mental illness and Buddhism

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mental illness and Buddhism

Postby Dragon » Thu Aug 08, 2013 8:03 pm

Recently I was listening to some talks by a respected Buddhist teacher (who isn't important for this particular discussion) and I noticed that he kept throwing the word 'depression' around a lot. He was basically implying that depression is not a mental illness, but in fact something we have control over. We develop depression because of our self-centric mind and must employ the dharma to overcome it.

Is it just me, or is that a bit unrealistic in thinking? I am taking it from the point of view that he believes serious clinical depression arises from bad karma, as well as the lack of will power coming from a selfish nature.

So when I hear other teachers speak about depression and anxiety and other forms of mental illness from now on, should I be perceiving it the way this teacher has presented it? If so, what about people who suffer from schizophrenia, or who are born with a mental disability? Is this to say that they have bad karma too, and that it is a matter of mere will power to overcome their obstacles? :thinking: Honestly, I am saying the last line in jest. Obviously, those born with those mental illnesses, depending upon the severity of them, are lucky if they even hear the name of Buddha in this life time, let alone are able to study the dharma.

So I guess the more appropriate question would be, do you think this teacher is literally referring to a clinical form of depression and other associated mental illnesses, or is he throwing the word around to mean 'sad'? Because there's a huge difference if that is the case. However, I can't help but think he is referring to clinical depression, which is rather close-minded and ignorant if that is the case.
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby Sherab Dorje » Thu Aug 08, 2013 8:06 pm

Dragon wrote:Is it just me, or is that a bit unrealistic in thinking? I am taking it from the point of view that he believes serious clinical depression arises from bad karma, as well as the lack of will power coming from a selfish nature.
If phenomena do not arise from karma then what do they arise from? If our suffering does not arise from our grasping at the skhanda as self then what does it arise from?
"When one is not in accord with the true view
Meditation and conduct become delusion,
One will not attain the real result
One will be like a blind man who has no eyes."
Naropa - Summary of the View from The Eight Doha Treasures
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby Dragon » Thu Aug 08, 2013 8:13 pm

gregkavarnos wrote:
Dragon wrote:Is it just me, or is that a bit unrealistic in thinking? I am taking it from the point of view that he believes serious clinical depression arises from bad karma, as well as the lack of will power coming from a selfish nature.
If phenomena do not arise from karma then what do they arise from? If our suffering does not arise from our grasping at the skhanda as self then what does it arise from?


I do agree with the karma part. I should have omitted that because that's not my issue.

My issue is that he was claiming that you can overcome (clinical) depression by studying the dharma. Considering that clinical depression is a chemical and/or hormonal imbalance, I am confused as to why this can be overcome by studying the dharma, but, let's say, schizophrenia cannot. I understand that many schizophrenics are not in touch with reality, but when on medication it is possible to comprehend the dharma. So, again, why is depression seen as a weakness to be overcome instead of a true mental illness?
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby dakini_boi » Thu Aug 08, 2013 10:21 pm

Dragon wrote:
My issue is that he was claiming that you can overcome (clinical) depression by studying the dharma. Considering that clinical depression is a chemical and/or hormonal imbalance, I am confused as to why this can be overcome by studying the dharma, but, let's say, schizophrenia cannot. I understand that many schizophrenics are not in touch with reality, but when on medication it is possible to comprehend the dharma. So, again, why is depression seen as a weakness to be overcome instead of a true mental illness?


Well, in general, schizophrenia is a more serious condition than depression. You would have to take this on a case-by-case basis. Part of the issue is that you may be materializing "depression" or "mental illness" as a concrete entity. . . when in reality, they are just labels we give to patterns of symptoms that we recognize. There is no standard Buddhist answer as to how specific mental illnesses can be addressed by dharma. There are infinite individuals who suffer from infinite conceivable and inconceivable causes, and there are infinite skillful means to ease various kinds of suffering. Some of these means deal with the body, some with the energy, some with the mind, and some go beyond all these. Maybe you just take issue with that teacher making broad generalizations about such a subtle and mysterious subject.
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Thu Aug 08, 2013 11:19 pm

Dragon wrote:
gregkavarnos wrote:
Dragon wrote:Is it just me, or is that a bit unrealistic in thinking? I am taking it from the point of view that he believes serious clinical depression arises from bad karma, as well as the lack of will power coming from a selfish nature.
If phenomena do not arise from karma then what do they arise from? If our suffering does not arise from our grasping at the skhanda as self then what does it arise from?


I do agree with the karma part. I should have omitted that because that's not my issue.

