Dealing With Depression—the Buddhist Way

Dealing With Depression—the Buddhist Way


For those of us experiencing depression, a Buddhist perspective might offer some support. Explore these six Buddhist techniques for dealing with depression.

According to the World Health Organization, depression is a common global mental health issue affecting approximately 280 million people worldwide. Though dealing with depression can be highly challenging and greatly frustrating, it can be navigated. There are steps which can be taken to manage symptoms and improve quality of life. Here are some Buddhist pathways for dealing with depression.

Create a Mind Shift

Try not to buy into the fraudulent belief that your depression is unsolvable, fixed, and permanent. This stubborn approach is not skillful. A better pathway is to create a mind shift. Psychologists note that our mind is constantly monitoring the nature of our thoughts. When they are highly negative, the mind responds accordingly by creating sadness and stress. But when you create a mind shift by focusing on more positive thoughts, the mind creates relaxation, release, and happiness.

Consider the example of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk and author of Training In Tenderness. Kongtrul Rinpoche says that by bringing a warm memory to mind, he has been able to cultivate a positive mind shift while depressed. Here is his technique:

"When I had some experiences of depression, I’d try to remember something that warmed my heart. An event, relation, something that I did that filled my heart with warmth, even if it was just a memory. That can really lift up the depression. Then, I tried to recall that [feeling] more, and more, and more. It was very helpful for myself to break through that density of the depression. Even when you feel connected with someone or something for a moment, you feel lifted up from that kind of depression, and you feel less alienated."

Apply the Five Precepts to Your Life

A new study reveals that people who live by the Five Precepts of Buddhism find that their depression eases significantly. The Five Precepts are: to abstain from taking life; to abstain from stealing and taking what is not freely given; to abstain from sexual misconduct; to abstain from lying and false speech; and to abstain from consuming intoxicants that can cloud the mind.

This study involved nearly 700 people, most of whom were women living alone. The research was reported in PLOS, a peer reviewed scientific journal published by the US-based nonprofit Public Library of Science, revealing that living out the Five Precepts promoted mental and emotional wellbeing.

“Observing the Five Precepts offers evidence that it buffers the effect of perceived stress on depression. People with high levels of observing the Five Precepts are less likely to develop depressive symptoms,” the authors stated in their conclusion. Furthermore, the study authors noted that although the Five Precepts are from Buddhist “ideology,” they can be easy be practiced by non-Buddhists to similar results.

Develop a Yoga Practice

Tibetan Buddhist monks have traditionally practiced yoga not only for physical health but for emotional balance and spiritual evolution as well. Additionally, yoga is known to bring relief from depression. Lena Schmidt, a yoga instructor and writer, cites four ways yoga can ease depression.

First, yoga is exercise, and exercise is scientifically verified to lift and shift moods. For an extra boost, she recommends practicing yoga outdoors.

Second, yoga gives you language to understand feelings. Words such as notice, investigate, experiment, and curious are important cues guiding the mind to become more aware of what’s going on inside.

Third, yoga is a mindful practice. Yoga teachers often encourage you to focus on your breathing, observe body sensations, and pay close attention to emerging thoughts or emotions. “Practicing mindfulness on the yoga mat can provide you with tools to incorporate into your daily lives” she adds.

Fourth, yoga is communal. Making the effort to attend a yoga class produces the important benefit of social connection. There is a positive energy link to others even when you don’t know anyone in the room. “Although the benefits of yoga are tremendous if practiced solo or at home, getting yourself to a yoga session in the community can boost your mood even more,” Ms. Schmidt notes.

Bring Curiosity to Your Depression

Rather than fight it or be frustrated by it, try approaching your depression with objective curiosity and interest. Become a witness and observer of what’s really going on inside of you. Take, for example, Sayadaw U. Tejaniya, who is now a Buddhist monk but previously had a career in textile manufacturing. During his time in manufacturing, he experienced several episodes of clinical depression. With remarkable honesty, Tejaniya says he managed to overcome several bouts with serious depression by bringing great effort to dealing with it, but “each time it came back stronger. Depression followed me everywhere,” he recalls.

Tejaniya discovered that a better way to manage his depression was to study it and investigate it closely. This involved bringing a more accepting and gentle attitude “by just recognizing the depression and being present with it.” He explains:

"I would just recognize that this was nature, that this was just a quality of mind; it was not personal. I watched it continually to learn about it. Does it go away? Increase? What is the mind thinking? How do the thoughts affect feelings? I became interested. I saw that when I’d do the work with interest, my investigation would bring some relief. Before that I’d been at the depression’s mercy, but I learned I could actually do something. I was choosing to be proactive, to find out about depression, and then it lightened."

Practice Self-Compassion

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche provided this insight for developing self-compassion: “Look in the mirror. Appreciate yourself. There is an alternative to feeling condemned. You actually can make friends with yourself.”

Someone who is learning to do this is Surya Anna Bromley. She was a 21-year-old college student in Washington, DC, when she experienced an issue in her right ear. “It felt clogged, and I couldn’t hear anything out of it.” Thinking this issue would resolve itself, she waited. After a month, she saw a specialist and was diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), a form of sudden deafness.

“My right ear is deaf for all intents and purposes. There is no identified cause nor cure for this ailment,” she explains. Suddenly, at 21 years of age, Bromley found herself shopping for a hearing aid:

"At the many doctors’ offices I visited in the following months, I was always decades younger than the other patients. I felt cheated by my body. I was facing issues that I had not expected to confront for many years, despite taking care to exercise, feed, and love my body. I had thought that those ingredients would be enough for it to thrive in the way I wanted and expected. Coming to terms with my fragility continues to be a difficult journey."

This combination of circumstances left her stressed and depressed.

It was learning to practice self-compassion that helped Bromley deal with a body that she felt had betrayed her. She says that self-compassion “allows me to give myself forgiveness and care and reminds me of all the people in my life who have supported me throughout this challenging time.”

Bromley suggests that anyone experiencing a physical disability cultivate self-compassion in order to “take a break from that pain and give our body and mind the space to relax and to feel the presence of compassion within us.”

Be Open to Medication

Many who meditate feel strongly that meditation by itself can resolve depression. For some, that may be true. However, there are seasons in life when depression is profoundly oppressive, and in that time frame, medication can be helpful.

One who supports this view is Narayan Helen Liebenson, a teacher at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts:

"I feel it is crucial to be open to anti-depression medication. Although times have changed and meditators these days do seem more open to taking medication when needed, it can still be a sticking point for some who think they should be able to free themselves without medication or think of themselves as less than for having to medicate, believing they should be able to rely solely on Buddhist practice. This is not a wise and openhearted attitude.

Antidepressants can be an enormously useful sacred medicine meant to balance that which is unbalanced. Taking them can be compassionate action, enabling someone who is incapacitated from this kind of suffering to meditate in a fruitful way."

Finally, do all you can do to avoid self-judgment and self-condemnation over depression. Be dismissive of all ideas that you are somehow “defective” when, in reality, you’re just human.

Learn more about finding inner peace, the Buddhist way.

Dealing With Depression the Buddhist Way

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.