Become a buddhist monk to treat my depression?
December 22, 2013 3:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm pretty depressed and want to become a monk temporarily to help me find myself again and be better person. Is this an unethical reason to be a monk?

I am on medication and have been seeing a therapist. I'm actually living in a residential treatment center for mental illness and it's only been so helpful for me.

PS Anybody ever been a temporary monk in Korea?
posted by defmute to Religion & Philosophy (33 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This link has info about how to become a monk. You have to take a lifetime vow. Depression as a reason is not so much unethical as it is misguided - it seems to show a feeble understanding of Buddhism, and a deep knowledge of the spiritual practice is necessary to even start thinking of becoming a monk or a nun.

I believe some monasteries offer opportunities of retreats for people who don't necessarily want to be ordained. You might look into that.

I wish you well and a full recovery.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 3:50 PM on December 22, 2013 [13 favorites]

Do you currently meditate?
Are you a Buddhist?
Have you been on any retreats?
Have you discussed this with your therapist? Does your therapist support the idea?

Without knowing the answers to those questions this seems like a VERY high risk approach with a low possibility of success. You'll be (I assume) far away from family or friends or medical professionals with access to your records and where (I assume) you don't speak the local language. If things get worse while you are there, what then?

I second TheGoodBlood's suggestion of going on retreats if you are interested in this approach. You might also look into your local meditation centers if you haven't already.

I'm really sorry you're dealing with this. I hope things get better for you soon.
posted by bunderful at 3:59 PM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

It might be worth instead figuring out what qualities you think being a monk would bring to your life.

Is it the solitude? Dedicating your life to a single purpose? Becoming more spiritually aware? Doing something for a higher good, either through prayer or for the community? Perhaps if you can work this out you can find ways of bringing these things into your real life. Going on retreat, as has been suggested, or volunteering, or finding some books about a particular spiritual path and beginning some self-study.

Being a monk is a vocation that entails a life's work, so while I don't think it's unethical to want some of what you might see as the benefits of such a way of life, it doesn't seem like its possible to only do it for a short time and then stop. Is there a religious order you're thinking of? Would you consider contacting them to see if you could talk to a monk, partly to realise what it really consists of, but partly to maybe get a little guidance on finding your own life's path? Good luck.
posted by billiebee at 4:01 PM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

In the Tibetan tradition you can give your monastic vows back, either to a lama or even privately if you visualize giving them to the Buddha. Also, people who do the three-year retreat take pro-forma monastic vows for the three-year three-month period, because it's assumed they won't be undertaking sexual relations in the secluded, single-gender retreat and there's theoretically more virtue in taking the vow even temporarily, than not. But they're not obliged to keep them up after the retreat is over.

However, I've known someone who used Buddhist monasticism as a form of therapy, with mixed results. Don't forget you will possibly have to function as part of a community, and in such communities you have duties and responsibilities. Maybe you would feel better having your life constrained and your duties narrowed down in that way, at least for awhile. But do not imagine such communities exist to hold people up who can't hold themselves up.

Also, the aims of Buddhist meditation and of western therapy are not one and the same. It could be difficult or impossible to pursue both at the same time.
posted by zadcat at 4:05 PM on December 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

You may also want to consider that monastic training in some Buddhist traditions, but particularly in Zen and Zen-related traditions like Seon, can involve long periods of sleeplessness, hunger, cold, and hard physical labor. Also extended periods of meditation that can be physically excruciating.

Progress toward any kind of insight or "enlightenment" in Buddhism is measured in years, and often a lifetime. For these and other reasons, I don't think it will provide what you're looking for here.
posted by ryanshepard at 4:23 PM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Rather than becoming a monk, you could go on a meditation retreat, which I guess would have that monk-like environment you are seeking.
Buuttt... I just want to warn you. Most reputable meditation centers will ask that you be mentally stable for at least 6 months, with no medication changes, before committing to sessions of more than 8 hours of meditation a day.