My issue is that he was claiming that you can overcome (clinical) depression by studying the dharma. Considering that clinical depression is a chemical and/or hormonal imbalance, I am confused as to why this can be overcome by studying the dharma, but, let's say, schizophrenia cannot. I understand that many schizophrenics are not in touch with reality, but when on medication it is possible to comprehend the dharma. So, again, why is depression seen as a weakness to be overcome instead of a true mental illness?



I think there is some truth to this. Part of the reason I got back into Dharma after years of a far less committal approach was to truly try to handle my neuroses better. It's somewhat telling that Buddhist meditation is becoming such a popular treatment modality in western psychotherapy..and in addition there are many forms of treatment that essentially are meditation, whether they get categorized that way or not.

The question of whether or not a given person needs psychotherapy rather than meditation is a separate one of course, hard one to answer because first and foremost there are many people who would be fine with something labelled "mindfulness therapy", but not with meditation. So there too, I guess it is a question of someone's individual Karma.

I'd assume the karmic answer for something like schizophrenia vs. depression is that schizophrenia seems to be a much deeper imprint, and clearly is much more difficult to control within an observable single lifetime?

However for depression, it is more controllable, and it's interesting to note that someone who is in treatment for depression (minus the meds) is typical doing something that is not far removed from Dharma practice, sifting through thoughts and motivations, looking at own actions and beliefs, and possibly some modality of therapy that is similar to meditation. Alot of cognitive behavior modification stuff for example, is not so different from practices found for one's daily life in Vajrayana, though of course they take a secular, highly simplified form.
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby Wayfarer » Fri Aug 09, 2013 7:21 am

I think there's a distinction between clinical depression and everyday emotionality, and most Buddhist teachers recognize that. Most retreat centers for instance won't accept applications from anyone on anti-depressant medication or undergoing treatment for mood disorders.


But I also think there is a tendency to 'medicalize' depression or even common unhappiness in modern society. I think it is sometimes associated with the feeing that by medicalizing it, it is something that will then be amenable to scientific analysis and treatment.

There was a recent article in New Scientist about the fact that Prozac-like treatments have become less effective over time. Although it wasn't suggested, I wondered if this might be linked to the fact that such treatments have a placebo effect when they are first rolled out, and people are inclined to believe in them. Then, over time, they become less effective, in part because people loose faith in them.

Placebo effects are interesting in that respect, because they rely on attitude or belief rather than actual pharmaceutical compounds.
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby lobster » Fri Aug 09, 2013 11:02 am

My issue is that he was claiming that you can overcome (clinical) depression by studying the dharma.


You can. Many of us have seen or experienced this.

Considering that clinical depression is a chemical and/or hormonal imbalance, I am confused as to why this can be overcome by studying the dharma, but, let's say, schizophrenia cannot.


The brain and the hormonal system it controls is plastic.
Some forms of unskillful dharma can provoke or induce latent psychosis. Some of us have experienced or witnessed this.
I knew a woman who broke down through intense practice, which she should not under any circumstances been allowed to engage in. She stayed with her preceptors and with the aid of medication was able to continue a more realistic and suffering free practice.
Many will be aware of similar incidents.
Meditation is not always medication.
Sometimes it is poison . . . and I use that word mindfully. :namaste:

Get as well as you can. Stay sane.

Your doctors are not perfect, nor are Dharma Docs. All because of those strange and wonderful creatures we term . . . :quoteunquote: sentients :quoteunquote:
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby wisdom » Fri Aug 09, 2013 9:40 pm

Drug companies make a killing off prescription medication. The knee jerk reaction of many therapists is to put people on drugs for whatever their problems are. Its a huge problem in my opinion, and a sad state of affairs.

Our biology is largely affected by our diet and mental/emotional state. If we do not control our minds, then negative things will appear and cause our body to release negative chemicals. On a biological level the three poisons manifest as:

I. Desire (Dopamine)
II. Hatred, anger, fight or flight (Adrenaline/epinephrine/norepinephrine)
III. Jealousy, greed, anxiety (Cortisol)

By changing our behavior and view, we also change the rate and frequency at which these chemicals are released. Attachment and aversion is almost entirely based on whether or not these chemicals are present in the brain and body. Of course some people have biological situations that require drugs, for example if they are not capable of producing dopamine despite having a positive outlook, healthy diet and exercising, then they might need drugs to help with the inevitable depression that will occur. Or if their body produces an extreme cortisol response to anxious situations causing anxiety attacks, that kind of thing. Furthermore something like hatred might release both adrenaline and cortisol. All of these take a toll on the body, brain and mind.

