I am a guy in my mid-twenties. I have a close family, and money is not a problem, but I feel depressed most of the time. I have tried to cheer myself up by going out with friends, but it doesn’t help. I don’t feel suicidal or anything, but just sad. I feel that my life has no purpose and I don’t have interest in doing things. As a result, I often sleep until noon or later. My sister has suggested visiting the psychiatric department in the hospital, but I feel embarrassed to go there. What if friends find out? Lama, any ideas? 

Unhappy guy, Thimphu

Well, it is difficult to assess your situation based on the amount of information you have given me. If these feelings have persisted for years, for example, it would be a totally different scenario than if you have experienced them for just a few weeks. Anyway, I agree with your sister that you should consult with a psychiatrist at Thimphu Hospital. It is possible that you are suffering with major or persistent depressive disorder. 

Unlike situational depression, which is triggered by a stressful event in your life (such as a death in your family or a divorce) and will probably pass by itself, major or persistent depression requires medication, counselling, and lifestyle changes. Don’t reject this advice due to feeling shy. Instead, remember that the brain is just another organ in the body. Basically, you wouldn’t feel embarrassed to have a liver or heart test, right? So, why do you feel ashamed to check your brain function? 

So, your first step is check with a psychiatrist at the hospital. Then, if major or persistent depression is ruled out, try introducing more discipline into your life. Here are a few words on this by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: “In our modern society, one of the biggest problems is depression (really really feeling down and depressed) and people turning to drugs and alcohol and all of that. If you really look into the root of depression it is because of lack of discipline. Discipline is so important.”  

To begin with, don’t become extreme, but just make a few manageable changes to your daily routine – but stick to them! To start with, I suggest that you set a time to get up, and then do some physical exercise for an hour or two, such as going for a walk, doing yoga, or perhaps going for a cycle ride. In addition, start eating healthy meals. Junk food can really lower your state of mind. 

Furthermore, see each activity as a goal in itself. For example, if you take a long walk don’t be mentally somewhere else or try to finish the walk as quickly as possible, but instead take your time and be aware of your surroundings – as an example, notice the sunlight striking a building, the weeds growing in the gutter, and the reflections in the river. 

Basically, don’t try fighting sadness, but instead introduce changes to your life and let things evolve naturally. In this respect, trying to develop a weak or troubled mind is similar to cultivating a small and fragile tree. If you pull the sapling, it’s very likely to get damaged. Instead, apply ingredients that are conducive to its growth, such as nutrition, sunlight, and moisture, and then be patient. The mind is the same. It does not function in isolation, but relies on its environment for its wellbeing, and so introduce ingredients that will help it grow strong, such as discipline, a healthy diet, exercise, and meditation etc.     

In reality, though, a sad mind is not always a negative thing. According to Buddhism, everything is compounded (made up of other factors) and exists temporarily. In this respect, nothing that we see, hear, touch or even think is any more real than, say, a rainbow or mirage, which also exist only as a temporary joining together of factors (moisture and light). Now, can a mirage or rainbow bring us lasting joy? No. However, many people believe that material things can provide permanent happiness, and so they spend their entire life struggling to accumulate wealth and property etc. However, these things are temporary, and, like a rainbow, will soon disappear. 

When we realize that all these struggles are futile, a small amount of sadness might seep into our minds – and this sadness can help us to focus on the important things in life. In this respect, we become like Prince Siddhartha when he realized that his luxurious life could not provide lasting peace, and so he set off to seek the truth. Here are a few words on this subject by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche:     

Kongtrul Rinpoche suggested we pray to the guru, buddhas, and bodhisattvas and ask them to grant their blessings, “So I may give birth to the heart of sadness.”

But what is a “heart of sadness”? Imagine one night you have a dream. Although it is a good dream, deep down you know that eventually you will have to wake up and it will be over. In life, too, sooner or later, whatever the state of our relationships or our health, our jobs and every aspect of our lives, everything, absolutely everything, will change.

And the little bell ringing in the back of your head to remind you of this inevitability is what is called the “heart of sadness.” Life, you realize, is a race against time, and you should never put off dharma practice until next year, next month, or tomorrow, because the future may never happen.

I’m not in any way suggesting that the sadness described by Rinpoche is the same as what you are experiencing, but just offering an alternative view of the subject. In reality, nothing is ever just black and white. 

Anyway, to repeat, I suggest you first visit a psychiatrist to assess your situation. Then, if persistent depression is ruled out, begin to introduce a more structured and healthy schedule to your life.  I wish you well. 

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organizing drug outreach programmes.