Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) as a clinical case of depression

In this article I would like to reconstruct the Siddhartha Gautama’s (historical Buddha) life and experience from the perspective of the development of depression, its overcoming and transformation of the personal experience into a systematic teaching. I will consider the main aspects of Buddhist teaching in terms of overcoming depression, chronic anxiety, fear, distrust and self-doubt.

I have no intention to narrow Buddhism down to the above mentioned aspects. I just decided to focus on how the personal experience of Gautama Buddha and his insights can help any of us to override depression and anxiety.

As a lot of articles on my site are about depression and the rest is about meditation, I guess this article will perfectly fit in this concept. And since I had the experience of depression and the experience of overcoming it with the help of meditation, I am particularly interested in this subject.

A lot of people, especially western cultures, suppose Buddhism to be a philosophy, not a religion. In fact it is a philosophy and a religion as well. Depending on the tradition you can see different proportions of both. Although philosophical, non-theistic, taken from first-hand experience aspect of Buddhist tradition has an important role there.

My article will be mainly about this aspect, leaving behind things that are not taken from the experience or very difficult to get, for example, pantheon of different Deities, dimensions of reality (worlds of hungry spirits, asuras) etc. I could have left behind concepts of karma and reincarnation, as they are also religious and, probably, “outempirical” (at least for most of us) concepts. But I will speak about it. Because in my opinion they can have practical application.

It is important to understand that I leave behind this article a lot of things, trying to show only one particular aspect of Buddha’s teaching. Everything that I write here is only my personal opinion and free interpretation.

I’m not a Buddhist; I don’t belong to any other confession as well, nevertheless, history and experience of Buddha-Siddhartha are very inspiring, motivating and curious for me. I would like to carry out a small research here. Start with anamnesis, i.e. biography.

Anamnesis

«Feast like a sultan I do
On treasures and flesh, never few.»

Tool — Jambi

Of course, Buddha Shakyamuni is a legendary person. His biography as, probably, a life story of any important religious person has been overgrown by hyperboles and symbols. And I will focus only on those parts of the story, which are relevant for this article and which could be, with some certainty, considered “real” facts rather than a part of the myth.

Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born in a kshatriya family, an Indian ruling and military caste. His birthplace is the territory of modern Nepal. According to one of the legend, his father, the head of Shakya Republic, heard a prophecy that his son will become either eminent emperor or great saint. The father wishing to protect his son from becoming a religious leader surrounded him with luxury, wealth and beauty, keeping him away from pain and fear, that existed in abundance in Ancient India and so did in modern India.

He had all a young man could dream. Parents gifted him three stunning palaces. Siddhartha had a life of joy and leisure, full of exquisite delight. The future was seen as cloudless: a marriage with a high-born girl (happened when Prince was 16), immense inheritance, wealth, power and fame. Young man didn’t know what sorrow is, what need is. There was no lack of distinguished food, beautiful jewelries and sweet music that could delight the eye and tickle ears. And “careful” father kept young son out of studying religion and spirituality, predicting him the glorious fate of Emperor.

But not only wealth and luxury followed young Shakya lineage offspring. Additionally, Gautama was gifted and showed fabulous talents in sport, competitions and studying. Likewise he demonstrated astonishing talent for meditative concentration. Going deep into meditating state, he didn’t know anything about it in virtue of spiritual education deficiency.

Four signs

However, he wasn’t completely satisfied with his luxurious life. Curiosity and perhaps desire to understand the reason of his discontent pushed him to leave the palace in order to see with at least half an eye what is going on outside of its bounds. There he saw four things that left an indelible impression on him. First three were: old man, ill man and decomposing corpse. These things made young man realize that ageing, diseases and death constitute our life and it is not possible to escape from them in the bosom of luxury and hedonism.

Though an impression from fourth “sign”, that Siddhartha saw behind the walls of his own home, most probably, predetermined his decision to leave palace and dedicate his life to the spiritual quest.

What or who was that? Before telling this we should imagine young Kshatriya soul’s dissension. He had wealth, family, high social status, glowing prospects…So what didn’t he have? He had no happiness, satisfaction and harmony.

