouds come and go. She then asks why is it that some people suffer more despair than others. Augustus points out that there are places on the earth where it rains nearly every day and places where it hardly rains at all. We are born in one environment or another and we face the vaguaries of our local weather. And some of us are born with a greater disposition towards sadness and others are born with a more sanguine outlook. Nevertheless our sense of well-being is enhanced once we understand we are not the clouds but the sky.
With increased awareness we win a reprieve. If we notice the negative emotion before identifying with it, there are opportunities to take control of our responses rather than automatically falling into despair.
Modern neuro-scientists talk about a phenomenon called “inattentional blindness”. The mind has a limited capacity to take in information. It largely takes in information that it has been conditioned to pay attention to. Unfortunately most of us are conditioned to pay attention to the transitory thoughts and emotions that clutter our minds. In doing so, we overlook the eternal, serene background which reflects our true selves. The mind training of Buddhism helps us address this dilemma.
In the process we learn that we have choices about how we perceive the world. Some of us (like the depressives) see the world as a fearful and inimical place. In order to gain relief from this malaise we try to fashion the world to suit our purposes. We want to ensure we can control things such that we minimise the possibility of experiencing pain and disappointment.
On the other hand Buddhism teaches us that it is more helpful not to try and change the world but to see it in a different light. If we are able to change our world view to understand that we are not the reflection of our thoughts and emotions (as the good Dr Phil points out, that then makes us feel “attackable, rejectable and mortal”) but in fact we are essentially that which is “witnessing” these things – that serene, eternal vantage point – then we come to know, no matter how differently it might appear on the surface, underneath “All is Well”!
Another old Buddhist parable points to the wisdom of changing ourselves in order to deal better with the world.
In ancient times there lived an emperor in a remote province. He was afflicted by the problem that he had very sensitive feet. Despite this he liked nothing better than to walk through his province in order to see how the people were faring, whether the crops were prospering and the local officials were doing their jobs properly in attending to the affairs of state. In order to allow him to walk around the province he employed a huge retinue of assistants who went before him and laid out leather mats for him to walk on.
One day, walking over the carpet his servants duly provided for him, he came to a sage. Knowing how well the sage was revered, the emperor bowed in reverence. The sage, sitting cross-legged on the grass, steepled his hands and nodded his acknowledgment of the emperor, but could not suppress a little smile.
The emperor was intrigued. “Master, something seems to amuse you?”
“Oh, emperor – how unaware you are!”
The emperor was perplexed by this statement and just a little annoyed.
“How so?” he enquired.
“You seek to change the face of the whole earth so you can walk on it, when all you have to do is change your feet. Take some of the leather and have your attendants fashion it around your feet thus providing protection for your soles wherever you walk. That way you can walk wherever you will without the need for this vast retinue and the myriad of mats they carry.”
Shoes were duly made for the emperor and he could wander his kingdom at will irrespective of how rough the ground was under his feet.
And so it is when we are at odds with the world. If we change our minds so that we see the world more realistically it no longer assails us in such a hostile fashion
Perhaps however, the most insightful teachings of Buddhism are derived from some other Buddhist tenets.
The Second Noble Truth is most telling. It reminds us that the origin of all suffering is attachment. Most of us have come to believe that our happiness is conditional. If only we had a desirable partner we would be happy. If we had wealth we would be happy. I can’t be happy until I have a new car. I love my children so much, I couldn’t be happy without them. Buddhism teaches us the fallacy of these ideas. Buddhism reminds us of the impermanence of such things. If my well-being is dependent on having a desirable partner my partner could easily, on a whim, leave me. Where am I then? Even if I had great wealth, it is possible that I could just as easily lose it. How foolish it is then to pin our sense of well-being to such ephemeral and transient conditions. It is said that anything I believe I need to make me happy has already harmed me. Even if this is not so, it has certainly made me vulnerable! Why would we want to build our sense of well-being on something so uncertain?
Sometimes people misconstrue this message. It is perfectly natural to enjoy your relationship with your partner. It is very human to gain joy from your children. If your wealth gives you access to pleasurable experiences then it is understandable that you should gain enjoyment from this. The dilemma occurs when you think that these benefits are necessary for your sense of well-being. In the end this desirable state is not determined by any of these manifestations of your external world but only by the subjective quality of your internal world and it is within your power to control it.
How we perceive the world, what we pay attention to, and whether we pay attention with delight or alarm are often a function of our conditioning. We can train our mind to see things differently, in a more constructive way. The parable of the emperor and his shoes above alludes to this effect. When the Buddha expounded the Four Noble Truths, he then went on to propose the Eightfold Path. This was a series of steps to help the practitioner overcome suffering. The first step in the Eightfold Path is “Right View.” As we saw above when we see the world free of the distortions of a fearful mind it is not an inimical place at all. If someone with depression could come to this realisation (and I am not suggesting this is easy) the world would seem a far more benign place with which they could reconcile.
There is much more I could add that would indicate how an application of Buddhist precepts might be helpful to someone suffering from depression. But I am hopeful what I have offered up here is an indication of how the application of Buddhism might be beneficial to those so afflicted.

6 Replies to “Buddhism and Depression”

  1. Are you a Buddhist Rabbi now Ted? btw depression and alcohol are very closely linked too, one might even say that alcohol is a depressant….and on the subject of religion and depression, Christianity teaches us to let go let God…is that what you’re saying here?

  2. V. interesting, Ted. This seems to be a growing problem, even within families where there is no history of depression – which makes me wonder about the genetic side of things.

  3. Sorry to disappoint you Jack, but I am not a Buddhist Rabbi (whatever that is) or indeed even a Buddhist but I do have a lot of respect for Buddhist thought.

    There is a fair amount of material in the literature, Dianne, to suggest that many who are depressed have a genetic predisposition for depression. There are also those who succumb to depression without such a background. But it is hard to argue that our biological history is not a major driver of human behaviour.

    Depression is a huge and growing problem, particularly in the developed world. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2020, unipolar depression will be the second largest health problem in the world.

    I recently read a report that suggested that depression is also becoming more prevalent in the developing world.

    Martin Seligman however asks the interesting question of whether those of a more melancholy nature are being unnecessarily diagnosed as depressed.

    Nevertheless, even with such caveats, it cannot be denied that depression is a burgeoning problem.

    In my book I have tried to show how some of the practices that Buddhist adepts use to train their minds should provide relief for many (but of course not all) sufferers from this affliction.

  4. I blame popular media for some of the increase in depression. The current generation is constantly bombarded with images of what success looks like and with few exceptions we can not possibly live up to this model. If depression comes from us thinking too much about ourselves then it is not surprising that the “Me” generation is suffering so much. When people spent a good portion of their time working for their community or their Church and not for money I believe the focus on the self was less and mental health was better. While we are working or supporting something that we believe is more important and more enduring than ourselves we are a lot happier. Not sure if that is what the Buddhist philosophy says Ted but from experience it seems to work.

  5. An insightful comment, as usual Greg. And yes having a purpose greater than ourselves is promoted as means to further our well being not only by Buddhism but the “positive psychologists” Martin Seligman et al.

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