Buddhism Is Not A Cure For Mental Health Problems – Or Is It?

On March 7, 2019, The Atlantic published an article “Why So Many Americans Are Turning to Buddhism” with the subtitle “The ancient Eastern religion is helping Westerners with very modern mental-health problems.” The author, Olga Khazan, joined two meditation sessions offered by a local Kadampa Meditation Centre (KMC) near her house, in Northern Virginia. The classes introduced her to breathing meditation and the topic of “letting go of resentments.” She writes:

This was the first of two meditation sessions of the Kadampa Buddhism class I attended this week near my house, in Northern Virginia, […]. After we had meditated for 15 minutes, the teacher shifted focus to the topic of the class: letting go of resentments. This was the real reason I had come to this meditation class, rather than simply meditating on my own at home with an app. I wanted to learn more about Buddhism and how its teachings might be able to improve my mental health—and that of the myriad other Americans who have flocked to some form of the religion in recent years. These newcomers aren’t necessarily seeking spiritual enlightenment or a faith community, but rather hoping for a quick boost of cognitive healing.

Khazan continues to highlight voices, perceptions and tendencies in the context of Buddhism in the West. For instance:

What’s different—and perhaps reassuring—about Buddhism is that it’s an existing religion practiced by half a billion people. Because relatively few Caucasian Americans grew up Buddhist, they generally don’t associate any familial baggage with it like some do with, say, the Christianity or Judaism of their childhoods. While liberating, this also means that the practice of secular Buddhism often differs dramatically from the religion itself. All of the secular practitioners I spoke with for this piece are reading different books, listening to different podcasts, and following different teachers and traditions. Their interpretations of Buddhist teachings aren’t necessarily consistent with one another or with traditional text.

Putting such developments into perpective, Khazan paraphrases Buddhism expert David McMahan,

who said some of these Western interpretations are slightly morphed from Buddhism’s original cultures and contexts. Buddhism carries with it a set of values and morals that white Americans don’t always live by. Much like “cafeteria Catholics” ignore parts of the religion that don’t resonate with them, some Westerners focus on only certain elements of Buddhist philosophy and don’t endorse, say, Buddhism’s view of reincarnation or worship of the Buddha. Call them “buffet Buddhists.”

She highlights too that,

Some people practice Buddhism and meditation as an alternative to psychotherapy or psychiatric medication, given mental-health care’s cost and scarcity: Sixty percent of counties in the U.S. don’t have a single psychiatrist. “I have pretty good health insurance,” Bernard said, “but if I want support, it’s a month and a half to see someone new. Having a resource that I can pop open is invaluable.”

Actual, yes, indeed Buddhist psychology is very deep and has to offer a lot. And yes, in certain cases – as far as I know – it has also helped mentally unhealthy people, including some who have suffered from trauma. (See for instance this post by Joanne Clark.)

However, if Buddhism, Buddhist meditation or secular / mindfulness meditation will help or harm depends very much on the context, like a person’s inner dispositions and resilience, the qualities and qualifications of the teachers (who should be open, self-critical, compassionate, well educated and learned), the techniques, the environment in which it is been offered and practiced, if the meditation teachers know about trauma and are intellectual humble or if they are so delusional or narcissistic to believe that their own or Buddhism’s supposed superior grandiosity is able to cure everything and everybody. Using Buddhism as a replacement for psychotherapy can also cause much harm!

Two articles have emerged after The Atlantic article by Olga Khazan was published as a reply to it. These two articles warn of the dangers in replacing therapy with meditation. In a letter to the editors of The Atlantic Z. McGrew, a practicing Buddhist from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, argues that “No Form of Buddhist Practice Is a Replacement for Professional Psychological Help“. On Lion’s Roar, Halaeigh Atwood responds to The Atlantic article with “Buddhism Is Not a Treatment for Mental Illness“, quoting experts like Debra Flics who wrote,

Many Westerners, when they come to dharma practice, come looking for psychological healing—but this is not what meditation was designed to do.

The brief Lion’s Roar article concludes that meditation can sometimes support mental health but is not a replacement. There are also academic as well as journalistic articles I have read and people I have met who clearly point out that meditation can also deepen mental illness and can be counter-productive in certain contexts and for certain people. It’s not black and white but very complex, therefore the whole topic needs differentiation.

In 2018 the Buddhist magazine Tricycle published an article by C. W. Huntington, Jr.: “Are You Looking to Buddhism When You Should Be Looking to Therapy?” Huntington argues that the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice isn’t about achieving mental health,

We run the risk of conflating the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice with an altogether conventional, secular understanding of mental health.

At the end of March 2019 Tricycle published another article on this topic by Rande Brown, “The Couch and the Cushion: Why Mindfulness Is No Substitute for Therapy” with the subtitle “Meditation may promote well-being and insight, but it isn’t a cure for psychological problems.”

Now, I want to highlight some of the dangers. I want to highlight a group which has such a toxic setting, that your mental health might very likely be harmed in the long run if you join this group. The group is the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) – or more precisely, the “Kadampa Buddhism” movement. Yes, the group whose two meditation classes and the good experiences the author made joining these classes formed the beginning and end of The Atlantic article. Though I wrote twice to the editors of The Atlantic and twice to the author, I didn’t receive any reply.

Here are four videos by clinical psychologist Michelle Haslam, PhD, who works in the context of safeguarding. She is an NKT survivor and was 18 months in the NKT. After having left the NKT she took time for 9 months to recover from what she experienced. Please visit her YouTube channel. As a start I recommend to listen to and to watch the four following videos by her.

In the first video Michelle is focusing on thriving and not only surviving the NKT. She gives an overview about her relationship with the NKT, i.e. what drove her initially into the NKT and what made her leaving the NKT.
When she entered the NKT she was depressed and so the teachings on the suffering of life resonated with her, but all the NKT teachings on how all your problems are merely imputed by your mind, are your karma, the pain caused by abuse is caused only by your self-cherishing attitude, the nihilistic “emptiness” teachings of the NKT, as well as the quite pervasive spiritual narcissism within NKT and the denial and repressing of feelings deteriorated her mental health quite quickly – she said it was “toxic”. Finally she was exhausted from overworking, overmeditating and overwriting her feelings. She felt guilty and sad because she was not “happy all the time” – a motto of the NKT and a sign of “a good practitioner” in the NKT.

The second video is a funny brief summary on some of the mind twisting techniques of the NKT, titled “The Kadampa solutions to all of your human ‘problems'”:

In the the third video, “How I believe the New Kadampa Tradition hooks you in through your trauma and then retraumatises you”, Michelle explains the mechanisms and conditions from a psychological perspective that can attract people to the NKT and what problems could arise later:

If you are strong enough to listen, the fourth video is Michelle’s testimony. She wakes up from a trauma episode at night and starts from there to highlight the dangers of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT). She points out that the Kadampa Buddhism movement offers basically “a bunch of spiritual bypassing practices”, neglect the physical and mental health of their followers and doesn’t have any safeguarding policies or procedures. For her the Kadampa Buddhism movement is an extremely unsafe and dangerous organisation, potentially causing severe harm. She gives well illustrating examples for what she claims and she also mentions that the NKT is basically a narcissistic organisation. (I agree with all  of that.)
Moreover, she is a very rare example of someone who has left a toxic Buddhist organisation who then takes responsibility, feeling ashamed to have guided meditation sessions herself within the NKT.

Buddhism is not a cure for your mental health or lack of joy in your life. … We are not meant to “be happy all the time”. If you feel unhappy, lonely or abandoned then please, please don’t move into an NKT centre. And please be very careful who you trust.Michelle Haslam

 

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