Josh Korda is a dharma teacher in NYC and Brooklyn (since 2005) and has shared his teachings via his podcast, DharmaPunxNYC for 10 years. He’s written for a number of Buddhist magazines and is the author of ‘Unsubscribe: Opt out of delusion, tune into truth’ (2017).
His introduction to Buddhism was as a result of his fathers’ sobriety, back in the early 1970s. After the 12-step programme of AA, as part of the recovery, it was suggested to find a spiritual path, for which his father chose Buddhism.
As a kid, Josh was taken to listen to Buddhist speakers and the bookshelves in their home started to fill with texts such as ‘The Three Pillars of Zen’.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Josh formally studied Buddhism, in particularly Theravada Buddhism, the lineage widely practised in Thailand. In the mid-1980s, he began identifying himself as a Buddhist.
I’m an avid listener of Josh’s podcast and have found the practices he shares, his talks on the relationship of the mind, Buddha’s landscape, neurology and psychology, inspiring and incredibly helpful in developing my own knowledge and self-practices.
In this interview, we focus on the topic of anxiety and depression.
In your talks, you speak a lot about the relationship between Buddha’s landscape, psychology and neurology. What’s been the most profound discovery you’ve made from any of your personal research?
I’m not sure if my insights are profound, but the ones that created a personal sense of greater understanding certainly has involved locating intersections between the dharma and attachment theory (Bowlby), the bilateral brain (McGilchrist), the somatic self (Damasio), emotions focused therapies (Greenberg, Johnson, Fosha) and Coherence Therapy (Ecker).
Awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing and resilience seems to have increased in the media, with mental health becoming less of a taboo subject. Focusing on anxiety and depression, can you briefly guide us through the anatomy of the brain and discuss the connection between anxiety and depression and any other aspect or feeling that is related to those two mental illnesses e.g. fear, insecurity, feeling lost.
Well, that’s an enormous subject! It’s one that would require a comprehensive book to answer—a good place to start would be Joseph LeDoux’s The Emotional Brain or Robert Sapolsky’s Behave.
In short, anxiety can often be associated with both diminished synaptic presence of serotonin and norepinephrine and, from a psychological perspective, the anticipation of separation from loved ones and social isolation, due to early life attachment disturbances. Anxiety is associated with racing and intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, insomnia, heightened emotional reactions and a variety of chronic disorders. Anxiety has clear correlations with anxious/ preoccupied attachment styles.
Depression is associated with the diminished synaptic presence of dopamine which results in anhedonia, an extreme lack of reward and motivation, a felt lack of joy. Depression is indicated by mood blunting, pessimism, a felt lack of efficacy and agency in the world. Some forms of depression have significant causal relationships with avoidant/ dismissive attachment styles.
So, what’s actually happening to the brain, the mind and body when we feel anxious? what’s happening when we feel depressed? Are the two interlinked?
Yes, as I briefly noted, diminished synaptic presence of serotonin is one feature of anxiety disorders. Essentially the autonomic nervous system, rather than switching naturally between sympathetic (alert state) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) states, becomes locked in the sympathetic alert state, resulting in hypervigilance.
Hypervigilance is associated with the stress hormone cortisol, which disrupts digestion and changes blood flow and breathing patterns; it’s a state where one is alert to threats, expects attack or abandonment, and results in exaggerated reactions to other’s facial expressions, words and movements.
And does this change depending on the severity of the condition?
You’ve spoken before that there are a few types of anxiety disorder, can you speak on that a little?
Separation anxiety: anticipating or living in the expectation of abandonment or disconnection with a specific attachment figure.
Neurotic anxiety: anticipating or living in the expectation of social rejection, being ostracized by one’s community, business, friends.
Decompensation anxiety: anticipating or living in the expectation of losing one’s mind, falling apart, going insane, etc.
What types of meditation practice have a specific effect in assisting or easing the feelings of anxiety and depression?
There are many types of meditation I teach that directly address anxiety and depression, too many to note. I will say here that the Buddha’s practice of ‘devanusati’ or visualizing being connected with protective, unconditionally compassionate people, and ‘silanusati’ visualizing oneself interacting with others in ways that actualize our highest, most esteemable goals are especially useful in addressing unconscious emotional beliefs that lead to maladaptive behaviours, such as fear of intimacy and avoidant coping.
