The Buddha beats the Blues… overcoming depression

Five years ago, I decided to chant about the fact that I’ve always tended to wake up in a grumpy, grouchy mood. It was a fairly casual decision born of curiosity and no little guilt that my ‘low life-state’ often had a negative impact on people around me.

depression

The chanting did make an immediate difference, but it didn’t quite follow the ‘script’ I expected. The first impact of chanting to wake up feeling cheerful was that I began feeling miserable until midday rather than just 10 o’clock. A week later and I was feeling blue all afternoon. By the end of the month I felt depressed all evening as well. In fact after six weeks chanting to have more cheerful mornings, such were my all-day feelings of despair that all I looked forward to was sleeping at night, because that was the only time I felt nothing at all – luckily I have never suffered from insomnia.

But seven hours of sleep seemed to pass in no time at all whereas the days seemed to go as slowly as a double-decker bus ploughing uphill through treacle. There was no evidence to believe the depression would ever lift. All I had was my faith. At some point in all this, I stumbled upon this famous quote from Nichiren Daishonin advising believers that when obstacles appear in life, the wise will rejoice, while the foolish will retreat.”

Did I feel like ‘rejoicing’ rather than ‘retreating’, as Nichiren suggests? Did I heck. Did I feel angry, lethargic, panicky, fragile, tearful, irritable and bleak? Nearly all the time. Did I wonder why the hell I’d started chanting about my morning mood? Just a little bit (whilst also knowing there was no turning back…). Was I critical, distant from others and blaming them for my suffering? Absolutely. Did I feel that Buddhism was working? Er, no, not really, certainly not after fifteen months had gone by with only one or two occasional glimmers of progress. Did I carry on chanting? Only just, the mental anguish and pain was almost enough to stop me, but my supportive fellow Buddhists kept saying ‘keep going mate.’

And although I never quite felt suicidal I do remember one bright, sunny day driving down a motorway thinking that if my front tyre had a blow-out and I hit the next bridge at 80mph, oblivion would be fine, thank you very much. Embracing that warm black void would be easier than facing another moment alive, such was the depth of the despair I felt. I simply could not conceive of being happy (whereas now I struggle to recall those bleak feelings at all.)

Saying yes to the Buddha in you

It felt, as I chanted, as if my very soul was grinding on its axis. Then I gradually realised in my prayer that it would be less painful to change the depths of my life and my family’s karma of mental illness than to stay the same. As Anais Nin so eloquently wrote: “And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

And a fellow Nichiren Buddhist who had been through a similar experience said: “Your rock bottom point is the crucial moment, this moment when you realise that your life is asking to grow and that you can either say ‘No’ and give up or say ‘Yes’ and carry on. When the negative forces have got you on your knees, they are paradoxically, exhausted and this is the very moment to strike back. The moment when you can find total determination within your utter hopelessness. You just need to say a resounding and definitive ‘Yes’ to your Buddhahood.

Of course being a stubborn git, I said ‘No’, – to begin with anyway. And to be fair, I was dealing with years of bottled up anger and frustration – depression and mental illness are part of my family karma going back more than one generation. And so I remained stuck for a few more weeks in a coping rather than challenging mindset – see Kazuo Fujii’s brilliant guidance on this topic. I was very tempted to see my GP and get some Prozac (I know Buddhists who have done so and it was definitely the right thing to do) but in my prayer this never felt like the best way forward. Incidentally there was no major exterior ‘trigger’ for this depression.

Become a brilliant beacon

I also came across these encouraging words by Daisaku Ikeda: “Become a brilliant beacon, shining with joy and happiness and live your life with confidence and courage. When you shine with a radiant light, there can be no darkness in your life.”

When you realise that this is true, you stop desperately hoping for a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, because it finally dawns on you that you, yourself, are that light. And you are the light in the tunnel, not on some distant horizon. And you are a light that can illuminate other people’s lives when they feel desperate.

cropped-leaping-man1.jpg

Very slowly I developed an attitude of “whatever it takes to become the person I need to become.” And little by little, almost in reverse to how the depression had started, I began to have the odd bright afternoon, hopeful morning or cheerful evening. Eventually I managed one whole day of the week feeling happy. Gradually one day became two and three and four. Now, five years later, I very rarely get a ‘blue day’ at all.

There is more to this story than I have room here to tell. And I am not saying that what I learned from this would be the same for everyone who chants Nam Myoho Renge Kyo – we all have our own unique karma and mission. And of course, Buddhism is not the only way to beat the blues – for example CBT, hypnotherapy and mindfulness can be effective tools.

