Depression: When Buddhism Doesn't Work?

I found this interesting article ( 8 pages ) on the Lion’s Roar web site.

“I Want to Tell You About Coming Apart and Struggling Through Depression” by Susan Moon. “A moving account by Susan Moon of her journey back from depression, and how her Buddhist practice both helped and hindered her.”

The author, Susan Moon, denied being in depression for many years.

The depression got to the point where it made each day painful and she thought bizarre thoughts.

The author had been practicing Zen Buddhist meditation for 20 years. Meditation often made her feel worse as the mental silence would allow many harsh thoughts to come up. People kept advising her to just keep meditating, watching the thoughts come and go. When she told her teachers that she was disappointed that zazen didn’t make her feel better she got scolded being told you don’t sit in zazen to get something.

The author went on a week long retreat that intensified her mental pain so much she left the retreat, without permission, before it was complete, and didn’t meditate again for several months.

After hitting rock bottom she went to psychiatrist who prescribed prozac which made her feel worse, so he had her try zoloft. The zoloft helped her get back to a place where she could deal with things and it helped to reduce the intensity of the angry, automatic, self talk.

The author had a lot of mental resistance to taking medication:

I had a lot of resistance to taking medication. I thought my unhappiness had two parts: negative circumstances in the outside world, which Zoloft obviously couldn’t fix, and negative attitudes inside my head, which I thought my Buddhist practice should take care of. Besides, an orthodox Zen voice whispered in my mind that the monks of old got along without Zoloft. But some of those monks probably obsessed their lives away in misery; others may have left the monastery because they couldn’t concentrate. Buddhist history doesn’t tell us about the ones who tried and failed, the ones with attention deficit disorder or clinical depression.

The author ended up not meditating for two years. During that time she took on an attitude of trusting herself and doing what her emotional needs demanded despite it not being rational or what she thought she should do. She started praying prayers from multiple religions. The trust in herself and her needs, she felt, helped heal her.

After two years she was able to go off of the Zoloft. She also started meditating again.

She doesn’t know why she got as sick as she did or what exactly made her better.

Taking up zazen with a reason, to understand herself better ( versus listening to people telling her should meditate without wanting anything from it ) enabled her to start meditating again.


From what I’ve seen online, it seems that bad meditation experiences are quite common.

My gut feeling is there is a lot of meditation that has been divorced from Buddhist ethics. So maybe some people don’t know how to deal with negative stuff by developing the positive stuff.

In any case, it’s good to not brush this under the rug, or blame people saying “you weren’t doing it right”.


They sound like terrible teachers she’s involved with! Just imagine if you went to a doctor and he gave everyone the same medicine regardless of their ailments, and if it didn’t work, he blamed the patients, and told them see, some people are getting better, it must be your fault!


That is a common saying from Ajahn Brahm, but I don’t think it applies to what happened to that woman in the article. Meditation brought out depression and anxiety for her. Unless you are a total moral zero, keeping the five precepts isn’t going to make clinical depression or general anxiety disorder go away.

What positive stuff? Many grim Buddhist teachers and grim Buddhist writings mention metta meditation, briefly, developing compassion and giving even more briefly. Those things help a LITTLE bit, but aren’t going to take care of clinical level depression or anxiety.

That is well put, that is what people did to that woman.

They told her to relax and watch thing arise and pass away.

She needed more.

Someone in authority should have listened to her describe her problems, make her feel heard, and then strongly recommend she get professional help, assuring her that it ( depression, GAO ) happens to other meditators, and treatment can eventually get them to a better place.

Maybe they did, and the idea just didn’t register because of the pain she was in.


I also came from zen (sōtō) and had a lot of difficulties, though I didn’t end up in such a bad place as this author. I also don’t believe these problems are related to virtue.

My meditation only really took off 10 years later when I started studying the suttas. One corner stone was learning about hindrances and what to do about them – in other words, actual sati (refer to all the similes about it, describing it’s protective nature). There were many, many other things, but this one was so big that I immediately felt like I’ve been lost for all these years.

I have never seen such things being taught in zen circles, as in my own experience, teaching was limited to prajnaparamita and Dōgen Zenji. That being the case for the author and others, maybe it should be no surprise that problems often heard by people who “just meditate” also happen in these circles too.


So, to sum things up it would seem fair to say that meditation should not be seperated from introspection, awareness and basic safeguards…

And kindness!

But I guess the crux of the question here is how do you know you ar on the right path, because many people have their own view on that?

Well, I guess we can turn back to the Buddha and the Kalama sutta AN3.65 and many that people can contribue to here, may be :wink: .

