Buddhism for Beginners.
May 27, 2013 10:22 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the midst of a terrible months-long depression and a friend of mine recommended I look into Buddhism. I'm willing to try anything, but I have no idea where to start and the Buddhist literature is pretty overwhelming. Buddhist MeFites, extend to me your enlightened hands and tell me what books to read, websites to check out, etc.
posted by ScarletSpectrum to Religion & Philosophy (37 answers total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius is pretty good. It provides instructions for meditating and also explains how it works.
posted by Grunyon at 10:32 AM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, by Thich Nhat Hanh.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 10:37 AM on May 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Books can't teach you about Buddhism. Reading about Buddhism won't "cure" your depression. Buddhism isn't a philosophy, it's just "life".

Best thing to do is to dry seated meditation. It's taught in prison, for example, and I know CEO's who have used it to manage stress. There seem to be some Buddhist groups in Florida near where you live. Try them out, see if what they do appeals to you.

But, unless you are planning to get ordained (not at all ridiculous to consider, but you're just starting out) or are interested in art history, there is little reason to read "Buddhist" books. Some things cannot be taught by words.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:38 AM on May 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron.
posted by triggerfinger at 10:40 AM on May 27, 2013 [14 favorites]

A couple of good books from when I went through a Buddhist period in my life...

Mindfulness in Plain English (link is to PDF of the full text) by Henepola Gunaratana is a good book if you want to do Vipassana meditation practice. Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught is a good exposition of Theravada beliefs for a layperson. There are other good books but those two got to the important stuff for me.

The Mindfulness book is good for understanding meditation, but the point is to start doing some sitting practice.
posted by graymouser at 10:42 AM on May 27, 2013

According to B., depression is a habit of mind like any other habit, so be mindful and watch your thoughts. When the depressive thoughts pop in, consciously move your mind to something positive. You will be even more successful if you undertake this effort to benefit other people primarily. So for eg., you wake up saying "I vow to abandon depressive thoughts today because my depression has been worrying my friends and family who love me very much. I wish them to be happy and lighthearted. Therefore I will abandon depressive thoughts today." Also, depression can be a response to low self confidence i.e. you think that you can't make changes and grow, that you are inherently a "depressed person." To combat this you meditate on how the mind is infinitely changeable and in fact you are not a fixed person, but a stream of mind. Thinking: "With effort and focus, my habits of mind can and will change" helps build this sort of self-confidence. And have a daily practice that affirms this commitment, and do it, whether you feel like it or not. It can be as silly as taking the dog for a walk as a symbol of your commitment to changing your mind, or as religious as making offerings to a statue Buddha.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:43 AM on May 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

You should learn meditation. It is the core of Buddhist religion.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:43 AM on May 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh
posted by pick_the_flowers at 10:50 AM on May 27, 2013

Agreed on Mindfulness in Plain English.

I also like the Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama.

If you want something very academic, try An Introduction To Zen Buddhism by Teitaro Suzuki. It's incredibly thorough.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 10:51 AM on May 27, 2013

Very good podcasts and online practice retreats at Audio Dharma. You will learn meditation practice there.

You will discover that there are many different flavours of Buddhism, and this form of insight meditation, in the tradition of Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein is a very nice form in the context of Canada/USA realities. Rooted in Burmese vipassna, this is a popular form of practice in Canada and the United States.
posted by salishsea at 10:54 AM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I like The Mindful Way through Depression. It is uber practical and focuses on using mindfulness practices from Buddhism, including a lot of ways to incorporate those practices into your daily life and not just when you're trying to meditate.
posted by drlith at 10:54 AM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also for depression, seconding Pema Chödron's work, as well as Jon Kabat-Zinn.
posted by salishsea at 10:55 AM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Buddhism isn't a cure for depression. In fact, it's not uncommon for people who are beginning Buddhist practice to feel worse than before they started for a while. Meditation can bring the meditator face-to-face with thoughts and emotions that are typically suppressed. In terms of philosophy, concepts like anatta (no-self) can ultimately be incredibly liberating, but can also actually be more depressing in the beginning. Especially if you're already depressed, it's not difficult to get steered into nihilism by some Buddhist teachings.

So I hope you've already exhausted other options for treating your depression, like therapy and medication. If you are still keen on exploring Buddhism, I would strongly agree with KokuRyu's suggestion to find a local Buddhist group to work with. A community of more experienced meditators/practitioners can help guide you through the rougher patches of early meditation practice.

I'm fond of the books Zen Training by Katsuki Sekida and What The Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula, but I recommend them with the caveats above still intact.
posted by jingzuo at 11:00 AM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I want to issue a tiny warning. If you are depressed I encourage you to seek out a therapist first. Meditation practitioners can be a bit pedantic and might make it feel like your depression isn't lifting because you aren't meditating right/hard enough which makes matters worse.
posted by chairface at 11:14 AM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also came to suggest the Mindful Way Through Depression. Echoing what people have said above, the book is pretty clear that it's better to begin meditation when you're not currently depressed, because starting can make you more aware of how awful you feel. The recommendation is more to use meditation and mindfulness to prevent a relapse into depression.
posted by medusa at 11:23 AM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was depressed for a long time and studied Buddhism casually off and on. I found the novel Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse to be extremely powerful. It's a short read and is in the public domain.

