— Ven. Thubten Gyatso
Depression is a state of extreme unhappiness, described by sufferers in a recent BBC radio program as a black, dismal, dungeon of despair; as a stifling hot room with no means of escape; as a heavy overcoat of pain with the buttons soldered together; and as like walking through treacle. It is characterised by a sense of loss of control over one’s life, a loss of enthusiasm, and the inability to enjoy pleasure. One may know what to do, but cannot summon the energy to do it.
Depression may be precipitated by bereavement, illness, unemployment, and perhaps sometimes a neurological abnormality. According to Buddhism, however, the overriding cause of depression is self-cherishing – seeing one’s own physical and mental pleasure as more important than anybody else’s. Self-cherishing is irritability when our spouse asks us to do something that interrupts our own enjoyment, such as watching television, playing sport, or talking with our friends. It is the desire to get the best food for oneself, the best seat in the cinema, the best result in an examination, and the most praise from someone of influence.
How can a small thing such as selfishness, which we all have, be the cause of such a major illness as depression? There are two main reasons. The first is that unhappiness arising from selfishness is cumulative. When we do not obtain what we want, or are stopped from doing what we want, we often over-react to a ridiculous extent. Examine your own experience – how many domestic arguments have exploded out of incredibly petty causes? Even though we chastise ourselves for our stupid behaviour, we repeat the same thing again and again. At home, at work, at the club, wherever we go to relax, our selfish behaviour isolates us from others. The accumulation of small failures in life erodes our self-confidence, we are unable to be happy, and we spiral into depression.
The second reason why selfishness causes depression is because it prevents us from doing the one thing that is guaranteed to bring happiness – cherishing others. Self-obsession smothers consideration for the needs of others and we stop giving love. The constant whirl of self-centred thoughts in our heads, “I am so sad, I need to be happy,” blinds us to the needs of our family and friends, and we do nothing to help them. Our self-confidence takes a further battering because we no longer receive the feedback of love from them, or the pure satisfaction and joy of making them happy. The joy of making others happy is pure because we do not crave it again and again, unlike the joy of self-indulgence which is impure because it never brings satisfaction. Cut off from the world, we sink into unhappiness, self-doubt, and the thought that we are going insane. This is depression.
Buddha’s diagnosis of the cause of depression is not petty or discriminative. We all have self-cherishing, and if we allow it to take over our lives and block our love and compassion for others, we will be in danger of following that awful path into depression. Depression does not cause misery, depression is misery, at its worst. In the human realm anyway. Depressives may not believe this, but it can get far worse in other realms of rebirth.
To indicate our own part in the development of depression is not to point the finger of blame and cause guilt. If we can see that the cause is in our own mind, we will understand that the cure is also in our own mind.
Seeing the shattered self-confidence of depressed people, many new-age creeds attempt to cure the problem with the philosophy of “love yourself first.” But this is the cause, not the cure. The great Indian Bodhisattva, Shantideva, said, “If you want to be happy, you should never seek to please yourself.” Instead, we should seek to please others.
If we ask, “But, don’t I have to protect myself from suffering?”
Shantideva replies, “If you wish to be protected, you should constantly protect all others.” Buddha’s prescription for happiness is to forget yourself and love others. The more we look after our family and friends, the more they will care for us. It is so simple, so obvious, but we have to do it. Not just our family and friends; our purpose in life should be to protect every living being from suffering. When this attitude is supported by wisdom, we will never know unhappiness.
Should you flush your Valium and Prozac down the toilet? No, not yet. Begin with small actions to help others – empty the garbage can without being asked, clean up your own mess in the kitchen, polish the shoes of others. Smile occasionally.
Gradually build up the courage and determination to confront your self-cherishing mind and declare yourself a slave and friend of all living beings. Then you will extract more joy from cleaning up somebody else’s mess in the kitchen than you will ever get from watching the football on television. Not only will this lift your depression, it will place you on the path to bliss.