This is just my personal opinion, I am not a doctor. Much of it depends on a persons capacity and karma. Some people simply lack the capacity for meditation and such to be effective in eliminating mental health problems, and they need the help of drugs. Thats OK, because drugs can be skillful means too :) However we should realize that there is no such thing as a "mental health problem". Samsara IS the mental health problem, everyone is sick, insane, and crazy from that point of view. Some of us are just worse off than others.
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Fri Aug 09, 2013 9:42 pm

wisdom wrote:Drug companies make a killing off prescription medication. The knee jerk reaction of many therapists is to put people on drugs for whatever their problems are. Its a huge problem in my opinion, and a sad state of affairs.

Our biology is largely affected by our diet and mental/emotional state. If we do not control our minds, then negative things will appear and cause our body to release negative chemicals. On a biological level the three poisons manifest as:

I. Desire (Dopamine)
II. Hatred, anger, fight or flight (Adrenaline/epinephrine/norepinephrine)
III. Jealousy, greed, anxiety (Cortisol)

By changing our behavior and view, we also change the rate and frequency at which these chemicals are released. Attachment and aversion is almost entirely based on whether or not these chemicals are present in the brain and body. Of course some people have biological situations that require drugs, for example if they are not capable of producing dopamine despite having a positive outlook, healthy diet and exercising, then they might need drugs to help with the inevitable depression that will occur. Or if their body produces an extreme cortisol response to anxious situations causing anxiety attacks, that kind of thing. Furthermore something like hatred might release both adrenaline and cortisol. All of these take a toll on the body, brain and mind.

This is just my personal opinion, I am not a doctor. Much of it depends on a persons capacity and karma. Some people simply lack the capacity for meditation and such to be effective in eliminating mental health problems, and they need the help of drugs. Thats OK, because drugs can be skillful means too :) However we should realize that there is no such thing as a "mental health problem". Samsara IS the mental health problem, everyone is sick, insane, and crazy from that point of view. Some of us are just worse off than others.


:good: :good:
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is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby dyanaprajna2011 » Fri Aug 09, 2013 10:22 pm

Johnny Dangerous wrote:I think there is some truth to this. Part of the reason I got back into Dharma after years of a far less committal approach was to truly try to handle my neuroses better. It's somewhat telling that Buddhist meditation is becoming such a popular treatment modality in western psychotherapy..and in addition there are many forms of treatment that essentially are meditation, whether they get categorized that way or not.

The question of whether or not a given person needs psychotherapy rather than meditation is a separate one of course, hard one to answer because first and foremost there are many people who would be fine with something labelled "mindfulness therapy", but not with meditation. So there too, I guess it is a question of someone's individual Karma.

I'd assume the karmic answer for something like schizophrenia vs. depression is that schizophrenia seems to be a much deeper imprint, and clearly is much more difficult to control within an observable single lifetime?

However for depression, it is more controllable, and it's interesting to note that someone who is in treatment for depression (minus the meds) is typical doing something that is not far removed from Dharma practice, sifting through thoughts and motivations, looking at own actions and beliefs, and possibly some modality of therapy that is similar to meditation. Alot of cognitive behavior modification stuff for example, is not so different from practices found for one's daily life in Vajrayana, though of course they take a secular, highly simplified form.


This right here; I couldn't have put it better.

Mental illnesses are not all the same. There are differences in severity, as well as differences in scope, i.e., how they affect the mind. Depression is far less severe than schizophrenia. So a person can, with proper guidance, use the Dharma to overcome their depression. I think a person with schizophrenia can, as well, but Dharma practice should be done alongside therapy and medication. In time, the person suffering can learn, at least, to control it, if not overcome it outright. And, like Johnny said, schizophrenia probably has deeper karmic roots than depression.

Think about it like this: consider the causes of depression. Depression is generally caused by a negative life experience, or many of them. Let's say you lose your job, or have a death of a close loved one. Generally, a person will feel depressed at such a loss. But isn't this the gist of the First Noble Truth? Therefore, a mind set on dharma can overcome such depression.

Buddhist meditation techniques are now starting to be employed by psychologists for this very reason: they work under these circumstances.
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby Dragon » Fri Aug 09, 2013 10:34 pm

Maybe I shouldn't have focused so much on depression. What about severe personality disorders? Everyone has a personality disorder, it just varies in the degree. For example, someone who is borderline cannot change that they are borderline. It is their personality; it is who they are. So how are they to overcome that through the dharma?

And what about other mental illnesses like bi-polar? This is a close cousin to schizophrenia. Just like a personality disorder, they do not 'decrease' over time. They just are.

Just throwing this out there. I still disagree that those with severe clinical depression have the will power and whereabouts to heal themselves with dharma alone. I think pharmaceutical companies and doctors are mis-diagnoising people who have normal problems with being depressed instead of just stressed and sad. There are those who are depressed off and on and never come out of it.
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby Dragon » Fri Aug 09, 2013 10:37 pm

dyanaprajna2011 wrote:
Buddhist meditation techniques are now starting to be employed by psychologists for this very reason: they work under these circumstances.


Meditation can worsen someone with severe clinical depression, actually. And it is noted as well that schizophrenics do not usually benefit from meditation and it can make matters worse.
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby Dragon » Fri Aug 09, 2013 10:38 pm

Johnny Dangerous wrote:
wisdom wrote:Drug companies make a killing off prescription medication. The knee jerk reaction of many therapists is to put people on drugs for whatever their problems are. Its a huge problem in my opinion, and a sad state of affairs.

Our biology is largely affected by our diet and mental/emotional state. If we do not control our minds, then negative things will appear and cause our body to release negative chemicals. On a biological level the three poisons manifest as:

I. Desire (Dopamine)
II. Hatred, anger, fight or flight (Adrenaline/epinephrine/norepinephrine)
III. Jealousy, greed, anxiety (Cortisol)

By changing our behavior and view, we also change the rate and frequency at which these chemicals are released. Attachment and aversion is almost entirely based on whether or not these chemicals are present in the brain and body. Of course some people have biological situations that require drugs, for example if they are not capable of producing dopamine despite having a positive outlook, healthy diet and exercising, then they might need drugs to help with the inevitable depression that will occur. Or if their body produces an extreme cortisol response to anxious situations causing anxiety attacks, that kind of thing. Furthermore something like hatred might release both adrenaline and cortisol. All of these take a toll on the body, brain and mind.

This is just my personal opinion, I am not a doctor. Much of it depends on a persons capacity and karma. Some people simply lack the capacity for meditation and such to be effective in eliminating mental health problems, and they need the help of drugs. Thats OK, because drugs can be skillful means too :) However we should realize that there is no such thing as a "mental health problem". Samsara IS the mental health problem, everyone is sick, insane, and crazy from that point of view. Some of us are just worse off than others.


:good: :good:


Yes, that was well put.
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Fri Aug 09, 2013 11:28 pm

Dragon wrote:
dyanaprajna2011 wrote:
Buddhist meditation techniques are now starting to be employed by psychologists for this very reason: they work under these circumstances.


Meditation can worsen someone with severe clinical depression, actually. And it is noted as well that schizophrenics do not usually benefit from meditation and it can make matters worse.



So can therapy.

Mindfulness is all the rage in therapy, Buddhist meditation techniques are practically canon now for western treatment modalities. Even stuff like EMDR is basically vippasana, even if they make no reference to meditation.

Far as the karmic question of more severe disorders, again, there is no reason to assume that someone's Karma allows Dharma practice to be sufficient in all cases, is there? Unless I am misunderstanding something with the question.
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby Wayfarer » Sat Aug 10, 2013 12:27 am

Dragon wrote:Maybe I shouldn't have focused so much on depression. What about severe personality disorders? Everyone has a personality disorder, it just varies in the degree. For example, someone who is borderline cannot change that they are borderline. It is their personality; it is who they are. So how are they to overcome that through the dharma?


I think that the real dynamic of meditation is 'seeing as it is'. In Buddhism, the factor of change, the real catalyst for improvement in your mental state, is 'insight', but it's a very elusive thing as it is not something that can be understood only on the verbal or intellectual level.

Once upon a time, a friend of mine had a casual room-mate who, it turned out, was going through a psychotic breakdown. He was telling us all stories about his father, his past, and staying awake most of the night, and we all came to realize that there was really something the matter with him. I mentioned this to my father (a professor of medicine, although not psychiatry), who accurately surmised that we were seeing someone with the onset of a schizophrenic illness. Anyway this person had enough sanity left to realize that he needed help, and admitted himself to a treatment facilty. But it was the first (but not the only) time I had first-hand experience of seeing someone in this state. I could see that he was lost in his own thoughts, in a world of his own mind's making. It seems that in these conditions, parts of your own character actually manifest as 'voices' or 'forces'. So what is really absent is insight into the workings of your own mind, so these become projected as external or other to you. It is kind of the opposite of 'integration', a kind of falling-apart.

