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Depression, Therapy, and Meditation, Revisited: Who Helps Us See the Truth?

So last month The New York Times published a controversial article on Zen by Chip Brown about a long-time practitioner of Zen meditation who came to the conclusion that his meditation practice was insufficient for working with his depression, and therefore he sought out therapy. Denise Abatemarco initiated a great discussion about the article here on the One City Blog.


I have some thoughts on how therapy can augment one’s meditation practice and study of Buddhist psychology (FYI, The Interdependence Project is hosting what is sure to be a wonderful Buddhism and Psychology series this summer, which you can listen along to wherever you are). Everyone gets depressed, whether clinically or just more occasionally, and to say that meditation practice is not suited to work with depression is pretty off, in my humble opinion. If our meditation practice is making you feel more and more alienated from your self, and causing you to supress anything at all in the name of peace of mind, then I think we need to reassess our understanding of what meditation is and how it is helpful.

First of all, I don’t agree with Chip Brown’s underlying assertion that Zen or any other form of meditation practice is about ignoring your life issues, or suppressing our “stuff” into viewing all the mind’s contents as “empty” or insubstantial. In fact, if you look at a core Buddhist technique like the four foundations of mindfulness, the third and fourth of these guided meditations are all about looking directly at what is going on in your life and arising in your thoughts. The great Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron speaks at length about never suppressing what we are feeling. Buddhism is all about understanding our negative habits and transforming them, never, ever ignoring them. What is ignored cannot be seen for what it is, and what cannot be seen cannot be dealt with. Psychological suppression is in fact the #1 problem in Buddhist philosophy, not any sort of proposed cure to our problems. 

So fundamentally I think there’s a perversion of meditation going on when we say it’s not about looking at the day by day events and experiences of life, and that therapy is. A good critique of Chip Brown’s article was published on the Shambhala Sun Blog.

But there’s another more practical issue, in my personal experience. And that is this: we talk a lot in Buddhist meditation about the importance of finding a teacher or teachers to work with, to be a “mirror” to your mind, to check in about life on a very regular basis and act as a therapeutic anchor (if not a formal therapist) in one’s life. The term “Kalyanamitta” or “Kalyanamitra” is the main Buddhist word for teacher . Yet most students of Buddhism find that regular in-person access to a living Buddhist teacher is a very hard resource to find. (We had a great lecture at the I.D. Project just a few weeks ago on precisely this topic).

On the other hand, most of us in therapy get access to our therapist once a week. Our therapist comes to know our personal stuff quite well. Our meditation teacher? Usually not so much.

So on a practical level, therapists serve in the role of eye-to-eye teacher in a way that Buddhism has not yet figured out – for the most part – to provide for students in Western life. I have a lot of theories about this – primarily that teaching Buddhism is still considered a spiritual rather than psychological or scientific vocation, and this perception makes it a lot harder to construct a livelihood model around it, because people are wary of charging living-wage fees for things they consider “spiritual.” Meanwhile, there is a path and structure for a therapist to make a living. So therapists abound, and most Buddhist teachers who want to make their living working with people do so by becoming therapists.

Beyond a more “diagnostic” mode of training specific clinical ailments, this seems to me to be a key difference between studying Buddhism and going into therapy. A Buddhist teacher that you can see often is hard to find, sadly sometimes impossible. A therapist is not so hard to find. For myself, as a teacher and student of Buddhism, finding a  Buddhist therapist is one of the best things that happened to me this year.

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posted June 16, 2009 at 7:37 am

You write,
“I think we need to reassess our understanding of what meditation is and how it is helpful.”
I strongly suggest you also reassess your understanding of what clinical depression is. Mitsunen Roshi’s issues were not clinical depression, and the word “depression” did not appear in Chip Brown’s article. Clinical depression is a significant mood disorder that requires a very different treatment from psychoanalysis.
There’s a common but harmful conceit amont many western Buddhists that meditation is all you need to combat clincical depression. Buddhist meditation can be a significant help for people recovering from depression, but profound depression requires medical treatment. Meditation can’t “cure” it any more than it can cure a broken leg.
Chip Brown himself obviously is not a practitioner, and his misunderstandings of Buddhist teachings on emptiness and several other things mar the article. I think you have to look through Brown’s misunderstandings to the more interesting question, which is how Mitsunen Roshi’s understanding of himself confounded his practice, and how a transmitted teacher was still struggling with what might seem to be beginner-level issues.

