Sometimes people ask me if Zen practice can cure depression. I tell them it can no more cure a mental illness than a physical illness, and I encourage them to look into counseling and medication. I also encourage them to read the book The Zen Path Through Depression by Philip Martin.
Zen probably won’t solve a single one of our problems. What it might do is help us relate differently to what we consider problems.
While depression is obviously agonizing, it doesn’t have to be a problem. The problem isn’t the depression, it’s how we react to it. We think people kill themselves because they’re depressed, but they don’t; they kill themselves because they believe a story that arises from the depression. Zen practice, or any other contemplative practice, won’t diminish the depression — but what if we no longer believe the despairing, frightening thoughts that come up?
Let me emphasize that I’m not saying the destructive thoughts can be stopped. I’m saying we can stop believing them, and also stop trying to replace them with other believed thoughts.
When people ask me why I practice, I sometimes quote John Cage: “It had to be psychotherapy or Zen Buddhism, and I don’t believe in psychotherapy.” There is a tendency among some people who turn towards meditative practice to see it as a cure for every human problem. I think this is just another of the ego’s attempts to cop out and find an easy answer.
A friend of mine, who had been told by some “Buddhists” that his late brother’s severe schizophrenia could have been cured or helped by meditation, asked me if I thought that was true. I told him I couldn’t see how it would be possible for a person in such a state — hallucinating, unable to comprehend objective reality — to meditate at all, let alone to be helped by it. I have post-traumatic stress disorder, and I am sure that the practice of Zen has not only helped me, but has actually saved my life. But, there have been times in my life when such medications as Lexapro and Prozac have also helped immensely. While meditation helped me deal with the symptoms of PTSD, medication made it easier to meditate. Render unto meditation the things that are meditation’s, and unto medication the things that are medication’s.