Please :anjal:


I think (buddhist) meditation should not be separated from the eightfold path. The sad thing is that the eightfold path is not neglected because here a certain buddhist group does not acknowledge it. It is acknowledged. And yet, neglected.

But I agree with Banthe G. in his succinct observation of Zen in “Mindfulness in plain english”:

Zen is tough. It effective for many people, but it is really tough.

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Good reference, @sukha :heart:

Please, Kālāmas, don’t rely on oral transmission, lineage, testament, canonical authority, logic, inference, reasoned contemplation, acceptance of a view after consideration, the appearance of competence, or respect for your teacher. But when you know for yourselves: ‘These things are unskillful, blameworthy, criticized by sensible people, and when you undertake them, they lead to harm and suffering’, then you should give them up.


The Noble Eightfold Path says negative emotions should be dealt with (at least the very coarse ones) before starting meditation. That is the sixth step (removal of defilements) precedes the seventh step of Right mindfulness (MN117). So i firmly believe biases against effective medication has no basis in the dhamma even and especially if we consider the Kalama sutta.

With metta


I read some of those and they strange to me, like “crushing a persistent thought the way a strong man would crush a weak one”

Would you care to give examples of some of those similes and how you applied them to your meditation practice?

It sounds like your experiences might be useful.

If you are in a homicidal rage it’s useful to be able to control your self!

With metta


Pretty useless for me Mat, that hasn’t happened to me.

In regards to the Buddhists going on about “They don’t practice virtue! They don’t practice virtue!” I don’t know too many people who are REALLY into meditation who are also intoxicant using pimps who are stealing and selling weapons. :slight_smile:

I think the problem is that relaxation brings things up, and meditation is all about relaxation.

If you don’t know how to deal with things brought up to the surface, you are going to suffer like that woman did.

I think many people have unresolved things waiting for them. Very few people have opportunities to process what is going on in their heads. They stay distracted during nearly all of their waking hours.

Of course when they go to sleep, go to meditate, have a day off it all comes back as anxiety or depression.

So many people say “you need all of Buddhism to handle that”.

I’m not sure I believe Buddhism has adequate measures for all of those things.

Metta, practicing compassion, practicing dana, reflecting on your good deeds do help, but it is like cleaning up a flooded room with a rake.

Again, most people REALLY into meditation don’t have virtue problems or at least not significant ones.

I haven’t missed a day of meditation in over 13 years. Everything was wonderful up until my 10th year when multiple and large problems hit me all at once.

I developed general anxiety disorder for several months. Panic attacks, waking up in the middle of night, being unable to get adequate sleep etc.

I was and have been involved with sutta classes and those classes did not help.

Right View just made me more anxious ( nothing lasts, everything will go away or change ). Whenever I would sit down to meditate after about 20 minutes painful and anxious feelings would come up forcing me to stand up and take a brisk walk.

I looked for “Buddhist solutions”, and just did not find any.

I got a few "sorry your loss"s on Buddhist Internet forums, but I also had conversations with some of the most emotionally unintelligent people I have ever conversed with. When I mentioned I kept having problems and wasn’t finding that missing piece of Buddhism everyone claims is there I was shooed off of that web board.

So, given all of that I can relate to the woman in the original article. Given all of that I think “practice all of Buddhism” is the same kind of dismissive, patent advice the woman in the story got with “just watch things pass”.

I don’t think people really know what they are talking about with these issues.

I think Buddhism has its limits and at some point people like that woman need to go find other things to heal themselves.


Nothing is guaranteed to work of course. Some people have deep issues, that they may not be necessarily aware of, or equipped to deal with. The way Buddhism is taught sometimes isn’t conducive to a holistic approach to deeper issues. Meditation can be used by some to suppress their emotions and float above it, but the suppression is never total and it will pop out eventually. Right intension should include the intention to be wholesome not just in action and speech but also in thought. This means one’s mind is ever under reconstruction, much like tending to a garden and weeding it -as well as growing nice plants.

With metta


To me it was more like “oh, so I should abandon those things” . The realization that certain things are things that should be seen in a specific way (unwholesome) and dealt with in another specific way to make them diminish and disappear – approaching it skillfully, ie, without creating other problems, etc. And also that there are things (wholesome) to stimulate, to develop and make them grow, etc…

For example, I was overwhelmingly happy to read things like MN 20, when the Buddha said:

If, while he is examining the danger in those thoughts, there still arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, with delusion, then he should try to forget those thoughts and should not give attention to them.

So, indeed – I thought, reassuring myself – these should be intentionally cast away!

Now, I never became depressed because of meditation. Though, when reading about people doing just the “just watch” practice and going depressive because everything lost taste and importance, and seem so “impermanent” and insignificant, I could kind of see how they got to that, or how their practice could have made it worse. A pity, given the many teachings on happiness and feeling content and inspired and energized that are found in the suttas and the role of attention in all that.

