First, a “buddha brain” is simply one that knows how to be truly happy in the face of life’s inescapable ups and downs. (I don’t capitalize the word “buddha” here to focus on the original nature of the word – which is “to know, to see clearly” – to distinguish my general meaning from the specific historical individual known as The Buddha.) The possibility of this kind of brain is inherent in the human brain that we all share; any human brain can become a buddha brain. Therefore, a buddha brain is for everyone, whatever their religious orientation (including none at all).
Second, we all must begin the path wherever we are – whether that’s everyday stress and frustration, mental illness, anxiety, sorrow and loss, or depression. In any moment when we step back from our experience and hold it in mindful awareness, or when we begin to let go of negative feelings and factors, or when we gradually turn toward and cultivate positive feelings and factors we are taking a step toward developing a buddha brain. Each small step matters. It was usually lots of small steps that took a person to a bad place, and it will be lots of small steps that take him or her to a better one.
Third, mental anguish or dysfunction can help us grow. They teach us a lot about how the mind works, they can deepen compassion for the troubles and sorrows of others, and, frankly, they can be very motivating. Personally, the times in my life when I have been most intent on taking my own steps toward a buddha brain have been either when I was really feeling blue – and needed to figure out how to get out of the hole I was in – or when I was feeling really good, and could still sense that there had to be more to life than this, and more profound possibilities for awakening.
It seems that there are several points to balance:
This is a truly personal experience, so anything I might say is offered modestly.
For me there are three basic ways, and one less basic way, to engage the mind usefully:
In other words, let be, let go, let in, let free.
When something very challenging happens, often all we can do is ride out the storm, being with our feelings, experiencing them, letting them flow, while also knowing that what is moving through the mind is part of a vast process with many causes. At some point it feels appropriate to shift more into letting go, trying to release those negative feelings. After that it can become possible to let in, which often resources us enough to go back to a deeper layer of letting be. And all the while, if it’s meaningful, there can be an underlying sense of the transcendental in which mind and matter happen and appear.
I might add that being loving in ways large and small during grieving is like a balm to one’s own heart.
It’s obviously normal to be depressed and upset when things are collapsing around a person.
I suggest you talk with your counselor about options that could have more impact for you, from exercise to maybe considering medication. In terms of psychological interventions, I don’t know your situation and I can’t make specific recommendations, but Acceptance and Commitment Therapy comes to mind as something you could look into, just Google it. It’s more or less the Serenity Prayer in action: find your way to peace about what you can’t influence, and do your best each day to influence what you can. You might also find the calming and centering practices in Buddha’s Brain to be helpful.
Episodes of depression do tend to sensitize people and make them more prone to depression. To deal with this, MBCT can help prevent relapse; try not to get depressed about feeling depressive. I also think exercise, complexity, stimulation, and visual-spatial tasks are plausible ways to help rehabilitate a hippocampus that’s been through depression, trauma, or both.
Really taking in the good, especially pleasurable social experiences would also be plausible for reducing likelihood of relapse, in part through sensitizing and perhaps increasing oxytocin and opioid receptors in the amygdala and other key regions. Along these lines, focusing on concentration practices that involve the cultivation of bliss/rapture and joy (including happiness, contentment, and tranquility) could help as well.
Alongside all this, even if you are still vulnerable to depression, other inner strengths could still be developed, such as concentration and lovingkindness.
Have hope! I can tell that you are a strong practitioner. And if anti-depressants or related “nutraceuticals” like tryptophan or 5-HTP are helpful for your biochemistry, whatever, it’s skillful means for you and nothing to feel bad about.
First, a couple cautions:
With this in mind:
Depression is a mind state like any other, and it possesses the classic three characteristics: it’s impermanent, interdependently arising (and thus empty of absolute self-existence), and generative of suffering if one engages it with craving/clinging (e.g., resists it, gets angry or ashamed for being depressed). Many notable teachers (e.g., Mingyur Rinpoche, Dipa Ma), have a history of depression. It’s the pits for sure. But it’s just another mind state. So deal with it as best you can – “ardent, diligent, resolute, and mindful” – from working on your circumstances to improving your biochemistry to trying to release it (e.g., cognitive methods, imagery, venting) to replacing it with lots of taking in the good. While remembering that you have it, it doesn’t have you. Equanimity is a good thing.