All the things, having those is supposed to be a source of immense happiness and inner peace according to the social paradigm didn’t bring any joy and seemed make no use. Perhaps, Gautama came up to that line, to which a lot of people had come up before him and will come up afterwards.

Ephemeral happiness

I often receive comments like this: “I am young and successful, I have wonderful family, strong health, but I am totally unhappy!”

You can feel visible perplexity, unpleasant astonishment and hidden disappointment in such questions. “Why don’t things considered to bring happiness do this?”

Almost everybody is told in childhood that wealth, prestige and authority are very important things. You should work hard in order to achieve it, but when you get this, it will be like: “WOW! SUPER! Everybody will be jealous, and you will find the source of inexhaustible happiness”.

“Many secular people are wrapped in more illusions than religious ones”.

On the one hand, these believe is cultivated by the culture we grow up in. Advertisement, movies, books demonstrate us lifestyle of a successful man, who achieved what he wanted and what everybody should strive for (good prestigious job, money, satisfaction of wishes). On the other hand, human emotions and expectations play a major role in the process of forming this aspiration. When we buy a new car we feel joy. Even though it is only temporary thing, we extrapolate this feeling to our whole existence, starting believe that if we have a chance to buy every time what we want and satisfy our desires we will be always happy.

It is that expectation that can create bitter disappointment. A person worked so hard and toiled so long, tried his best at school and university to achieve desired benefits, but they don’t give him happiness any longer!

How is it possible? And here comes not only bitterness, but disappointment, stipulated by the ruin of hopes and ideals, and also the sense of frustration that is the most horrible thing. “If it doesn’t bring me happiness, nothing can bring it”.

(Here you can notice an interesting thing. Agnostics and atheists often mock at religious people, telling that such people live in illusion, striving after invisible God, whose existence cannot be either proven or confuted, wish for posthumous life, although nobody returns from the seat of death. And they can contrast this to a person who live a ‘real’ life, strive for material benefits and wealth growth instead of dreaming of live beyond the grave. Don’t such people live in illusion? Can their expectations of everlasting happiness, beginning beyond the seat of wealth, be called real? Many secular people are wrapped in more illusions than religious ones.)

“More likely, future Buddha left his patrimonial palace not for finding himself, but, conversely, for losing his own ‘self’ or for understanding what his ‘self’ is not”.

Well, our Gautama faced this despair. He was 29 when he first met with the symptoms of depression and dismay. But his soul’s suffering didn’t become continuous hopeless grief because he saw that there was a way of salvation. And this way he found in ‘fourth sign’, a saint hermit, who had no even a millionth part of Prince’s wealth, but anyway all his appearance was illuminated by unflagging harmony, accordance with nature and inner peace.

After Gautama saw this glowing face he decided to leave the palace and set out on a search…

I could have finished this part with the beautiful phrase: “And he set out on a search for himself!”

But it is not true. More likely, future Buddha left his patrimonial palace not for finding himself, but, conversely, for losing his own ‘self’ or for understanding what his ‘self’ is not.

Search for medicine

«Prayed like a martyr dusk to dawn.
Begged like a hooker all night long.
Tempted the devil with my song.
And got what I wanted all along.»

Tool — Jambi

Most of the people nowadays, having faced with depression, don’t understand that this is the time to change themselves and change their lifestyle. Instead of doing this they want to live as before but without depression. The whole psychopharmacologal industry is based on this desire. Doctors prescribe medicines, taking which people can again return to their unloved job, family, where there are misunderstanding and contention, stupefy their inner conflicts by means of medicines. Modern psychiatrics is not interested in treating people. Its task is to return a goody member of society back to a social life.

“Modern psychiatrics is not interested in treating people. Its task is to return a goody member of society back to a social life”.

Mental specialists don’t aim to get rid of human affliction. Their main problem is negative economic effect of depression, which is, according to the official statistics, rather significant. People don’t go to their work or their working capacity and motivation are decreasing due to chronic dismal.

What could have happened, if everybody facing depression started ‘searching themselves’ and found that happiness is not only continuous and exhausting work and holidays shopping? Perhaps, it could have reflected badly on economy and GDP. We would have seen fewer items at supermarket shelfs. ‘Terrible perspective’, isn’t it?