It is deeply encouraging to see that here in the UK, it is becoming much more acceptable to talk about depression publicly. Even for men. Former footballers like Leon McKenzie and Darren Eadie have told inspiring tales of their own battles with ‘the black dog’ (as Churchill called it.) BTW, I highly recommend McKenzie’s book, My Fight with Life.

Leon McK book

Last year in the UK parliament, three MPs – Kevan Jones, Charles Walker and Dr. Sarah Wollaston bravely stood up and shared their stories. As has Alastair Campbell, former adviser to Tony Blair, who’s written a brilliant little book called The Happy Depressive. Times journalist Robert Crampton and actor Stephen Fry have also opened up about depression.

I feel now that I went through that 18 month morass of despair because nothing less powerful could have made me understand so quickly the dignity of life and the depths of suffering to which people can sink. I am a wiser, less arrogant, more compassionate person because of the experience (most of the time anyway 🙂 ). I have learned that the longer the darkness and the deeper your negative karma, the more value you can create from it. I now get that life is precious. I am a better Life Coach than I was. I am more open to others and I am better at sharing stuff (especially with other men), rather than soldiering on alone. I even wake up feeling cheerful almost every day 🙂 . This depression was the one of the toughest experiences of my 28-year Buddhist practice, and I shall treasure it forever.

Dx

31 Replies to “The Buddha beats the Blues… overcoming depression”

  1. suekingtonsmith says:

    Wow, David, thank you for this. I’ve suffered depression for over 40 years, and have hit rock bottom on many occasions. NMHRK has saved my life, and I feel that I’ve reached the end of my suffering. I’m going forward with hope and courage, thanks to the practice, and my gratitude is boundless. Sue.

    1. Very encouraging words, thanks Sue (again!) Dx

  2. corinne says:

    Thank you, this is everything I needed to read…
    I love the truth in Buddhism! NMRK!

  3. Thank you for posting this. Oh, how I’ve been there too…. would like to share this with you in return. http://buddhasofessex.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/daily-experience-four-sufferings.html
    Thank you David, and thank you Gohonzon …

    1. Hi there fellow Buddha, great to read your experience and I also enjoyed the Matilda Buck guidance re her Sadness which I had not seen before. 🙂 I am working in Southend today & 2moro, heading to Norwich tomorrow afternoon and if by any chance you are near here or en route, it would be lovely to do gongyo with you. If you are up for that, pls email me: davidhare@btopenworld.com
      Best, David

  4. George Holland Hill says:

    It might be worth submitting this inspiring description of your experience to the Art of Living magazine. . .

    1. Thank you George for your kind comment. I will certainly write an experience for AoL one of these days, though right now this blog and finishing my book are keeping me very busy! Best, NMHRK, David

  5. linda says:

    Thank you. I have suffered from depression and anxiety throughout my life, and it’s been particularly pronounced this past year after losing my job. I’m not a chanter, but maybe I should begin. This makes me think it’s possible for something to break through this…..

    1. Hi Linda, glad you found the post helpful. If you want to try chanting, just drop me a line saying where you live and I can put you in touch with your friendly local Buddhists – davidhare@btopenworld.com

      Warm wishes, David

  6. Christine Conlon says:

    Dear David, I view the depression I have experienced for most of my life as a ‘positive training ground’, a training to grow in the understanding and knowledge of God. When we are weak, Christ is strong. I would not wish depressive thoughts on anyone and I deeply value, and am extremely grateful for, the training I have received from The Father, Son and Most Holy Spirit. Christine Colon

    1. Dear Christine, it is marvellous that you are able to see your depression in this positive way and as you know it is quite a strong aspect of our ‘family karma’. I can say sincerely that in the 48 years I have known you, I have always admired your strong faith as well as your great sense of humour and cheerfulness amidst lots of challenges. Take care, Davidxxx

