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Is depression always an illness? A Buddhist view of Robin Williams’ passing

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The death this week of Robin Williams has put depression back in the headlines. The media coverage is welcome because by talking openly about mental health challenges we can create some good from a desperately tragic suicide. The rhetoric around a previously taboo topic has been changing rapidly in recent years, thanks in part to the courageous candour of celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alastair Campbell, Ruby Wax and of course, Robin Williams himself.

Robin_WilliamsAs a result, the ‘pull yourself together’ school of encouragement has mostly disappeared into the shadows, along with the ‘stiff upper lip’ brigade. Even the ‘what did he have to be depressed about?’ gang have been mercifully quiet. This more open and enlightened mindset now views depression as a recognised illness, which, like cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure, needs proper treatment.

But as I chant about Robin Williams’ suicide, I find myself wondering if ‘illness’ is always the most useful way to look at clinical depression. I ask myself whether Nichiren Buddhism, with its rich insights into the workings of the human mind, can bring a different perspective to the topic. And I think the answers are No and Yes. Let me explain…

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Buddha on the Ball… 7 life lessons to encourage the youth of today (on and off the football pitch)

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Last week I had the good fortune to be training some teenagers from Southend in Essex, one of my favourite seaside towns. All of them had been excluded from mainstream schools and/or came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Luckily there are two people who believe in their potential, their teacher Rachael O’Brien and Stuart Long (of South Essex Homes), who have set up a Football Club for them, with funds they have fought long and hard to obtain. More info on Southend ATF (Achievement Through Football) here: http://achievementthroughfootball.org/ 

Southend comments

We had two marvellous days together, a mix of football plus the mindset and happiness stuff I teach on The Winning Edge personal development programme. This wonderful experience proved that with some warm but strict encouragement plus a more positive way of looking at themselves and the world, even kids who’ve had the toughest starts in life can discover a spark of hope, an inner resilience and a new sense of purpose. More about these lovely kids and their dreams at the end of this post.

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Struggling to cope? Learn how to challenge instead with this guidance from Kazuo Fujii

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I love this quote by SGI-UK Buddhist leader Kazuo Fujii (pictured here in 1993) who outlines the huge difference it makes when we learn to challenge ourselves instead of just coping with life’s difficulties:

Kazuo Fujii (1993) cropped

“There are two ways of approaching life. The first is coping and the second is challenging to change a situation. The situation is the same but the results are different. Coping is linked to the past and our past knowledge and experiences. It is a conservative attitude, limited, restricted, passive, defensive, dependent. There is no vision and no hope. This is not Buddhism. Buddhism is about change. Changing ourselves, society and humanity for good. The way to change is determination based on wisdom. Change is a projection towards the future. It is positive, creative, independent, attacking and seeking. It is an attitude of great hope and vision. Coping is the past projecting to the present. Changing is the present projecting to the future. We can choose. The difference between ordinary and great lives is up to us.”

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Reasons to be hopeful – with help from Buddhism, Angelina Jolie and Mariane Pearl

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[just 5 mins to read]

You may have seen the film, A Mighty Heartstarring Angelina Jolie. In this movie the Hollywood star plays the role of SGI Buddhist Mariane Pearl (right in the pic) who faced the deepest despair when in 2002 her journalist husband Danny was kidnapped and then beheaded by Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan.

jolie + Pearl [2]

At the time Mariane was heavily pregnant with their only child. A Mighty Heart pays tribute to her husband. Mariane poignantly describes how, after news arrived of Danny’s decapitation, she resolves nevertheless to move forwards with hope:

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Two words to ban from all your arguments

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What is the ‘tipping point’ that can cause a small lovers’ tiff to escalate into a huge no-holds-barred argument? There are two little words which cause more damage than most – and neither of them is an expletive. I am thinking of ‘never’ and ‘always.’   Image

As in: “You never listen to me properly!” (Bet she has, at least once.) “You’re always rude to my friends.” (Bet he is polite, now and again.) In short, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that ‘always’ and ‘never’ are almost always never true.

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