Buddhism and Mental Illness

President Obama has declared May “Mental Health Awareness Month.” At the announcement the President said (thanks to Adrian Warnock for posting this):

“Today, tens of millions of Americans are living with the burden of a mental health problem. They shoulder conditions like depression and anxiety, post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder — debilitating illnesses that can strain every part of a person’s life. And even though help is out there, less than half of children and adults with diagnosable mental health problems receive treatment. During National Mental Health Awareness Month, we shine a light on these issues, stand with men and women in need, and redouble our efforts to address mental health problems in America.

For many, getting help starts with a conversation. People who believe they may be suffering from a mental health condition should talk about it with someone they trust and consult a health care provider. As a Nation, it is up to all of us to know the signs of mental health issues and lend a hand to those who are struggling. Shame and stigma too often leave people feeling like there is no place to turn. We need to make sure they know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness — it is a sign of strength. To find treatment services nearby, call 1-800-662-HELP. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers immediate assistance for all Americans, including service members and veterans, at 1-800-273-TALK. . .” READ THE REST

As part of this national awareness campaign, the whole of Patheos has been invited to write on the topic of Faith and Mental Health, you can see a few selections on the front page on the right.

So here I am, jumping in a little late with my own post on the topic.

Having faced mental illness, in a number of different capacities, it’s hard to know just where to start. Before I was born, perhaps.

What is the Zen koan? “What was your face before you were born?”


Breathing: In……. Out…….

It wasn’t until well into my own depression that I would learn this. In fact, it wasn’t until some time after my depression that I would learn the full extent of it, and even to this day, my family is generally hush-hush when it comes to my father’s family history of depression and other mental illness.

The short story in my own case goes: unrealized depression (probably starting around age 12), realized depression (in late teens, treated by therapy, some antidepressants), more depression (in early 20s, less therapy, more drugs).

And then the shift.

In my early 20s I began meditating. Yes, like most people, the first couple weeks of meditation seemed hopeless: I was distracted, fidgety, consumed by unwanted thoughts, emotions, physical pain, the works. But I stuck with it – I was taking a University course in it, so I kind of had to. And around week three something snapped. A break. Like sinking slowly into a warm bath tub, every exhausted muscle welcoming the heat. My mind sank beneath the troubled surface of constant thoughts and sensory stimuli. And there was peace.

For the first time in as long as I could remember I was at peace. Breathing: Deep……. Slow…….

On a short retreat I was taught Thich Nhat Hanh’s short poem:

“In, out
Deep, slow
Calm, ease
Smile, release
Present moment, wonderful moment.

(The cadence follows your breathing, so as you breathe in, say (inwardly) “In”; breathing out, say (inwardly) “Out”; and so on, repeating as long as you would like.)

But it still took me three years of meditation, medication, and occasional therapy to make my next move. At age 24 I dumped the antidepressants.  I recall reading about a study, perhaps this one, that showed St. John’s Wort to be as effective as Paxil – only without many of the side effects and the bonus of being much cheaper. So I made the switch, I meditated, and things moved forward.

And eventually, as today, it was just me and meditation.

Breathing: Calm……. Ease…….

That’s the very short story. I do think the therapy helped, even when at times it definitely didn’t. And I think that the drugs, overall, helped, even when they gave me horrible side effects requiring yet more drugs with their own side effects.  Or even when they just numbed me to the world because, hell, numb is a whole lot better than the crippling despair of deep, deep depression. And I have no doubt that little things like regular exercise, time spent in nature, and a healthy diet all contributed to the relatively healthy me that I am today.

But the meditation, and something about the Buddhist worldview, as much as I have come to understand and accept it over the years, have been absolutely central to getting out of that long, cold, dark tunnel so sterilely labeled “clinical depression.”

What I learned through meditation isn’t easily put into words, but if I could pick a few, they might be  acceptance non-clinging, and love. To talk about the particulars would be a bit too much I think, but I can imagine that those of you who have experienced these through meditation can relate – and those who haven’t, well – you might find it worth while to try for a few weeks at least.

And don’t forget that drugs or therapy or a walk in the park might be what is just right for you. Just remember that something, somewhere, at some time, will help. The tunnel might be dark, cold, and extremely painful at times. But there is a warm, filling, calming, peaceful light in this world to be experienced on the other end when you reach it.

Breathing: Smile……. Release…….

I can smile now knowing that the worst is behind me – an arduous journey, a long learning experience. I don’t think I’ll ever be free of depression, or cured, or anything quite like that. Yet I take heart in the fact that even after his awakening, the Buddha still faced Mara (similar to the devil), a sort of tempter. Problems, emotions, fears, doubts, etc still come up in the awakened one. But what does he say? “I see you, Mara. I know you. You have no power over me.” 

In the same way I have been able to say, “I see you, depression, I know you. You have no power over me.” And just like that, it’s gone…. For now. The experience is empowering. Depression is a sort of falling in to a cycle of identifying with self-defeating thoughts and beliefs and emotions, while meditation gives you the tiny moment of freedom to realize: that’s not me, that’s just thoughts, just beliefs, just emotions. I’m still right here. The story of Sister Vajira’s encounter with Mara is especially inspiring and instructive (I’ve included a few more links – highly recommended reading – below, thanks to the great folks at Access to Insight).