That’s why ‘tablets against depression’ were made.

Antidepressants are lubricant for broken screw. It can work to the max for a while, but anyway after that you have to throw it away.

But at the Buddha’s time there were no doctors who could have helped him to continue enjoying dancer-girls at his splendid palace by means of their magic potions. Double or nothing. Either you go to forest in order to find the reason of your suffering, exterminating it with blood, sweat and tears, fasting and discipline, reflection and meditation, or you live in sorrow and dejection, losing yourself into drinking, and commit a suicide.

Siddhartha chose the first way.

There were a lot of wandering teachers, gurus, yogis in India at that time. They traveled through hot deserts, impenetrable jungle, cold and unfriendly mountains of Indian subcontinent, gathering students and disciples. At different times Prince Gautama joined such several groups, willing to find the way to dissolve his suffering into his own sweat and blood, fasting and discipline, reflection and meditation.

Under the guidance of ascetics, future the Buddha raised to highest levels of meditative concentration in virtue of his outstanding abilities. He practiced self-mortification, kept the fasts, having exhausted his own body so much that once he almost drowned because of weakness while swimming in the river.

Then he realized that all these terrible methods don’t get him closer to understanding of reasons for suffering, but rather exhaust his energy and weaken his health.

Getting rid of depression

Then he sat under the sprawling branches of ficus and fell into a meditation, having sworn he wouldn’t move until he achieves enlightenment.

According to the story, he had meditating for 49 days before he reached enlightenment, having realized the reason of suffering and the way to overcome it, gaining an impression of his past lives, Karma’s law and reincarnation.

It also meant personal recovery, getting rid of suffering and finding imperishable happiness and inner peace that don’t depend on circumstances. In other words, Siddhartha got not only wisdom, insight into the nature of things, but also happiness he had strived for so long. Wisdom and knowledge are intimately connected with happiness and are not separable to certain extent. Whereas suffering is the result of deepest delusion.

Under the sprawling branches of ficus the man Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, what means “enlightened”.

First psychotherapist

Having found realization and wisdom, Buddha had a doubt whether he needs to share this with others or not. People are shrouded in passion, illusions, they care only about fame, sex and money. How can they realize such a deep and sometimes contradictory to intuitive notion truth?

Siddhartha was thinking this way but then changed his mind and decided that a part of people would eventually follow him and would be saved from suffering of this life. And according to one of my readers saying, he became the first psychotherapist. A man, who helped people to get rid of their indelible depressions, doubts and insecurity, anxiety and fears.

As Buddha travelled through India, he attracted students allured by his teaching, where there is no estates system; the Brahmin’s authority and their monopoly in spirituality are not claimed and distinct instructions on how to reach happiness and harmony are given. Everybody, according to Buddha, could reach his state, coming closer to perfection and truth.

Enlightened Siddhartha was noted for his prodigious psychological flexibility in his approach to people. He wasn’t attached to the aspects of his own teaching and religious dogma, but he told people what they needed to hear in order to become happier and free from suffering. That’s why his words told to different people can contradict each other. There is no truth in teaching, it is only a finger pointed to the Moon, but the Moon is high in the sky, not in a man’s words even though he is enlightened!

There are no sedition, denigration and blasphemy in the teaching. Perversion of truth preached by the Buddha is no more sacrilegious then a phrase: Alcoholism leads to happiness”. If a person follows this instruction he will just fall into addiction and will suffer, but there is no any blasphemy. It is just delusion. So Buddha’s teachings were instructions on how to overcome suffering and if a person didn’t want to follow that, it was his own sacred right.

Buddha had been preaching his teaching for 45 years until he died natural death at the age of 80, surrounded by his disciples.

One of the world religions which is most common in Asia’s countries derived from his preaching afterwards. In India where Buddha was born and was preaching Buddhism didn’t become a popular religion being inferior to not only Hinduism, but also Islam, Christianity, Sikhism. Buddhists make up only 0,8% of the whole population of that country. Although there are wonderful places in Himalayas where this religion still exists. Being in one of them I’m writing this article.