  7. Thank you, as always, David. Your journey is not only inspiring, it is a view into an aspect of human experience that needs to be examined, even by those of us who are fighting other demons and not (yet) sizing up this one in ourselves.
    A profound component of our practice of Nichiren Buddhism is the interconnectivity with and responsibility for the happiness of others in all areas of our lives. I introduced a young man to this practice 20+ years ago and his efforts were like “fire”, blazing hot initially, but cooled and forgotten with a couple of major breakthroughs accomplished. He remained open to my visits, even when he moved to a rural home many hours away. Although we spoke furtively about his need to restart his practice, his agreements were quickly replaced by the pace of his life’s demands and, eventually, our relationship devolved to infrequent phone calls and long distance encouragement.
    What I had missed, in retrospect, was his demon of depression and its dormant potential to arise and take over without much warning.
    He called me one evening to tell me tearfully how his roommate/partner/lover had experienced an emotional breakdown and ended his life violently. I tried to encourage my friend and promised to come to visit as soon as possible, though I was traveling for business and would get to him in a couple of weeks.
    I recall that he gave me cues to his own overwhealming sadness and I chalked them up to situationally appropriate grief and encouraged him to chant with me on the phone and continue on his own until I could travel there. As I think back, he told me often over the years about his darkness and we talked about that as one of a list of things to chant about. Really? I didn’t deeply understand and I missed the opportunity to connect in a meaningful way, or at least reach out to members, local to him, who could step in and help restart his faith journey.
    He took his life the very next day after our second phone conversation and I will chant for his eternal happiness until my last breath.
    I share this story by way of introducing the topic of depression as a devil to come to know, even for those of us who are not experiencing noticeable “blues” ourselves, at this juncture. It is very real to many we love, yet it is possible to miss opportunities to strongly encourage those who need our heart, even if we don’t entirely understand their struggle ourselves.
    I wish you and all the readers the deep joy of the human revolution process. I’m determined to continue my journey to face and defeat my demons while remaining open to the realities of my brothers and sisters. Thank you for reading this lengthy missive. -Mike

    1. Thank you Mike for this moving contribution. The struggle to recognise the interconnectivity taught by Nichiren is perhaps the biggest challenge of Buddhist practice and indeed of our increasingly fragmented society. I think Sensei refers to it as the ‘cold indifference’ in people’s hearts. Here in the UK men tend to bottle up their depression (the famous ‘stiff upper lip’) because it is wrongly seen as a sign of weakness and then ‘out of the blue’ they sometimes take their lives – Ex-footballer Gary Speed is perhaps the most famous recent example: he seemed to ‘have it all’ at least in terms of treasures of the body/storehouse but he still succumbed to his demon of Fundamental Darkness & hung himself. That certainly made me stop and think about whether I am missing cues in the people I personally know. The young man you introduced will surely chant again in a future lifetime. Warm wishes, David.

  8. I absolutely love this piece. It’s a very encouraging piece indeed. Especially when you described the time duration and your feelings at various points. It helps to know that it’s normal to feel down and it’s easy to give up. I see the transformation in you when you decide that you are the light itself. We all are.

    I recall a colleague who is enthusiastic everytime I see him. I asked him how he acquired his zest to which he replies that it’s self generated. I try to keep that in mind and practise that – as you said, even trying to be happy for the entire day/everyday is really tough but you preserve-red and saw the light.
    I feel uplifted by your piece.

    Currently, I am hoping to get to the stage where I look forward to wake up in the morning and my vision is when I reach a point where I will wake up everyday with a smile, jump right out of bed to take on the world and keep the smile on my face to pass it around. I hope to get there one day and share my story as well.

    Thank you very much, David.

    1. Hello, many thanks for your kind and eloquent comment and I am delighted that you felt uplifted by my post as this was my intention and indeed the purpose of all suffering is to win over our illusions and then encourage others. I wish you well on your journey, thanks again, David

  9. Mel Turcanik says:

    Hi David,
    Thank you for having the guts and determination to even try to communicate about a subject that is shunned by most.

    I think the issue of depression is as complex and diverse as are the number of people. There is a significant difference between feeling down or having the blues and a clinical depression. I’m not a professional in mental health, so my definitions may be a bit off, but I see clinical depression as a condition that cannot be reversed by a change in outlook or determination, but caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain that can only be reversed by changing the brain chemistry. (Whether that can be done by the brain itself is something that is still for science to discover.)

    Having several family members with this type of condition, I can definitely see the difference between those who practise Buddhism with the SGI and those who don’t. I have heard experiences and known those who absolutely needed medication to get past a serious clinical depression but were later able to go without because of the strength offered by their Buddhist practice.

    I was recently at an Arts Department conference at the SGI Florida Nature and Culture Center. One morning at breakfast there were 6 of us, mostly strangers to each other, sharing our life experiences with Buddhism. As we went around the table it suddenly occurred to us, this was the suicide table! Every one of us, at some point in time, had either attempted or seriously considered suicide.

