A Zen Approach to Depression


chinabuddhismencyclopedia.comIn his book, “Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart,” psychiatrist Mark Epstein, M.D. tells the famous Buddhist story of Kisagotami and the mustard seed:

A young woman named Kisagotami lost her only child to illness around the time of his first birthday. Bereft, she went from house to house in her village, clasping the dead child to her breast and pleading for medicine to revive him. Her neighbors, thinking her mad, were frightened and did their best to avoid her entreaties. However, one man sought to help her by directing her to the Buddha, telling her that he had the medicine she was seeking. Kisagotami went to the Buddha, as we go to our psychotherapists, and begged him for the medicine.

“I know of some,” he promised, “but I will need a handful of mustard seed from a house where no child, husband, parent, or servant has died.”

Making her rounds in the village, Kisogotami slowly came to realize that such a house was not to be found. Putting the body of her child down in the forest, she made her way back to where the Buddha was camped.

“Have you procured the handful of mustard seed?” he asked.

“I have not,” she replied. “The people of the village told me, ‘The living are few, but the dead are many.’”

“You thought that you alone had lost a son,” said the Buddha. “The law of death is that among all living creatures there is no permanence.”

I lie awake last night thinking of that story. Like the young woman, I have been to so many houses looking for a cure for my depression. I’ve been to seven psychiatrists and have tried over 50 medication combinations. I’ve worked with countless therapists, sitting on couches for well over 15 years. I’ve spent thousands on acupuncturists, nutritionists, and holistic doctors. I’ve experimented with all kinds of herbs, hormones, vitamins, and other supplements. I’ve made drastic changes to my diet and spent my monthly salary on a Vitamix. I’ve tried to lose myself in running, swimming, and in hot yoga. I’ve participated in meditation classes, inpatient programs, outpatient programs, and twelve-step groups. I own the self-help aisle at Barnes & Nobles.

All of them have helped a little.

But I left each house disappointed.

I wasn’t cured.

Epstein says that the Buddhist story illustrates how we can use the experience of emptiness to cultivate spiritual maturity. “Emptiness can never be eliminated,” he explains, “although the experience of it can be transformed. Like sparks flying off of the blacksmith’s anvil, experiences of emptiness are part of the fabric of being….Only when we stop fighting with our personal emptiness can we begin to appreciate the transformation that is possible.”51Vu6exWh3L

I remembered these words last night, as I lie awake at 12:02, 1:10, 2:30, 4:15, 5:05, and the minutes between. I knew the more I tried to ignore the anxiety, the louder it would get, like the irritating tapping of my dog’s toenails on the wooden floor when I’m trying to nod off.

“I’m okay with my emptiness,” I said to myself.

“I’m really okay with my emptiness.”

“I’m so going to feel like crap tomorrow because of this emptiness.”

I clutched the rosary in my hand and concentrated on my breath.



I tried to quit thinking, but my gut held memories of my psychiatrist appointment earlier that day. I used to leave her office with hope that another medication or a higher dose of an existing medication would be enough to quiet my symptoms and take away my discomfort—that she’d have the Tylenol that I needed for my blistering headache. While I haven’t stopped trying new medications and therapies and supplements, I no longer attach any expectations to them.

I’m not so sure there exists a mustard seed, after all.

The story of Kisagotami has a hopeful conclusion:

Some time later, when Kisagotami had become a renunciate and follower of the Buddha, she was standing on a hillside engaged in a task when she looked out toward the village in the distance and saw the lights in the houses shining.

“My state is like those lamps,” she reflected, and the Buddha is said to have sent her a vision of himself at that moment confirming her vision.

“All living being resemble the flame of these lamps,” he told her, “one moment lighted, the next extinguished; those only who have arrived at Nirvana are at rest.”

Her breakthrough, according to Epstein, happened when she was able to look past her own trauma to a universal vision of suffering.

For a few hours last night, while the whole house was asleep, I stopped fighting the emptiness. I thought about the angst and frustration and suffering of the fellow depressives I have met online in Group Beyond Blue, a support group I set up on Facebook a month or so ago. I saw their heroic efforts to achieve serenity in their lives as glowing lamps across the Internet. They, too, have been to shrinks and hypnotists and herbalists and therapists. Some of them drink kale smoothies in the morning like I do, hoping for some green healing power. They’ve searched far and wide for the mustard seed, as well.

We are learning, together, a kind of Zen way to manage our depression: how to relax into our emptiness; how to run toward, not away from the anxiety; and how to breathe in the middle of the night, knowing that, although there exists no magic mustard seed, there are plenty of us awake … struggling in thought … and there will always be lights in the village to remind us that we aren’t alone, that all of humanity is united in suffering and impermanence.

Image by chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com

Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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13 Responses
  1. Margaret

    When we accept our situation, even when we don’t like it, we find a measure of peace. It’s better than hitting our head against the wall every day. Holding onto God’s Hand, and know for sure He will never leave us…

  2. Maria

    Beautiful story Therese I have never heard it before today but so true .Yesterday I saw the light that trying to fight with myself when I am in my abyss for me is useless .I need to do it in my time and my way

  3. Tom

    I’m sure you’ve probably already tried weekly massage therapy but maybe try it if not. Very expensive, though with a doctor’s prescript at least pre-tax.

  4. Mary Noel

    I look forward to reading all of your posts, Therese. This story is so gently re-mindful of the centuries that fellow travelers have walked the same path. I try “TRY” to manage MDD, and a couple of other diagnosis’ thrown in for good measure. Seems like we collect diagnosis’ like lint as we walk with black covering our bodies. It is hard, so hard. I feel like I have run out of coping with all the weight of this struggle which began about 60 years ago for me. But I read something like this story and it touches my heart—which I still treasure–and things are just alright, for now. Thankful for your time to post to us.

  5. Cindy

    Thank you for these encouraging words Therese! Last night was rough as I have been using some new meds and they don’t seem to agree with me. It helps to know you are not alone when you feel like you are encased in a shroud of darkness. There are lights out there and I just need to remind myself of that. 🙂

  6. I have been on the edges of the anxiety and depression you speak about, But a loved one was truly into anxiety and the ”black hole”. He took his life. Thank you Therese for carrying on and thank you all fellow sufferers who share comments and carry on, too. They help me keep perspective and deal with the awful loss, of my son. Each day, I say a prayer for you and your gang of blog responders.