Where is a problem? … more from our social worker

This is the second article from a guest writer, Kadampa Buddhist and student social worker. For the first, see Meditation Helps Me Be a Better Social Worker and Vice Versa.

The problem is not in the person — the problem is the problem and the person is the person.
~ Solution-focussed social work theory

Our problems do not exist outside our mind.  The real nature of our problems is our unpleasant feelings, which are part of our mind.
~ How to Solve Our Human Problems, Gyatso, 2005, p3.

When I first started training as a social worker I was immediately drawn to an approach which I feel is similar to Buddhism.  It’s called “solution-focussed assessment and intervention”.  As the first quote says, you don’t identify a problem in the person — the person is the person, the problem is the problem — and it is about identifying with solutions, and not giving too much energy to problems.

This reminded me of my Buddhist practice of trying to acknowledge my delusions, then let go of them and increase my positive qualities (solutions), and how as an aspiring Bodhisattva I can have a special view of others by not looking at their negative qualities, but focus on their good qualities and let these outshine any negative ones.  As Geshe Kelsang often says:

“Where is a problem?  It does not exist outside our mind.”

Many social workers are into empowering people and I find solution-focussed social work to be empowerment at its very best.  You try and get clients to understand that they don’t have to identify with their problems, to get them to try and see the changeability of a problem and that they can eventually deal with and even transform the situation.For example in a mental health charity I worked for I helped a service user realise that external problems such as personal relationship difficulties and negative people within the community weren’t always problems and that, when she was feeling good, the people were friendly and the problems weren’t there as much.  She understood the changeability of the situations and my advice helped a little. This person lacked self-esteem but I was able to help her improve her view of herself by helping her understand her good qualities such as being a good cook, being good at arts & crafts and being a very social person.  She learned to deal with her problems and difficulties better.

Arya Asanga

As a social worker you are a mediator between an individual and society.  You are concerned with helping vulnerable people and can often be a positive change agent for individuals.  Helping vulnerable people can be very beneficial.  In Joyful Path of Good Fortune my teacher Geshe-la quotes Arya Asanga’s eleven ways of helping others such as: alleviating the suffering of others and offering them assistance in their work, teaching others skills when they do not know how to accomplish tasks, removing dangers that threaten others, consoling others when they are in grief and giving material assistance to those who are destitute. (Gyatso, 2006, p457)

My Kadampa values have definitely helped me in my social work practice!  Through them I am now adopting my own individual assessment and intervention approach based on solution-focussed theory.  You always have to be aware of risk and assess this, but resilience, people’s strengths and solutions to problems are the main emphasis.

Your turn: your comment, questions and observations are most welcome! Please leave them in the box below. And do share this article if you found it helpful.

Other articles by our guest social worker are available here.

Meditation: simple easy instructions for getting started

Recently the New York Times did another article on the benefits of meditation – along the lines of how scientists are finding it makes your brain bigger in all the right places. It attracted a great deal of interest and hundreds of comments. This is good.

But reading the article and especially the comments, I was struck by how many people don’t know how to get started with meditation and feel a little overwhelmed by the thought of what might be involved. And this reminded me of when I began 30 years ago this fall. Back then, in the Friday night meditation classes I attended, I felt encouraged to take baby steps, and that every little counts. Meditation is not as difficult as it may seem. In fact, it feels surprisingly natural, once you get going. Getting going is the main thing.

How to Begin Meditation

The advice in the book Transform Your Life, in the chapter What is Meditation?, (and specifically in the section How to Begin Meditation), is perfect. A lot of friends and family have asked me over the years to explain to them a simple 5 or 10 minute meditation so they can relax and get rid of anxiety, and I show them this chapter.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, my Buddhist teacher, is a completely accomplished meditator who has spent much of his life in Tibet, India and the West in meditation retreat. He has used his combined understanding of meditation and the exigencies of modern life to teach thousands of distracted Westerners everything they need to know to be successful at meditation themselves. So if you really want to start meditating, you could do no better than to consult this chapter. A lot of it can be found here: and I have copied/pasted from there.

“The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid. This can be accomplished by practicing a simple breathing meditation. We choose a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position. We can sit in the traditional cross-legged posture or in any other position that is comfortable. If we wish, we can sit in a chair. The most important thing is to keep our back straight to prevent our mind from becoming sluggish or sleepy.

We sit with our eyes partially closed and turn our attention to our breathing. We breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control our breath, and we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.

At first, our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but we should resist this and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath. If we discover that our mind has wandered and is following our thoughts, we should immediately return it to the breath. We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.”