It is brutal.
Seriously, you aren't talking to anyone, you are just sitting in your own head, obsessing over an itch on your nose, or whether you are screwing your back up (for me, no I wasn't, I was just obsessing over aches), and worse, sitting with your own misery for 12 hours a day. Yes, that can be helpful, because it's all dukkha, it's all suffering, and it's about learning not to be attached to your own suffering, but you WILL experience that suffering first. Those courses often have more than a 1/3 of the people bailing out.
If you expect it to be hard, your expectations will be more realistic.

Once you have done one of those courses, they let you back to volunteer on them, which involves much less meditation. That might not be as bad, but, I don't think it's something you'll be able to do any time soon.
posted by Elysum at 4:28 PM on December 22, 2013 [10 favorites]

In Theravada Buddhism, there is a tradition of young men (in particular) becoming monks temporarily, for periods as short as two weeks during school breaks, to learn more about the faith and to gain merit for their families. Sometimes a group of men going to the police academy together (say) will all join a monastery for a few months, in the hopes the merit gained will make them better (and luckier) officers. In most forms of Buddhism even "permanent" monks can give their vows back and it is common to do so after a period of years. (There are several traditions about when and how often you can re-enter the monastery again.)

I don't think this is an unethical reason to be a monk in Buddhism, as long as the community you are joining is aware and okay with it, but using monasticism to treat mental illness isn't really a treatment strategy. It's true that some people find that sort of break from the world (temporary or permanent) helps, but just as many (if not more) find that it accentuates their existing problematic thoughts and behaviors in communities that can be deeply dysfunctional and without psychiatric oversight.

Still, a spiritual retreat is a traditional way to treat mental and spiritual malaise. Perhaps you could look into a retreat a little closer to home, and start with a long weekend retreat somewhere close to home, so that if it DOESN'T help you can go home easily. If it DOES help, maybe plan a two-week retreat, maybe somewhere more rural. If it DOES help, you can always make a bigger step later. Many religious groups run retreats, including silent contemplation retreats, and many monasteries (Buddhist, Catholic, and otherwise) will host individuals who wish to do a "retreat" on their own. Many do not require you to be a member of their religion.

Your profile say you're in Chicago; here's a retreat center outside Chicago that hosts individual retreats at which I have personally retreated (Christian but ecumenical). The Zen Buddhist Temple of Chicago hosts 1-day and 3-day meditation retreats. The Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Indiana will teach you meditation and let you retreat in a yurt. (You do not have to be Buddhist.) Here's some Benedictine Monks in the city you can retreat with. And here's a whole website listing retreats if you want to look for something else or something longer.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:32 PM on December 22, 2013 [8 favorites]

I don't think it's unethical to explore becoming a monk, or to live a monastic lifestyle, without wanting it to be a lifetime commitment: there's all kinds of monastic commitments (in all kinds of traditions) that are explicitly non-lifetime in duration. It would however be unethical to take vows you don't intend to keep.

I think it's a terrible idea to jump on this kind of drastic solution when you're very depressed, though. I've yet to come up with a brilliant solution to all of my problems when I've been severely depressed, though I'm pretty skilled at coming up with pie-in-the-sky stuff that will work for about six hours before I'm exhausted and suddenly hating myself twice as much for having failed.

There's also evidence that really intense meditation routines can cause psychotic breaks, etc., as Elysum mentions: that is, this is in the same general category as "I'm thinking of trying illegal drugs to cure my depression" in the sense of being an actually specifically not-wise solution.

Since you're in residential treatment, I think you should bring this up with your counselor at your next individual meeting, and discuss it with the folks in treatment with you. I've found that my peers - the ones who've seen me functioning, in person - are really good at spotting the pros and cons of a given plan, and helping me figure out what it is that I really want (and what I'm maybe trying to run away from.)

Honestly, I'd be very suspicious of a religious order that responded to a very depressed person's desire to suddenly become a monk with "yes, please come and join us," rather than "you need help, and aren't ready to take on these obligations right now." The more organized groups probably actually have a period of time where you prove that you're stable and really committed, actually - figuring out if someone's meant to be there is a big part of the responsibility involved with running a religious order.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 4:37 PM on December 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

I hope I'm not venturing too far from the intent of the question here.