Breathing: Present moment……. Wonderful moment…….

Despite it all: the worries, fears, heartaches, pains, and more, we are all still here.


There is no grand optimistic twist in the story. To tell you everything will be okay would be a lie. Things will still get shitty. But not always as shitty as before. And sometimes life will actually be pretty damned good. And it’s that ‘good’ that we strive for: the moment of peace with the 3-month old baby, the colorful sunset after the cloudy day, the hug from a friend or parent after a long time apart. There is so much to discover in live that connects us with the truths of impermanence, interconnectedness, and ultimate nonsubstantiality of the self; concepts that seem on the surface to be merely theoretical, but must be experienced to be truly realized.

This is what, if anything, Buddhism has to offer to the world of contemporary mental illness: a slow and complicated process of unwinding the tangled ball of thought-feeling-emotion-reaction that form the dense, unhappy ball of self an your core. Buddhism isn’t just about making you feel okay so that you can go on in your life. It’s much more radical than that. And again, it might not be what you really need right now; many illnesses respond very well to medications or specialized therapies.

After all of that – take a walk in the woods, go for a jog, do yoga. And then sit. Breathe. And cherish this amazing opportunity you have now.

Present moment…. Wonderful moment.

[if you have a story of mental illness and Buddhism, please leave it in the comment section with text or a link]


A few mentions of Māra (a.k.a. Namuci, “Kinsman of the heedless“):DN 16DN 20DN 32MN 26MN 34MN 106SN 4.8SN 4.19SN 4.20SN 5.1SN 5.2SN 5.3SN 5.4SN 5.5SN 5.6SN 5.7SN 5.8SN 5.9SN 5.10SN 6.2SN 17.3SN 22.63SN 35.115SN 35.189SN 35.199SN 35.202SN 35.207SN 47.6SN 47.7SN 56.11AN 4.49AN 7.63Dhp 7Dhp 34Dhp 37Dhp 40Dhp 46Dhp 57Dhp 104Dhp 175Dhp 274,Dhp 337Dhp 350Iti 38Iti 46Iti 57Iti 58Iti 59Iti 62Iti 68Iti 82Iti 93Sn 3.2Sn 3.12Sn 4.9Sn 5.10Thag 1.25Thag 21Thig 6.7Thig 13.5; [tries to outwit the Buddha: SN 4; tries to outwit the nuns: SN 5]

  • http://twitter.com/108zenbooks 108 Zen Books

    >>Despite it all: the worries, fears, heartaches, pains, and more, we are all still here.<<

    Reminds me of Mary Oliver's poem, Wild Geese, in which she says:

    Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
    Meanwhile the world goes on…

    Wittingly or unwittingly, we too choose to go on in a myriad ways with boundless faith. Thank you for this sharing.

  • Daniel

    This is a very beautiful and brave post Justin, thanks for sharing it.

  • Douglass Smith

    Thanks for the heartfelt post, Justin. One caveat here: I’ve gone through some bad patches in my life, and at one of them I found meditation to be something of a hindrance. I think that’s because I was using samadhi as an escape mechanism. Correctly applied, meditation can be useful in such situations. And indeed, nowadays I find also that when I am feeling down, nothing helps better than meditating to get my mind back around, in just the ways you mention. But it has to be used judiciously, and at times accompanied by professional help.

    With metta.

    • justinwhitaker

      Yep, thanks for adding that, Doug. I recall reading an article a few years back by a woman who wound up leaving a retreat because her depression was so severe and the meditation was only making things worse. I’m sure there are plenty of cases like that; and yes, escapism may account for a lot of meditation’s popularity today (I still remember first learning the term “Jhana Junkies”).

      • cacosopher

        This is not an uncommon complaint — worsening of depressions, anxieties. Leonard Cohen experienced this wall, so much so that his Roshi instructed him to switch traditions for a time to get through it.

        A light-hearted vernacular can sometimes be missing from a regimen, and a positivist framework can be tremendously helpful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=736353377 Jayarava Attwood

    If you search on my name you’ll find a fairly prominent diatribe directed against me which mocks my previous online statements about struggling with depression (etc), amongst other insults. So I have not mentioned it for about 8 years, and removed those previous references (though my cyber-stalker still has copies of the pages afaik).

    If only meditation had helped. It did not. I’m pleased there are happy Buddhism and “mental health” stories, but mine isn’t one of them.

    On the plus side I would direct people’s attention to Sally Clay’s story: http://sallyclay.net/ A long time inspiration.

    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks for the link, Jayarava (though please someone help her redo the 1997-era website design). Yes, meditation doesn’t seem to help everyone; I wish it did and hope other avenues proved more successful for you.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=736353377 Jayarava Attwood

        I like old school html :-)

        I think that absorption in study and writing has become my path. And reflecting on my own life in the light of what I find in the texts has helped.