    In my case, I had quit practising for several years. I still understood the basic concepts and when I was contemplating putting an end to what seemed to be a hopeless and eternal repetition of suffering, something the person who introduced me to this practice said came to mind. My father had attempted suicide. I never knew exactly why and the treatment he received was designed to keep that locked up forever. But going through what I was, I finally understood. I also understood that this was karma, family and personal karma. The person who introduced me to this practice said I could always change my karma by chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo. At that moment, he saved my life. I took out my Gohonzon, put it before me, and started to chant. It didn’t take long. I felt some hope was possible, if I lived.

    I don’t ever recall feeling down, sad or depressed at that time. I felt hopeless, a different feeling entirely. President Ikeda said after the tsunami disaster in Japan that the most important thing we can do is encourage each other. A friend’s encouragement 10 years earlier saved my life. We never know the impact we may have on someone and that makes every interaction a valuable opportunity.

    Mel

    1. Many thanks Mel for these wise insights and the warm and encouraging experiences. Let’s keep encouraging each other and everyone else we meet, like you say, this is the most important thing. Best, D

  10. Hey there! Someone in my Facebook group shared this site with us so I came to look it
    over. I’m definitely enjoying the information. I’m book-marking and will be tweeting
    this to my followers! Superb blog and brilliant style and design.

    1. Many thanks for your kind words and for sharing my blog with your followers. Best, David

  11. Annie says:

    Hi There. Your experience is great, thank you. Would you mind if a use your quote about ‘Your rock bottom point is crucial…to…say a resounding yea to your Buddhahood’ for an experience for the Art of Living, and reference you? I look forward to hearing from you. Many thanks.

    1. Hi Annie
      yes of course, I would be very happy and honoured for you to do that, thank you so much. And congratulations on writing an experience for the AoL, I look forward to reading it! All best, David.

  12. Michio Abe says:

    Hi David,

    My name is Mitch (Michio) Abe. I am an SGI-USA member, who has been practicing Nichiren Buddhism since 1987. I am originally from Tokyo, Japan, but currently a group leader in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. Professionally, I am a board certified internal medicine physician practicing medicine in Southern California. I am married with a beautiful wife, and we have a wonderful 4-year-old boy. Over the course of many years, I have struggled with a few very serious episodes of major depression. I am so inspired and encouraged to find this inspirational blog of yours. Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart.

    NMRK,

    Michio Abe, MD

    1. davidhare3000 says:

      Hi Mitch
      Many thanks for your kind words and for sharing your experience on here. I am finding that I learn a different lesson from each episode of depression – the latest one just taught me to ‘be with’ the sadness, instead of judging it, fighting it or criticising it. The Gohonzon is wonderful when we just let go and trust! Wishing you every absolute happiness 🙂
      David

  13. Monic Cunningham says:

    Thank you David for your very encouraging blog. I stumbled upon it awhile back and revisited it today – very timely as I have been suffering from a deep depression for months. I have dealt with depression virtually my entire life (56 yrs old) and have taken anti-depressants for the last 15 years with varying degrees of success. I have been a practicing SGI-USA member since 1983. In the last year, my depression has gotten worse combined with panic attacks and anxiety. I can completely relate to every word you shared in your experience about your 18-month long battle to find inner peace and happiness. I too long for night so I can go to sleep in order to have some semblance of peace and stop the depressive thoughts that rage in my head every minute of every day. Your experience has given me new insights on how to win over my depression and to not give up after one day of it seemingly not working. I am currently chanting that my Daimoku will actually change my brain chemistry so that I no longer suffer from depression. This practice is about “turning poison into medicine” and changing the impossible into the possible. Given that Nam Myoho Renge Kyo harnesses the power of the universe, what prayer cannot be answered? I just need to give it more dedicated time! I feel as though my recent battle and my Daimoku to overcome it led me back to your site to get the extra encouragement needed to fight again. I also decided to start playing Pharrell William’s song “Happy” every morning to alter my mind set. Thank you for your selfless dedication to sharing this magnificent practice with members and non-members alike from around the world – you truly are doing the Buddha’s work. NMRK!