Do you currently meditate as part of your therapy? If not, do. I suffer from depression too, and was in a hospital for the summer. One of the skills we focused on there was mindfulness meditation. It's not the 'clear your mind' style of meditation, it's about being aware of things right here and right now in this moment. Mindfulness meditation is a useful therapeutic tool for depression because for us, so much of the pain is exacerbated by either dwelling on the past or pessimistically predicting the future. Training yourself to be here and now, while it is a slow and halting process, really does help.

Beyond that, as others have said, many monasteries do retreats, which may be more of a fit for what you want.

Please feel free to MeMail me if you need to talk/support.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:37 PM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is there a particular school of Buddhism that you're interested in? I agree with other commenters that a lay retreat is a much wiser start than taking monk's vows, but there are definitely some schools that allow temporary vows of one sort or another.

Regardless... Serious retreats tend to be severely taxing, both psychologically and physically, and most people that run them actively discourage participation if your mental health isn't fairly stable (with good reason).
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 4:38 PM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Building on what feckless just said: DBT, and other similar treatment programs, incorporate a lot of meditative type strategies that are specifically not too hazardous for people who are not medically stable. You may want to read more about Buddhism and psychology to get a sense of where else you can go in terms of treatment that'd be safe and possible given your circumstances.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 4:41 PM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also: look into ACT if you're interested in therapy modalities that have significant overlap with mindfulness meditation. I worked with an ACT therapist for six months before my first Vipasanna retreat, and the groundwork was invaluable.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 4:42 PM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing what others have stated above on the importance of being in a good place mentally and emotionally before diving into an intensive meditation practice -- here is an essay by a longtime (20+ years) practitioner, on her experience of attending a meditation retreat while struggling with depression.
posted by tanuki.gao at 5:18 PM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I did a four day retreat at a Buddhist temple outside Incheon a few years ago and while I'd recommend it to anyone as a wonderful cultural experience (which is what it was advertised as) I'd strongly advise against it as treatment for depression. The linguistic isolation alone (assuming you're not fluent in Korean to begin with) and culture shock would seem to be a recipe for disaster, sorry.
posted by peppermind at 5:27 PM on December 22, 2013

What did your therapist say when you discussed this idea with them?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:57 PM on December 22, 2013 [9 favorites]

Being a monk (versus being on retreat) can be very hard and demanding work. A lot of it could be helping to run the monastery, rather than solitary contemplation. I'm not sure that if you went into this with depression, that it would be easy to cope with the demands of the vocation. As others have said, exploring some simple retreats with guided meditations may be a better way to get more of the contemplative therapy that you seek. Best of luck.
posted by carter at 7:19 PM on December 22, 2013

Best answer: This is kind of like asking, "I have two broken ankles and I would like to run a marathon to help the bones heal and to become a better runner. Is this an unethical reason to run a marathon?". I'm not sure whether it's unethical, but it's definitely self-destructive. You think you need to leave your friends and family behind, confine yourself in a monastery in another country and undergo a gruelling psychological challenge in order to become a better person? Yeah, that's the depression talking. There are ways of healing yourself that are kinder, gentler and safer, yet just as effective. Try those first.

Have you looked into Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction? Both MBSR and MBCT involve an eight-week course of mindfulness classes, usually led by a psychologist or other mental health professional who has their own mindfulness practice. Participants are given guided meditation recordings to support their practice at home; the expectation is that you attempt to meditate for 40 minutes a day, six days a week. It's quite intensive, but the group environment is very supportive, and they're very careful not to do anything that might exacerbate existing mental health issues. Most importantly, the courses are evidence-based - MBCT in particular has been shown to be as effective as medication or talking therapy at preventing relapse in people who've suffered depression.

Here are some MBSR courses in your city that start next month.
posted by embrangled at 8:04 PM on December 22, 2013 [18 favorites]

This is a horrible reason to be a monk and furthermore, it won't work to heal what is hurting you. I study Buddhism and I know many monks. It is a calling that comes from the heart. If you try to run away like this, however noble, you won't solve your problem. Being a monk is a calling that comes from a deep understanding of Buddha's teachings, a loving desire to help others and dedication to finding the solution within one's own mind.

Also when you are depressed, you can incorrectly read some of Buddha's teachings (i.e. become nihilistic) and it will make your depression worse.

