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A Response to the Dalai Lama

This Friday, my Facebook newsfeed included a quotation from the Dalai Lama.

Depression seems to be related to fear, anger and frustration. When you’re in a bad mood, even if you meet with your friends, you don’t take pleasure in their company. But when you’re in a good mood, even if things go wrong, you can cope with them without difficulty. This is why putting yourself in a good mood, making a point of developing a sense of loving kindness gives you greater inner strength.

While I respect and admire the Dalai Lama, on this subject he is wrong.

I wrote a blog post to tell him and his followers so. I posted it on Blogher.com. (Blogher is a site for women bloggers that sometimes syndicates content. It is more general than what I usually post here, so I wrote something special for them.)

As I researched, trying to find when and where the Dalai Lama said this (I couldn’t), I discovered several articles about research into depression and Buddhist principles and techniques.

One was an article by Kathy Gilsinan at The Atlantic
(http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/07/dalai-lama-neuroscience-compassion/397706/). It talked about “high-amplitude gamma-oscillations in the brain, which are indicative of plasticity.” What that is or has to do with depression, I don’t know. It sounds like “handwavium” to me.

One that made more sense was this, from Jeanie Lerche Davis at
WebMD: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/07/dalai-lama-neuroscience-compassion. (The feature was reviewed by Louise Chang, MD.)

While meditation can help many who are depressed, it’s not a sure-fire cure, [Charles W.] Raison [psychiatry professor and co-director of Emory’s Collaborative for Contemplative Studies] tells WebMD. “In fact, many people with mood disorders find they can’t do meditation when they’re depressed.” Their thoughts are too overwhelming. They are anxious, nervous, and can’t sit – and likely they need antidepressants, he says.

That’s more like it.

In my response to the Dalai Lama, I said,

Real, clinical depression is not about being in a “bad mood.” It’s true that a truly depressed person does not find pleasure even in ordinarily pleasurable things, such as meeting with friends. But we cannot simply put ourselves in a good mood.

That’s the hell of depression. We want to enjoy the good times. We want to put ourselves into a place of inner strength. But we can’t. Not without help.

In fact, your advice is hurtful to depressed people. Too many times we have been told, “Cheer up.” “Smile! You’ll feel better.” “Think about someone else for a change.” “What do you have to feel bad about?”

Don’t you think we would if we could?

Remarks like these remind us that we have an illness and we cannot cure ourselves by willpower alone – no more than a person with hepatitis or tuberculosis or even schizophrenia can. We need help, and most of us need medication.

You do a disservice to people with depression when you tell them to put themselves in a good mood. You, an enlightened spiritual leader, may be able to do it, but we can’t.

Certainly we can benefit from practicing loving kindness and developing inner strength.

But without treatment for depression, how many of us can do that?

It angers me when people say that depression – or any mental disorder – is something people can or should be able to cure with an attitude adjustment. I’ve heard it too many times from people in my life, and I’m sure you have too.

What’s really disappointing is that someone like the Dalai Lama, with his legion of followers and enormous credibility, is perpetuating this old way of thinking.

This lie.

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