Skip to main content

Buddhism and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

 My alarm goes off, and I hit the 'snooze' button. Using the least amount of effort possible, I untangle myself from the covers and look out the window.  My spirit drops. 

From this angle, all I can see is a featureless gray sky.  Light rain patters the window, and as I listen to it all of the motivation to move, eat, or function in society bleeds from my body.  I'm wide-awake, but it's another three hours before I get out of bed.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of mood disorder that comes and goes with the seasons.  More specifically, people who suffer from SAD tend to lack energy and feel moody during the fall and winter months. 

Other symptoms may include fatigue and weight gain.  Scientists aren't sure as to the exact cause of SAD, however, the running theory is that a lack of sunlight in fall and winter causes the brains of some people to produce less serotonin; an important hormone for mood regulation.

Buddhist training is NOT a cure for SAD, however, the teachings have allowed me to develop habits, which help me cope with the symptoms. When the sky is gray, the world is cold, and my bed feels like a quicksand pit that's sucking me into oblivion, there are three teachings that help me get through the day.

1) Surrender to the Form

During a Buddhist retreat, there is a strict schedule that everyone has to follow.  We eat when the monks tell us to eat, we sleep when they tell us to sleep, and we sit in meditation until they ring the bell for us to stand up.  The training is good and important.  But it's also hard.

Many times, what's required of us is not what we want to do.  For example, we may want to play on our phones, but we have to work in the garden.  During these times, it's helpful to let go of our feelings and surrender ourselves to the form.  

When we do this, when we set aside our desires, and do what's needed without complaint, the work becomes easier.  We chant when we're supposed to chant, we bow when we're supposed to bow, and before we know it the practice period is over. We've finished the retreat.

I find that this is also true when my SAD is at its worst.  My biggest struggle tends to be a lack of desire.  I don't want to eat. I don't want to work.  I don't want to speak with friends or relatives.  

Truthfully, my only wish during the fall and winter months is to curl up inside my oversized hoodie and drink tea until spring arrives.

But in the words of Robert Frost, I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.  So, I pull myself from bed each morning as if I were on a week-long meditation retreat.  And I surrender to the forms of my life.

I open my laptop and reply to emails.  I clean my toilet.  I prepare food.  I do these things even though my bed looks warm and inviting and the world feels cold and gray.  I do them without complaint and as I check each item off my list, the work becomes easier.  Life becomes easier.  And before I know it night time comes.  I've finished another day.

2) Create Rituals

Ritual is an integral part of Buddhist retreats.  There are a myriad of meanings attached to the robes and shaved heads that one associates with the Dharma.  The countless esoteric teachings that go along with the iconography on the walls and the ways that Buddhists sit, bow, and pray.  But there is a strong core of practicality attached to all of them as well.

For example, it's customary to do several hours of work practice as part of Buddhist training.  This allows us to integrate the lessons we learn on the cushion with our daily lives; helping us to transmit the peacefulness we feel during meditation into sweeping and washing dishes.

However, it also ensures that important, mundane tasks are completed.  After all, it would be shameful if a group of enlightened masters starved because no one thought to cook dinner.

In my own life, I've created a number of rituals that ensure that the important, daily tasks are completed.  I have a "making the bed" ritual, a "feed the animals"  ritual, a "water the plants and empty the litter box" ritual.  

 And as I move through my day, going from one ritual to the next, I'm pulled out of my morose.  In the same way that the ritual of chanting reminds of Amida Buddha's grace.  The ritual of showering reminds me that indoor plumbing is a miracle.

That's the beauty of rituals.  In a formalized way, they drag as from one daily miracle (delicious meals, playful pets, kind friends, etc.) to another.  They remind us that there's a warm center in the midst of every cold, winter day.  All we have to do is look for it.

3) Give Thanks

In Pureland Buddhism, the act of thanksgiving is codified through the nembutsu chant.  When practitioners recite Namu Amida Butsu, which translates to, I take refuge in Amida Buddha, they express gratitude for their good fortune and faith in the enlightened nature of all beings.

More than that, however, they express hope.  When students chant nembutsu during times of difficulty they convey the belief that things will improve if they live in accordance to the Dharma.  When times are good, they chant in hopes of all sentient beings sharing in their happiness.

