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November 04, 2022


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"That's why we often find ourselves saying things like "I don't know why I feel so depressed; I've got nothing to be depressed about," ...

the way out of this trap is mindfulness"


While this much is undoubtedly true, Brian, but I'm afraid this is a very limited, and incomplete, reading of the Buddha's --- and Buddhism's --- overall project, and of mindfulness as defined in those traditions. (Which is not to say that those traditions are right, and that this limited interpretation is wanting; I remain agnostic about that, and it could well be that this limited interpretation, this limited application, is all there is to mindfulness in the context of depression, and it is the Buddhist traditions that are mistaken about the overarching applicability of mindfulness as panacea of all of "suffering"; but I wanted to point out that the one is not the entirety of the other, but only a small subset.)

Sure, the general ennui, the existential angst thing, the typical first world issue of manufacturing imaginary non-things to be miserable about when people are far far far better situated than oppressed poverty-ridden choice-starved and sometimes literally starving populaces elsewhere on the globe; that is to say, "feeling depressed when one knows one has no rational reason for feeling depressed"; I agree, mindfulness offers a way out of this morass, this trap. Not the only way out, but certainly, a very effective way out.

But what the Buddha, and Buddhism, refers to, in terms of mindfulness, and in terms of overcoming suffering, goes much deeper than that. It is a question of removing altogether one's compulsive attachment with desire and aversion, so that, once one is established in that practice and in that paradigm, then externalities cease to matter. One may find oneself in the midst of a battle, literally in danger of being shot or shelled to death, like the Ukrainians say, and yet one remains unmoved --- unmoved not in so far as actually doing what's needed to be done, but in terms of feeling sorry for oneself, all of that. Ditto when you're literally poverty-ridden, literally close to death, whatever. Again, I'm not endorsing that POV, like I said I remain agnostic about all of that, but I'm merely pointing out (my understanding of) the seemingly much larger scope of mindfulness as far as depression, in the context of the Buddha and of Buddhism. (In short, per those traditions, mindfulness offers you a way out of depression even when depression, that is to say feeling completely despondent and hopeless, is actually the rational reasonable reaction, because things are actually that dire.)

That's one way in which the approach as discussed here is, or might be, limited. Another would be when there is an established and evidenced physical aspect to the depression. Again I'm not quite sure about this, but I suspect that if one's biology, the dopamine and serotonin and whatever other chemical levels in one's brain are awry, then no amount of mindfulness is going to fix that, or so I imagine. (But I'm wlling to be corrected on that, obviously, if indeed mindfulness can be shown to overrride physicality as well. Or it could be that mindfulness doesn't fully override it, but nevertheless helps, so that it can be used not standalone but in conjunction with drugs; and if that is the case, if that can be evidentially shown to be true, then that's very important, as well, and pretty much cool.)

So that, I was sayng, this discussion of mindfulness in the context of depression, while it is extremely important and relevant and all of that, and I look forward to reading more of what you go on to write about it, but it does seem limited in two respects: first, in terms of how it only covers a small subset of the overall scope of it as discussed in Buddhism; and second, in terms of its relevance only within certain ranges of "normal" brain chemicals.

Appreciative Reader, I think you're conflating several issues that shouldn't be confused with each other. Yes, of course there is (1) religious Buddhism, with it's dubious claims about rebirth, supernatural Buddhas, and as you said, the absolute cessation of suffering in some sort of nirvana.

But there's also (2) non-religious Buddhism, which ignores the religious/supernatural aspects of Buddhism, focusing instead on meditation, mindfulness, and a secular understanding of how the self appears to be an illusion.

Then there's (3), a non-Buddhism such as that discussed in the depression and mindfulness book which doesn't mention Buddhism at all, or at least extremely minimally, simply acknowledging that Eastern practices of mindfulness/meditation have inspired Western efforts to apply these practices to stress reduction, psychological well-being, and such.

You appear to be criticizing a book that uses (3), non-Buddhism, because it doesn't espouse (1), religious Buddhism. Mindfulness is a tool that can be used for different purposes. It makes no sense to criticize someone who uses mindfulness in a non-Buddhist fashion because they aren't using mindfulness in a Buddhist fashion.

After all, mindfulness isn't owned by Buddhism or even developed by Buddhism. Buddhism just has incorporated it into its teachings in a stronger fashion than other religions have. It's a natural way of being that, unfortunately, no longer is so natural. Early humans had to be mindful of their physical surroundings because survival depended on this. Now we tend to sleepwalk through our physical life, being consumed with mental preoccupations like, in my case, how the United States midterm election next Tuesday will play out.

