Why Buddhist Teachers Must Be Open About Their Mental Health
The death in 2017 of Canadian Buddhist teacher Shoken Michael Stone at the age of 42 was a heartbreaking reminder that it’s vital for Buddhist teachers with mental health issues to be open about them and ask for help.
Stone had lifelong bipolar disorder, and, according to the statement released by his partner and others:
“As versed as Michael was with the silence around mental health issues in our culture, he feared the stigma of his diagnosis. He was on the cusp of revealing publicly how shaped he was by bipolar disorder, and how he was doing.
“In the silencing he hid desires he had for relief. This spring his mania began to cycle more rapidly. The psychiatrist had always said the most dangerous part of bipolar disorder is the manic episode. It’s the part they treat. In an effort to stabilize him, his medication dosage was increased. Now and then he would mention a wish for a safe, non-addictive prescribed natural form of opium. He discussed it with his psychiatrist and Carina. He thought it might calm his overactive mind.
“Unbeknownst to everybody, he was growing more desperate. On Thursday July 13, Michael left his Gulf Island home for a routine trip to Victoria. On the way into town, he called a substance abuse and addictions pharmacy, likely to ask for a safe, controlled drug to self-medicate. He was not a candidate. He got a haircut, exercised, ran household errands and finally acquired a street drug. Initial toxicology tests suggest inconclusively that he had opioids, including fentanyl, in his system. Because of the back up due to the fentanyl crisis, it will be five months before the conclusive toxicology test results are in.”
I don’t know how many people have come to me as a Zen teacher in the hope Zen practice could treat, or even cure, their mental health issues. I do know they were all disappointed when I told them meditation could no more treat a mental illness than a physical one (though it might enable them to relate differently to the illness…or it might not). They also seemed disappointed when I told them I have mental health issues myself, and that what treats mine effectively is not meditation, but Prozac. Some were upset when I told them to see a doctor before they attempted Zen practice. The Buddha Dharma relieves suffering, but it’s not a cure-all, or even a cure-most.
I’m not bipolar, and have never been depressed, but here’s what happens if I’m unmedicated: I see something that would normally make me smile in delight, maybe a flower in bloom or a happy couple walking hand in hand…but, instead of just feeling glad for them, I cry uncontrollable, shuddering tears of joy that can go on for hours. Or I might experience something mildly irritating, but instead of being mildly irritated I’ll be filled with inconsolable rage. Both of these reactions (they’re really the same), present a challenge in going about one’s daily rounds…
I’ve been practicing Zen for more than 30 years, but meditation hasn’t diminished these symptoms in the slightest. Medication, however, does the job very well, and I get to be delighted or irritated without being a basket case.
Render unto meditation the things that are meditation’s, and unto medication the things that are medication’s.
I understand meds don’t work well for everyone, but mental health issues require doctors, not spiritual teachers. To help our students, Buddhist teachers must be open about our humanity, our messes, our vulnerabilities. Hiding our realities behind a serene smile helps no one, and is vanity, not enlightenment. Our vow is to save all sentient beings, but to do that we have to be saved by all sentient beings.