Cognitive Buddhist Therapy

28 11 2011

Or how I conquered my depression and Christophobia in several hundred thousand not-always-easy steps

It wasn’t a single moment; it was a series of moments, each gently tugging at the trajectory of my life. I had spent most of it as a statistic, one of the millions suffering from the Western epidemic of depression. A study of popular reading on the subject could add a few more labels to my patterns of behavior: Bipolar; Asperger’s; Autism Spectrum. Geek.

Losing sight of the treatment in the forest of labels

Whatever the condition, there is always some drug a physician will prescribe for it. “We’ve had good results with this one in treating cases very similar to yours.” Skeptical geek; I go home and search the Internet, read studies, order books on the subject through Interlibrary Loan. They don’t know what they’re doing with the drugs. Not really. And there are always side effects.

What did seem promising was Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I am more comfortable with books than with people, so I didn’t seek out a therapist. I searched the Internet, read studies, ordered books on the subject through Interlibrary Loan. I taught myself. I became my own therapist.

Picture the person in the operating room who floats above her own body, looking down on it: Destructive behaviors. Isolation feeding depression. Hostility feeding isolation. Self-pity feeding hostility. What a daisy chain of poisonous blooms!

Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy – and a lot of small steps

Take a step. A small step. Reach out. Whimper and run and hide again, but forgive the failure. Forgiving helps; guilt doesn’t. Try again. And slowly, slowly train oneself to smile, not scowl. To be pleasant, not withdrawn. To keep taking steps out into the light.

About this time, a friend decided she was going to defy the aging of her body by climbing all the 4,000 foot peaks in the state. I said, “I’ll go, too.” Made the commitment. Followed through. In the trudge, trudge, trudge of mile after wheezing, panting, sweating mile was the space for reflection. What else can one do but think? Thinking is something geeks do well. The demands of work and home often don’t leave one with much time for it. Hiking was the golden door opened, permission given to spend hours trudging and thinking.

And then there is the summit, the perfect metaphor for great accomplishments achieved by small steps. The grand spectacle of great distances. How small the world below; how far away its problems. These mountains have been here longer than human kind and will likely be here long after. In that there is profound perspective.

Moments like pieces of a puzzle. Like notches of focus, each click bringing an image into sharper clarity.

How to create a Christophobic

I was brought up Christian, but was disillusioned as soon as I was old enough to begin questioning its premises. My only sister held her love for me hostage to my acceptance of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Ours was a small family to begin with, and as grandparents and parents slipped away, I was left with distant relatives and a grandmother I adored. She, too, was a devout Christian. She didn’t completely reject me for my atheism as my sister did, but there was always that mournful look in her eyes because I wasn’t saved.

“I can’t bear the thought that I will be reunited with all of my dear ones in Heaven, and you won’t be there.” Like I could just choose to believe for her sake. Like I could say, “Yes, I accept your invisible friend as my Redeemer, even though the literal existence of these mythical beings of yours makes as much sense to me as that of Mighty Mouse, Great Cthulhu, and the fairies in the back garden.” I suppose I could have tried to lie about it to please her, but I’m a terrible liar.

Add to that the antics of all the others who wear the Christian label and righteously fan the flames of intolerance and hatred. My best friend was one of the first victims of AIDS. The Gay Plague. Remember the rhetoric? How the fags deserved what they got? Disbelief turned into flaming resentment. I abhorred them as much as they abhorred me.

West meets East

All this backstory feeds into the next moment of enlightenment, the next click, the next epiphany. I’ve always been an admirer of the Dalai Lama because he is a scientist. A holy geek. At the heart of his Buddhist faith is the conviction that science is completely compatible with its teachings. More than that, any tenet of faith that does not hold up to close scrutiny must be called into question. Quite the inverse of Christian blind faith that the Earth is 4,000 years old because the Bible says so, don’t argue with me, la-la-la-la I can’t hear you.

I’m not a Buddhist and never could be because of the reincarnation component. It makes no sense to me, and it’s central to the religion. In an interview with Carl Sagan, another iconic figure, His Holiness admitted that if science could definitively disprove reincarnation, he himself would reluctantly have to relinquish belief in it. “But,” he added with a puckish grin, “you will have a very difficult time disproving reincarnation.” He’s got a point.

So on a long road trip to a writer’s convention, I took along an audio of the Dalai Lama’s latest book, “Towards a True Kinship of Faiths”. I was interested to know how His Holiness was going to pull this one off. Buddhism and Western Theism are polar opposites, utterly incompatible, never the twain shall meet.

I was mistaken.

The Triumph of Radical Compassion

With gentle and patiently persistent logic, His Holiness demonstrated not only how all branches of Theism share a basic critical component with Buddhism, but that both traditions share this same component with secular philosophy: the necessity of compassion. Allah, the merciful and compassionate. Jesus, the forgiving, who instructed us to help the poor. The compassion of the Buddha, who remains in the world to teach the means of escaping suffering. The secular humanist who seeks to cultivate human thriving and alleviate suffering. We may disagree on how to achieve it, but we are all striving for the good of humanity. We all believe in compassion. We all want peace.


Of course, the problem is that too many of us forget what we have in common because we are so focused on what we sets us apart, and are too busy yelling “My way or the highway!” The sad truth is that many, perhaps even the majority, of true believers do not draw on the best and highest ideals of their faith; they instead tend to project onto it what they want to believe, and the lesser human qualities prevail. But never mind, it’s a start, a path to a common higher ground.

And it was a way for me to get past my own Christophobia. The problem wasn’t the religion. The problem was the practice. There are many good and gentle Christians in the world. I now had a compelling reason to put aside my prejudice and have constructive conversations with them. With my own enlightenment, there was a tiny bit less negativity in the world. That’s progress.

Cognitive Buddhist Therapy

The next nudge brought it full circle. I read about experiments done at the E.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Here was pure geekiness, using state of the art equipment to really get at what was going on in the brain of a trained Tibetan monk. What the fMRI data and the computerized EEG studies showed was that the brain of a person who has undergone long periods of meditation and mind training is substantially, measurably different than that of a “normal” person.

To sum up an entire paper’s worth of research, Buddhist practitioners have been performing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy on themselves for centuries, training to rid themselves of mental afflictions and achieve inner peace. Successfully. Their methods actually change the structure of the brain in a quantifiable way, without drugs, without surgery. Without side effects. Western science is finally starting to catch up with Eastern philosophy, and to the Dalai Lama’s delight, confirms what they have known all along. Anger is unhealthy. Hatred is pathological. Jealousy, greed, and craving are afflictions. Compassion is healthy. Lovingkindness heals. Virtue really, and literally, is its own reward. We are not slaves of our evolution; the plasticity of the brain allows us to transcend the destructive emotions we have outgrown as a species.

Click Snap

Although I can’t become as adept at controlling my brain function as a Tibetan monk, I can take steps to retrain myself, even at my age, to respond in more positive ways to both the inner and outer world. And, in fact, it is working. The simplicity of it is stupefying. This is wisdom that has come out over and over again in different cultures, different traditions, different philosophies; human beings discovering and rediscovering this basic truth.

It is climbing a mountain. It is continuing on the path, doggedly, step by step. It is seeing how vast the world is, how small we are, how little the events of the moment matter. It is sitting still, it is seeing the importance of our choices, it is realizing what good we can do. It is understanding we have no control and letting go. It is understanding that it is up to us and taking responsibility. We are smaller than dust compared to the universe. We are the universe compared to an elemental particle.

In ten thousand million years it will not matter if I do an act of kindness now. But in this moment, the moment that I inhabit, it makes all the difference in the world. And that is the moment that changes everything.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: