Reflections on mental health

I’m not going to rehash the ongoing conversation online about Aaron Alexis who, early this week, killed twelve people before being killed himself by a Washington, D.C., police officer. It’s pretty clear by now that he had been interested in Buddhist for a while, but whether or not that’s relevant to why he did what he did is a completely different story. I’m not interested in debating whether or not Buddhism was a motivating factor when there’s ample evidence that Alexis was suffering from mental illness. Nevertheless, I do think it’s worth pausing for a moment and engaging the question of what might have attracted him to Buddhism in the first place.

A Washington Post article notes that “Western Buddhism has overlapped greatly with the field of psychology. Many prominent American teachers of Buddhism were initially psychologists, and research shows many people pursue meditation to ease psychological stress.” The article goes on to quote Buddhist scholar Charles Jones who says that “There are many therapists who are Buddhist or who take materials from Buddhism.” I know Prof. Jones, and in an online thread about this article, he mentions that the reporter was initially asking him questions about what in Buddhism could have caused Alexis to become violent, a question he thought was off-topic. The better question was this one, about the relationship in the West between Buddhism and therapy.

Coincidentally, this is actually very relevant to the conversation Harry and I have in our next episode, to be posted tomorrow. We generally record the show well in advance of release, so we’re certainly not talking about Alexis, and we certainly weren’t thinking about issues of Buddhism and violence when we recorded the show. But we do talk about motivations, specifically the question of why people seek out Buddhist practice to begin with. We ask this question in a cultural context where there are explicit connections being made between Buddhism and psychotherapeutic benefits. As Ron Purser and David Loy (and plenty of others) have noted, secularized mindfulness-based meditation practices have become extremely popular of late, stripped of any religious, ethical, or community aspects. What are the consequences for doing Buddhist-derived practices in the absence of a moral or communal framework? Not for Buddhism, per se, but for both individuals who pursue these practices and for the culture at large?

This is not to suggest that there is a causal relationship between secularized meditation practices and acts of violence. I am not saying that. However, I do think it’s worth it for us, both as Buddhists and as compassionate people, to discuss the extent to which ethical and moral questions have been left out of the current popularization of meditation practices and whether or not this is a good thing.

More importantly, does it make sense to trust what are arguably deep and complex mental health issues to the average meditation instructor? Should we expect persons who may have plenty of experience and expertise in leading meditation retreats to also be mental health experts? Are meditation teachers, Buddhist priests or ministers, in any way qualified to offer help to a person who is on the edge, to a person who is suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder? For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Aaron Alexis was looking to Buddhism to help him with his mental sufferings. Are the local meditation teachers really the most qualified persons to help? Or would he not have been better served by traditional therapy?

By perpetuating this notion that Buddhism, that Buddhist-derived meditation practices, are some sort of panacea for all of life’s modern ills, are we really helping? Or are we giving people who are truly suffering false hopes? Yes, meditation might make you more calm and relaxed. It might lower your blood pressure. But I fail to see how it can cure bi-polar disorder. I feel to see how meditation alone can stop someone from becoming dangerous. If anything, without a proper moral or ethic context, freed of any particular community that can act as a check to immoral behavior, meditation practice on its own can be used as much for ill as for good.

I don’t think it serves our communities to debate whether or not Alexis was a “Buddhist” or whether or not his understandings of Buddhism (or lack of proper practice) were a causative factor in his shooting rampage. But I do think this gives us an opportunity to reflect on the way we talk about Buddhism. Do we assume, rightly or wrongly, that Buddhism can fix everything? What are the limits of our powers as religious leaders? And when should we ask for, or refer others to, professional help?