My own take being a Westerner, being depressed and then not depressed, and looking at Buddhism is this:

Buddhism has a lot to say about the reality of the world, the source of pain and where you should be heading in some spiritual fashion. I would ignore all of this, at least for now. One reason is that there is no intellectual answer to solving your own depression and trying to find such an answer will, at best, only distract you from dealing with the actual chemical/emotional problems involved. Another reason is that, despite how it's portrayed in the Western world, Buddhism at its core is motivated by the same mystical nonsense that powers most of the world's religions. You will at some point find that if you won't believe in reincarnation, a lot of the metaphysical stuff falls apart. It's like trying to be a Christian without believing in the magical resurrection of Jesus. It's not something you should choose to believe just because you hope it will lead to lifting your depression.

On the other hand, there are a lot of practices commonly associated with Buddhism, like yoga-as-exercise and meditation, that I didn't really get into myself but I think could help some people. If this sounds interesting to you, then just look for books or classes or online videos related to these specific topics, rather than look at Buddhism generally.

What fixed my depression was medication. I struggled with depression/dysthymia for years, but my antidepressant started working within days and things just got better and better. I also tried therapy, not really my thing but I definitely believe it helps some people.

I strongly recommend that you only consider Buddhism or other religious avenues for relief if you are already seeing a psychiatrist and a therapist, are following their treatments, things aren't improving and they agree that studying Buddhist practices could help.

Good luck.
posted by moonlit walk on the sun at 11:34 AM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Echoing those who've written finding a teacher rather than reading, with the caveat that teachers vary enormously so you should find one who resonates with you. Perhaps guide is a better description than teacher, but you should find someone you trust.

In fact a single individual teacher can vary enormously; I've heard it said (or maybe read;-) that being with one's teacher is like standing in a marketplace: many different people go by (in the form of the teacher) and some you can learn a lot from while others are not useful to you.
posted by anadem at 12:04 PM on May 27, 2013

I have gotten some good ideas from Playing Ball on Running Water.
posted by theora55 at 12:07 PM on May 27, 2013

IANAB, and I'm not qualified to answer this question in any way other than as a reader of this one book, but: I found the journey of Siddhartha in Herman Hesse's work to be very inspiring.
posted by AthenaPolias at 12:56 PM on May 27, 2013

Ruling Your World by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

This is the book that changed my life when I was in the throes of horrible depression.
posted by peacrow at 1:12 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Playing Ball on Running Water and much of David K
Reynold's books.
posted by coldhotel at 1:13 PM on May 27, 2013

I quite enjoyed Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner. He does his best to avoid sounding like an aloof guru and more like a guy who came to Buddhism - and Zen in particular - and was so amazed by it that he just has to share.
posted by MShades at 1:28 PM on May 27, 2013

I would try something with a group. If you are interested in meditation, take a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class (offered all over at hospitals and community centers). If you are interested in the philosophy, maybe take an online class from the Interdependence Project in NYC (they are a nonsectarian group that teaches meditation and philosophy and emphasizes community "good works," and most of their courses are pretty reasonably priced).
posted by feets at 1:43 PM on May 27, 2013

Also look at the book Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg. It is a four week introduction to nonsecular Buddhist meditation. (Re: secularity, Buddhism is a big tent that includes everyone from atheists who appreciate the philosophy and practices to extremely religious people with elaborate cosmologies they believe literally, so it might be helpful if you can clarify for yourself how religioussy you want it --it'll help narrow down the field. In my experience, the terms Theraveda, Insight and Zen usually indicate something more secular while the terms Vajrayana, Shambhala, Diamond Way, Pure Land and Tibetan often indicate something more religious.)
posted by feets at 1:53 PM on May 27, 2013

If you do choose to check out seated meditation, as other have said above - do it in a group, preferably with a roshi or accredited teacher. You can't practice alone, you can't really advance.

Seated meditation is not the pathway to spiritual health. Learning to sit is just an extremely simplified form of living life, of learning to live life. However, if you like, you can use the same approach with virtually any daily task or activity, such as eating, washing the dishes, or going for a walk.

But you can't read your way to happiness, and you can't do it alone.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:58 PM on May 27, 2013

Even if you aren't dealing with addiction (I'm personally not) the book One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps has a lot of useful insight. One of my former coworkers used to bring it into work and I read the whole thing in an afternoon after my shift.
posted by celtalitha at 2:32 PM on May 27, 2013

Lots of good recommendations here. When i was in your position, the book Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach saved my life. She has a great weekly podcast of her talks too, which are relatively light on woo-woo, available from her site linked above.

