- Feeling depressed I thought it might help to go through our last conversation.* This professor, not a Buddhist himself, confesses himself convinced by the evidence that Buddhism makes people happy. He makes the argument that there are other kinds of happiness to be found than Buddhist selflessness, which in any case is limited in how far you can take it eliminating selfishness. You objected that the other kinds of happiness he mentions, art and politics, can't deliver happiness, because they are restless, tied to perpetual activity, and true happiness is found in rest.- How are you now?
- Better. Thanks for asking. When did you get so polite?
- How did you get better?
- So that is what you want to know. I'll get to that. Feeling depressed, as I said, under the influence of your putting professors under the microscope, having as it were philosophical professors on the brain, I watched a course online in Behavioral Biology. And do you know what was the first thing I realized?
- That here was another professor who was theorizing under the assumption that happiness is rooted in unending activity. According to the professor, Stanford's Robert Sapolsky. in depression we can't stop thinking in a way that produces pain. Because of our society, our place in it, with our own varying individual abilities we are born with, we are not able to keep the workings of various parts of the brain in harmony. Compulsive behavior that when practiced by an individual in isolation is considered insane, when embodied in religious ritual is totally alright. Aggression when confined to a game is more than alright, it is enjoyable, and has a limited place in social life in warmaking and certain acts of self defense. And in religion we can hear warning voices coming out of nowhere but like compulsion, when we hear them in absence of social involvement we are considered insane.
- The compulsive, the schizophrenic, the violent in some social situations are considered abnormal, and suffer, but in different social conditions would not suffer. Their suffering is caused by a mismatch, self and society? The conditions are not inherently painful?
- I think it's ridiculous too.
- And depression?
- A personally variable inability, in the social and individual circumstances, to recover from a genuinely frightening situation. Letting ourselves get too afraid, or afraid at the wrong times and wrong places. Like hearing voices, being violent or compulsive, given the right social setting are normal, depression, as a response to a truly frightful world, is normal. The problem is not depression itself, but not recovering from it and suffering from the brain chemistry produced when continuing long term in such a stressful relation to the world.
- The depressed person is normal like the compulsive, the aggressive, the hallucinating, as long as those conditions are not continuous and can be confined by society and situation in it to certain limiting conditions, but not otherwise.
- But, again, they are not inherently painful.
- No. Now, according to the professor, that I was depressed wasn't my fault, was not something I could be blamed for, because it was the result of a behavior biologically determined by genetics and environment. Genetics and environment were both out of my control. There was no room for me to choose not to be depressed.
- Yet you somehow are no longer depressed.
- I'm not. Towards the end of the lecture series the professor recounts how he could only publish results of a long term research project in a magazine where old scientists 'no longer generating data' are relegated to the useless (because generating no data) activity of philosophizing. Data led to theories, theories to more production of data. Like the professor studying Buddhism, this professor didn't value rest. It's probably not even possible for someone otherwise inclined to get a job at a University these days of money making for the sake of money making. For a biology professor to earn his pay he must assimilate behavior to bodily activity. As it would be unnatural to block a bodily organ from doing its specific activity,,when one part of the brain too much colors thought with painful emotion we can only moderate it as best we can. We can't rid ourselves of an activity, and shouldn't. But is this right? Do we have to live with compulsive tics, unaccountable voices, the blindness of violence, or depressions of continuous fear? After our last conversation I couldn't help noticing that this world of unending activity was exactly the world of illusion Buddhists taught themselves to distance themselves from.
- You say you couldn't help realizing this. But do ideas cure depression?
- No, of course not. What happened with me was more like disgust, that is, an emotional reaction, not to a world to be afraid of, but from the sight of myself in flight from the world.
- Which distancing from fear is precisely Buddhism.
- Yes. Aggression, violence, illusion are all ways of fleeing from the world. It is possible to stop, to rest, and find the world, seen in that resting relation, beautiful. The professor was making bad relation to the world continuous and normal: violence, compulsive tics, voices, encompassing fear, all bad experiences. If he was wrong and they were not normal, I was blamable continuing with them when I didn't have to. Similarly with painful situation: couldn't I make it different? I didn't believe our brains and societies determine us to be compulsive, hallucinating, aggressive and aggrieved. The only reason such a stupid thing could be proposed is that we live in a stupid society of money making for the sake of money making. For the Buddhist, compulsion is not really compulsion, hearing voices is not hearing voices, aggression is not really aggression. The Buddhist stands back from himself, doesn't deny the habits, the aggression, the illusion, but takes responsibility for choosing which habits to choose when, which worlds to imagine, which to aggressively dismiss. Repetition can be distraction from reality, or a reminder. Voices can trap within an illusory world, or be a narrator a writer hears dictating a beautiful story. Being pained by this world can be a motive to get to a better world, and aggression our defense against what would restrain us from changing our situation. The choice is not with a view to balancing ineradicable activities to each other as they are expressed in society, but to get back into good relation to the world, see and rest in the world's beauty. The professor tells a story that couldn't be a better illustration of how being wrong in precisely these matters of repetition, violence, and illusion makes you blind. For decades he's studied a single tribe of Bonobo monkeys in Kenya. When he went back recently he found that the entire dominant level of hierarchy had been poisoned. All those aggressive enough to sneak into a camp of humans died after eating from a contaminated garbage dump. The remaining Bonobos, instead of reconstituting a ruling class, established themselves without hierarchy. Look how powerful an effect environment has on biology, the professor observes. He doesn't observe that the entire biology of violence, illusion, compulsion, of illusory rank, repetitious rituals of submission, and violence, supposedly normal, in a matter of days can entirely disappear, so seems not to be fundamental physical, biological necessity at all.
Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, Doing For The Sake Of Doing
* Talk & Talk