Blog: Buddhism Offers a Solution to Hopelessness
By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.
According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and the epidemic of depression raging across the world will be the single biggest contributor to the overall burden of disease of all health conditions by 2030. Suicides by high profile personalities such as Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, and Kate Spade have triggered a widespread effort to understand what causes people to suffer so much that they find suicide to be a viable option.
When I first began practicing Buddhism, a teacher told me that everything is an illusion – so my suffering was an illusion. All I needed to do was to let go of the illusion of myself and the suffering would go away. This was not helpful. In my view, spiritual practice which encourages the student to “Just let go of the self!” or “Just let go of the pain!” is misguided. It is shortsighted to pursue a non-dual state beyond our experience of suffering without incorporating a process for healing the self that is suffering. It is perhaps even dangerous to suggest such a path to people who are gripped in a state where the obliteration of the self seems like a solution.
Although most Buddhist schools reject the idea of a self, this kind of existential crisis cannot be addressed without, at least momentarily, allowing for the existence of an individual self. In these cases, therapeutically speaking, it must be evident that there is a “self” that is suffering. The unified experience beyond the dualism that lies at the heart of the sense of separateness that most people understand themselves to exist in will have to wait. It is not useful to tell people who are depressed or anxious that their experience is somehow not valid or real just because there may be a level of non-dual understanding that they have not attained.
The experience of separation that most people feel on a personality level defines the suffering “self” that I’m referring to. People feel separate from wholeness, and, as this sense of separation deepens, the more imbalanced people can become. In extreme cases, the sense of separation can lead to the level of depression where suicide seems like a workable option.
In Buddhism, the development of understanding about this experience of wholeness is a focus of practice. This wholeness is understood to exist at the heart of every person – beneath all of the symptoms of depression, anxiety, addiction, and self-doubt. It is a place where the suffering caused by a sense of separateness dissolves. This wholeness is referred to as Buddha Nature.
So, in my view, in spite of Buddhist schools’ rejection of the idea of a self, Buddhism does provide a theory of personality: that all beings hold Buddha Nature at the heart of their experience as an individual self. This is true even for those who experience themselves as a self who is burdened with wrongness, negativity, and pain. From a Buddhist perspective, the self we experience on a personality level is one which includes the essence of Buddha Nature: goodness, wisdom, and compassion.
To understand that there is a possibility of this unified state that we can work toward when we are caught in our pain, separated from it, is to have hope. We don’t have to leap into this sense of wholeness by leaving behind our sense of self. And we don’t have to obliterate ourselves to relieve ourselves of our separateness.
We can work with our sense of an individual self and move toward this experience of wholeness in an organized way. This provides hope – something that people who commit suicide have generally lost. If this theory of personality were more widely known, and if Buddhist practice were understood to be a coherent practice of working toward that wholeness – more people might be able to take advantage of the possibilities Buddhism offers to restore trust in their essential goodness.