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Buddhadharma : Spring 2009
35 SPRING 2 00 9 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly dramatic effects on mental states. What new technologies such as brain scans reveal is that the causal relationship can run in the other direction: mental states also affect brain states. A wide array of stimuli and situations—from exercise and out-of-the- ordinary experiences to meditation and psychotherapy—can actually alter both the structure and function of the brain. (For an excellent summary of what researchers have been learning about neuroplasticity, meaning how brain structure and function is able to be modified, see the book Train Your Mind: Change Your Brain, by Sharon Begley.) It is therefore not surprising that medita- tion and psychotherapy can improve some neural functions, and sometimes partly heal the chemistry and even structure of the brain. Consequently, we can certainly expect that some brain–mind dysfunctions will be healed, or at least ameliorated, by spiritual and psychological interventions. But other dysfunctions may prove recalcitrant. Major chronic disorders—whether the result of faulty genes, hor- rendous child rearing, or long-term stress—may be so severe and so indelibly stamped into neural chemistry and architec- ture that almost no amount of meditation or psychotherapy will fully reverse or override them. In such cases the most strategic way to redress both symptoms and the underlying neural pathology may be by direct neural interventions, which most commonly take the form of rebalancing neural chemistry via medication. Again, this is not to say that spiritual practice or psycho- therapy won’t help, but rather that, by themselves, they may be insufficient. Even very long-term practice may be insuf- ficient. In fact, we have seen and consulted with not only practitioners, but also several teachers whose long, dedicated practice was simply not enough to fully override genetic forces and major traumas, and who benefited from medication. Optimal healing may require multiple therapies, one of which is pharmacotherapy. This is easy to say, but it can still be a hard decision for spiritual practitioners wrestling with the question of whether to begin taking medications, most commonly, antidepressants. This is where research on how spiritual practitioners have fared when taking medication could offer helpful information to those trying to make this difficult decision, particularly if they face the pressure of the purist point of view. Buddhist Practitioners Who Took Antidepressants Our team of researchers, all physicians and long-term medita- tors, investigated a group of nineteen Buddhist practitioners (thirteen women and six men) diagnosed with major depres- sion. These practitioners had all been doing meditation, mainly vipassana, for at least three years, Western Medicine Buddha, 2006 ➤ continued page 76 fromTheinsTallaTion“TheBuddhisTmediCineTemPle,”CourTesyofThearTisTandhainesGallery/sanfranCisCo