It looks like you are in the Windy City so here is a link to a Buddhist centre that can help you. Tell them straight up that you struggle with depression and they may be able to suggest some meditations to improve your mood and increase self-confidence, in addition to whatever work you are doing with your therapist. Good luck.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:33 PM on December 22, 2013

Here a book version of a MBSR course.
posted by moira at 11:25 PM on December 22, 2013

There are vows and there are vows. In Thailand, for example, it is part of a good education to be a monk for a reasonable amount of time. Go to temple. They will be happy to guide you. And no, your reason is no more odd than anyone else.
posted by ptm at 1:25 AM on December 23, 2013

For the record, there's no such thing as a "temporary monk." It is, by definition, a lifetime commitment. Now you can maybe talk about going on a spiritual retreat if you want. Most monastic traditions, across religions, offer opportunities for laypeople to spend a few days or weeks living the monastic life. But there's no suggestion that those people are "temporary monks." Not how that works.
posted by valkyryn at 3:40 AM on December 23, 2013

Don't become a monk, but definitely start participating in a spiritual community, practicing, meditating, going to dharma talks, getting outside of your depressed brain etc. You can do that here in the US without going abroad or getting ordained.

There are a lot of retreats, educational experiences, and organized ways to practice that will give you access to the same tools of mindfulness that monks use without having to uproot your whole life and make a lifetime commitment to it just to treat or improve the depression. Like any other commitment to a profession or way of life there's a lot of work, a lot of demand on yourself, and sacrifice in order to be a monk. don't think of it as a treatment for mental illness. it's a vocation.

Start by reading Pema Chodron, Chogyam Trungpa, Susan Piver, Thicht Nhat Hanh...meditate...exercise as meditation, walking meditation if you cannot just sit. I see that you're in a residential treatment center and seeing a therapist and taking medication, but you should also work on improving nutrition and exercising. I've found both of those areas really affect my mood and can worsen depression even when I have medicine or a good therapist.
posted by zdravo at 4:53 AM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's why not. If your ego is already hurting, why join a group that will try to break it down even further?
posted by bad grammar at 5:14 AM on December 23, 2013

Piggybacking off what embrangled said, if you know that you are depressed and you are expressing some interest in becoming a monk, I wonder if you are trying to acknowledge, to yourself and to others, that you need to learn to control and understand your thinking.

I think that you may be experiencing one of the more common cognitive distortions, all-or-nothing thinking. You are probably very distressed right now, right? And monks are the opposite of distressed. They keep their cool under pressure and never falter. They're like superheroes when it comes to emotional and cognitive control. But that doesn't mean that in order to have more emotional and cognitive control you need to quit everything else in your life and move across the globe to acquire that type of control.

Also, monks are experts at controlling their minds, a skill that takes years of practice to perfect. I suspect if you try to join a monastic order now you will have a hard time adjusting and will end up dropping out and feeling bad about yourself. This is like deciding that playing basketball will help you learn how to jump and then feeling bad when you don't make the NBA draft. You need to learn how to do a layup first.

I suggest you look into therapy solutions that focus on cognitive distortions and coping techniques. CBT seems to fit the bill nicely. CBT actually has a lot in common with the goals of meditation. You learn to focus on how your thoughts arise, how your feelings are caused by your thoughts, and how your whole physical state affects your thinking.

(I'm sure there are other, more cutting-edge forms of therapy that have similar goals, this is just what I'm aware of.)
posted by deathpanels at 6:30 AM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

"For the record, there's no such thing as a "temporary monk." It is, by definition, a lifetime commitment."

This assertion/definition isn't universally true. While temporary vows are probably a bad idea for the OP for several reasons that others have touched on, there are definitely schools of Buddhism that will permit bikkhu/bikkhuni to take their vows without the expectation of it being a lifetime commitment.

Again, I don't think this is really relevant to the OP; just wanted to point it out for people that might find this post useful in the future.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 8:11 AM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can I give you an alternate suggestion? The Mindful Way Through Depression uses mindfulness to acknowledge where you are (in depression) and walk with you through it.

When I do even short (10 day) retreats, we are always asked whether we are suffering from depression or mental illness, because retreats (and therefore, monasticism) are not the way through, and can exacerbate the problems.