The 1980's

This is the meditation I started with in 1981 as a college student, just sitting on the end of my bed each day for the few precious minutes I could spare between the discos, pubs, and odd lecture. I’ve never looked back.

Step One ~ Sitting

As Geshe Kelsang teaches, the first thing to do is find a quiet spot where we won’t be interrupted. Mainly, these days, we need to find the will power to turn off all those gadgets!! Once we’re sitting in our comfortable position, we can relax our shoulders, rest our hands in our lap or wherever is comfortable, tilt our head slightly forward, and partially close our eyes to allow some light to come through the eyelashes (a lot of people also gently close their eyes). We can rest our tongue on the palate to keep our mouth moist.

(By the way, people sometimes wonder if it is ok to lie down to meditate — you can, but be wary that you are more likely to fall asleep if you do. Sitting with a straight back helps us stay alert.)

Step Two ~ Motivation

Before turning the attention to the breath or any other object of meditation, I think it is very helpful to think briefly about what we’re doing and why. The benefits of meditation are probably infinite, but I just pick one or two of my favorites, depending on the meditation. Geshe Kelsang explains the far-reaching benefits of breathing meditation here. Through this, our mind becomes light and happy, and we can make the decision: “This meditation will really help me and those around me. So for the next 5 (or 10) minutes I will focus on this meditation alone; everything else can wait.” Generating this good motivation makes it far easier to find the discipline to stay focused.

Step Three (optional) ~ Relaxing your Body

If your body is feeling tense, it can be helpful when starting out to spend a few moments deliberately relaxing your body (eventually, concentration on the breath alone has the side-effect of relaxing the body). We can do this by first dissolving everything outside our body into light (including the past and the future), so just our body remains. We become aware of the feelings in our body from our crown down to our feet; and then, as we become aware of any feelings of tension or tiredness in any parts of our body, we let go of them and imagine that they fall away –- as if dropping heavy luggage. All our muscles feel as if they are softening and relaxing. Our body then dissolves into light from our crown to our feet, so that just its merest outline remains. Our body is weightless like a feather in the breeze, clear and translucent like a hollow body, and so comfortable that we’re hardly even aware that it is there.

Step Four ~ Following the Breath

Geshe Kelsang teaches that “we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils.” As we breathe in, we’ll come to notice a cool sensation at the edge of our nostrils or on our upper lip, and as we breathe out we’ll notice a warm pressure there. Just that. Once we notice this, we have found the object of meditation. “This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.”

Now, as Geshe Kelsang suggests, there are only two things to do for the next 5 minutes:

(1) We don’t forget the sensation of the breath, our object of meditation – resisting the temptation to follow other thoughts; (2) When we do forget the breath and find our mind has wandered to another object, we gently but firmly bring it straight back to the breath.

“We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.” I think it is important to know that it doesn’t matter how many times we have to bring our attention back to the breath – for as long as we are doing that, as opposed to following our other thoughts, we are training in mindfulness and concentration. In short, we are meditating.

Toward the end of your meditation, see if you can follow your breath for 3 or even 7 consecutive breaths (one breath being an inhalation and exhalation) without getting distracted by anything else! Believe your mind is settled on the breath, and indeed so close that it is as though your mind and your breath are mixed, as one.

Conclusion

If you follow Geshe Kelsang’s simple instructions, you will gradually feel your mind settling and the constant chatter of uncontrolled thoughts, feelings, worries, emotions slow down and even stop. As Geshe-la describes it:

“… gradually our distracting thoughts will subside and we will experience a sense of inner peace and relaxation. Our mind will feel lucid and spacious and we will feel refreshed. When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear. In a similar way, when the otherwise incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through concentrating on the breath, our mind becomes unusually lucid and clear. We should stay with this state of mental calm for a while.”

Enlightened beings are free from grasping.

Feel yourself dissolve into this clarity and peace at the level of your heart — drop from your head to your heart. Stay here as long as you can, giving yourself permission to really enjoy yourself. Know that you can always return here.

Before arising gently from meditation, resolve to bring the peace you have experienced back with you into your day.

Some Tips

Can I suggest that you get used to this idea from the outset: no pushing allowed in meditation. It doesn’t work. We bring our attention back to the object in a determined but relaxed manner, and stay light. We also don’t need to grasp at results — we do that enough in the rest of our lives. Meditation is the best way to let go of grasping and just be, and this naturally leads to incredible insights and open-hearted positivity, the manifesting of our potential.

