Depression 101: How the Mind Creates Suffering

Woman in the woods.

The Buddha said many things on our minds and thinking, including “rule your mind or it will rule you” and “nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.” He taught that all suffering stems from the mind and that through practices such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga, we can learn to relate differently to our thoughts (also known in Buddhism as “ego”) and in doing so, find freedom from suffering.

Much of what I do in my practice centers around these concepts. Clients come to see me with a variety of mental health challenges – including depression and anxietystress and grief, even relationship issues or problems at work. Regardless of the presenting problem, Buddhism and Buddhist psychology – particularly teachings related to the mind and thinking – is an extremely helpful and effective way through which to find healing and peace of mind.

So what does all this mean exactly? I constantly refer to the mind and to the idea that suffering stems from our thought processes, but how does this really play out? In what ways does the mind create or perpetuate our unhappiness? Here’s a snapshot:


This is a big one that I see with clients quite frequently. One of the nastiest tricks of the mind in terms of suffering is comparison. Thinking that other people are better off than we are, have more of this or less of that, are generally luckier and more blessed, creates a lot of misery. The truth is, we rarely, if ever, know the full story of another person’s life (and we can’t ever live inside another person’s mind!). The ego likes to believe that it knows, but in reality, this simply isn’t true.


This is another type of “distorted thinking” (to use terminology from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, or “CBT”). Our minds are wired to have a negativity bias: thanks to extremely intelligent evolutionary psychology, our brains are literally built to detect possible threats and anticipate the worst possible outcome. This technique has worked extremely well when it came to our survival, but in this day and age, catastrophizing simply doesn’t serve us. Our egos trick us into believing that we can predict the future, and if we just think long and hard enough about all the ways in which things can go wrong, then we somehow will have more control over those possible outcomes and be better prepared to handle them. At its best, this mind trick is unproductive and its worst, it’s self-destructive.

“Glass Half Empty” Mentality.

As previously mentioned, our minds are wired to have a negativity bias. This plays out in numerous ways, one of which is simply focusing on lack or the perceived negative. Our minds like to find all the ways in which we’re being cheated, missing out, failing or not getting what we want; we have to actively work to cultivate a tendency of finding the good.

The “Slavedriver”.

I’ve coined this term to refer to the feeling of pressure that we all seem to (subconsciously) inflict on ourselves. Also known as “being hard on oneself”, the slavedriver is the mind’s way of pushing us to accomplish things, tricking us into thinking that without being controlling or rigid or over-disciplined, we simply won’t get anything done. When we get stuck in slavedriver mode, everything feels hard and heavy: we forget that we have choice and that we are responsible (meaning “able to respond”) for our lives and our happiness. Ironically, research has shown that we’re actually far moreproductive when we’re able to take the pressure off of ourselves.

Attaching to Preferred/Desired Outcomes.

This is a big one (but aren’t they all? ;)). The mind creates suffering and completely disempowers us by resting our sense of happiness or wellbeing on external factors. We hinge our happiness on things going “our way” (meaning the ego’s preferred way): on the weather or traffic, getting positive feedback from friends or colleagues, even on our favorite sports team winning. We hope for a certain reaction from someone; anticipate an event going a certain way; want a specific job title, degree or salary. We believe that “if only” x, y or z happens (“if only” I lose 10 lbs., for example), then we’ll be happy. Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach refers to this as “if only” mind, and in this sense, the mind tells us that happiness comes from variables outside of our control.

Grasping at Pleasure, Resisting Pain.

The nature of the mind is such that it prefers pleasure and avoids pain; clings to gain and dislikes loss; and seeks approval but doesn’t want blame. In this sense, the mind is like a small child: all instant gratification and holding the narrow, hedonic belief that happiness and “positive things” feel good, and that if something feels painful or distressing, it’s bad or wrong. In reality, there are countless examples of how and why this type of thinking doesn’t hold true: when we become addicted to certain substances or food, while those things might feel or taste good, they aren’t necessarily good for us (and they can create a great deal of suffering). Conversely, when we work hard at something, or feel physical or emotional pain as a result of some sort of challenge or adversity, those experiences might very well make us stronger, more evolved versions of ourselves.

I hope that this list helps illuminate some of the ways in which the mind creates suffering, and why learning how to be mindful and relate to your thoughts differently (ie, from a place of detachment as opposed to becoming totally absorbed by them) is critical for your mental health. The mind will always be negative, judgmental and rooted in fear, but luckily for us, we can choose to step back from our thoughts, drop out of our heads and live courageously from our hearts.


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