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    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.

    Comment Pages

    There are 6 Comments to "On depression and “Buddhist science”"

    • Scott says:

      Wonderfully thought provoking, Paul. Thanks.


    • Steve S. says:

      Very interesting article on the “Dark Night” versus depression. I’m sure there are many who wonder something like: “which one am I going through”? The thing is we can probably only become aware of which it is in retrospect., and then perhaps not even with complete certainty.. The difference might be a bit too subtle.

      And, I’m not sure that emerging from the “Dark Night” results in loss of self. For me, loss of self is probably a bit farther down the path.


    • Tom Harkins says:

      Paul, I too suffer from depression; or, actually, manic-depression (bipolar disorder), and had to “take the plunge” to get on medications, which thankfully keep me basically “level” and “sane.” I am very greatful for them. I also agree that there is a fundamental difference between “depression” (in the clinical sense) and the “dark night of the soul,” the latter of which I assume means a sense of total loss, even an absence of the sense of the presence of God. Some of David’s Psalms depict this latter state.

      However, I do agree with Steve as well that I don’t think leaving the “dark night” results in a “loss of self.” I don’t believe in a loss of self, if it is defined as some entry into a “cosmic consciousness” (or, unconsciousness?) where someone is no longer “distinct” from everyone or everything else. (I once heard someone “pray” at a funeral, and, in speaking of the deceased, said: “She’s one with the universe.” That’s contrary to my theology or understanding, whether pre-demise or post.) I believe God created men as separate from himself, and separate from everybody (and everything) else, and that this separate consciousness will always be there, even throughout eternity.

      Nonetheless, the Bible certainly includes language such as “dying to oneself.” It also says, “He who would keep his life must lose his life for my sake.” But I think that is primarily focused on losing “selfish-ness” as opposed to “self-ness.” We are to consider others as better than ourselves (or, at least, as equals). “Greater love has no man than this–that he lay down his life for his friends.” In doing so (sacrificing for others), we gradually change WHO we are, but not THAT we are. We desire to be “like” Jesus, but “one with Jesus” only in the sense of concord, not actual assimilation. That’s my view, at least.


    • As I read your post, for some reason thought jumped to Maya Angelou’s book title ” I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” Your statistical data on depression suggests there are plenty of caged birds that don’t sing. I guess to make meaning though caged is the challenge.

      Georgia Harkness has an excellent book by the title, ” The Dark Night of the Soul.” It served me well while a seminary student back in the dark ages. The stripping away I have experienced. The joyful release not so much. Maybe tomorrow.


    • Ruth Lindsay says:

      Interesting post. Thank you for sharing.

      I have dealt with depression in one form or another for many years and have been on anti-depressants since childhood. So far, I haven’ managed to go off of them successfully. I am grateful for medication and the science that makes it possible, but I have serious problems with the whole paradigm of mental health. The fact that any mood, behavior or personality that does not conform to a specific model of “normal” must be given a diagnosis obscures some important aspects of human experience and human variation. Sometimes a diagnosis is perfectly appropriate and helpful. Some people do have autism spectrum disorder…some people are just ‘weird’ (I do not mean that in a derogatory sense).

      The search for a diagnosis often serves to pathologize people themselves, deflecting attention away from roots causes, many of which are deeply rooted in our culture and demand social transformation. While I do not doubt on one level that the depression I experience is ‘pathological’ in the sense of being maladaptive, I also think that, in light of the suffering of the world and people’s general blindness to it, it is perfectly rational to be depressed. As I like to say, I am merely the “identified patient.”

      But an even more poignant example can be found in the diagnosis of PTSD. The idea that someone who has been in a war, or experienced rape or another kind of abuse is labeled with a disorder because they bear a long-term burden of trauma is to me simply ridiculous. Who wouldn’t suffer long-term if they had spent a year or longer in combat? If someone has spent a year in a kill-or-be-killed situation, their whole being adapts to it, and one cannot simply flip a switch and return to the level of calm and security befitting American suburbia. PTSD, as far as I can tell, is a perfectly normal and even healthy – if it is dealt with – response to stressful and traumatic life experiences. Pain, as they say, is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. With PTSD, it’s as if your body, mind and soul are telling you to deal with what has happened to you. To pause, reflect, take time to heal and be comforted. When one experiences trauma, one has to learn how to think about the experience and to assimilate it into a larger life narrative. That takes time and work. PTSD tells you there are no shortcuts.

      I expressed this view to a social worker I know (who is lovely, smart and good at what she does) and she argued that PTSD is a valid diagnosis because, after all, not everyone responds to trauma by developing PTSD. But this only highlights my basic point: we do not live in isolation. We do not fight wars as individuals, we do not create rape culture as individuals, we do not suffer and perpetuate abuse as individuals. Maybe people displaying symptoms of PTSD are telling all of us something very important about the world that we live in.


      • Paul Paul says:

        Hi Ruth. Interesting point about PTSD: in the same circumstances, some people will get it and some people won’t, and this says nothing about pathology. I can’t but agree with you.

        I’ve never thought about PTSD (or depression) in this way. Serious food for thought. Thanks.



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