In our busy modern world, preoccupied with yesterday’s memories and tomorrow’s plans, we may have lost touch with the immediate, what is literally right under our noses; but it is actually very natural and normal to follow your breath. This is another reason why it is not necessary or advisable to attempt to control the breath, as Geshe Kelsang points out, or to push. Even though distractions interrupt seemingly non-stop to begin with, don’t panic; it is only because we are not used to focusing on anything single-pointedly for any length of time, and so have little or no control over our thoughts. That is our problem, and skillful meditation on the breath will overcome it.

The other problem people new to meditation sometimes complain about is drowsiness – not surprising insofar as usually the only time we allow ourselves to really relax and let go is when we are about to fall asleep in bed at night. Concentration is the antidote to drowsiness, and in the meantime, until we have some concentration, it is a good idea to meditate at a time of day when you are relatively alert e.g. after morning tea, and to sit in a light space. Avoid meditating after a big meal or wearing heavy clothes.

In fact, if you are doing just 5 or 10 minutes meditation at a time, there is a good chance that you’ll avoid both distraction and sleepiness – so a good tip is to keep your meditation short but professional. If you are enjoying it, meditate again for another 5 minutes later in the day! You’ll see your capacity and enthusiasm grow naturally.

Geshe Kelsang also teaches variations on the theme of breathing meditation, such as, in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, first identifying and then breathing out all your problems and anxiety in the form of thick smoke, and then strongly believing you are breathing in all lightness, joy and blessings in the form of blissful golden or white light. Some people prefer to do breathing meditation this way, and the basic instructions remain the same.

I hope you get started soon. You’ll never regret learning to meditate – it is the most problem-solving, mind-freeing and happiness-inducing skill in the world. It has no adverse side effects. It is free! And no one can take it away from you. Here is that website, About Meditation. If you get a chance, do go along to a meditation class in your area – you can’t beat live instructions from a real person.

For two more helpful articles on meditation see Meditation in the Pursuit of Happiness and How to Use Meditation to Avoid Stress and Burnout at Work.

Postscript

I have recently had the surreal experience of unexpectedly reconnecting with my closest childhood friend, whom I played with in Guyana when we were 10 years old. Four days after we talked again, laughing at our memories of that different lifetime, she was diagnosed with cancer. She asked me how to meditate to find peace. This article is for you, Debra.

No arms, no legs, no worries!

This brave, funny and happy man is helping millions of people to change their attitude, seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty. He is inspiring because he is a dramatic, visible, irrefutable example of how life depends on how you look at it. It is hard to sustain self-pity or even self-doubt when watching this video. That might be why some people have watched it many, many times!

Where does happiness come from?

Nick Vujicic reminds me that we have all the tools we need to be happy — very happy, indeed very blissful — but we won’t get round to using them if we don’t sincerely believe that we possess the seeds of happiness within. If our starting point for meditation is: “I’m a real mess and happiness is alien to me, but I guess I should try this meditation thing”, or — identifying with the delusions — “I’m so deluded, I better get around to training my mind”, we are off to a very slow and possibly quite torturous beginning. To succeed in becoming happier, we first have to actively want to be happy and stop buying into our misery. (It may sound obvious, but this step is surprisingly often left out.) Then, with that, we can be confident that happiness is a given if we apply effort. Why? Because we are not adding anything that is not already there.

The root of the Western word “happiness” is apparently Scandinavian and means “luck”. Happiness is randomly assigned to lucky people in some cosmic lottery, sorry mate if you got the losing numbers. And a lot of people subscribe to a Western psychotherapy “set level of happiness” theory, where an individual is always moreorless at the same level of happiness – studies showed happiness spiking or dipping due to e.g. winning the lottery or getting cancer, but returning to the same level later. If we believe all this, there is not much point in training the mind to be happy.

However, the only reason these studies showed that people’s happiness doesn’t appear to change much during their lifetime is because people are generally not training in happiness – they are trying to find happiness in external sources. Buddhism 101 explains how happiness is a state of mind, so its real cause lies in the mind, not the external world. Change the mind, everything changes. Change the mind a lot, and everything changes a lot.

I’ve had a lot of external changes over the last few years, and some of them have looked rather alarming to my loved ones. Over the holidays, my aunt, whom I haven’t seen in a while, asked me: “But how are you really feeling? I know you are always happy, but what is really going on?” What do I answer, “I’m really feeling awful… but I’m happy!” No, it is one or the other.

Yesterday, a friend told me how in a teaching he compared training the mind to going to the gym, in that you wouldn’t get round to going to the gym if you didn’t know for sure that you already had muscles to exercise. My biceps may be rather puny at the moment, but they are there, so I am prepared to make the effort to bring out their potential (well, I”m not really, but I am prepared to continue the effort to meditate.)

