One thing that I have been delving into deeper lately is the idea of Buddhism for depression and anxiety. More specifically – how it can help with modern day mental health. Even for low mood, I’m interested in how we can take Buddhist philosophy and use it to be at peace with anxiety and depression. I mean, is there a clear reason why all monks seem to be so at peace with themselves all the time? When was the last time you saw a sad monk? I’m not sure I ever have…
If you do a quick Google search in 2018 for ideas on how to deal with anxiety and depression, you’ll get smacked in the face with eastern natural remedies. Most notably, mindfulness meditation is prescribed by bloggers and wellness experts as a way to combat low mood and anxiety disorders. I’ve written about mindfulness before, and how it can help with anxiety and depression, but Buddhist teachings go a lot deeper than just meditation and mindful meditation. Buddhism is a way of life, a way of thinking and way of perceiving the world. Meditation only increases this perception.
In fact, it’s pretty hard to actually describe Buddhism these days. Not only are there a ton of different meditations that you can do that originate from Buddhism, Buddhism itself is a complex philosophy that just gets deeper and deeper the more you learn. Delving into Buddhism, I’ve had my eyes opened by it’s sheer simplicity. It’s teachings make sense to me, and like they are helping me to perceive not only anxiety and depression in a different light, but my mind also feels as if it’s being refreshed and re-energized the more I learn.
So just in case you needed a refresher…
So WTF Even Is Buddhism Exactly? And Who Was ‘The Buddha’?
Some people think Buddhism is another religion like Christianity or Hinduism. However, it’s arguably more of a philosophy, or a way of life. The difference between Buddhism and other religions is that there is no god to pray to for hours on end. In most religions, those with faith look for help from their gods. They actively seek an external force like Jesus to save them from suffering and the problems in their lives.
Buddha on the other hand was 100% real. He was a real guy, fact. He was not a mysterious god who had magical powers or could perform miracles. Instead, he was the son of a King that lived on what is now the Nepalese border. As a young prince, Buddha, whose birth name was Siddhartha Gautama, lived a lavish lifestyle away from any suffering and pain. In fact, he had never even seen an old man before he left the palace walls.
Once he’d reached the age of 28, Gautama left the safety of the palace he had grown up in. Although his life seemed perfect to anyone at the time, he felt deeply unsatisfied on a spiritual level. He wanted to find out what the point in it all was. So he knew he would have to leave his comfortable surroundings if he was ever to answer his questions about life, meaning and existence. One late night, he decided to leave. He made his way into the surrounding areas and saw before him more suffering than he could even imagine. He sold extremely old people, sick people, and even saw a dead body being carried. Needless to say he was shocked at these new sights. He went on to spend the fews years or so with the most prominent religious and philosophical leaders at the time.
One important thing that he realized during this time was that to be alive brings suffering. He understood that the very nature of life included unavoidable suffering. Although he had learned much during his time with the elders, he still felt a sense of unfulfillment. He knew there had to be more to life…He spent years depriving himself of food and everything pleasurable only meditating for hours on end everyday, thinking that by being attached to pleasures, he would never be satisfied. He completely detached himself. He ended up in bad bad shape, even close to death by depriving himself so much. It was at that point he realized that removing pleasures like food and relationships was dangerous, and instead, a balanced life was a healthier way to live.
One evening, he found a tree to sit under. Gautama simply sat there, and soon found himself in a deep meditation. He was consumed by an enlightened view of the universe and his place in it. He had found Nirvana…
It was like finally finding the awakening that he had been chasing fo so many years. He had finally understood that to live free from suffering, all he had to do was change the way he reacted to it. More to the point, he understood that a balance in life was key. He became self-aware on a scale most do not reach in a whole lifetime. Gautama realized that by looking inwards and reflecting, he could shape the way that he thought, unlike chasing a god for help.
From then on, Gautama was known as Buddha, and he returned to his home to share want he had learned with whoever would listen.
What made Buddha so much different to gods that religions pray to? He never told his followers they had to believe in him or even have faith in him. He described how people shouldn’t base their beliefs on ancient scripture or the beliefs of others, but instead they should believe in and do what feels right to them. He based his teachings on common sense principles that still hold true to this day.
So how can Buddhism help with depression and anxiety?
The 4 Noble Truths
The 4 noble truths are the pillars of Buddhism which form the basis of Buddha’s teachings. The reason why I believe they can help with depression and anxiety is because they put a lot about life into perspective in a smack-you-in-the-face perfectly simple way.
