Buddhism

A reader responds: Buddhism and mental health

Why so many Americans are turning to Buddhism

Four in 10 American adults now say they meditate at least once a week. “Buddhism has been popular in various forms among some celebrities and tech elites,” Olga Khazan wrote last week, “but the main draw of religion for many Americans now appears to be mental health.”


I am a practicing Buddhist and someone with bipolar disorder, so this article has touched very close to where I live – and although I found it generally nuanced and well documented, there is one significant issue that I believe , was not addressed (and some minor doctrinal issues that pestered me).

Most importantly, it should be emphasized that no form of Buddhist practice replaces professional psychological help. Indeed, quality mental health services in America are shamefully difficult to access for many people, and some aspects of Buddhist teaching can prove to be extremely beneficial (both in place of other services and in more of them), but meditation can also strengthen negative mental traits. of which the meditator is not aware or does not realize the negative consequences. Meditation itself can lead to the discovery of very painful and traumatic experiences and emotions, and if a person already has mental health issues, there is a significant possibility that the person’s symptoms will worsen. they are not properly treated. While good teachers can help guide their students through obstacles they encounter in their practice, many, especially teachers who are not familiar with American culture, tend to provide general recommendations that do not resolve. the underlying issues, or that may even strengthen a person’s mind. unskillful habits.

On the other hand, the more secularized Buddhism which is becoming more and more popular fails to give practitioners a good foundation in Buddhist philosophy and morality, which is an essential element in navigating the often disturbing experiences of intense meditation. . More than simply ignoring doctrines with which they disagree, people can develop deeply mistaken ideas about what Buddhism actually teaches (eg, that Buddhists “worship” the Buddha). As someone who has started a meditation practice in absolute desperation for the relief of depression, I understand the urge to use meditation as a tool without the pitfalls of religion, but I have come to realize that without engaging (or at least possessing a deep understanding of) traditional Buddhist practices beyond meditation, mental development is detached from important guiding principles.

To come to the doctrinal points, the first Noble Truth is not “Life suffers”, although it is almost universal in the West to hear it so phrased. A more literal understanding is that life is always unsatisfactory, that it always involves suffering, but not that everything in life suffers. (What then could be the purpose of meditation?) Fundamentally, the whole philosophy of the Noble Truths rests on the argument that all things are conditioned by prior circumstances, all conditioned things are impermanent, and impermanent things cannot be satisfied. , because in the end they will be separated from the individual, leading to suffering.

Finally, while the Heart Sutra probably dates from the early Middle Ages (in Western terms), the Diamond Sutra has been firmly dated to antiquity. A minor point, but one that bothered me. Unfortunately, I have not overcome the vexations of the world enough to ignore it.

Z. McGrew
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.


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