Letter: ‘No Form of Buddhist Practice Is a Replacement for Professional Psychological Help’

A practicing Buddhist argues in favor of informed meditation.

Dado Ruvic / Reuters

Why So Many Americans Are Turning to Buddhism

Four in 10 American adults now say they meditate at least weekly. “Buddhism has been popular in various forms among certain celebrities and tech elites,” Olga Khazan wrote last week, “but the religion’s primary draw for many Americans now appears to be mental health.”

I am a practicing Buddhist and someone with bipolar disorder, so this article hit very close to home—and while I found it generally nuanced and well researched, there is one important issue that I feel wasn’t addressed (and a few minor doctrinal issues that pestered me).

Most important, it should be addressed that no form of Buddhist practice is a replacement for professional psychological help. Indeed, quality mental-health services in America are shamefully difficult to access for many people, and certain aspects of Buddhist teaching can prove extremely beneficial (both in lieu of other services and in addition to them), but meditation can also reinforce negative mental traits that the meditator either is unaware of or doesn’t realize the negative consequences of. Meditation itself can lead to the uncovering of very painful, traumatic experiences and emotions, and if a person is already having difficulties with mental health, there is a significant possibility that the person’s symptoms could worsen if not properly addressed. While good teachers can help guide their students through the obstacles they encounter in their practice, many—especially teachers who are not accustomed to American culture—tend to provide general recommendations that do not resolve the underlying issues, or ones that can even reinforce a person’s unskillful habits.

On the other side, the more secularized Buddhism that is becoming more and more popular fails to give practitioners a good grounding in Buddhist philosophy and morality, which is an essential component to navigating the often unsettling experiences of intense meditation. More than simply disregarding doctrines they disagree with, people can develop deeply misguided ideas about what Buddhism really teaches (for example, that Buddhists “worship” the Buddha). As someone who began a meditation practice in absolute desperation for relief from depression, I understand the urge to use meditation as a tool without the trappings of religion, but I have come to realize that, without engaging in (or at least possessing a thorough understanding of) traditional Buddhist practices beyond meditation, one’s mental development is unmoored from important guiding principles.

To get to the doctrinal points, the first Noble Truth is not “Life is suffering,” though it is almost universal in the West to hear it phrased as such. A more literal understanding is that life is always unsatisfactory, that it always entails suffering, but not that every single thing in life is suffering. (What, then, could be the purpose of meditation?) Basically, the whole philosophy of the Noble Truths hinges on the argument that all things are conditioned by prior circumstances, all conditioned things are impermanent, and impermanent things cannot be satisfying, because ultimately they will be separated from the individual, leading to suffering.

Finally, while the Heart Sutra likely dates from the early Middles Ages (in Western terms), the Diamond Sutra has been firmly dated to antiquity. A minor point, but one that bothered me. Unfortunately I have not overcome worldly vexations enough to disregard it.

Z. McGrew
Oklahoma City, Okla.