1. All existence contains suffering
Whether we like it or not, all existence contains suffering that no one is immune to. In this case, depression and anxiety. Much depression and anxiety in my own life has been triggered by experiencing suffering in the forms of bullying, money, working and relationships. Most people fantasize about having perfect lives that are free from worrying and pain. The reality is, to live is to experience suffering. Those who fantasize about living perfect lives, spend them by grabbing onto ideas they do not even truly believe in themselves. Insecurities about themselves make them feel the need to try and fit in or do things they don’t want to do. They then become depressed when the world doesn’t deliver what it is they had been chasing.
2. The cause of suffering is craving
Buddha tells us that the core source of suffering is craving. In modern day life, this could be craving friends, money, houses, cars, you name it. When we do not get what we want, we become anxious and even depressed at times. The funny thing is, craving is also a natural part of existence. Human beings will always crave something in their lives. Much of my own depression and anxiety had been down to craving and not ‘getting what I want from life.’
The modern western world is based on the idea that ‘more is better’. If someone else has something that you don’t have, it can make you feel inadequate or even depressed from time to time. Think about the social media world we live in. All day long you can watch as all of your friends post images of their seemingly perfect lives. Sooner or later, you end up feeling pretty crap about yourself.
We spend our evenings drinking alcohol, watching TV, going to watch shows. We spend our weekends getting drunk, blowing our money, telling ourselves that we’re ‘living life’. In reality, all we are doing is chasing an idea that these things will fulfill us and make us happy. However, anxiety from this way of living soon takes ahold of us because we aren’t spending time finding peacefulness from within. There seems to always be something other than what we already have that will finally bring us joy.
3. The end of suffering comes from the end of craving
Although we create a lot of our own suffering, we are the ones who can also end our suffering. We can’t change what happens to us, but we can react how we react to what is happening. This is the basis of a lot of modern mindfulness practices. It’s ultimately down to accepting situations and feelings for what they are, and not allowing ourselves to overreact emotionally. This noble truth reminds us that we don’t have to rely on anyone but ourselves to end our suffering.
The Buddha teaches that to end our suffering, we must let go of attachments. This doesn’t mean to detach from everything that stimulates us and that which makes us crave. Instead, it means to not allow those things to attach themselves to us. It means to get to a point where you understand for yourself that all of those things are actually things that are not important. Your attachments are what make you mentally weaker, and distort your vision of what true life means to you.
To allow attachments like inherited ideas or materialistic objects to hold you, you can never hold true happiness and peace within yourself. Think about it like this…
How many celebrities do you see get rich and famous only to find that everything they ever wanted actually makes them miserable and depressed? They had attached themselves to the idea that money and global fame would make them finally happy. They bought into the idea that these things bring ultimate joy and satisfaction to human beings. In other words – poor=unhappy and rich=happy.
They had chased an external idea that something outside of themselves would give them meaning and purpose.
4. The Eightfold Path
The Buddha spent the last 45 years of his life teaching others how to find their own nirvana by living by the eightfold path. The eightfold path expands on the first three noble truths and aims to teach others how to live and conduct themselves in all areas of their lives. The Buddha designed the eightfold path as a guide for others to find their own enlightenment or ‘truth’. It can take years to completely understand the ‘truth’, but it is said to be well worth the time and effort. That’s not to say that you can’t start to practise each eight areas right now and gain some benefit.
Ultimately, I believe that understanding the four noble truths alone is a great way to address your depression and anxiety. It describes existence in a highly practical way. When you understand that all existence contains some type of unavoidable suffering, you can stop trying to keep you head above water, and start to see what’s going on in a new light.
The eightfold path is essentially about living ‘the middle way’.
The Eightfold Path
- Right understanding
- Right thought
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right livlihood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right concentration
Each item of the eightfold path explains itself, and when you think about it, these are what you’re taught as a child, to an extent. The patch basically describes living a life of balance and compassion for others and the way you conduct yourself. The difficult part is to live each item in your day to day when there’s modern stress that attacks you. By consciously making the right effort to live by each item, you can find more peace in your life, helping you ease depression and anxiety.
If you’d like to learn more about the eightfold path, and go deeper into Buddhism as a whole, check out the a great guide below.