Buddha’s discoveries

So, what did Buddha discover while meditating? What is the reason of suffering and how to get rid of it? If that discovery was so important and revolutionary then why a lot of people still suffer?

It is not difficult to answer the last question. I will start from its first part, the “discovery” itself. Alan Wallace writes in his book “Minding Closely” that at the time of the historical Buddha a lot of different yogis and teachers were wandering across India. Many of them had their own disciples and teaching. Also they could have phenomenal capacity for meditative concentration: self-immerse into deep meditation and staying there for a long time without food and water. It was not a big achievement for that period of time that Buddha was meditating for 49 days.

His teaching was notable compare to others for claiming that sitting in lotus position under the tree keeping motionless concentration for days and nights is not a half the battle! It’s only a sufficient step to something bigger. By means of motionless meditation we develop an important skill of detached concentration so that we could understand the nature of things, understand suffering and overcome it! If we start doing this without required skill our efforts will look like attempts of blind surgeon with shaking hands to maintain a difficult operation!

I will stop here for a while. Indeed, this is an important conclusion that can be applied in order to get rid of depression or anxiety. Just sit and meditate is not enough to get rid of it! It is necessary to apply skills of concentrating and awareness to see the reason of these afflictions and eliminate it!

Then why do people still suffer?

Buddha made a real revelation of reasons for suffering. Yes, he didn’t use any precision instruments; he just observed the work of his own consciousness and made conclusions. But I personally suppose this revelation to be as greater as a discovery of atom or gravitation. And modern science of human consciousness only is coming to the point of this revelation. Then why does everybody use Copernicus’ and Newton’s discoveries? Even the construction of satellite navigation system does not dispense with the Einstein’s principle of relativity. However, Buddha’s discoveries did not become well-known, generally accepted.

It is not difficult to answer this question.

Who does read this story about Gautama for the first time? I suppose most of the people reading this article. Some part of people even if has got an idea of Buddha’s teaching (or about meditation techniques in general), it is more about stereotypes like ‘Buddhism teaches to abandon everything and go on mountain and meditate’, ‘Buddhists eliminate their feelings’, ‘Buddhists meditate on emptiness, putting themselves into nowhere and their ideal is death’.

(Well, I am not saying that Buddha’s teaching only can eliminate suffering)

Another reason of it is that Buddha’s real experience, expressed in his teaching (here we should understand that Buddhism is less a corpus of dogmas than expressing the experience of the particular person – according to the classification of religious studies scholar Torchinov E.A. it is “the religion of pure experience”) is counterintuitive and somewhat paradoxical. Instead of searching for new ways to delight the senses and finding new ways to escape from discontentment, Siddhartha faced his suffering, examined it and experienced!

You must agree that this is the last thing a person who suffers, especially from depression, wants to do. He wants to release the pain as soon as possible instead of observing and exploring it and its reasons. No matter how paradoxical it could seem here is rooted one of the reasons of human suffering.

And the third one, the most important reason of Buddha’s methods being unpopular is that they imply regular and hard work. It is not enough to just take some dogmas on trust, believe in some divine concept, totally depending on sacred texts. Achieving at least lower level of Buddha’s state requires continual practice, supported by self-investigation of one’s own mind, valuable results of which one can gain only from personal experience rather than reading sacred texts.

Teachings on overcoming suffering

Considering Buddha’s teaching as a system of overcoming suffering itself and depression as well will not be such an exaggeration. Buddha told: “I was teaching only one thing that is suffering and how to overcome it”.

During his 49-days meditation Buddha gained an insight into the nature of suffering and understood how to overcome it. Having heard this story, many people (especially western) might think that Siddhartha fell into deep trance state under the tree and had a divine revelation, realized a higher truth that is beyond common understanding and totally transcendental to this mortal existence.

Not quite. As Gautama had exceptional concentrating skills since childhood, having the obvious makings for concentration, yet he considerably improved them while being student of yogis and saints, he could attain such clear and distinct state free from emotions and predilections of perception that with its support he was able to realize the true nature of things. No, of course, I am not claiming that he mentally observed other galaxies and saw the atom’s structure. The objects of his concentration were his own mind, his own internal reality and his own suffering.

