Archive for "Nov 01 2011"

On depression and “Buddhist science”

Not depressed: HHDL’s call for “Buddhist science” may make sense. Image source: buddhachannel.tv

Several years ago I went on antidepressants. It was one of the most difficult, drawn-out, painful decisions I have ever made. When I finally did, though, there was very little pain and a lot of relief. Several days before my first prescription was filled, one of my most trusted friends asked me if I felt like throwing in the towel. Yes I do, I said, I feel exactly like doing that. After that I just did it.

So last week, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published their newest report on antidepressant use, I took note. The cash-out: Since 1988 there has been a 400% increase in the use of antidepressants. More than one in ten Americans over the age of 12 is currently taking them. There is some concern that depression is overdiagnosed, but there is also evidence that this may not the case.

Whether or not too many people are on antidepressants, though, one thing is clear: A whole lot of people feel really bad.

Before I threw in the towel I did my research. I took several self-assessments, which convinced me that I was in fact suffering from clinical depression. I read about the science of antidepressants, which struck me as vague at best. I read Brave New World, which scared me to death. And I read Dark Night of the Soul, which gave me the strength to do what I did.

One of the things Dark Night taught me is that not everything that feels bad, is bad. There is a distinction to be drawn between depression and John’s dark nights. Dark nights occur when God (in John’s language) draws near and strips a person bare of all illusions about herself, her world, and the divine.

Yet the symptoms of depression and dark nights are hauntingly similar: a persistent “disintegration of feeling and agency, a collapse of personal narrative into meaningless segments of event for which one can have no liking or love,” in the words of Yale theologian Denys Turner.

According to John, what distinguishes a dark night from depression is (what we would call today) the subject’s sense of self upon exiting the struggle. In the case of depression (which John called melancholia, among other things), the subject returns to a state of pre-depression mental health and regains a more-or-less stable sense of self. In the case of a dark night, however, the subject comes to recognize that what he once called his “self” was no more than an illusion of his own making. Once achieved, this loss of self is the most joyful of events. It is a burden released. In fact, a dark night is marked precisely by the hope for the non-recovery of the old self in any form.

Is neurology alone up to the task of making this distinction? I don’t know. I admit to being skeptical, though, and not just because of the God part (although Christian resonances abound — you must die to yourself to live, etc. — even über-atheist Sam Harris admits one does not need to share John’s metaphysics to take this seriously). It seems to me the only way to make the distinction is to listen to what the sufferer says. But is it scientific to speak of self and loss of self? Is it scientific to trust such language?

Again, I don’t know. But at least one person thinks it is.

Last summer I was in India and took part in a private audience with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. He spoke at length about science and Buddhism. But this is not quite right: he talked about “Buddhist science,” a term that at the time struck me as rather goofy — isn’t the whole point of science its blindness to local cultural vagaries? — but is beginning to sink in.

The context of his remarks was the investigation of the human brain/mind. His point was, standard Western-style scientific research on the brain is well and good and should be done, but not without a parallel kind of experiential investigation, e.g., of the mind of the meditator, by the meditator. Human experience, in other words, can be translated into useful data.

Why not? Perhaps our interior lives are not as subjective as we’d like to think. Perhaps we have more in common with one another than we can easily see.

One need not be a Christian or a Buddhist to take dark nights seriously. For centuries these traditions have systematically cultivated this loss which is no loss, but dark nights can happen to anyone. And for the sake of millions of sad people living out their lives in a happiness-obsessed culture, the difference between dark nights and clinical depression should be made clear.

Even if it takes “Buddhist science” to do it.