I listen to many Dharma talks. I am sure that over the years I have listened to thousands of them. And, of course, you hear the same topics covered repeatedly, and you also hear the same questions asked repeatedly.
One question that I hear a lot is from people who suffer from a psychological problem. It might be depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, PTSD, and so on. And these people want to know if the Buddhist path can help them to overcome these problems.
And over the years I have heard many (many, many, many…) responses to these questions, but I have never heard a response that I thought was wholly satisfactory until today. I was listening to a Dharma talk by Ajahn Brahmali at the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. You can watch the whole talk at https://youtu.be/WgLkn2c1C70. The talk itself is about generosity, so the question about anxiety is not in that context. But if you want to skip ahead to the question itself and Ajahn Brahmali’s response, skip ahead to the 1:40:33 mark. But if you just want to read his response. a transcript of his answer is here:
Question: I have anxiety disorder. I am not fully recovered as it’s a disorder. How should I proceed so I can get better? I also fear death due to anxiety.
Ajahn Brahmali: The Buddha does not talk about specific disorders of the mind. The [Buddha’s path] is like a general path towards well-being. It doesn’t talk about disorders. But of course, if you use that general path, that general path will work for everyone. But for many of these disorders, you have to actually use professional help. This is what you are probably doing already, which is good, and then you can add a bit of Buddhism on top of that. But the most important thing is probably professional help. But I can give you some ideas of what to do.
And one of the things is that a large part of these kinds of disorders is a disorder… it’s a cognitive distortion. It’s the way you think about the world which is the problem. It’s like depression. Depression comes very often because we think about the world in the wrong way. We think about things that are hopeless or bad or whatever, and we need to change that attitude to see the goodness in the world, the goodness in ourselves, and then optimism can return. And depression can be cured entirely in that way.
And you may have noticed that. Most people may have had some episodes of depression in their life. And [when] you compare that depressive episode with a happy one and you will see that the nature of how you think is really the critical thing there.
It is the same thing with anxiety disorder. It is about re-thinking the world, thinking about the world in a different way. Anxiety comes from usually worrying about the future. The kind of fear anxiety has. So looking at the future with fearful eyes. You think the future has something negative in store for you.
But this is not necessary. You don’t have to see the future as dangerous. It is kind of interesting. I notice how many people in the present world are very worried about climate change, about political instability, about Covid—even though Covid seems to be the least of our problems, yeah? There are many problems much worse than Covid. Still, people are worried about these things, and obviously for very good reasons. There are very good reasons to be worried about these things.
But from a Buddhist point of view, your future is not determined by Covid. Your future is not determined by climate change. Your future is not determined by political instability in the world. Your future is determined by the goodness of your heart. That is what determines where you are going to go in this life and also in future lives.
So to overcome this anxiety, become a better person. Do the right thing. Live in a good way. Remind yourself that you are a good person, that you are doing the right thing. Don’t be afraid of praising yourself when you deserve praise… not in a way of kind of getting at the ego, but just to feel good about yourself. And then when you live well, gradually it comes to you that I have a good future. It becomes obvious if you have a heart that is full of kindness and love for the world, all fear about the future disappears. Because when you are full of these positive emotions, it is impossible to fear and have anxiety at the same time.
So develop these good emotions. And then you start to lose your anxiety about what the future is about. Because it becomes impossible. It becomes incompatible. So think in this way. Practice the Buddha’s teaching in the right way, and gradually—it may take a long time—but gradually you will be able to overcome these things.
One of the marvelous things about Buddhism, where Buddhism is very different from almost all the rest of the world, is that we understand the conditioned nature of our minds, that there is nothing inherent that is the real you. And because there is nothing inherent that is the real you, it means nothing is solid. Nothing has to be there. Everything can be conditioned out of you. This is the great hope of the Buddhist path. And this hope is there for you. If someone tells you that this is an anxiety disorder that you always have to have, don’t believe them. It is not true.