Buddhism and Mental Illness

Buddhism and Mental Illness May 21, 2013

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]

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