A Buddhist Perspective on Mental Health and Depression

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

I had the unique honor to interview a friend of mine, Jason Henniger, who is a writer, editor, and an expert in his own right about the topic of Buddhism. I thought it would be interesting to see how mental health and depression are viewed from this particular philosophical perspective. In my own exploration of how to cope with my depression I have found it helpful to investigate how other cultures and philosophical approaches deal with mental health issues. I do hope you find this interview as enlightening as I did.

Bio: Jason Henninger lives in Los Angeles and is currently assistant managing editor of Living Buddhism Magazine and former editor for Middleway Press. He's also a big geek, dyslexic and father of one special needs child and one neurotypical child. He also writes for the scifi and fantasy website Tor.com.

I know you could probably write a novel but could you give a brief description of Eastern philosophy and how it relates to mental health?

Eastern philosophy is a little too broad a category for me to answer. I'll have to focus on Buddhism, since that's what I know. So, how are Buddhism and mental health related? Well, if you think of mental health in terms of self-esteem but not arrogance, empathy, mental clarity and a feeling of empowerment, I think Buddhism can be an excellent road to all of these components.

Isolation and powerlessness are massive factors in mental illness. Buddhism teaches that all life is connected, from the microcosm to macrocosm. John Donne said "no man is an island," and Buddhists would agree. I am who I am, but who I am is not unrelated to who you are. We are all equal. While to many people this may seem like an empty platitude, in Buddhism it is a central tenet and meant most sincerely.

Buddhism gives a person a feeling like being a wave in the ocean rather than feel like one's life is an isolated phenomenon. A wave is a wave, but not separate from the rest of the ocean. All the grandeur of the sea is inside one wave, and every drop of water is sea-like. Buddhism gives its practitioners a profound feeling of connectedness without loss of identity, and never in terms of superiority or inferiority to others.

Another aspect of this is the idea of karma. Now, karma gets a bad rap. People tend only to think of karma as punishment, but the concept is really more neutral than that. Karma, in Sanskrit, means action. Buddhism teaches that our circumstances, positive or negative, come from our actions. Some think this means we are to blame for what happens to us, but I think that's a limited view. Look at it this way: whatever circumstances we face in life, we can change. Karma is really a doctrine of responsibility and empowerment.

Put it all together and I can only think that such a perspective is conducive to healthy thought.

How would Buddhism define depression? What would they say about the disease model of depression?

I don't know that Buddhism has a specific definition for it, but rather teaches that suffering arises from delusion. The core delusion, according to many schools of Buddhism, is thinking that there is no potential for enlightenment inside you, or inside others, or thinking that phenomena are disconnected from each other. From that delusion comes myriad other delusions: feelings of isolation, seeing other people as superior or inferior, thinking the power of life is separate from yourself. Seeking happiness in objects, in temporary things, when we all know perfectly well that a momentary wish fulfillment is a far cry from happiness.

The disease model of depression...as before, Buddhism doesn't have a specific answer to that, as Buddhism is 2500 years old and the concept of depression as a disease is a pretty new thing. But I'll say that Buddhism definitely supports the idea that people should seek medical attention when required, whatever the illness may be. The idea that prayer or meditation alone will solve everything is unreasonable. Religion in conjunction with the right medicine, on the other hand, is a powerful combination. And the wisdom that comes from studying philosophy can help us make more informed choices regarding various therapies, sorting the helpful from the not-so-great.

According to this philosophy is sadness something one should eradicate or is it just a normal part of the human condition?

All people suffer from time to time. We'd hardly be human if this weren't true. The eradication of suffering is a goal in certain forms of Buddhism, but it's not a concept I personally think much of. As I see it, Buddhahood is a state of profound understanding, but it isn't a state of godhood or inhumanity. How could a Buddha feel compassion if he or she never suffered?

So, no, I don't think suffering can be eradicated. But I do think that a person can gain the wisdom not to be deadlocked in perpetual suffering. Wisdom brings a broad perspective, and therefore a sense of proportion that leads us not to suffer beyond reason.

What does Buddhism say about feelings of "emptiness"?

To avoid confusion, I just want to clarify that the Buddhist concept of emptiness, (Shunyata in Sanskrit, also translated as nonsubstaniality) is not the same as the feeling of being hollow inside, or feeling like your life is adrift and without meaning. Shunyata is a little too complicated to get into here, so let's put that aside.

Emotional emptiness is, I think, an effect of becoming so consumed by our own problems that we shut ourselves off from life. We become like white noise, a blur, indistinct to ourselves. This is an area where Buddhism, and indeed, religion itself, can be of great value. After all, isn't the point of religious thought to say that in the grand scheme of the universe, you are valued, you are connected to something great, you are a part of it all?

There's a famous story in Buddhist folklore that I'd like to share. A woman lost her child, and she became so fraught with grief that she clutched the child's corpse to her body, demanding that someone give her medicine to cure her child of death itself. She approached the Buddha and asked him for medicine for her child. He told her to go house to house and gather a white flower from every house in which no one suffered, and he'd make medicine from the flowers. So she went door to door, and found that every person had their own pains, their own tragedies. In the end, she saw that she was not alone, and this brought her back from her torment. Did she still have to mourn? Of course. But her actions had restored her connection and her compassion, which in turn helped her go through her grief fully, rather than being stuck in the cycle of isolated delusion wherein her whole life was defined by the one tragic event.

