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Schizophrenia and Buddhism

A Reader Wrote In: 

Hello, I’ve just found your website and podcasts. I’ve wanted to start studying Buddhist philosophy since 2008 when I was volunteering in Nepal, but only now I feel like I have the dedication to really pursue it.

Right now I’m listening to podcast 46, and there was a part that I wanted to address. In the podcast, you briefly talk about addiction and mind-altering substances, and how they can make the mind less clear and so on. I do understand this perfectly clear, it makes sense, but I was just wandering what would a buddhist say about psychiatric disorders? I myself am schizophrenic and more or less I understand that most “heavier” drugs imitate the effects of schizophrenia. That’s why it sort of sprung to my mind. What’s also interesting is that I’ve been told that intense meditation can actually be harmful for schizophrenics, that it may trigger hallucinations. Are there some precautions I should take before taking on meditation?

So what would be your Buddhist view on schizophrenia and the like? I’m sorry if this has been answered somewhere on the site before, but I just felt like asking it myself. I’ve often wondered why I am schizophrenic and what kind of attitude I should have about the whole thing. I’m not anywhere near finding my own answer, most of the time I just dismiss the question and try not to think about it. I hope you could give me some insight into how Buddhism sees my disorder as. Maybe I then can find a new way of looking at the whole situation of my sickness.

Best regards!
J. from Finland

And my Response:

Just last week, I put up a post “Magic Mushrooms” which revisited the topic of drugs and addictions. Generally speaking, most Buddhists see mind-altering drugs as bad, but there are limitations on that. I don’t know the specifics of your case, but since you are on these medications based on your doctor’s prescriptions, I would assume that you would suffer more without the drugs calming your mind than if you did without.

From the Buddhist perspective, having a clear mind is very important to successful meditation, and good meditation is necessary to attaining Enlightenment. Depending on the symptoms or effects of your schizophrenia, you probably have a hard time meditating on your own. The drugs may actually be beneficial in your case. It’s unfair and a unfortunate that you have this condition, but there isn’t much you can do about it on your own, at least so doctors would tell us. If current science says drug X will help you, then by all means use it until something else comes around. Some drugs have side effects, and only you and your doctor can judge whether those effects (hallucinations in your case) are bad enough to merit changing prescriptions.

Either way, you are going to have a hard time of it. Do your best, keeping in mind the rules of karma, make the best of the hand you’ve been dealt and live as an example for others.



1 comment to Schizophrenia and Buddhism

  • Grant Morris

    FAO Brian Schall
    Dear Brian,
    I thought I would write in a note concerned with the ‘Schizophrenia and Buddhism’ post made on January 28th 2013. Your website seems to have some sound advice and I think I might have a life experience that might be of interest.
    I was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in the year 2000. I am now 32 years old. It is a very diverse condition (no two patients are the same as my Psychologist has told me) and I am not medically trained however I would like to make what I think would be a useful post drawn from my own personal experience of Schizophrenia and Buddhism.
    The problem started with me when I was 19 years old. There is no known single cause for the condition but I can personally attribute many possible factors including illegal drug use and a painful knee condition. I experienced paranoid delusions of social conspiracies and hostile persecution all mostly accompanied by psychosis (audio hallucinations). Because it was early days in my treatment and therapy I had a very anxious, stressful experience.
    My advice to any sufferers of the condition (I think has to be mentioned) is that there is always hope and after time on medication and treatment things will improve. In fact I am a University graduate. I am not blowing my own trumpet – you only need to ask any GP for help and things will improve; it’s that easy, so please ask for help!
    Some advice from me as a recovered patient is to stay away from illegal drugs at all costs, avoid alcohol and if you can, take fish oil in moderation (which is proven to be a very good food supplement for good mental health). Exercise regularly and have the best diet possible. Also, when you feel up to it, try and keep yourself occupied with activities such as hobbies, paid work or even volunteering if you can. Keeping busy is very important and rewarding. Most importantly stay on your prescribed antipsychotics.
    I would like to state again that I am not medically trained and I do not know if I am being loose cannon by describing my personal experience of Psychosis and Buddhism. So please feel free to disregard anything that follows. But I have a very good insight in to my illness and have a high level of cognitive and analytical mental function (so my Psychologist says).
    The doctors caught me early and I was put on medication which was very lucky. People that are not diagnosed early can become very ill.
    The early days were testing and I had a growing drive to solve my health problem in any way possible.
    The main driving force behind my motivation was the anxiety and mental pain I experienced – there was an article in the newspaper concerned with stress management and one of the books suggested was by the Dalai Lama. I bought the book and have since continued on my path.
    I was drawn to Buddhism and the practice of meditation. Religion is a popular interest for people with mental health problems and there are a variety of opinions about the correct conditions for practice. For example, meditation may not be suitable for all mental health problems and at certain times is not always therapeutic. In all cases I would recommend seeking a Mental Health Care Professional for guidance and monitoring.

