When having a discussion on the issue of depression, as a Buddhist monk, I’m often asked if it’s caused by karma. Since by karma the asker most likely means “something bad I did in my past life”, I usually start off by saying, “I don’t know.”
What I can say though is that things happen due to causes and conditions, of which karma is one. And karma doesn’t mean what you’ve done in your past life. It means literally action, be it done aeons ago, just now or in the future. What we experience now is partly caused by what we have done, which includes what we have just done, even if it’s just in the mind.
What is done is done. That seems like an obvious statement, but when we are unable to let go of what we’ve done in the past, it’s a statement worth reminding ourselves of, not with the desire to forget—which is an act (a karma) of aversion—but with a desire to recognise that it’s over.
When we think of what we’ve done, it’s sanity to recognise that it is not what we’ve done, but just a memory of that, even it done just a moment ago. They aren’t the same thing. What we’ve done is over. Allof it. We can’t change any of that, and we don’t have to.
What’s more important to ask is “What can I do now?” In other words, it’s important to pay attention to our present karma, new karma.
Depression is suffering. Agree?
And what’s the cause of suffering?
Craving, so the Buddha has told us. Desiring. Wanting. Wanting, wanting, wanting. (This includes wanting to not be wanting.)
We don’t always get what we want. Have you noticed?
Not getting what we want is suffering enough. When we still want to get it anyhow, it’s more suffering, isn’t it?
This includes wanting what has happened to be different. You can’t have that. Haven’t you noticed? If noticing this impossibility doesn’t stop the wanting, just keep noticing, until the mind is convinced of what’s true, and enlightens itself.
Wanting, wanting, wanting. I want my father’s attention. I want my mother to love me. I want my son to respect me. I want my boss to stop pushing me. I want me to be thinner, fairer, taller, shorter, have straight hair (or whatever that’s in fashion). Some of our wants seem reasonable enough. Besides, it’s not wrong to want, isn’t it?
Of course. It’s not wrong to want. It just causes some suffering; that’s all. And a little bit more for every additional bit of wanting.
Bear in mind though that wanting doesn’t go away just because we want it too. However, not being willing to give up wanting would certainly keep it going, and make us really depressed. Have you noticed that, such as when you want people or things to be different from the way they are, to suit your requirement list? He shouldn’t be like this. He should be like that. I shouldn’t have done that. They should have done that. Really? Since when are people—including ourselves—supposed to follow the rules we make?
When we make rules for the world, that’s karma. When we want people to meet our requirement list, that’s karma. When we don’t get what we want from them, we may try harder: we scheme, we try to please, we manipulate, we force, we trick, we put down, we flatter, we threaten, we punish, we sulk, we give them the cold shoulder. That’ll make them change or That’ll make me change.All of that is karma—negative karma, since they are born out of defilements.
Then maybe things don’t turn out the way as we hope they would. We get disappointed, anxious, and we try even harder. More karma. As we go on like this, we eventually find ourselves in a deep chasm of despair, of hopelessness.
So, in a way, we can say that wanting is wrong, not that it’s a ‘bad thing’, but that it causes pain. We wrong ourselves by wanting, wanting and wanting.
Depressing, isn’t it?
So, you see, we make depression. I don’t mean that we do that on purpose. (Some who are depressed don’t even know why.) Who wants to be depressed? Everybody wants to be happy. Everybody tries to be happy, though they may do things (i.e., create karma) that brings about the exact opposite, such as wanting others to fulfil their requirement list.
I do really mean though that we create depression, and that’s the good news. If depression was something that’s entirely caused by the circumstances that we’re in, or determined by our past life, or dictated by some higher authority, or just happens to us for no reason; then we’ve had it, because it would then be beyond us to do anything about it. But because depression is something that we create—due to a lack of spiritual maturity—we can do something about it. We can develop our minds spiritually to comprehend the suffering that we create, so that we know to not provide the fuel for more suffering. And that’s karma too; the karma to end the karma of wanting.
Depression is a wake-up call—a very loud one. It’s telling us that we are doing something, a lot of something, that’s not working for us. The Buddha has done us a big favour by telling us that it’s the wanting. That’s the karma that causes depression.
Note: While this article provides some understanding of depression, it is far from being a complete guide on how to be free from it. Should you be suffering from depression, do seek a sincere mental health professional to help you cope and explore the causes. The writer recommends Dr Phang Cheng Kar (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Āyasmā Kumāra, having being depressed with suicidal thoughts when he was about 10, is fascinated by the phenomena. He recalls wanting his father to love him in the way he wanted him to, which wasn’t what his father could do at that time. As a monk of 14 years now, he is happy to write and talk about depression to help people who suffer from it. By the way, he has realised that actually he loves his father, and that his father loves him too.