About suicide: I am not aware of any quote from the Buddha himself on the subject. It is clear, though, in the Buddhist meta-model, that we always inherit the results of our actions, for better or worse – in this life, mainly, and in other ones, too. My personal opinion is that killing oneself out of kindness (e.g., euthanasia at the end of life in terminal, hopeless, excruciating pain) is one thing, but killing oneself because of inherently transient conditions such as depression is profoundly unkind to the one person in the universe we have the highest duty to, the one we have the most power over: your future self.
Keep going! Don’t give up. You are an excellent person, and will certainly inherit the good results of your good intentions, good actions, and good heart.
My view and the research evidence is not either/or (meds or no meds). If depressed mood is caused mainly or entirely by a physical health problem (distinct from “imbalance of brain chemistry,” such as an inflammatory condition, poor nutrition leading to significant deficiencies of B vitamins, etc.) or by a life condition (e.g., dreary work, poverty, abusive partner), then changing those causes alone could lift mood.
Assuming that these sorts of causes are not major factors, many people come out of depression with psychosocial interventions alone, ranging from informal ones (more friends, yoga practice, getting a dog, gratitude practice) to more formal ones (e.g., therapy, disputing negative thoughts routinely).
But for some people, psychosocial interventions alone are not enough; they also need to engage neurochemistry directly, taking steps ranging from supplementing tryptophan (perhaps as 5-HTP) to taking Zoloft. Of course, the side effects of medications need to be acknowledged: roughly a third or more of the people taking them find them ineffective or intolerable or both.
A common finding in research studies is that for moderate to severe depression, a combination of both psychosocial and medication interventions has the most benefit for many people. Psychosocial interventions have commonly the added benefit of reducing relapse into depression plus good “side effects” (e.g., feeling like you were the active agent of your own improved mood).
We also need to take into account what a person will actually do; for better or worse, it’s a fact that many people will not engage psychosocial interventions in a sustained way but they will take a pill each day.
Personally, I’m pragmatic and try not to get moralistic or dogmatic about any particular category of intervention.
Bottom-line, we are fundamentally a mind-body process, immaterial consciousness interdependently arising with material neurobiology – and I’ve found both mental and physical interventions to be very useful.
Depression affects both (1) the experiences we have and (2) our capacity to learn/grow/heal from them. So the practical implications are:
It is natural for the mind to revisit again and again material related to a loss (e.g., images, longings, thoughts, I-wish-I’d-said). That’s part of the normal grieving process. In meditation and in general, what’s usually wise is to allow the material to be there, take some seconds or minutes to know it for what it is, hold it in a larger space of awareness and interest, and try not to identify with it as “me” or “mine”: it is there in the mind but it is content like any other, such as a sound, sensation, memory, etc. And also for sure bring gentle compassion and kindness to yourself.
In addition to this fundamental mindfulness approach, it can also often be helpful to gently but actively let the loss-related material go, such as focusing on exhaling, reminding yourself that partings are widely common and inevitable ultimately for all of us, bowing to reality as it is whether you like it or not, or mentally saying goodbye to the person.
And helpful to take in, to receive, positive feelings and thoughts of being cared about by others.
First, I am truly sorry to hear about your loss. Being separated during this quarantine time makes if all the worse.
I’ve lost my parents and I’ve lost relationships with people who were important to me, all of it beyond my control. Loss is real as you well know, weighty and real. I can’t speak for others, but for me what feels healthy and in some ways healing is to feel all of it, especially as it washes through, and to be aware of large and small (mainly small) things that are also true and good and helpful, and fundamentally, to draw on wisdom, to recognize the passing nature of all things and the enduring allness that everything occurs in: the everlasting sea in which waves arise and pass away while all the while their nature is water.
Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.
The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.
She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.
Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.
In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.
Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.
Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.
He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.
Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.
Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.
Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.
Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.
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