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posted June 16, 2009 at 8:39 am

Sorry, I did not say it was about clinical depression. My reference to depression was tangential to that article and more in regards to discussions on the One City Blog. Perhaps I should have made that more clear. My main point is that meditation as suppression or avoidance is not a Buddhist teaching

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Your Name

posted June 16, 2009 at 11:06 am

I thought the article was a good work of journalism, well-written and compelling. As the story unfolded, it became clear that a man who needed to work through issues had been *using* Buddhist theories of emptiness to justify his avoidance. This seems to me as possible as a person using therapy to futher indulge in thier own neurosis, using religion to justify self-righteousness, using altruism to justify treating those closest to them poorly and so forth. I will admit that I think the article leaned (really only leaned) in the direction of accusing Buddhism of imperfection, but what came at me way more from that article is how easily pursuits, however noble or beneficial they may seem (like meditation)can be used to mask what is going on.
Point being, all media articles have to make some lame point about “the Way We Are” because that’s what editors want. But the piece was better as a character study.
And besides, depression is a huge, leaf covered trap in Buddhism that you can fall into without even realizing it. It’s useful to have articles about it.

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Julia May

posted June 16, 2009 at 11:08 am

That’s me above. CAPTCHA TEXT IS MY ENEMY.

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posted June 16, 2009 at 11:08 am

Absolutely: meditation is not about suppression or avoidance. But it appears to be a common misunderstanding or misapplication of practice, even by experienced practitioners. I have to believe we have all done it and will do it, but we have to be able to notice it. Or we need teachers who can notice it in us and point it out.
I was recently reading Pema Chodron’s No Time to Lose and she noted how surprised she was to realize, when she first started practicing lojong (Tibetan mind training)how much she was still holding onto “good” and trying to avoid “bad” feelings.
My fave lojong slogan on this is “Don’t Make Gods Into Demons” (along with “Abandon Poisonous Food”) Pema notes:
“Abandon poisonous food” and “Don’t make gods into demons” are warnings that only you know whether what you are doing is good practice (“gods” or “good food”). Anything could be used to build yourself up and smooth things over and calm things down or to keep everything under control. Good food becomes poisonous food and gods become demons when you use them to keep yourself in that room with the doors and windows closed.
From Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living by Pema Chodron, (c)1994, Shambhala Publications.

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posted June 16, 2009 at 11:17 am

Julia, I totally agree. We humans can and will use ANYTHING to avoid facing what is going on. Even buddhist practice.
But hopefully, buddhist practice includes that awareness and helps us cut thru that baseline confusion we have. Cuz somewhere in there in everyone is the awareness that we all really know this is going on, anyway.

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posted June 16, 2009 at 12:00 pm

At one point in college I thought Buddhism and meditation was about finding this kind of mental blank “white space” and staying there 24 hours a day. I was going to activist nonviolence trainings at the same time, and misunderstanding those too. and the result was a kind of aggressively passive, in-denial-of-feelings, Sarah. Not surprisingly, I was depressed during that time.
Luckily, books like Epstein’s “Open To Desire” and many others (and the um, Book of Life), helped me understand that Buddhism –whether on or off the cushion– is not about pushing away feeling (or desire), and I think I’m finally getting better at finding productive ways to experience emotion without being run over by it OR running it over with control. Good luck to everyone.

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posted June 16, 2009 at 1:09 pm

I have no problem with Chip Brown’s article – I don’t think he distorts anything, particularly. For the most part he lets Nordstrom express his understanding of the Zen training he received in his own words. Nordstrom reports on Zen teacher told him in 1987, “What you need to do, Lou, is put aside all human feelings.” Maybe Nordstrom had unhelpful teachers, maybe he misunderstood instructions, who knows, but that’s not Chip Brown’s fault.

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