The Eastern Solution to a Question We Never Ask

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Incense Burn and Buddhists sit at the Nan Tien Temple, Wollongong – photo: Anthony Drane

Anthony Drane

Are we looking for happiness in all the wrong places? With the rise of capitalism, it appears happiness, for much of western society, is achievable primarily by using external measures. Our gaping holes of existential dread are plugged with often unnecessary, material possessions, perceptions of power, and through the pursuit of fame and relationships. Failing this, exciting technological advances and mind-altering addictions ensure that there are a bevy of hedonistic pleasures and activities to further distract us from our greater search for meaning. But does this external obsession come at a cost to mental wellbeing? It seems more than ever we are depressed, empty, anxious and lost, with mental illness in western societies growing at alarming rates. Could an ancient eastern tradition alleviate or change our paths and offer us greater control over our mental experience?

According to the Director of the Buddhist Discussion Centre Australia (BDCA), Frank Carter, this may be the case and Buddhism may be a solution. He believes the quality of our experience in living is determined by the quality of our mind – our internal world – and the goal of happiness is distanced by cultural conditioning. Carter turned to Buddhism in his mid-20’s after a sense that there was more to life than what he had seen in Western culture and found its ideas fulfilled many of his unanswered questions. “I found that Buddhism seemed to address many of the things left un-addressed, things that were very worthwhile and beneficial.” To him, happiness is the manifestation of mental wellbeing and the separation from delusions of the mind.

He isn’t the only one converting. Despite Buddhism being one of the oldest eastern religions and philosophies, its timeless quality is drawing increasing numbers of Westerners in. Buddhism is the most common non-Christian religion in Australia, accounting for 2.5% of the population, up from 0.8% in 1996 (Australian Bureau of Statistics). This does not account for people who are meditating, practicing mindfulness and other principles of Buddhism without identifying as Buddhists. This correlation might indicate a growing need to cope with the abundance of information and stress that exists in the western sphere of culture.

The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing has been conducted twice in Australia’s history, once in 1997 and again in 2007. In 1997, 17.7% of Australians reported experiencing a mental illness in the preceding 12 months, compared with 19.95% in 2007 and a total of 43% (7.3 million) reporting experiencing a mental disorder at some point in their lifetime. The most common and widespread mental illnesses were anxiety and depression in both instances; remedies which are foremost treated with medications and psychotherapy. With this increased experience of mental illness, Buddhism could be one an effective tool in dealing with the ever-increasing anxieties and depressions western society face.

However, Medical Doctor and associate professor of pharmacology at James Cook University, Dr. Zoltan Sarnyai, said Buddhist practices may not be universally applicable due to the nature of mental illness. He explains anxiety and depression as the combination of biological susceptibility and environmental factors, usually of a stressful nature. Dr. Sarnyai claims that the ideals expressed in Buddhism may fall on deaf ears for an individual suffering from major depressive disorder or a major anxiety disorder; it may be more helpful to those with more mild conditions. “I think we need to distinguish between patients who are very severely depressed; individuals who are not able to get out of the bed, struggle with very strong suicidal ideations… (they) are not necessarily in the condition of being able to talk or listen or engage in a therapeutic setting.” He advocates the combination of a pharmaceutical approach; taking an individual out of that state, and psychotherapy; regaining power over the mind when an individual is in a receptive state.

It does, interestingly, make sense that the environmental stressors which Dr. Sarnyai introduces are an inherent condition to the desires and expectations placed on westerners by advertising, educators, idols, and television shows, and subsequently reinforced by our peers.

“We have a very good handle on developing our material world, our material comfort – our material needs are so well and amply satisfied. But our mental world… we don’t have a great depth of understanding of how to cultivate and develop that. Yet it’s our mind that we experience everything through. The quality of our mind is what determines the quality of our experience of living” – Frank Carter (BDCA).

Lisa Cunial, a private psychologist operating in Orange, offers a different perspective again. She is concerned with the over use of pathology in the sphere of mental health. “I don’t think humans were made to be happy, we were made to be successful. My concern is that we make money out of people when they’re not happy. If you convince someone they are depressed they might actually buy more things.”

She is exploring new territory with a mentally-focused treatment called Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT). It is a branch of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which parallels selective Buddhist teachings. Patients learn to accept what is out of their personal control, and commit to action which improves and enriches their lives. One of the core approaches of this is Mindfulness – a mental state of awareness, focus and openness. It is broken down into three categories: defusion; distancing from and letting go of unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and memories, acceptance; allowing painful thoughts and feelings to arise, and contact with the present moment; engaging fully with your experiences as they unfold. It requires patients to delve deep into their mental experience through introspection, and through that clarity take control of back over their culturally conditioned lives.

Ultimately Buddhism deals with the minimisation of suffering through clarity and morality; knowing the temporal nature of all things and dealing with them in a way that brings good back. It is through this path that one may attain what the Buddha names ‘enlightenment’ or ‘nirvana.’ Frank Carter of the BDCA asserts that in Buddhism the quality of our mind, and our mental wellbeing, is determined by a foundation of morality. In this tradition there are three roots of suffering: greed, anger and delusion, which are broken down into 5 precepts of morality: do not kill, do not steal, do not indulge in sexual misconduct, do not make false speech and do not take intoxicants. It is the abuses of these that are ever increasing, in his opinion, that are moving our society further away from mental wellbeing. “Morality doesn’t have a very high regard (in our culture). When you turn on the telly you hear stories about people breaking the precepts. We seem to have some sort of fascination with not being moral, not being virtuous, not cultivating qualities that are going to be beneficial for yourself and for the society at large.”

On top of our cultural obsession with ‘misconduct’, a major stepping stone for many westerners are the connotations Buddhism holds with religion. Dr. Lewis Lancaster, a Buddhist academic with over 53 publications, held a conference at the Nan Tien Temple in Wollongong last month titled ‘Is Buddhism a Religion, a Philosophy, or a Cognitive Science?’ The end of his speech concluded that it was either all three or none; it holds characteristics which align with each and every formal definition. With this knowledge, Dr. Lancaster, poses Buddhism in a more approachable light – so that people are less intimidated by the entrenched judgments that it is tied with, and are more likely to investigate the teachings objectively.

He runs a program which teaches prisoners to meditate, a program which currently holds 5000 offenders in the State California correctional system. “I’m amazed by what it does for them, I never knew it was that powerful. It’s powerful. The prison officials are beginning to recognize it and are saying to their wardens ‘you should really get these Buddhists to come over and teach your prisoners how to meditate, because if you do you will have an easier life.’… What the prisoners tell me is that they’ve learned to focus. When they learn to focus and when they learn to hold on to something, then they can really begin to change.”

 Buddhism is among a small selection of religions which are growing in the Western world, and it may be an answer for those among us who aren’t receiving fulfillment. Could you be a Buddhist in waiting?