Meditation and Depression
From a talk given at E-Vam Buddhist Institute, Melbourne 2002
Depression is something that we all experience. It does not make any distinction in relation to people - young or old, rich or poor - and cuts across cultural and racial boundaries. Depression is also something that affects both religious-minded people and non-religious people. Practically every one of us, at some point, has had to deal with it. We may experience depression in many different ways. With some people, depression will be mild, while with others it will be very intense and debilitating. For some people it lasts for a short time and then disappears, while for others it may persist over many years or occasionally an entire lifetime.
Modern western psychology and psychiatry make a distinction between what is called 'endogenous depression' and 'reactive depression.' Endogenous depression is treated medically whereas the reactive type of depression is treated with psychotherapy and so on. I am not going to go into that however, as there are people more qualified than I to talk about depression from the medical and therapeutic points of view. Instead, I will talk about depression in the context of meditation practice and in the context of Buddhist spirituality.
We generally think of depression as a terrible state to be in. It is something that we think we have to overcome and go to great lengths to hide from others. This suggests that depression is regarded as something shameful and stigmatised. That is probably because when we suffer from depression, our energy levels and motivation go down and we become withdrawn, uncommunicative, irritable, resentful and basically very difficult to be with. There is also often a lot of anger, jealousy or envy mixed with depression, because when we see someone who is happy, that only makes our depression worse. We do not want to go out and meet happy people because happy people make our misery stand out; at least in our own minds. When we are depressed, our self-esteem and self-confidence also go down. We begin to doubt ourselves and we begin to think that we have become a failure at everything.
For all of these reasons, it is also not uncommon for a depressed person to actually suffer from delusions, thinking that other people have a very bad opinion of them. When depression gets very intense, we start to act slightly mad because of our delusions and we may also suffer from hallucinations. All of this comes about because depression itself gets mixed up with all kinds of other emotions - anger, anxiety, guilt, sadness, shame, envy, jealousy - which keep churning over inside us. Once this pattern starts it takes on its own momentum and becomes very difficult to stop it; it becomes very difficult for us to let go.
Depression used to be called 'melancholia' by the Greek doctor Hippocrates. 'Depression' comes from the Latin deprimere, meaning 'pressed down,' de-pressed.' It is called zhum pa in Tibetan, which also means something like that: lack of courage, pressed down, feeling as though you are carrying the world on your shoulders. That is just a general description of the depressed mood; for depression is the state of being in a particular mood.
Three Ways of Relating to Depression
We have to realise that we need to be able to relate to depression. In order to do that, the first thing that we have to understand is that the depressed state of mind is brought on by our interpretations of our experiences. Depression is not just something that arises out of the blue, even though it may appear that way. Western psychotherapists say that you can learn about a person's reasons for experiencing depression if you look into the biographical or biological history of a depressed person, in terms of genes and so forth. From the Buddhist point of view however, the fundamental understanding that we need to have is that depression is based upon our interpretations of our life situations, our circumstances, our self-conceptions, our notions of who and what we think we are. We get depressed for not being the person that we want to be. We get depressed through thinking that we have not been able to achieve the things that we want to achieve in life. This story might help to illustrate this point:
The second second thing that we have to understand is that depression is not necessarily always a bad state to be in. One can see depression as providing another window on our life. Being in a depressed state can also reveal what, in Buddhism, is called 'the world of samsara,' or the world of everyday life. Simply because we are in a state of depression does not automatically mean that the way in which we see things is completely unreal and illusory. When we are depressed, we may actually be able to see through the falsity and deceptive nature of the samsaric world. In other words, we should not think, 'When I am not depressed, I am seeing everything clearly while when I am depressed, my mind is distorted and messed up and I am seeing everything in a completely lop-sided fashion.' In and through depression, we see the world through an alternative window, in a manner of speaking.
In that sense, there can be value in our experience of
depression. We are not talking about chronic depression here or depression
that has got way out of hand. We are talking about the kind of depression
that makes us stop and think and re-evaluate - the kind of depression
that makes us see everything that we thought of as valuable, important,
significant and meaningful. In that sense, we can view depression in a
totally different light. That kind of depression can aid us in terms of
our spiritual growth, because it makes us begin to question ourselves.
For all these years we may have been thinking, 'I'm such-and-such a kind
of person,' 'I'm this kind of person,' 'I'm that kind of person,' 'I'm
a mother,' 'I'm a father,' 'I'm an engineer,' or whatever. Then suddenly,
that familiar world crumbles; the rug is pulled out from under our feet,
as we say and we are left sort of dangling.
We have to have experiences like that for our spiritual journey to be meaningful; otherwise we will not be convinced of what we call the non-substantial nature of the samsaric world, the world of everyday life. Instead, we will take that to be real. According to Buddhism, the world that we perceive - the world that we interact with and live in - is insubstantial. Through the experience of depression and despair we can, in fact, begin to see things more clearly rather than less clearly. It is said that we are normally charmed or bedazzled by the world; it is like a spell has been put on us by the allurement of samsaric excitements and entertainment. When we get depressed, we begin to see through that and are able to cut through the illusions of samsara. If we look at it that way, we can work with depression.
The third point that we have to understand is that if we cease to see our experience of depression as something that is bad, we can change something fundamental in our lives. We cannot be reborn without losing our illusions. Instead of seeing depression as a negative thing, as something dark and sinister and destructive that is going to gobble us up or suck us down into a dark pit, we can see that there is actually light within depression itself. In fact, depression can teach us how to see things more clearly. According to Buddhism, this is the starting point of our spiritual journey. When we look at it like this, we will see that depression is something that can be worked with.