    1. davidhare3000 says:

      Thank you for those very kind words, delighted that my post has helped you. Please keep going – that was perhaps the most profound guidance I received during my depression (though I did not realise at the time…) – and let us know how you are doing. I am sure you will win, even if you do not yet know what that victory looks like. NMRK, David

  14. steve plews says:

    Thanks David for sharing your experience with depression. I realize today (I have heard from other leaders before) that depression is part of fundamental darkness that we inherit through our karma. As we chant the dirt in our glass of water gets stirred up, it’s only through daimoku that we can clear these waters. Myself I been practicing since my accident and my son woke my buddha nature through his chanting (I started practice in the middle eighties but stop after 4 years). I have been given proof of practice and I know this practice is best thing for me. I sustained a bad head injury and its affects on me has been a challenge for me. I have always dealt with depression in my life, but since my accident and lately it’s been drowning me. I still practice, but there is no joy in practice. It’s been said that if you don’t have joy doing your practice, then you are fundamentally doing something wrong with you practice. I do go to meetings, I study and only thing missing is I’m a introvert personality so it’s hard to meet people and introduce them this practice. But I do pray for others and myself. I know when I talk to other leaders, they have a hard time understanding what I’m going through and the only answer to chant more. I know this practice has kept my head above water, if I wasn’t practicing I be trying to kill myself, but believe me those suicidal thoughts are with me, but I won’t give in. Thanks for sharing and I realize I have a long road a front of me, but i know I will beat this somehow.
    Steve

    1. davidhare3000 says:

      Wow Steve, what an inspirational experience you share here!! I am very moved by your honesty :-). A couple of comments on some of the points you make. First of all, I am not sure you are doing anything fundamentally ‘wrong’ in your practice if you don’t feel joy. Buddhism is not judgemental in that way and to judge yourself that way can in fact prevent joy and put undue pressure on yourself. You are where you are, with the feelings that you have and the way to transform them is not to judge them but to accept them fully, without self-slander, to discover what they are teaching you and to view your feelings / life state from the perspective of the Buddha that you are in the core of your life. I love this quote by poet Kahlil Gibran: “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” Isn’t that a great description of human revolution?

      Likewise it is not a negative to be introvert. Some of the best SGI leaders I have known are shy and Sensei actually says that shy people are discreet and trustworthy and believe you me I have seen more disunity caused by loud and indiscreet members than by introverts. Anyway, labels like ‘introvert’ are not always helpful, they limit us and imprison us in the past. The only valuable label is ‘Buddha’ – “no other knowledge is purposeful”. I have written here about losing labels. http://davidhare.com/2013/09/08/lose-the-labels-that-limit-you/ And yes, you will definitely beat this somehow (please share with me when you do) and ur fellow Buddhists are by your side, as is Sensei, on the road ahead. Take care and thanks again for reaching out. NMRK, David.

  15. Manik Roda says:

    Hi David!
    I’ve a serious problem. I’m pretty tensed about my result which is to come on November 21. I’ve said yes to being a EMCEE now this thing perturbed me a lot. I haven’t had a chance to be with someone who is loveable to me. I think life is anyway so remarkable! Reading your passage on depression and how to cope up same gives me superb idea. Thank you very much indeed David!

    1. davidhare3000 says:

      Hi Manik, happy to hear that my post on depression was useful and I wish you and your fellow members all the best for the meeting that you emcee. I’m sure it will be wonderful. All best wishes, David

  16. Jo bradshaw says:

    Hi david
    Thanks for your post. I have been practising 7 years and gone through some really dark moods and anxiety. Anxiety runs in my family. I have made some real progress over the last two years and have a very low mood about once a week whereas before it could last for much longer. i still often feel anxious and stressed although i am much more able to enjoy life and connect others whereas befre i felt blue / in a fog most of the time. Today my low mood hit again and i just felt unable to do anything. A leader told me to chant lots when i feel like that but it feels impossible and i just then feel a failure. And someone else recently said that if you are not feeling joy with this practise you are doing something wrong. but i am doing everything i am supposed to do! Anyway your experience does give me hope

    1. davidhare3000 says:

      Hi Jo
      Thanks for reaching out and sharing 🙂 this in itself is a cause to help you have a victory with your depression. Congratulations also on the progress you have already made to change your family karma. As for the advice from your leader, ‘chanting lots’ may or may not be right for you. When I feel very low, I sometimes just chant a little bit. Other times i have chanted for hours. I know other members with deep depression for whom just opening the butsudan or doing sansho on some days is a massive victory. So, be KIND to yourself, above all don’t put pressure on yourself, you are absolutely not ‘a failure’, just chant as you are, naturally, as much or as little as you want, doing your best to revere the core of your life. There is NO judgement in Buddhism. But of course we are human beings, so there are judgemental Buddhists! So the person who claims you are doing ‘something wrong’ if you don’t feel joy is also misguided IMO. They have probably never experienced depression but shouldn’t judge you in this way. Anyway, I wish you all the best and am sure you will gain invaluable wisdom from this experience. Take care, David

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