In my own practice, I chant nembutsu several times a day.  When my SAD is at it's worse, the chant helps to break negative thought patterns.  It also makes me less reactive to challenging situations that might occur.

Another way I practice thanksgiving is through a gratitude contemplation.  I look at various items in my environment and say, I am grateful for (insert objective) because it helps me (enter reason).  For example, I might say, "I am grateful for my coat because it keeps me warm when I go outside," or "I am thankful for my house plants because they clean the air in my apartment."

A close friend once told me that fear can't live in the same space as gratitude.  And I find this to be true. The longer I do this contemplation, reminding myself of the myriad ways that I am supported and cared for by my environment, the more my melancholy is replaced with contentment.  In the words of the Temptations, "I've got sunshine on a cloudy day."

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that touches 1 in 3 people.  Some people have mild symptoms while other are more severe.  Buddhist training is NOT a cure for SAD, and it shouldn't be used to replace guidance from a licensed mental health professional.

However, in my own practice I've found that surrendering to the forms of life, creating rituals, and giving thanks help me cope with the symptoms of SAD.  Every winter, it hovers over my head like a dark rain cloud.  And Buddhism is the umbrella that helps me stay dry.

Namu Amida Butsu

 If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!

Buddhism and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)


  1. Totally agree. Also, Buddhist practice makes me think about what is natural and normal. Although I experience SAD, I understand that people are mammals and we're meant to shut down for the cold, hard season ahead (and fatten up a little, LOL). Thinking of it as a disorder is just a way of thinking and assigning meaning to something that is unpleasant. That's not to say one shouldn't seek treatment if they need to, but for me just thinking of it this way helps. Anyway thank you for this teaching. Gassho.

  2. I am not even aware of it creeping in every winter until it hits hard. Then the cats are miserable too. Chanting does wonders! Helps us all! And like Jen said, it is a natural cycle. It's time to read! Meditate! Create! Our culture does not allow for it so much though 🙃
    Namu Amida Butsu 🙏


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

3 Universal Truths that Buddha Taught

Philosophers have wrestled with the concept of universal truth for centuries. But no one has been able to figure out exactly what it is, or even if it truly exists. In fact, the existentialist philosopher, Nietzsche famously threw up his hands and stated, " God is dead ," while contemplating the question. Of course, he wasn't claiming that a literal super natural deity had died. Rather, he was expressing the fact that human conceptual thought around things like happiness, goodness, truth, etc. is inherently flawed. As a result, universal truth as represented by God cannot exist. In Nietzsche's view, the best we can hope for is to live as individuals, constantly striving against one another to impose our will to power upon the world. The Buddhist view, however, is different. While Buddha would agree that humanity's conceptual view of the world is limited, he observed three experiences that all living beings share. These are often referre

Magic Mushrooms and the Buddha Dharma

You meet all kinds of people on the road.  Some of them are clearly running from something; a past trauma or an action they regret. Others are clearly looking for something; a tribe of like-minded people or a safe place to call home. This results in a strange mix of people ending up in strange places and sharing their lives for any where from a few weeks to a few months.   You part ways knowing that you'll never see each other again despite your endless promises to keep in touch.  But you always remember the people you meet on the road, and your life is usually better for having met them. Case in point, I met a guy named "Fred" when I was farming in Indiana who'd lived an insanely cool life.  He did corporate America for a while, and decided it wasn't for him.  So, he high-tailed it to Vietnam and taught English for several years before deciding that he wanted to become a shaman.  After that, he made his way to Brazil where he wandered fo

The Enlightenment Scam

When I started practicing Buddhism, I had one goal.  I wanted to attain enlightenment.  I wanted the spiritual maturity, unshakable confidence, and endless calm that I envisioned the Buddha having 2,600 years ago.   I spent endless hours scouring the internet, and pouring through books in search of a Buddhist school to dedicate myself too.  Eventually, I settled on Zen because it seemed like the most direct, no-nonsense approach.   I practiced faithfully for several years, and I slowly started to make progress.  My mind became calmer, my heart became gentler, and the world didn't seem like such a dark place.  But I didn't feel any closer to enlightenment.   Then I heard the practice described as walking through a fog , and suddenly realizing that you're soaking wet.  That seemed logical.  Buddha practiced for 6 years before having his awakening under the Bodhi tree, so why should I be any different?  I just needed to sit, and keep sitting until something &quo