    I visited a Buddhist centre in my local area and was lucky to have met an professional nurse who taught ‘Mindfulness’ (secular meditation)at work and put on her ‘Buddhist hat’ for weekend meditation sessions. I attended her Sunday class like clockwork for about one and a half years. During my time at the centre I meditated with my eyes closed. This blocked out some of the information that my mind had to process and I just listened to her kind guiding instructions mostly on grounding myself then focusing on my breath movement for 45mins then Loving Kindness visualisations for 45mins. My practice began to deepen and I started to meditate in my own time. It is very important for me to mention that at all times I kept taking my medication which is still the most effective treatment.
    One evening I was early for a youth group meeting at the centre and I heard a beautiful vibration coming from the room above me. It was the Soto Zen group chanting after Zazen. I had a very positive personal experience upon hearing this noise and decided to speak to the group after they had finished.
    I started to attend the Zen group regularly and ended up practicing at home also. I think the attraction to the group is the method that the Soto Zen tradition uses for meditation.
    For those that don’t know, the Soto Zen Practitioners sit in silence with a very friendly group of people and face a wall basically concentrating on your breathing for 30mins then do walking meditation for 5mins then a further 30mins at the wall followed by a short dharma talk by the Roshi (teacher) followed by some chanting. This suits me as there is very little in the way of distraction that your mind has to process and there is a great deal of support from the group.
    Some people reading this will inevitably wonder where is the motivation? Why is this therapeutic? Why would someone with a mental health problem do it?
    It works for me because of something all religious faiths have in common – self realisation.
    Zen has over the years (2500 years) become almost entirely focused on quick self realisation (Enlightenment).
    Actual sitting/meditation can be both a good and bad experience. But in this controlled environment slowly but surely I have taken a good look at myself and learned about not only my life but this life.
    Hostile persecution themed psychosis for me is about something in my life that I would rather have not happened. Everyone has something; it is just a case of noticing it and moving on using the meditation technique. In your own time, it may take a short or a long time, you will learn to accept the bad thoughts. In everyday life you can learn to move on also in any situation. The appreciation of impermanence is important here.
    The best outcome from my practice is the full dynamic function I have when interacting socially. I have a sound understanding of karma while experiencing interpersonal phenomena. And that encompasses all phenomena whether my own fabrications or experienced transmission from external sources. I try to go with the flow and have non attachment then in a way everything takes care of itself. This realisation is fundamental and a direct teaching from the Buddha’s life. There has been a massive amount of eastern philosophy published on the phenomenology of consciousness. It is all very interesting to read and reflect upon but the good news is that the whole lot of it is learned by any person willing to sit and focus.
    For me when I meditate, first of all I light an incense stick and prepare my cushion in front of a wall (there is more etiquette in the Zendo). I follow my breath movement (usually at the nostrils) until I lose focus then very gently and kindly return to the point of focus continually. Over a period I attain what the Japanese call ‘Satori’ (dropping away of mind and body). This can be experienced as a calming of the mind and usually a blissful experience. Thoughts come and go and some experiences are in the form of ‘Kensho’ (non-duality or non-differentiation). I find that Satori is possible in some social situations when not meditating but Kensho comes and goes freely in all social experiences. I find both Satori and Kensho both highly beneficial to my mental health and both enjoyable. There is an innate wisdom and security experienced. For me it is an ongoing process. It is not for everyone but it might help you.
    I’ll be honest. My Psychiatrist has said that mental health professionals are ‘only trained to deal with the severe symptoms’. Furthermore my ability to understand my mind when there is no psychosis is ‘a good sign of recovery and has been helped by meditation’.
    You reap what you sow and everybody is the architect of their own fate, be kind to yourself and others.
    I see eye to eye with you Brian, when you replied to ‘J.from Finland’ on 01/28/2013:
    “Do your best, keeping in mind the rules of karma, make the best of the hand you’ve been dealt and live as an example for others.”
    If you think that this post will benefit and be of interest please use it…. if not I don’t mind at least I have clarified some of my experience for myself!
    Best Wishes,
    Grant. Scotland