On Depression

“I wonder what role the Christian premise of Original Sin plays in the Western epidemic of depression,” said Ajahn as we were walking down the street in the village. “In Thailand and other Buddhist countries, a human birth is a good thing because it gives an opportunity to work toward liberation. The Buddha taught that although our minds are clouded by unskillful tendencies, they are fundamentally luminous. But in the West, there seems to be an undercurrent of personal defectiveness. People seem to reach adulthood with the belief that there is something wrong with them or with their life, and they have to hide this deficiency and try to make up for it. I wonder if the idea of Original Sin has something to do with this.”


I thought for a second. “Yes, it’s possible, Ajahn. Even if many of us are not religious, perhaps our cultures have absorbed this notion and transformed it into a pervasive feeling of incompleteness. I doubt anyone is born feeling defective, but I think the majority of Westerners enter adulthood with a more or less conscious feeling that something about them is not quite right. There is more depression today than ever before in the West, so obviously something about our cultures is making us sick. But how do you understand depression, Bhante?”


He thought for a few seconds. “I think depression is the result of faulty thinking. It’s a misunderstanding about who we are. People absorb all kinds of ideas about themselves and the world as they grow up, and this moulds their belief systems. Family, trauma, school, society, etc., these all contribute to our programming and the image we come to have of ourselves. The Buddha says that mind is the forerunner of all things and that we are what we think. Depression is nothing more than negative self-imaging consolidated through various life events. It is a bad dream. Depression is not a flaw, it is a learnt system of thought and emotion that makes you feel very bad, sometimes chronically. But like all things, it is not permanent, and it is not who we are. This is good news, because I think people who suffer from depression tend to think that they are flawed and that nothing could ever change, and that they “are” depressed. In reality, they just have a bad idea of themselves, but this idea is not who they are. Their mind is still bright and complete, it’s just obscured by dark clouds.”


“This makes sense to me, Ajahn, and it fits with my understanding of Buddhism. But I wonder why the teachings don’t seem to talk about this. I haven’t heard many Asian Buddhist teachers talk about depression and its cause and cure. You can figure it out when you understand more about Buddhism, but why isn’t it more blatant? There’s even a famous episode with the Dalai Lama at a Mind & Life Institute conference in India in 1990, where he was asked about self-hatred, and his answer was “What’s that?” He then went back and forth for ten minutes with his interpreters to figure out what the questioner meant. Now I’m sure every Westerner hearing the question knew exactly what it meant, but the world’s most famous Buddhist couldn’t get it. Why is that?”


“Yes, I know about this episode. When he finally got it, he exclaimed, looking at the crowd, “But… this is a big mistake”. In other words, developing such negative programming is very painful, very unskillful. Who wouldn’t feel depressed if they believed a mountain of negative things about themselves? You know, depression is starting to appear in Thailand in the most westernized segment of the population. Those whose lifestyles are more Western. But this is not a traditional way of seeing the world in Asia. Most of us feel quite connected to others, and if we have some negative thoughts, we just say our minds are down today. We don’t say “I am depressed”, or “I am a failure”. Teachers don’t talk about depression simply because it’s not a common reality in Asia.”


He continued: “As for the Dalai Lama and most monks, the fact that the mind is naturally bright and pure is obvious, and they spend their lives cultivating positive qualities. Self-hatred is an impossibility because it goes against the training. The Dalai Lama had never heard of such a thing because it was probably extremely rare among Tibetans, and certainly unheard-of among monks. But depression is perfectly explained by Buddhist psychology, and those teachers who know the Western predicament certainly talk about it. Depression is just a dream, like all other mind states. A painful dream, but a dream nonetheless. And waking up is perfectly feasible.”