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July 2, 2007

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Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Tricycle Q & A: Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu answers questions from Tricycle readers.

Read Tricycle Q & A Answers from Lama Surya Das, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Daniel Goleman, and Mark Epstein.


1. TK321 asks: How does one combat depression from the Buddhist point of view? Many blessings to you. TK

The first step is to get involved in activities that benefit yourself and other people. This helps you reconnect with the human race in a way that affirms the principle that good action really is worthwhile. A prime example would be making a point of doing something generous every day. Look for people who obviously could use your help—whether in terms of a monetary donation or a donation of your time or knowledge. It doesn’t have to be much, and you may want to focus first on helping people you don’t normally come into contact with. You may also want to find a friend to join with you in the activity, to help you stick with it until you start seeing the improvement in your own mental state.

The second step is to go out into the wilderness for a while, to get out of your old surroundings and to see life in a new light. Again, you might want to do this with a sympathetic and helpful friend, so that you don’t spend your wilderness time spiraling into your old thoughts. (This is a traditional remedy for monks and nuns whose meditation has hit a brick wall, but I’ve found that it works for many kinds of depressive states in lay people as well.)

The third step—when you start to regain some energy and mental focus—is to learn how to break the depression down into manageable bits. In other words, instead of dealing with “Depression” as a huge, overwhelming problem, learn to identify specific symptoms. This involves learning how to observe the symptoms as they come and go. Start by focusing on your breath and noticing which kinds of breathing feel most nourishing. As you try to maintain that nourishing breath, you’ll begin to notice how the attacks of depression come and go, how they affect the breath and general sense of energy in your body when they come, and how the physical symptoms can then cause a cascade of mental symptoms. (I once had a student suffering from depression who first felt a particular sensation in his gut as the attacks began to come. He would try to fight the sensation, trying to push it out of his system, but that would wear him out. As he got tired, the mental symptoms would take over, and he would end up sleeping for the vast majority of the day simply because the fight left him so debilitated. I told him not to fight the symptoms, but to allow them to diffuse throughout his body as he tried to maintain a comfortable rhythm in his breathing. He found that as they diffused, they got defused as well. By not fighting them, he didn’t wear himself out. Over time, the attacks became less overwhelming.)

At any rate, the important point is that you learn how to observe the symptoms without identifying with them. Depression, like all harmful emotions, gains strength when you identify yourself with it. This means that you not only have to observe the symptoms coming and going, but also observe how much of your sense of self is invested in the depression. Once you can see (1) what you’re getting out of the depression and (2) how it isn’t worth the cost, and (3) can imagine other ways of thinking that can question your old ways of constructing your identity, and give you alternatives to following through with your old identity habits, you can begin to build a new, more skillful identity as the observer who can live with the symptoms but not be overwhelmed by them. The key thus lies in observing not only the symptoms but also the assumptions and patterns of thinking that give more power to the symptoms. This enables you to question those assumptions and to figure out new ways of thinking that effectively question those assumptions.

So in this third step, you tackle the inner problem of depression both through the body—learning new, more nourishing ways of breathing and directing the energy flow in the body—and through the mind, as you learn new, more nourishing ways of thinking and creating your sense of self.

Blessings to you as well.


2. elizabethg asks: How can Buddhism help break alcohol and nicotine addictions?

Dealing with addiction is not that much different from dealing with depression, so you might want to look at the answer to TK321’s question. Meditation—and particularly breath meditation—provides an alternative sense of physical well being that you can turn to instead of going with the physical symptoms that trigger a desire for alcohol or nicotine. It also provides the mind with a place from which it can observe the onset of the symptoms that push you to give in to your old addictive patterns. You can look to see how a craving gets started, the steps in its development, and the points where you actually have a choice to say yes or no to your old patterns. In particular, it allows you to question the reasoning that says, “Now that I feel this way, the only way to get rid of this feeling is to give in to the addiction.” If you meditate properly, it allows you to gain proficiency with other ways of dealing with the feelings. Part of this proficiency comes simply from allowing yourself to imagine that alternatives are possible, and that you can master them. Often addiction is caused by a lack of imagination. You can’t imagine alternatives, or you can’t imagine yourself following those alternatives. Meditation, if properly developed, can give you a solid basis for opening up your imagination in both ways. At the same time, the new proficiency it gives you with the breath shows you that some of those new alternatives can really work.


3. raymm asks: What advice does Buddhism provide about creating new good habits, and dropping old, bad habits?

I’ve already covered some of the basic principles in my responses to TK321 and elizabethg, so you might want to look at those answers, too. Some further principles are these:

First, try to associate with people of good habits. Second, ask their advice on how they developed those habits. Tell them frankly what problems you have in kicking your old habits. And finally, learn how to observe your own actions objectively, noting when your actions are harmful, when they’re helpful. If you see that they’re harmful, don’t berate yourself or get tied up in the extremes of remorse and denial. Simply note that you’re not happy with the results, so you need to change the causes. Then try to think of a different way to think and act in case the same sort of situation comes around again. Approach the whole issue as a skill. Think back on any sport or manual skill you’ve already mastered, and reflect on how you got better at that skill. Then try to bring the same attitude to all your actions. The Buddha gives some good advice to his son, Rahula, in Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 61. His teachings sound simple, but if you stick with these principles, they work.


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