“Appreciative Reader, I think you're conflating several issues that shouldn't be confused with each other. (…) You appear to be criticizing a book that uses (3), non-Buddhism, because it doesn't espouse (1), religious Buddhism.”

……….Haha, yes indeed, I see that I was doing exactly that. I absolutely enjoyed reading this response of yours, Brian, absolutely enjoyed the crystal clear reasoning that so easily disentangled the threads that my own somewhat confused thoughts had ended up, as you rightly point out, conflating inadvertently.

Indeed, it is your #1, religious Buddhism --- and in this context, I’d argue that this aspect of the original teachings of the Buddha himself are a subset of this category --- that holds up mindfulness (well, not so much mindfulness alone, as the whole entire deal, of which mindfulness is an essential and large part) as a panacea for all ills. Your #2, secular Buddhism, does not do that. And, as you rightly point out, your #3, that is to say the technique of mindfulness extracted for a very specific purpose, in this case treating depression, has nothing to do with either #1 or even #2; and it is that #3 that this book is about; and so, yes, I agree, that part of my criticism was entirely misplaced.

But that still does leave the other half of my criticism unaddressed. It is in a way a chicken-and-egg thing, sure, in that depression ends up affecting brain chemicals, as well as the other way around; so that it isn’t as if an outside-of-strictly-“normal”-range reading of brain chemicals necessarily means that you can’t have effective treatment without drugs; but in those cases where the physical aspect of it is the primary cause, and in any case when brain chemicals are significantly outside of the normal ranges, I’d imagine that administering drugs will be the primary form of treatment, and mindfulness can at best be an additional incremental help, if that.

But of course, that criticism of mine is based off of a very limited reading of a small excerpt from the entire book. I’d expect that Patrick House, who’s a neuroscientist after all, will have addressed that part of it elsewhere in the book --- although of course, in case it turns out that he hasn’t in fact done that, then that will indeed amount to a real shortcoming in this discussion and in his book.

(But in any case, I’d expect that such instances, of depression that is based off of overwhelming imbalances in brain chemicals, would be the outliers. In most cases I’d expect that mindfulness, even by itself, can be of great help to most people who suffer from depression, and to that extent the discussion here is spot on.)


“…mindfulness isn't owned by Buddhism or even developed by Buddhism. Buddhism just has incorporated it into its teachings in a stronger fashion than other religions have. It's a natural way of being that, unfortunately, no longer is so natural.”

……….Another very insightful observation, Brian. And yes, absolutely spot on!

My first impulse, when I heard of you speak of mindfulness not having been developed by Buddhism, was to wonder which other meditative traditions have developed it independently of and uninfluenced by Buddhism. While the Vigyan Bhairav Tantra does speak of techniques directly analogous to Anapan, and Vipassana, and direct mindfulness as well; but as far as I know, other meditation techniques, be they Christian mystical, or Sufi, or the Buddhistic, or the many different and diverse flavors and techniques, including your RSSB for instance, that we might club together under one huge unwieldy umbrella and call it “Hindu”, while all of them do involve mindfulness, while indeed they are at one level *about* mindfulness, but they don’t directly approach mindfulness per se directly and as their central focus. And as far as the Vigyan Bhairav Tantra as well, while (some) Hindus claim extraordinary antiquity for this text, but I personally suspect that like the Upanishads it draws, at least in part, from Buddhistic teachings.

But of course, you go on then to cut that convoluted Gordian knot about the historicity of mindfulness meditation, and in fact bypass meditation altogether. And very rightly so, as some reflection made clear to me as well. Absolutely, it is silly to look on mindfulness as merely and necessarily an aspect of meditation. You’re right, mindfulness, and being in the present, is something that ancient man, when pursued by wild fierce predators, and hunting scarce-to-come-by food, had necessarily to adopt into their everyday life, or else just die! We must likely have actually evolved to mindfulness, except civilization seems to have made us soft, and we seem to have habituated ourselves entirely out of it, so that we’ve come to think of it, mindfulness that is to say, as some novel wonderful esoteric practice, some novel wonderful state of being, that we must --- all virtuously and solemnly! --- incorporate into our lives via specific meditation techniques.

Obvious though that observation of yours is at one level, but it wasn’t obvious to me before I heard you speak of it here and now; and I got that cool “Aha!” feeling when that insight finally broke through to me. Like I said, Brian, I found the entirety of this comment of yours very insightful, and an absolute pleasure to read.

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