Depression is not fun. But it need not be a “problem.” Mental illness in general arises when our deluded mental habits become chronic, often leading to our mind – and even our body or nervous system – becoming injured. Often, there is some external trigger, such as an abusive childhood or some extreme emotional trauma from life events. Some people, for a variety of karmic reasons, carry even a genetic legacy making them more prone to mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, and so forth. In any case, it is not our fault that our mind reacts to adverse life events in deluded, negative ways. Nobody intentionally becomes deluded, rather delusions just arise uncontrolledly as our habitual response to difficult circumstances. The good news is we can learn to change our mental habits, and our current mental state gives us a great opportunity to train in doing so. But we will not be able to do so unless we first learn to patiently accept our current situation. To “accept” in Dharma terms means “to be at peace with how things are.” Things are as they are, and from a spiritual point of view, this is not a “problem” for us.
Unfortunately, there is tremendous mental stigma associated with mental illness. Society seems to accept physical illness, such as the flu, a broken leg, or cancer; but it judges mental illness as some sort of personal failure. We then internalize this stigma, and begin to judge ourselves, viewing ourself as a failure because we are not well. Excuse my French, but this is just bullish*t! Samsara is the nature of sickness, and if truth be told, all physical sickness actually arises from mental sickness from either this or previous lives. Mental sickness happens, just as physical sickness does. It is not our fault, and it is not a personal failure. Society is simply wrong, and we should ignore the views of the ignorant.
Before we get to how to accept our depression, anxiety, or other mental illness, first two words about medications: take them! Geshe-la is very clear about a Kadampa practitioner’s relationship with traditional medicine, doctors, etc. If we have a headache, we take an aspirin just like everybody else, and then we practice patient acceptance while we wait for it to take effect. When we suffer from strong depression, etc., we are sometimes so impacted we are simply unable to “practice Dharma.” Medications help put us back into a zone where we can once again train our mind, and then we use the Dharma we have learned to work through the rest. We should view our medications as karmic emanations of Medicine Buddha and strongly believe they have the power to heal our mind. If we are to transform our ordinary food into medicine nectar, then surely we should transform our medications in the same way. Similarly, we should see our doctors, talk with our psychologist, and take the time to rest exactly as normal.
Healing our mind from depression and anxiety takes time. It is during this time that we need to practice patient acceptance. I find there are three main obstacles to accepting our current state: hopelessness, fear, and impatience wanting it all to be over.
Hopelessness primarily arises because either we assume our current state will last forever or we lack confidence in our capacity to make it to the other side. Hopelessness causes us to think our efforts to get better will fail no matter what, so we give up even trying. Hopelessness quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. First of all, nothing is permanent. Everything is constantly changing, and as they say, “this too shall pass.” Second, the laws of karma are definite. If we create good causes for long enough, we will get better. Finally, all of us are destined to eventually reach enlightenment, the only question is when. So whether it is soon or in a future life, it is definite we will make it to the other side. Giving in to hopelessness is not only self-defeating, it is factually wrong.
Being mentally ill can give rise to all sorts of fear. It can be very scary when, as a result of depression or other mental illness, we lose our normal mental capacities. We fear it might be permanent or we fear something going wrong and not being able to deal with it. This can then lead to anxiety, which can become generalized, leading to a further erosion of our mental capacities in a vicious cycle. How can we overcome this? First, we need to remember our pure potential is indestructible. It is our Buddha nature, and it lies within all of us. No matter how terrifying the storm clouds, the sky always remains untouched. Second, our mind being ill gives us countless opportunities to apply effort to heal it, so our current illness is rocket fuel for our spiritual development and karma. Third, we can use our temporary state to develop compassion for those going through aging, whose loss of capacity is irreversible, at least in this life. Fourth, we can use our current state as an opportunity to practice taking – either taking on our own future suffering now, or taking on others’ suffering similar to what we are going through. The practice of taking is one of the most powerful means of purifying the negative karma giving rise to our current difficulties.
Sometimes when we have been mentally ill for a long time, we can become impatient wishing it was all over. People who suffer form physical sickness or injury often develop similar impatience. If we indulge this mind and allow ourselves to become impatient with our recovery, we will not speed up our getting better, we will simply make ourselves more miserable along the way. The bottom line is we have no way of knowing if our current state will last only a couple of weeks or a couple of years. This too, we must learn to accept. How? Faith in Dorje Shugden. Dorje Shugden is a wisdom Buddha who blesses our mind with the ability to see how our situation is in fact perfect for our swiftest possible enlightenment. In this way, nothing is an obstacle and everything is helpful to our spiritual development. We can think of our convalescence period as a special form of spiritual retreat where we can work on our mind. We don’t know how long it will last, but we do know it is exactly what we need and we are protected. Anybody who has done long retreat knows it is not bliss, rainbows, and unicorns; rather it is more like hard work cleaning out the grime in the deepest recesses of our mind. It can be quite unpleasant, but we know it is only by doing a deep cleaning that we will be able to enjoy a lasting freshness and purity.
In conclusion, while depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses may be “unpleasant to go through,” from a spiritual perspective, they are a good thing. We need to embrace them in this way. If we accept our circumstance, we will no longer experience it as “suffering.” It will still be there, we will just experience it differently. We will experience it as deep healing of our mind.