Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ronald Alexander, Ph.D. - Hungry Ghosts: The Wanting Mind of Depression - And Equanity as a Solution

Men suffer depression in much different ways than do women - but aside from those who have serious neurochemical issues, depression is very often connected to a sense that we don't have whatever it is we want - a phenomenon Buddhists refer to as Hungry Ghosts.

In the second article, below, Gil Fronsdal talks about developing equanimity as a way to balance our lives. Often, it is the lack of equanimity, a lack of balance, that is connected to depression. And it is our struggles with the "eight worldly winds” - praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute - that send us off balance.

Hungry Ghosts: The Wanting Mind of Depression

By Ronald Alexander, Ph.D.
Posted: June 23, 2010 08:00 AM

As a therapist in Los Angeles, I've seen more than my share of patients who are dealing with various forms of depression and unhappiness. One common personality trait I've found with them is their unwholesome thoughts and beliefs that come from what I call the "wanting mind." In wanting mind, we feel that our current state of unhappiness can only be cured if we have more money, recognition, fame or power. Often we cause ourselves needless suffering when we ache for something that lies out of our grasp such as a better job, relationship or recognition, or cling in vain to something that has already passed away. Wanting mind can also keep us tenaciously holding on to something negative: an unwholesome belief about how things ought to be or should have been, or an unwholesome emotion such as anger, sadness or jealousy.

When we're in a state of wanting mind, we're never satisfied, no matter what we have. If we attain the object of our longing, we simply replace the old desire with a new one. If we achieve revenge, we feel worse than we did before. The problem is that wanting mind is rooted in the incorrect belief that something outside of ourselves is the key to lasting happiness, so we look there for the solution. The reality is that no emotion or state of being, however strong, is permanent and that happiness can't be found outside of ourselves -- only within. Buddhists call this phenomenon of endless wanting and dissatisfaction the "hungry ghost."

Now I realize that one can never completely avoid the wanting mind or any other hindrance. Desire is part of being human. It causes us to strive toward bettering our lives and our world, and has led to many of the discoveries and inventions that have provided us with a higher quality of life. But there's a danger in thinking that by ridding yourself of this quality of wanting, you'll lose the motivation to better your life. The unhealthy side of the wanting mind is that despite all that we can achieve and possess, we become convinced that we won't be happy or contented unless we acquire even more. This unwholesome belief can lead to competitiveness and feeling resentful toward, or envious of, those who seem to have an easier life.

This leads to the unwholesome habit of comparison. Some people look at others' successes and feel deeply envious. They may be angry that they haven't achieved what they feel entitled to, start to diminish all that's working for them in their lives, and obsess over what seems to be lacking.

Often, I've found that younger people put tremendous pressure on themselves to succeed in their careers at a very early age, not allowing themselves to venture out and explore, take risks, make mistakes, discover their talents and passions and slowly begin formulating a plan for their personal mandala. Others often have unrealistic expectations rooted in the narratives spun by popular culture. In movies and television shows for example the difficulties of maintaining and nurturing relationships are often minimized in favor of a more engaging and unlikely story of couples who meet, fall in love immediately, have great sex as well as an unwavering long-term commitment, and rarely disagree. And if they do, they quickly resolve all their issues. The amount of effort and time that must be invested to foster a healthy relationship is often surprising to people with little experience of such relationships.

One remedy to addressing these underlying, and distorted beliefs of the wanting mind that contribute to the complexities of depression is through a mindfulness meditation practice. I had one client, in particular, who dreamed of being a successful novelist and became deeply envious of a talented writer who'd written several best-selling novels that had defined a genre and made her famous. This client, who was only a year or two out of college, had already managed to procure a scholarship to a prestigious writing program but felt disappointed in her inability to find a publisher for her novel.

Through meditation, the conflicted young woman was able to explore her belief that she should have as much skill and success as someone who had spent many years honing her craft and building her profile among booksellers and readers. By becoming mindful, she recognized that she'd been repressing unwholesome feelings of low self-worth. I helped her see that the passion she was devoting to envying this best-selling author's success could be redirected to more productive activity if she would apply a positive antidote of satisfaction to her wanting mind, which had created a grandiose expectation completely out of proportion to a reasonable level of achievement for a writer just starting out.

By cultivating satisfaction one can end the suffering marked by the quality of wanting by being able to experience and enjoy each moment, exactly as it is instead of trying to achieve a temporary panacea. Additionally, in order to truly feel satisfied we need to nurture unconditional love for ourselves and self-acceptance. Only through self-love and being in the moment can one open themselves up to the type of creativity they need to improve their circumstances. Again, a mindfulness meditation practice will help one develop the capacity to see clearly exactly what they're attached to so that they can let go of it and end their misery.

By dropping out of wanting mind and negative comparison, you can then drop into an acceptance of what's ordinary as well as what's extraordinary within yourself. Each of us has the potential to do something no one else has ever done before, and you open yourself to discovering just what that is when you replace wanting mind and its negative feelings and thoughts with a mindset of satisfaction.

