The death this week of Robin Williams has put depression back in the headlines. The media coverage is welcome because by talking openly about mental health challenges we can create some good from a desperately tragic suicide. The rhetoric around a previously taboo topic has been changing rapidly in recent years, thanks in part to the courageous candour of celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alastair Campbell, Leon McKenzie, Graeme Fowler, Ruby Wax and of course, Robin Williams himself.
As a result, the ‘pull yourself together’ school of encouragement has mostly disappeared into the shadows, along with the ‘stiff upper lip’ brigade. Even the ‘what did he have to be depressed about?’ gang have been mercifully quiet. This more open and enlightened mindset now views depression as a recognised illness, which, like cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure, needs proper treatment.
But as I chant about Robin Williams’ suicide, I find myself wondering if ‘illness’ is always the most useful way to look at clinical depression. I ask myself whether Nichiren Buddhism, with its rich insights into the workings of the human mind, can bring a different perspective to the topic. And I think the answers are No and Yes. Let me explain…
Some of you may recall that I have written about my own 18 month experience of deep depression on this blog. For most of that time, I felt lethargic, panicky, fragile, tearful, desperate and bleak, despite the many wonderful people and things in my life. And I also 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 80 mph, that warm black void would be easier than facing another moment alive.
And yet, I never really found myself labelling my condition as an ‘illness’. In fact as I continued to chant (and despite any visible signs of progress) my faith was always saying to me, often in just the faintest of whispers: “This is not an illness to be cured. This is you tackling your illusions about life. This is not a condition to be coped with, this is a crucible in which to forge a stronger and wiser you. This is not a failure, this is you doing your human revolution.” So, how would I summarise the massive difference that chanting daimoku can make to depression? Two little words: Clarity and Hope.
Based solely on my own experience (and without knowing what Robin Williams was actually feeling when he took his life), depression is not an illness that kills people. It is despair about depression that kills people. It is the illusion that the depression will never end that drives someone to commit suicide. Therefore the most powerful gifts we can give to a depressed person are not always Prozac and Elavil (though they may be helpful in the short or long term…), they are insight and hope. Delivered on a bed of warm encouragement. And fired by determined faith.
Daisaku Ikeda explains: “Hope transforms pessimism into optimism. Hope is invincible. Hope changes everything. It changes winter into summer, darkness into dawn, descent into ascent, barrenness into creativity, agony into joy. Hope is the sun. It is light. It is passion. It is the fundamental force for life’s blossoming. Hope is a decision you make. Hope is a flame we nurture in our hearts that must be fanned by our determination.”
These are not just comforting words meant to help you feel better. This is encouragement with deep roots in a Buddhist theory that stretches the boundaries of currently accepted psychological models. The principle I am referring to is known as the “mutual possession of the ten worlds.” Briefly, this theory explains that our apparently separate moods (or ‘life-states’) ‘contain’ all the others. Let’s take a mundane example. You felt angry and frustrated in a traffic jam this morning. You feel upbeat and cheerful two hours later, surrounded by your lovely colleagues at work. So, where exactly has your anger gone? It can’t have left your mind or disappeared into the ether, in fact with the right provocation it could come roaring back out of you in an instant. It’s just in a latent state whereas during the traffic jam it was in a manifest state. Now you see it, now you don’t.
It is the same with hope and clarity. Even in the depths of depression, they are in there somewhere. They have to be. This is how life works. When we chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, we bring them to the surface.
Which means that instead of saying “I’m depressed” or “I’m suffering from depression”, it can be much healthier to look in the mirror and say: “This great Buddha is feeling depressed today,” or “I am experiencing depression.” And then chant for hope and clarity to emerge as surely as a lotus flower from a muddy pond. Chant also for wisdom, so that you can find the best professional help if that is the best route for you.
As Nichiren optimistically declared: “All of the people of the ten worlds can attain Buddhahood. We can comprehend this when we remember that fire can be produced by a stone taken from the bottom of a river, and a candle can light up a place that has been dark for billions of years.”
It is natural to feel despair when a brilliant, talented and inspirational figure such as Robin Williams commits suicide. But as great Buddhas let’s determine from this tragedy to teach more people about Nam Myoho Renge Kyo so that they can tap into a reservoir of clarity and hope strong enough to defeat any obstacle.
Love and Light
PS. There has been a big reaction to this post on Facebook, most of it incredibly positive. But I want to clarify a couple of things for a few people who have misinterpreted what I was trying to say. First, I am not a mental health expert and I am sharing here a PERSONAL experience of chanting and depression, not ‘THE’ Buddhist view of it. Second, I am asking questions, not claiming to give authoritative answers. Third, I PERSONALLY did not see my depression as an illness (this was not a conscious choice, by the way, it’s just how I felt…), and based on daimoku I feel that was the right attitude for me at the time. But it is not right for everyone. And if I get depression again one day, I may absolutely need to see it as illness for my human revolution at that point. Fourth, if I thought taking medication would be the wisest course of action in that situation, I would do it. Fifth, chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is very powerful and I have known of cases where people with mental health difficulties have been given strong guidance NOT to chant, or to chant very little.