Think Like a Buddhist To Free Yourself From Anxiety And Depression
Whilst some anxiety disorders are chronic, the Buddhist philosophy towards anxiety has helped me see general anxiety in a totally new way. Buddha believed that the source of suffering comes from attachments in the material world. He also believed that we, as humans, define ourselves as a separate being from anything and everyone else. In reality, he said, everything within the universe is connected, and everything is divine. Noone, and nothing is more important than the other.
We tell ourselves that we love and cherish everyone in our lives, but in reality we walk through the day protecting and serving number one. Our own voice reminds us that we are the most important thing in the universe, rattling thoughts around our mind that causes us to constantly question our behavior and actions. We tell ourselves; “I’m this, I’m that”, and “I want this, I need that”. With everything that happens in the world, we believe that the most important thing is ‘me’. However, when you think about it, it’s a ridiculous notion.
How can we possibly be the most important thing in the world when everyone else thinks the same thing? There’s 7 billion people in the world who live in the same self-centered dream. Much of our daily anxiety can be traced back to our own self-centeredness when we realize this. The problems you think about are only big to you because they are occupying your own mind. What if you flipped the switch and became more self-aware of the world that’s happening around you on a daily basis? What if we stopped thinking that we need ‘things’ to make us better and happier?
This is part of the path to enlightenment. The Buddha devoted himself selflessly to helping others for the last 45 years of his life. The result? he was truly fulfilled. The emptiness of depression and the worry of anxiety is a burden on yourself. These complex emotions can make you feel heavy and give you a distorted view of the world. You can find yourself zoning in on yourself and how bad your life is. For example, In recent years I found myself in a deep depression again. My job, money, and relationships were taking their toll on me. I found myself in an extremely odd and empty place.
Although I was not suicidal, I did find myself questioning “what the hell is the point in me being alive?”
My questions ran deeper and deeper; “The only reason I’m alive is because my parents wanted kids”
I was in a spot where I felt like nothing mattered at all. As if there was literally no point in anything. This depression I experienced caused me to feel like I needed to find meaning in not just my own life, but human life in general. I wanted to feel as if I was alive for a reason, even if it wasn’t a reason of my own.
In these situations, some people turn to religion. In my case, I started reading about philosophers and their great thoughts on life. I read and read and read, searching for something that resonated with me on a personal level. In the end, I came across the same old things like mindfulness and meditation. I’d always written meditation off, thinking that it was reserved for ‘hippies’. However, I decided to read about the origins of Buddhism, and the Buddha himself, because a lot of what I read caught my eye.
One thing about Buddhism that caught my attention was the way it was so simple. Buddhists don’t spend hours a day praying (unless they want to) there’s no ‘right way’ to follow Buddhism (Buddha actually talked about this himself unlike many ‘gods’ who say that followers should strictly abide by rules) and the whole philosophy has been around for 2500 years. Tried and tested…
A Buddhist spends his or her time watching the weather of emotions come and go, instead of holding onto them and ruminating – the exact thing that has caused me emotional pain for years.
Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation For Depression And Anxiety
Aside from the powerful philosophy within Buddhism, many people who suffer with depression and anxiety report that one practise within Buddhism, meditation, or ‘mindfulness meditation’, helps them to manage their thoughts and feelings. On the other hand, some people say that it does nothing at all for them. What we can note is that mindfulness meditation has become mainstream in recent years, and more and more people including celebrities practise mindfulness on a regular basis.
Here’s a cool story about a woman who found peace with depression by practising meditation on a regular basis.
Meditation is something that anyone can practise at any time. Mindfulness meditation is even being used to treat patients with depression and anxiety these days. So how do you know if meditation is right for you? You won’t until you try it. The common belief is that only 10 minutes a day can help to stabilize your emotions. Personally, I don’t practise everyday, but when it do it’s not for much longer than 10 minutes at a time. This can be done by sitting in silence, watching your thoughts glide past without attaching yourself with them.
Why is Buddhism good for depression and anxiety? I believe it’s because it’s not forced down your throat. The different factions within Buddhism make it diverse, but the core noble truths and meditation practises are something that can help you to improve the way you observe your thoughts and manage your feelings.
Buddha said that he didn’t want people to strictly abide by a set of rules when they live their lives, but by doing their best to follow the eightfold path, they can find more inner peace. He explained that people should simply do what feels right to them in the moment and not feel trapped by ideas or thoughts of others.
By living this way, he believed that we could free ourselves from suffering and find our own way, relying on our own emotional strength when we need it.
This post was previously published on Projectenergise.com.
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