This is actually skipping very far ahead of the discussion that I was planning, but sometimes events do actually influence my thinking. 🙂
I talked with a friend of mine today. I have never actually met her in person, just online. She strikes me as a real saint. Works as an EMT and a daycare provider. Has several kids of her own and has taken care of more foster kids than you can shake a stick at, and adopted a few. All this with a lazy slacker husband, who has not worked in a couple of years. Superhuman she is. An angel allighted on the earth.
But she is completely overwhelmed. She feels depressed and unworthy. In fact she is on medication for her “depression.” She prays and reads and goes to a Christian counselor (not that the label matters much) but still gets worse. It is a darn shame actually.
Now, don’t think for a moment that I blame “Christianity” for this, or that I think religion should cure clinical depression. But I could not help but think of the advice she might get from a theoretical Christian friend and a theoretical Buddhist one.
OK, her actual friend told her to pray more. He probably also assured her that God loves her and that her reward will be great in Heaven. I have said similar things in the past and heard them as well. The only problem is that many times it just doesn’t cut through the depression. As one of my commenters pointed out, in its most usual current form, Christianity is an exclusivist religion. I can tell you that one of the most heartbreaking feelings is when someone says or feels something like, “But what if He doesn’t?” I am sorry to say but at that point you can say, “He really does love you” all you want and all the person can see is the gates of Hell in front of them. And in most churches, Hell is very real. So a brick wall has been reached. Often times they feel that their “sins” (as my friend seems to) will keep them from heaven. Which is perhaps the very definition of depression.
Don’t misunderstand, I know there is more the Christian theology than that, and their are lots of other thoughts images and such that can be used. But the road is uphill, I am afraid. But now, let us look at a Buddhist approach.
Same sad, unworthy, overburdened person.
“My friend, you are not unworthy by any means, you are filled with Buddha-nature, your inner goodness or wholeness, or call it the grace of God if you will.”
“No, I am not, am bad, I have sinned”
“But the Buddha says that everything that is alive has Buddha-nature. It can’t be taken away or lost. You have it, snakes have it, plants have it. If it is alive, it has Buddha-nature.”
“Then I must have lost it.”
“You can lose it. It is in every living cell. It is hidden, that is all.”
“Hidden? Where? Somewhere out there?”
I’ll drop the dialogue here. 🙂 It is hidden, the Buddhist would explain, under your ego or wordly mind or some words to that effect. This is the “voice inside your head.” The one that has an opinion on everything, the one that tells you that you should do something else, should be somewhere else, are not working hard enough and so on. The problem is that you take that voice too seriously. Don’t take it seriously, it is just a bunch of thoughts, an illusion. And it is these thoughts that cause our suffering.
It was at this point that my friend interupted me and asked how she could do that, that her head was always full of thousands of thoughts, that the only way to escape them was to take sleeping pills and lapse into a chemical coma. Yes, exactly.
Depression is but an extreme case of samsara, or confusing our thoughts with reality. Thinking that the voice inside our heads is US, instead of our free and clear Buddha-nature (or natural God state, if you want to put it that way).
The Buddha taught a method for quieting those thoughts, and looking beyond the mind and seeing or at least glimpsing the underlying Buddha-nature. Now, I will not claim for one second that the Buddha’s teachings were unique or that other cultures have not discovered the same thing, because they have. But it strikes me that only Buddhism makes it a central part of their religious philosophy. Try asking your priest or minister how to meditate (not pray) . Ask them how to practice mindful watching (or mindfulness, as Tich Nhat Hahn puts it). Perhaps you will get an answer, but most likely not. Maybe even a lecture about the evils of dealing with “eastern mysticism” or something worse.
But Buddhism teaches the actual practice, step by step. How recognize a thought as it bubbles up and how to let it go, to see it as simply a small cloud in a clear sky (as one of the teachings of the Buddha says.) This quieting of the ego is a godsend (no pun intended) to the anxious or depressed person. Which pretty much describes all of us at one time or another.
I was always told in my Catholic education to seek God in the quiet places, but I was never taught how to really be quiet. It is not easy, that is for sure. I would go to those quiet places, but all I would hear was my raging ego: arguing, disputing and frankly, telling me that I was unworthy.
In Buddhist meditation and mindfulness training I am starting to find that quiet place. I have seen glimpses of the Buddha nature. I hope that my friend can find that same quiet place — either by Christian, Buddhist or by whatever means makes sense to her.