And again it may cause bewilderment and misunderstanding among western people. We are used to that the subject of scientific research in most of the cases is an outside world: atoms, electrons, electromagnetic interaction, planets, gravitation, that compound so-called ‘objective reality’.

But what is going on in our consciousness is not so ‘real’ for science. Thoughts, emotions, fears, doubt – all these are products of ‘subjective reality’ or just the result of physical forces that are behind them. I mean, for example, electric impulse in our neural circuitry that, according to modern science is physical substance of our thoughts, deserve investigation more than the thought itself.

Exploring human consciousness science examine it very often as though ‘from the outside’, measuring an increase or decrease of activity in one or another part of the human brain, emission of hormones and neuromediators. The result of this approach in psychiatry is using antidepressants, which aim is to change neurochemistry instead of dealing with the specific consciousness phenomena (feelings, thoughts, emotions, resentment, complexes).

I think that efficiency of such approach is rather low, especially when antidepressants are used as the only method of ‘treatment’ without using therapy.

I can say that modern science knows little about human consciousness and about making the consciousness happy. The evidence of it is the amount of prescribed antidepressants. We do not know what to do with the suffering of the human soul, so let’s restrain, suppress and disguise it as we do with accumulated dirt sweeping it under the rug.

How to clear our mind from predilections and impulsive emotions, find peace, concentration and clarity to sort out our inner problems as Gautama did it and become happy?

Western science has started exploring outer world long time ago. Physics had been developed many years ago while phycology as human science appeared comparatively latterly.

Why is it so important to examine our own mind?

It is necessary not only for overcoming own suffering. But because our mind is everything we have. This is the only medium between us and outer reality. We cannot perceive it anyhow but through our mind. And western researchers generally dedicated their lives to explore what is perceived rather than what perceives and determines the perception itself. Having explored peculiarities of our own mind, we will understand better outer reality because it contains an imprint of our own consciousness as an inherent in cognitive process perceptive organ.

“Each person can achieve Buddha’s state and find out whether Siddhartha was right in his conclusions or not”.

For Buddha phenomena of his mind, his inner reality, his suffering were as real as the tree under which he was sitting. Instead of exploring his mind from outside he looked inside using his refined, cleared out by meditative concentration perception. It wasn’t a divine insight or shamanic inebriate trance. On the contrary, his perspective of the problem was distinct and of sober mind. It is that level of sobriety which can be achieved only by hard and long practice. He saw the problem inside, why did it appear, could it be eliminated and how to do it.

And this experience was not somewhat abstract and deeply transcendental to the existing reality. Everybody can gain it. Each person can achieve Buddha’s state and find out whether Siddhartha was right in his conclusions or not. Prince insisted in his preaching on not taking his words for gospel. He insisted on sufficient challenging of his words and attempting to check its validity in practice by yourself.

If it’s false then Buddha’s insights will not reveal to people in the space of their own experience and will not lead to getting rid of suffering. If it’s true then it will do reveal and help solve a given problem, the problem of human suffering.

Buddha didn’t neglect the need in faith. Any attempt to explore reality around or inside us requires a certain level of personal confidence in the result, i.e. faith.

The invention of microscope was preceded by faith in that reality at micro level can look different from what our eyes, which see all objects as integral and solid things without voids, show us.

Buddha looked into the space of his own mind and told people what he discovered there. But he offered as well to arm by microscope and see what is going on there, meanwhile keeping the minimum faith level in order to maintain research interest and not to lose the way. Depending on somebody else’s already gained experience, but not following it blindly, gain your own experience! What is true exists. And what is false doesn’t exist! That’s all science!

What are the Buddha’s discoveries? How can they help us get rid of depression? Read about it in the next part of the article. I am going to publish it soon.

2 Comments

  • hello,
    we need to check the facts before we publish. Gautam Buddha was born in Lumbini, which is in Nepal. An Asian landlocked country of its own. It’s not INDIA!!!!

  • MB

    Hello! Yeah, sure, but I didn’t write that he was born in India.

    Quote:

    “Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born in a kshatriya family, an Indian ruling and military caste. His birthplace is the territory of modern Nepal”.

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