That is why in meditation, there is an emphasis on 'seeing things as they are'. This is not a matter of thinking or of trying to understand on the verbal level but being simply totally aware of thoughts and sensations as they arise and pass away. Of course this is all easier said than done and for those people who really have deep issues, you can't just do that, it takes a lot of guidance and skill. But what we're actually doing in that is integrating all the levels and layers of consciousness into a unity.
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby rachmiel » Sat Aug 10, 2013 12:56 am

I inherited a lovely predisposition towards some nasty neurotic disorders. And Eastern introspective practices, Buddhism et al, have helped me significantly, though they took a long time to "kick in."

For me, the key is to halt the avalanche of negative emotions quickly, ideally as soon as it has begun. Once fear/despair/etc. have gone on for a while (even for a few minutes) my brain chemistry shifts, enters another state. (I can feel it.) And then it's like a physical wound that needs to run its course and eventually heal.

Mindfulness really helps me see the first signs of an impending avalanche. And this seeing lessens, sometimes completely stops the avalanche process.
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby Dragon » Sat Aug 10, 2013 1:00 am

rachmiel wrote:I inherited a lovely predisposition towards some nasty neurotic disorders. And Eastern introspective practices, Buddhism et al, have helped me significantly, though they took a long time to "kick in."

For me, the key is to halt the avalanche of negative emotions quickly, ideally as soon as it has begun. Once fear/despair/etc. have gone on for a while (even for a few minutes) my brain chemistry shifts, enters another state. (I can feel it.) And then it's like a physical wound that needs to run its course and eventually heal.

Mindfulness really helps me see the first signs of an impending avalanche. And this seeing lessens, sometimes completely stops the avalanche process.


Hmm...makes sense. Thank you for sharing. I'm glad you are doing well and mindfulness is working for you. :namaste:
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby Dragon » Sat Aug 10, 2013 1:15 am

Johnny Dangerous wrote:Far as the karmic question of more severe disorders, again, there is no reason to assume that someone's Karma allows Dharma practice to be sufficient in all cases, is there? Unless I am misunderstanding something with the question.


I guess that's another kettle of fish in and of itself.

It is said over and over again that a human rebirth is precious and not to be wasted. What is the point of being born into a human life if it is cut short or you cannot start off with a clean slate and mentally be able to learn the dharma if the opportunity arose? Why not just be born as an animal or in a hell realm? Why bother being brought into human form if it is a wasted opportunity because you have schizophrenia and cannot comprehend the dharma even if HHDL was sitting by your side for your entire life trying to teach you?
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Sat Aug 10, 2013 1:35 am

There is no way to say it is a "wasted opportunity" because we cannot see causality enough to make real judgements about it except from our little hallucinatory bubbles of what is fair, right, beneficial to our samsaric existence etc.

It might appear that way, but there could be circumstances in these people's life that accumulate merit by benefiting others, make them ripe for Dharma teaching in the future etc. There just is no way to suss it out completely, Karma is huge, it's like trying to solve a math problem with an infinite variables, it's impossible to reason out because we cannot see it all.

I have a person who was very close to me that died of a drug overdose a few years back, he was a borderline paranoid schizophrenic for most of his life, and a very unhappy person. Alot of people have nothing but bad feelings for him, this individual was incredibly kind to me in his way, and possibly even saved me from going down the path he was on in this life. Sometimes these things are hard to see, especially if we look at things like mental and emotional health through a very conventional lense.
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is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: mental illness and Buddhism

Postby Ramon1920 » Sat Aug 10, 2013 3:46 am

I would divide mental illness into 2 groups that do not include purely neurological malfunctions like blindness(which does not perceive clearly) or strokes(that render the speech and comprehension of things retarded): faulty senses (like hallucinations) and faulty proliferation of views.

In the case of depression I would contend that depression with a physical basis is in fact
depression with faulty proliferation of views as a basis (with a faulty physicality as a basis).

Why do I think this? Because at one time, and to some negligible degree now, I suffered from a physically based anxiety disorder that in turn could become depression.
The way that it occurred, as seen personally by me, is that first a feeling in the body and heart corresponding with dread would arise. Then that feeling of dread would pessimistically warp how I proliferated on situations and circumstances in my life and that of others. And that pessimistic proliferation on situations and circumstances would make life seem incredibly bleak and generate the feeling of dread.

Being much older now, I am still occasionally woken in the night by this physiological state of dread, but because I can halt the warped proliferation with Buddhist methods it cannot mature into depression or the warped view that is pessimism. Rather it just is a very unpleasant feeling in the body for me now.

So for this reason, I see depression with a physical basis and depression with faulty proliferation of views basis as largely identical.
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