The Buddha’s Advice on Depression And How Can His Advice and Meditation Help With It?
What is Depression?
Depression is defined by Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries as a medical condition in which a person feels very sad and anxious and often has physical symptoms such as being unable to sleep, etc. as in sentence, “She suffered from severe depression after losing her job.”
American Psychiatric Association explains that depression (major depressive disorder) is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. Fortunately, it is also treatable. Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease your ability to function at work and at home.
‘FEELING’ is a very important word here. So are the words “think”, “act” and “hope”.
Although I cannot find a word in Buddhism that equates with the word “depression”, I think this word may be equivalent to these Pali words: Soka (grief), parideva (lamentation) Domanassa (distress, anguish, unpleasant feeling in the mind, sad-mindedness, displeasure, melancholy or grief). They are a kind of mental pain, which is a kind of Dhukkha translated as “suffering”, “anxiety”, “stress” or “unsatisfactoriness” in Buddhism.
What Causes Depression?
The American Psychological Association states that there is no single answer to this question. Some depression is caused by changes in the body’s chemistry that influence mood and thought processes. Biological factors can also cause depression. In other cases, depression is a sign that certain mental and emotional aspects of a person’s life are out of balance. For example, significant life transitions and life stresses, such as the death of a loved one, can bring about a depressive episode.
The Buddha’s Advice on Depression
The Buddha attached great importance to how to handle one’s own feeling in preventing and managing depression. He advised that we train our mind in such a way that it is always on the right track, not the wrong one. In comparing a trained mind to an expert driver of a car, I can say that the trained mind will almost always “decide to act” rightly on various occasions, like the clever driver who usually “decides and acts rightly” in handling his car in the road.
The Buddha had a lot of advice to prevent this kind of trouble from happening in our mind. He even had advice on how to handle it if it has already “been” in our mind.
The Buddha’s advice may be regarded as a kind of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that targets helping patients learning to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. For example, he said as quoted in Buddhadhamma: The Law of Natures and Their Benefits to Life the following:
Taming the mind to be effective is good. A tamed mind brings happiness.
He advised that we try to live a life of a wiseman who understands and accepts the state of alternating periods of good times and bad times in life saying, “The full moon rises and then wanes; the sun illumines the earth and sets. I see through the worldly vicissitudes; therefore, I do not grieve whilst others are grieving.”
Another advice in point:
Pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute,
Gain and loss, praise and blame:
For human beings these things are transient,
Inconstant and bound to change.
One mindful and wise discerns them well,
Observant of their alterations.
Pleasant things do not stir his mind,
And those unpleasant do not annoy.
For those of us whose minds have already been troubled with depression, the Buddha advised that we have to try to live in the present moment: “Hanker not after the past, nor fantasize over the future, for the past has been left behind and the future has not been reached.” Try it – stop thinking about or being angry about the past or something that happened in the past, and stop untimely worry for the future. This will help us to stay calm and cheerful.
The great Buddhist sage Nagarjuna also advised on how to view problems or obstacles:
If there is a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for despondency?
And if there is no help for it,
What is the use of being sad?
So come what may, I’ll never harm
My cheery happiness of mind.
Depression never brings me what I want;
My virtue will be warped and marred by it.
The Buddha’s Advice and Meditation Can Work Well to Help with Depression
In addition to the Buddha’s advice on preventing and handling depression, meditation — meaning the act of giving one’s attention to only one thing, either as a religious activity or as a way of becoming calm and relaxed — particularly Mindfulness Meditation and Loving-kindness Meditation (Pali: Metta) is found to be of a great help in preventing and treating depression.
The Buddha is quoted in Buddhadhamma: The Law of Natures and Their Benefits to Life pp. 1437-1438 as speaking of the benefits of Mindfulness Meditation: “This concentration by mindfulness of breathing when developed and cultivated, is peaceful and sublime. It is a body energizer, a refreshing, pleasant abiding. It provides unsurpassed security and wellbeing, …[also] leads to the destruction of taints.”
The Buddha spoke of 11 benefits derived from practicing Metta in the Discourse on the Benefits of Loving-Friendliness (Metta Nisamsa Sutta). They include sleeping well, waking up easily, dreaming sweetly, being liked, feeling serene, concentrating easily, having a fair complexion.
The Buddha also advised his followers to cultivate Metta in this way:
May all beings everywhere plagued
with sufferings of body and mind
quickly be freed from their illnesses.
May those frightened cease to be afraid,
and may those bound be free.
May the powerless find power,
and may people think of befriending each other.
In modern times, there are studies on the benefits of both mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation.
Harvard Medical School has an article on ‘How meditation helps with depression’. Its headline says, “A regular practice can help your brain better manage stress and anxiety that can trigger depression.” The article also tells how it works.
Other studies in 2000, 2008 and 2010 cited by Meagan B. MacKenzie1 and Nancy L. Kocovski in the article “Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: trends and developments” found that there is consistent empirical evidence in support of using mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) to decrease the risk of depressive relapse. MBCT was then a new approach in cognitive therapy for depression.
Apart from decreasing stress and anxiety, Metta meditation has many more benefits as mentioned by Kirsten Nunez, such as less self-criticism, more positive emotions, less self-destructive thoughts, reduced pain symptoms, more resilience, etc.
Crystal Raypole on Healthline advises on how long to meditate daily in her article
‘Meditation Won’t Cure Your Depression, but It Can Be a Big Help’. It’s okay to start small. Even 5 minutes a day can help. Try committing to 5 minutes every day at a time that works well for you.
– Buddha’s Quotes on Depression at https://bit.ly/3mPflnr
– How meditation helps with depression at https://bit.ly/3ADzWAc
– Scientific Buddhist: Peer Reviewed Studies – Buddhist Metta Loving Kindness Meditation Can Slow Aging – 10 Benefits of Compassion at https://bit.ly/3FVbmP8
– #3: The “Happy” Hippocampus – How Meditation Ends Depression at https://bit.ly/3lD1CAM
– Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress at https://bit.ly/3vbeUHY
– #7: The “Fear Center” Amygdala – How Meditation Transforms Your Stress Response, Ends Anxiety at https://bit.ly/30kAu1f