I’m not saying that the Dhamma is a pill for depression. Just that the Noble Onefold Path doesn’t seem very healthy.

Well, wasn’t much the similes that did for me, but the vast knowledge base in the suttas. My very first meditation after starting my first readings of the suttas was learning how to identify the hindrances.

Before that, when anxiety, anger, lust, or anything else sprung up, it was this “mass” of sensations and emotions and mental states that, although I could give a name to, I had only one instruction to do, ie. sit and watch them come/go, and only one doctrine to contextualize them, i.e they are empty (and it didn’t help that “emptiness” was not bothered to be well explained either – the mysticism surrounding it in the circles I participated didn’t help either).

So, for one, reading about these five “hindrances” and a declaration that if those things are present, Nirvana won’t happen was huge to me. This was the first thing I read that gave me some approachable goals. My meditation went from sitting and being beaten up by my states of mind lost in no-where-land, to “what is this? What is that? What did I do to make it grow? what did I do to make it shrink? What if I try breathing this way, or that way? What if I give attention to this? What if I try to not give attention to that? etc…”

Soon, I got a firm hold on how to practice.

In contrast, even when I had some better zazen experiences prior to that, I could not understand them, what made them be and how to replicate or make them happen again or be deeper. I just hoped they would eventually happen again, or be deeper. When most meditations are not like that at all, I think it’s very hard to practice.


I’m glad she is on a better path now. I can’t help but wonder how much differently things would have turned out had she been practicing loving-kindness for that 20 years instead…


I practice metta. It makes me feel great. It hasn’t cured me of my anxiety issues.

I think she was brave to write the article because people don’t want to believe what she has to say, that Buddhism isn’t the answer to every mental health issue. People, if they don’t get angry at her, will accuse of not doing something right.


Just as an aside, it does occur in western medicine that patients are ‘blamed’ for the medications not working. Eg a real medical term is ‘treatment resistant depression’. If it wasn’t so tragic it would be funny. Yes rather than taking the perspective that maybe the medication doesn’t deliver in every case… it is couched in terms that it is the depressions fault! Amazing but true :-(:confounded:


I was ill for a long while from India, years ago, and the Centre for Tropical Diseases - best place in the UK supposedly for ill pilgrims - concluded after their expertise proved insufficient: “There’s nothing wrong with you”.

When the expert has reached his limit, then anything beyond that surely doesn’t exist :wink:


I believe that the expression of depression in our brains/minds is, in Buddhist terms, a deep delusion. When actively suffering within this web of delusion, it is impossible to see clearly. It is a necessity to find a way to make cracks in the delusion in order to wiggle a way through to get another perspective, to begin to see that the messages and self talk the mind gives is actually the delusion.

Ways to crack delusion when depressed may include; medication, psycho-therapy, other talking therapies including CBT, journaling, broadening of experience (ie learning more about the condition and the self) and time. The ‘self’ is operating under the strongest delusions, and it is very difficult for one in this state to realise that the ‘self’ is wrong… It is at this point that I think the 4 Noble truths really come into their own :slight_smile: After having been through an experience like severe depression, it becomes self evident that we live in a mind-made world, and that things like depression are a mind made hell.

At the beginning of the journey into depression, people use many defences… things that may be useful in the begining that end up perpetuating the problems. A very common one is to avoid looking at the issues - escapism, distraction, intoxication (legal or prescribed). It is absolutely to be anticipated that in these circumstances meditation… the removal of all distraction… exposes the mind to itself. Depending on the specifics, it is no wonder that the mind is in distress at this.

As many have said, Kindness, and best of all kindness combined with wisdom is the way forward.

May all beings give and receive kindness and wisdom, both



Just in reply to the title of this thread “When Buddhism doesn’t work”

This leads to the question > What is the Purpose of Buddhism?
I would propose that the purpose is to spread the Dharma, in order to allow beings to find ways to leave behind the hindrances to Nibbana. This is all -

As individual beings in our current lives, it is up to each of us individually to recognise and train ourselves (by following the N8FP), to realise No self and impermanence, and thereby recognise what causes our suffering (craving in all its forms) and then to change our behaviour until we see/know first hand (stream entry) etc.

As such, it is the expectations placed on “buddhism” that create the problem described by the woman in the article. As others have said, and quoted the Kalama Sutta, simple belief in what others have written or said about what buddhism can do for people is a big problem. Especially recently with the growth of unrealistic expectations or’ purpose’ of meditation by all the myriad of mindfulness advocates and ‘teachers’. In and of itself meditation cannot cure all the ills experienced and promulgated by a person in samsara.