In your opinion, why do people seem to suffer more from anxiety and depression now? Or has the number of people with this mental illness not really increased, it is just people talk about it more?
We live in times of ever-growing emotional isolation and loss of authentic relationships; more of us live alone, far from communal support, which is vital for healthy brain function. The brain is set up for emotion co-regulation; without disclosing our fears and setbacks to others we wind up increasingly hypervigilant or depressed, our immune systems—due to cortisol—weaken, we become susceptible to a wide variety of immune disorders and diseases.
The work of John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, notes the devastation amounts of mental disorders, not to mention mortality rates, stemming from emotional isolation.
At the University of Utah, a study of tens of thousands of individuals led to the sad conclusion that isolation and loneliness are our primary factors in mortality, more damaging than sedentary lifestyles and as bad smoking packs of cigarettes a day.
What’s your daily practice consist of?
Twenty-five minutes, the first ten concentration on sounds, body sensations, breath, the last 15 open awareness, observing whatever states arise and seek attention.
When you began meditating, did you jump right into a daily 25-minute practice?
Ha, of course not. Back when I started, in the 1980s, I managed 5 minutes with a timer, and each of those minutes felt like a half hour. Slowly I built up the durations. Today it would’ve been a lot easier, as guided meditations are available everywhere online, which makes starting a practice easier.
Do you practice, or have you practised Yoga Asana, Meditation, or Pranayam?
I’ve certainly done all of the above; I’ve been practising basic hatha yoga since the mid-1990s and pranayama breath is definitely practised at our retreats (including in ‘breathwork’).
If you have one piece of advice for someone starting out with a meditation practice, or words of wisdom, what would it be?
Listen to guided meditations by terrific teachers; Tara Brach‘s site has hundreds; Ajahn Brahm‘s youtube guided meditations are wonderful. So are Ajahn Sucitto and Viradhammo.
Useful resources and terminology
Josh offers an open invitation to listen to his talks at dharmapunxnyc.com. You’ll also find them on Podbean and iTune Podcast. I’ve listed a couple of episodes below that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and that relate to the topic of today’s discussion.
- Defining Depression and Alleviating the Intrusive Thoughts That Trigger Relapses
- Understanding and Treating Anxiety
- How early life experiences, now long forgotten, still influence our lives and what we can do about them
- The Dharma of Attachment Theory 1 (Mindfulness & Reparenting Oneself)
- The Dharma of Attachment Theory 2 (Heart Practices for a Secure Base)
- The Buddha the Bilateral Brain (31-minute talk followed by 26-minute guided meditation)
- The Hidden Message of Depression
Attachment theory explains how the parent-child relationship emerges and influences subsequent development
The bilateral brain – how the brain is organised. While seemingly symmetrical, the left and right hemispheres do also have specific functions.
Somatic self is a theory on the interaction between emotion and cognition developed by Antonio Damasio.
Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is a short-term form of therapy that focuses on adult relationships and attachment/bonding. Aim at improving awareness of emotions and how to cope with them.
Coherence Therapy is a system of psychotherapy based in the theory that symptoms of mood, thought and behaviour are produced coherently according to the person’s current mental models of reality, most of which are implicit and unconscious. It was founded by Bruce Ecker and Laurel Hulley in the 1990s.
Synaptic – relating to a synapse or synapses between nerve cells.
Serotonin – A neurotransmitter (sometimes referred to as 5-HT). It plays a major part in regulating moods and when it’s in balance, it makes you feel good about your sense of wellbeing. If serotonin is low, the most commonly known condition is depression. Serotonin also regulates digestion, blood clotting, bone density, and sexual function.
Norephedrine (another term for noradrenaline) – It acts as a stress hormone and neurotransmitter. It is the main Neurotransmitter for the Sympathetic Nervous System. Some of its responsibilities include increasing the heart rate and blood pressure. Like Adrenaline and Dopamine, is an organic chemical in the catecholamine family and its function is produced in the adrenal glands.
Get a FREE guided meditation to help you ease feelings of anxiety. By the end of the meditation you’ll feel more balanced and calm.
It’s yours to use any time you need.