You can escape this cloud. You absolutely can.
posted by softlord at 2:42 PM on May 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've recently become a big fan of Andy Puddicombe at Get Headspace. It's guided meditation & mindfulness, plus a book with more depth, and I've found it lovely and kind and not super guru focused, which is great.
posted by dame at 2:56 PM on May 27, 2013

I disagree with what another poster said about belief in reincarnation being necessary to understand the philosophy presented in Buddhism; I think this is the case for Shambala (perhaps - correct me if I'm wrong, MeFites) and certainly Tibetan Buddhism, but there are many different strains of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is probably what the West is most familiar with given political conflicts there; however, upon further study, it really does take a lot of its influence from Hinduism. That's not a judgment, just an observation.

Buddhism is very interesting, and it's best to get started with meditation, the core of Buddhism as another poster noted. I personally have found Zen Buddhism to be most beneficial to me; that being said, I haven't taken a great deal of care to research other strains. I prefer Zen because it is the most "stripped down" of Buddhist schools, to my knowledge. I call it "the Quakerism of Buddhism."

These are some books I've found helpful -

How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind

A little bit more esoteric, if you're into that thing, and a good overview book into the history of Buddhism generally and Zen more specifically, as well as observations on Zen koans, training, etc:
Zen Buddhism

Watts is always good:

The Way of Zen

I found a Zen Center near you through Google - I have no idea if this center is any good or not, but I can tell you that the social pressure of simply going to my local Zen Center really forces me to sit and not get up and disturb other people, where I would probably give up a lot earlier if I was just sitting at home. (You'll want to go to a "Zazen" service, which is just sitting on the cushion and meditating. "Kinhin" is walking meditation, which I've found helpful as well - you walk in really tiny tiny half steps after you inhale/exhale.)

Horoki Zen Center

As you go down this path, you might begin to feel like you are actually crazy. You'll notice the chatter of your thoughts so much more - but you're not going crazy, I promise. You're just simply more aware of the flightiness of your ego's thoughts (I call mine "Miss Chatterbox" sometimes, like "And there Miss Chatterbox goes again, worrying about that....".). Be gentle with yourself. Zen has been a really great help to me, and I'm just someone with no special or troubled past, just struggling to understand everyday life.

Message me if you need anyone to talk to.
posted by Unangenehm at 3:58 PM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

For Zen, the best book for me was Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by the late Shunryu Suzuki. PDFs and such can be found via the Google. This book is the most calming and helpful thing I've come across and every time I reread a section I think there's just something in the cadence of the writing that tricks the mind into a breathing meditation.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:36 PM on May 27, 2013

Thanks to all of you. This is all great advice that I will take to heart.
posted by ScarletSpectrum at 5:01 AM on May 28, 2013

I really like "Search Inside Yourself". It's written by an engineer, and is lighter on the new-agey stuff that turned me off of this for so long. It's still got some fluff, but enormously less, and much more directly to the point than other things I've read.

Basically; meditation is simply the practice of focus. Your mind is bad at focus; most people's minds are noisy, given no effort. This proposes a little effort - as little as a minute a day - to practice that focus. The folks who write these books (mostly) use the words "focus" and "mindfulness" interchangeably, and while mindfulness isn't something I'm familiar with, focus is certainly a concept I already know.
posted by talldean at 7:24 AM on May 28, 2013

I enjoyed Saltwater Buddha by Jaimal Yogis.

Not exactly about Buddhism, but enjoyable nonetheless.
posted by itsallfunandgames at 8:24 AM on May 28, 2013

Depending on your personal tastes, I'd recommend anything by Brad Warner. His first classic, Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth about Reality. will give you a pretty good idea of where he's coming from. It's some of the most stripped-down, straight-shooting, woo-woo bullshite-free discussion of Zen buddhism out there. A lot of it is hilarious and highly irreverent. Some of it is hard to hear, like the part about how important it is not to use Buddhism or any Other Thing as a distraction from being right here right now 100%. YMMV. On that note: be careful, there are a lot of folks who would love to take your nickels and give you a shiny lotus-stamped patchouli-scented fake-ass very convincing distraction from reality.
posted by SinAesthetic at 8:32 AM on May 28, 2013

You might enjoy looking at How You Do Anything is How You Do Everything by Cheri Huber.
posted by wittgenstein at 12:41 PM on May 28, 2013

I'm not the best example, having meandered from post-Presbyterian numbness to sort-of buddhism to nothing to almost-buddhism to my present clockwork taoism (taoism without the supernatural implications), but Pema Chödrön is still a teacher I revisit frequently, and the tiny red book I carried throughout my grim disaster year of 1998 was Awakening Loving-Kindness, which has more giant incredible super-enormous life-shifting ideas in one tiny little papery wafer of a thing than pretty much anything I've read but the Tao Te Ching.

I have my issues with buddhism, but there is a deep, deep well of wisdom there.
posted by sonascope at 11:14 AM on May 29, 2013

« Older Looking for music that sounds like what I used to...   |   Where can I find t-shirts and shorts that have... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.