What about stress? Does this philosophy have any methods, which can help combat stress and ease anxiety?

What is stress, exactly? It's a pretty nebulous thing when you think about it. Originally, stress meant a physical strain, an architectural concern. Somehow this became a synonym for anxiety and fear.

So when you feel stressed, maybe it'd be good to take a moment and ask yourself what it is you really feel. Is it fear? Is it guilt? Is it sadness? Hopelessness?

Buddhism has countless methods of meditation and practices to cultivate a kind of centeredness, too numerous to define here. But the main thing is that Buddhism emphasizes self-awareness and action. We have unlimited potential, and that is not rhetoric.

Life itself is change, constant change. To fear change is to fear life, really. Better to know that because life is change, life is not a stagnant thing, not an endless austerity. At any moment, we can alter course.

I hear so much about the psychological benefits to meditation. I have tried to meditate but my mind keeps jumping about. Do you have any suggestions for me and other readers who don't quite understand what to do in order to meditate?

Westerners are most familiar with Zen, and meditation in Zen is a very particular thing. It's a method that tries to access a sort of preverbal state. Since this is the general perception of meditation, people tend to think that if thoughts occur to them during meditation, they're doing something wrong. Let's chuck that idea out the window, shall we?

Meditation just means calming yourself down, removing distractions and thinking about life. All the postures and hand gestures and special cushions and incense and special quiet rooms...these things are of secondary importance at best. You don't need rice paper windows and tatami mats. You just need to dedicate time to think honestly about life. Gardening can be meditation. Riding a bike or dancing or swimming can be meditation. Taking a walk in a park or just sitting down for a moment to sort through what's on your mind is meditation enough. But also remember that meditation alone isn't the same thing as taking action. Changing your life is what Buddhism is about. Meditative practices are a step in the process, but not the entire process itself.

What does Buddhism say about happiness? Is it obtainable for everyone? Should happiness be a goal in life?

Happiness absolutely should be a goal in life. Why else are we alive, if not to feel happy? But Buddhism views happiness a particular way. A life without problems (which is, of course, impossible) is not a life of happiness. Happiness is wisdom, and not dependent on externals. Happiness is seeing life unfiltered and knowing how to solve problems and help other people. It's not a matter of gaining or losing an object, a social standing, approval or fame or money, what have you. These things are each important in life on a temporary basis, but hardly the same as real happiness. Real happiness is freedom from delusion, and the compassion to help others gain emancipation from delusion as well.

Do you believe there to be a mind/body connection to mood disorders? How much control do we really have over our moods?

Buddhism doesn't really see a difference between mind and body, except as matters of perspective.

How much control do we have over moods? Well, speaking from a personal opinion and not from Buddhist doctrine, I honestly don't control my moods much at all. I feel what I feel. I don't want to censor myself. I think that's unhealthy. I think what we need is less control and more expression! Now, I'm not saying I'm some sort of wild man. Far from it. But I haven't the slightest desire to feel anything but my authentic emotions. Anything else is a lie.

Based upon your experience and knowledge, how can one cope with depression?

I think coping is insufficient. I think victory is what matters.

Daisaku Ikeda, president of the Soka Gakkai International-the Buddhist organization I belong to-said, "Hope is a decision." This has become my motto in life. Hope is not desperation or foolishness or evasive optimism. It's a decision, and a damn good one.

In the film, Harold and Maude, Maude says, "Give me an L! Give me an I! Give me a V! Give me an E! L-I-V-E, live! Otherwise, you've got nothing to talk about in the locker room." This is profound and wonderful advice. In the depths of depression, we so often think, "If only I could stop feeling, I'd be ok." But there is no joy in that. Joy never comes from feeling less.

But allowing yourself to feel, and to express feeling, takes courage. Hope and courage. How do we generate that courage? I think that it comes in no small degree from helping other people. I don't mean being a doormat; I mean really taking the time and effort to connect with a person and be a good friend. Just like the story of the woman who lost her child, when we involve ourselves compassionately with other people, everyone gains. Life becomes more meaningful.

According to Buddhist stories, Shakyamuni Buddha, just before he attained enlightenment, is said to have faced Mara, the king of the demons. Mara tormented and taunted Shakyamuni with all his might, calling him worthless and soft, basically. Mara attacked his self-esteem. And when he defeated Mara, Shakyamuni's enlightenment shined through. But Mara attacked a second time, when the Buddha was considering how to teach what he had learned. After defeating Mara a second time, the Buddha began teaching.

Why did Mara attack twice? Because Buddhist practice is for oneself and for others. He attacked Shakyamuni before the attainment and before the teaching, and in either case, Shakyamuni had to defeat the Mara with hope and confidence.

Whatever religion you follow, if any at all, I think that there comes a point in facing depression when, like Shakyamuni battling the Mara, you have to face your worst taunting demons and kick their asses out of the way or you'll never advance. You do this for yourself and for the people you care about. Whether this is done with therapy or meditation or medication or combinations thereof is out of my jurisdiction to say, but first comes hope, and hope is a decision anyone can make, right now.

Thank you Jason! I love your parting message. I know our readers will too.

** **

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."