Meditation, as mentioned, is a great way to combat the hungry ghosts. Another great way is to cultivate equanimity. This article from Gil Fronsdal at Insight Meditation Center talks about how to cultivate equanimity.


adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, May 29th, 2004

Equanimity is one of the most sublime emotions of Buddhist practice. It is the ground for wisdom and freedom and the protector of compassion and love. While some may think of equanimity as dry neutrality or cool aloofness, mature equanimity produces a radiance and warmth of being. The Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.”

The English word “equanimity” translates two separate Pali words used by the Buddha. Each represents a different aspect of equanimity.

The most common Pali word translated as “equanimity” is upekkha, meaning “to look over.” It refers to the equanimity that arises from the power of observation, the ability to see without being caught by what we see. When well-developed, such power gives rise to a great sense of peace.

Upekkha can also refer to the ease that comes from seeing a bigger picture. Colloquially, in India the word was sometimes used to mean “to see with patience.” We might understand this as “seeing with understanding.” For example, when we know not to take offensive words personally, we are less likely to react to what was said. Instead, we remain at ease or equanimous. This form of equanimity is sometimes compared to grandmotherly love. The grandmother clearly loves her grandchildren but, thanks to her experience with her own children, is less likely to be caught up in the drama of her grandchildren’s lives.

The second word often translated as equanimity is tatramajjhattata, a compound made of simple Pali words. Tatra, meaning “there,” sometimes refers to “all these things.” Majjha means “middle,” and tata means “to stand or to pose.” Put together, the word becomes “to stand in the middle of all this.” As a form of equanimity, “being in the middle” refers to balance, to remaining centered in the middle of whatever is happening. This balance comes from inner strength or stability. The strong presence of inner calm, well-being, confidence, vitality, or integrity can keep us upright, like a ballast keeps a ship upright in strong winds. As inner strength develops, equanimity follows.

Equanimity is a protection from the “eight worldly winds”: praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute. Becoming attached to or excessively elated with success, praise, fame or pleasure can be a set-up for suffering when the winds of life change direction. For example, success can be wonderful, but if it leads to arrogance, we have more to lose in future challenges. Becoming personally invested in praise can tend toward conceit. Identifying with failure, we may feel incompetent or inadequate. Reacting to pain, we may become discouraged. If we understand or feel that our sense of inner well-being is independent of the eight winds, we are more likely to remain on an even keel in their midst.

One approach to developing equanimity is to cultivate the qualities of mind that support it. Seven mental qualities support the development of equanimity.

The first is virtue or integrity. When we live and act with integrity, we feel confident about our actions and words, which results in the equanimity of blamelessness. The ancient Buddhist texts speak of being able to go into any assembly of people and feel blameless.

The second support for equanimity is the sense of assurance that comes from faith. While any kind of faith can provide equanimity, faith grounded in wisdom is especially powerful. The Pali word for faith, saddha, is also translated as conviction or confidence. If we have confidence, for example, in our ability to engage in a spiritual practice, then we are more likely to meet its challenges with equanimity.

The third support is a well-developed mind. Much as we might develop physical strength, balance, and stability of the body in a gym, so too can we develop strength, balance and stability of the mind. This is done through practices that cultivate calm, concentration and mindfulness. When the mind is calm, we are less likely to be blown about by the worldly winds.

The fourth support is a sense of well-being. We do not need to leave well-being to chance. In Buddhism, it is considered appropriate and helpful to cultivate and enhance our well-being. We often overlook the well-being that is easily available in daily life. Even taking time to enjoy one’s tea or the sunset can be a training in well-being.

The fifth support for equanimity is understanding or wisdom. Wisdom is an important factor in learning to have an accepting awareness, to be present for whatever is happening without the mind or heart contracting or resisting. Wisdom can teach us to separate people’s actions from who they are. We can agree or disagree with their actions, but remain balanced in our relationship with them. We can also understand that our own thoughts and impulses are the result of impersonal conditions. By not taking them so personally, we are more likely to stay at ease with their arising.

Another way wisdom supports equanimity is in understanding that people are responsible for their own decisions, which helps us to find equanimity in the face of other people’s suffering. We can wish the best for them, but we avoid being buffeted by a false sense of responsibility for their well-being.

One of the most powerful ways to use wisdom to facilitate equanimity is to be mindful of when equanimity is absent. Honest awareness of what makes us imbalanced helps us to learn how to find balance.

The sixth support is insight, a deep seeing into the nature of things as they are. One of the primary insights is the nature of impermanence. In the deepest forms of this insight, we see that things change so quickly that we can’t hold onto anything, and eventually the mind lets go of clinging. Letting go brings equanimity; the greater the letting go, the deeper the equanimity.

The final support is freedom, which comes as we begin to let go of our reactive tendencies. We can get a taste of what this means by noticing areas in which we were once reactive but are no longer. For example, some issues that upset us when we were teenagers prompt no reaction at all now that we are adults. In Buddhist practice, we work to expand the range of life experiences in which we are free.

These two forms of equanimity, the one that comes from the power of observation, and the one that comes from inner balance, come together in mindfulness practice. As mindfulness becomes stronger, so does our equanimity. We see with greater independence and freedom. And, at the same time, equanimity becomes an inner strength that keeps us balanced in middle of all that is.

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