I wish you well.
posted by janey47 at 9:56 AM on December 23, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you so much for all the responses. Many of your responses not only gave me great perspective on becoming a monk to get out of depression but gave me just as much perspective on depression and the way my mind has been working. I especially appreciated embrangled's comment "I have two broken ankles and I would like to run a marathon to help the bones heal and to become a better runner". I am not going to try and become monk. I will start with meditating for 40 minutes a day 6 days a week following the expectation of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.
posted by defmute at 5:44 PM on December 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm glad you found my response helpful. Just to be clear, MBCT is a lot more than just meditating 40 minutes a day; there is a whole curriculum of mental health education and self-care strategies. Mindfulness is a learned skill and it really helps to have trained professionals to set you on the right path. There is a very delicate equilibrium to be struck between self-discipline, concentration and self-compassion; get any of these out of balance and meditation can become quite a negative, even harmful experience. The course environment will help you find a middle ground that's safe and sane for you.

If you're not able to attend a course, you could try working your way through this book: The Mindful Way Through Depression. It's written by the founders of MBCT, and is a sort of collaborative follow-up to the book recommended by moira above, with more of a focus on specific treatments for depression. But I really, really recommend that you learn by taking a course. You've already seen that without outside guidance, your illness can lead your mind down self-destructive paths. Beginning a meditation program unsupervised could be unwise, particularly if your condition is serious enough that you require residential care.

Finally, please discuss your interest in meditation and mindfulness with your current treatment providers. MBCT and MBSR are becoming more mainstream, so your current doctors will probably be supportive of you trying them alongside your other treatments, but they need to be aware of what you're doing. Also, you will find that most MBCT programs recommend you do not attempt intensive mediation if you are currently severely depressed, as this has the potential exacerbate your symptoms. For this reason it is important that you work with your existing treatment team to ensure you are well enough to begin a mindfulness program. Good luck!
posted by embrangled at 8:57 PM on December 23, 2013

A couple more options in case money is a limiting factor for you: Palouse Mindfulness has a free self-guided MBSR course which you can complete online. And the USCD Mindfulness Centre has guided meditation MP3s available to download for free. But please, speak to your treatment team first.
posted by embrangled at 9:05 PM on December 23, 2013

I will start with meditating for 40 minutes a day 6 days a week

One of the other things we worked on in the hospital is setting realistic goals. Going from 0 to 40 minutes a day isn't really realistic, and if you stumble, you're going to feel worse about yourself (trust me on this). Start with 5-10 minutes every other day, and slowly work up.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:02 AM on December 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Going from 0 to 40 minutes a day isn't really realistic, and if you stumble, you're going to feel worse about yourself (trust me on this).

This is one of the reasons taking an MBCT course is so worthwhile. They do invite you to try to develop a regular practice (because studies have shown that this can cause measurable changes in the brain and lead to lower relapse rates), but they also talk a LOT about self-compassion and not "striving", and they encourage you to congratulate yourself for any progress you make. Trying to meet a goal like 40 minutes a day on your own, without guidance, is a recipe for misery and failure. I mean this very seriously; please don't try do this alone. Sorry if my original comment didn't communicate this clearly enough.
posted by embrangled at 1:43 PM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

If mindfulness therapy appeals to you, one approach that helped me is Morita therapy, a sort of mash-up of Freud and Buddha (to be perfectly glib). The book in which I discovered it is Playing Ball on Running Water.
posted by dhartung at 10:48 PM on December 25, 2013

Just wanted to throw my two cents about Buddhism and using it to overcome mental health issues.

As someone who has suffered from depression, I have found my practice of the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Buddhism (which centers on the prayer "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo"), to be really helpful, in terms of both the philosophy and the practice, which is meant to be applied to day-to-day life issues (as opposed to the more familiar Buddhist scenario of retreating to a mountaintop). Coupled with cognitive therapy, I have found this practice to have improved my coping techniques tenfold.

You can find more information about Nichiren Buddhism and the organization that I practice with here or here, since it looks like you're based in South Korea.

I hope this was helpful! Very best of luck to you.
posted by shelle at 9:19 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

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