    • cacosopher

      You are not alone. Leonard Cohen saw his depression lift somewhat, then worsen while dedicated to zazen. His roshi told him to go study with a friend, a good yogi, whose levity helped Cohen continue forward.

      For me it was prozac that allowed me other breakthroughs available only via mindfulness. As part of this I’ve noted a few things – some Buddhist views promote a dour asceticism. I for one felt that they were not conducive to finding that levity I was missing in life.

      There is no reason to be serious, only sincere.

  • Ambaa

    As I searched for Hindu answers to depression, I also found meditation to be the number one recommendation!

  • http://twitter.com/blissedbitch blissed bitch

    Thank you for writing this. My practice has brought me to a similar place, watching that Mara try to follow me around. I also found St. John’s Wart to be helpful years ago before I knew meditation. Mindfulness helps a lot when I keep it in shape. For me, weekly Dharma study and two short sits a day keeps me in shape. Retreats are excellent intensives that I find extremely nourishing no matter how difficult, like athletic training camp for the mind; like a any training regime, some are dull others are powerful.

    It is normal for emotions to become “worse” in the beginning months or years of a regular meditation practice because we are becoming more intimate with our mind. That is part of the process. When I hear of people walking away from meditation because they experience an increase in their emotional symptoms (anger, depression, etc) I wonder if perhaps they didn’t received the correct instructions: that it’s working, that it’s ok to rest or keep going, that accepting them is possible, how to use them and transform them into deep compassion for the self and others. But, we are all on our own unique path.

    May all beings be happy.

    • http://twitter.com/blissedbitch blissed bitch

      Another thought… something that helps me is thinking that the depression is my empathic nature picking up on the suffering of others and my self cherishing mind thinks it’s my suffering. When I think this, it’s easier to unstick and transform it into a tonglen practice.

  • http://dewdropworlds.wordpress.com/ Barbara de Zoete

    If it was not for my Zen Buddhist training, I would not have known about my Aspergers Syndrome. It was through looking inward that I had to find out. I was inevitably with all facets. Once I saw myself clearly -which took a lot of guts, but Zen Buddhist training helps you find that too- I knew: something odd is going on. And with the help of a psychiatrist, I got diagnosed.

    Now, with the help of my Zen Buddhist training, I am learning to see myself again for what I am. And although I sometimes still mourn this discovery – you cannot recover from an autism disorder – Aspergers has nothing to do with what I see any more :)

  • mufi

    I’ve never been in psychotherapy for myself alone, but when one daughter was diagnosed with aspergers and another with anorexia, let’s just say that my world was shaken up a bit.

    Buddhism solves none of this, of course, but it does provide me with an interpretive framework that makes more sense of it all, and – via regular meditative practice – provides me with coping skills that I used to lack.

    At times, I do question whether or not Buddhism serves as an escape mechanism for me, but then I remind myself of recent situations that I’ve faced with more calm (if not joy) than I recall from similar situations in my past.

    • mufi

      PS: Insofar as Buddhism does serve as an escape mechanism, it seems a relatively harmless one, when compared with, say, alcohol or extreme sports.

  • Pete Hoge

    Good of you to use personal testimony to support the efficacy of Dharma practice. I deleted my G+ account so I hope to follow your posts here.

  • Ester de Beer

    Thank you, Justin, for sharing your experience in the sincere way you have done. It is inspiring.

  • Guest

    I have a close family member in hospital having attempted several suicides/self-harms. It is of critical importance they commit to more than one mindfulness regimen (MBSR, Yoga, Tai Chi, Vipassana … as well as DBT).

    I find it hard to put to words the depth of suffering some people have to confront, and how important it is to learn the ability for just-sitting, just-experiencing. But given the context, consider the challenge of learning it? It’s non-trivial for anybody, but a far bigger challenge for those suffering serious mood or psychiatric disorders.

    The founder of DBT, Marsha Linehan, has recounted her struggles with a severe mental disorder. In almost-continuous isolation she found her breakthrough in a massive satori-like experience that was akin to a beatific epiphany of self-acceptance. I’m sure there’s more to the story, but from there she found her way into Zen and then refactoring it into modern cognitive behavioral psychology in her PhD.

    What with the meditation studies showing the growth of new brain tissue in meditators, and other studies showing corresponding improvements across the board, there’s surely something to be gained from some kind of mindfulness regimen, but the method probably needs to vary situation- or case-depending.

  • Bob_from_Reno

    Meditation ended my experiencing racing thoughts, a symptoms of bipolar. Meditation has been proven to increase activity in the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain. Individuals with greater activity in the left pre-frontal cortex have been found to be happier and more content than those with a more active right pre-frontal cortex. The latter are more likely to display spontaneous anti-social behavior (anger, violence, and withdrawal). [1] It also helped me in writing my first book – Mental Illness a Guide to Recovery & my second -Liberty & Mental Health – You Can’t Have One Without the Other -which should be released in about 2 months.

    Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama Narrated by Daniel Goleman (pgs. 334-346); The Benefits of Meditation, Psychology today, (April 1, 2003) Colin Allen;