And if someone without arms and legs can learn to be happy, what is stopping us? As one school kid’s comment put it:

“I shall always remember this when I think I’m having problems, be happy. ‘Cos if he can, anyone can.”

Precious human life

One way instantly to lift our spirits is to count our blessings rather than worrying about all the things we don’t have. As another comment put it:

“Before this video, I felt I was so unlucky and I’ll never be good at something. After watching, DAMN! I’m lucky!”

This video for me was a meditation on my precious human life. Precious human life meditation is placed at the very beginning of the stages of the path so that we actually get going on the other stages. If we don’t remember and feel glad every day about how lucky we are right now, we’ll never get round to using our good fortune. We’ll take this rare life for granted — count out our life in coffee spoons — even though Buddha compares a precious human life to a star in the midday sky.

Nick Vujicic is being described by many as “a hero”. He has gained a victory over his own mind by fighting the inner enemies of self-pity and self-doubt. His website is called “Attitude is Altitude”. Nick Vujicic may not be able-bodied, but he sure is able-minded.

"I LOVE LIFE!" ~ Nick Vucicic

A Buddhist take on factory farming

The book Eating Animals is brilliant. Jonathan Safran Foer has done the world a service. He is a best-selling novelist who has managed to write a book about factory farming that is readable — horrific, yes, but still readable. Even un-put-downable. He has looked at the question of eating animals from many angles — culture, community, history, politics, husbandry, morality, health etc. He has avoided black and white haranguing and reasonably discusses shades of gray so people can come to their own conclusions.

“I need some exercise!”

Those of you die-hard carnivores who don’t want to change your habits at all, don’t read any further, and don’t pick up this book. As 99% of USA meat is factory farmed, really knowing about factory farming forces you to change in some ways  — and you may not want to change! The facts in this book, if digested, will lead most people (a) to become vegetarian or vegan, (b) to eat less meat, or (c) to be far more careful about choosing meat from animals that have not been tortured their entire lives or stewed in their own filth and stuffed with antibiotics, hormones etc. (If this book gets people into the habit of asking the store and restaurant owners where their meat or eggs actually come from, this will in itself have the power to improve animal welfare and human health). The alternative from digesting this book (as opposed to dismissing it) is that you won’t change but you will feel guilty, and that is not a useful state of mind according to Buddhism.

“I *really* need some exercise.”

This article is more about me than about you. I can’t lecture anyone about vegetarianism (let alone veganism)  — until some years ago I was an imperfect vegetarian, eating meat when I went to visit my family for holidays for example, thinking erroneously it was the best way to blend in, plus secretly digging the excuse …  But I never felt that good about it. I love animals, and I could see that loving animals was somewhat contradictory to eating them! It sat uneasily with me. But hey, steak smelt so good, and I didn’t always have the will-power to ignore others tucking into it whilst I nibbled on the brussel sprouts.

Pigs are as intelligent as dogs. Who would push their dog in a closet and throw away the key?
“I can’t help it. I have to eat.”

Then I watched a nature program about animals in the Arctic. Like these programs always are, it was brutal. Kill or be killed. It dawned on me that — unlike every animal struggling every day in the wild — I have the choice, every day, not to eat meat. That is my good fortune. I don’t have to kill anyone in order to eat. And every time I exercise that choice, I create the karmic cause to have that choice again. Whereas if I deliberately allow animals to be killed for me so that I can eat them, am I not creating the cause to have less freedom to choose in the future? Every thought and action has consequences. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. From a Buddhist understanding of rebirth (and depending on my motivation) could one even say that I might be creating the cause to be a powerless animal in future lives?

None of us likes being told what to do or having our lives controlled by others. Imagine what it is like, then, to be an animal.

Even by omission, by ignoring the facts, I personally felt like I was buying into samsara, the cycle of impure life.

This all got me thinking, and later I visited a friend who happened to have a copy of Eating Animals on the table. I read it avidly over the next two days and then could think or talk of little else but the horror of factory farms, driving everyone around me mad. I even fancied I caught a glimpse of what it felt like for the local Germans finally seeing the concentration camps that had been invisible in full sight all along.

“Let me out. I want to go outside!”

When Buddha Shakyamuni tried to help us improve our states of mind or our actions, he would explain the benefits of doing something positive and the faults of not. This way people could check these out for themselves, in their own experience, and come to a genuine intention that was all theirs. No one can force us to be good or kind or healthy. Everything depends upon our own intention.

So for myself I have a quick mental checklist of the benefits and faults of eating animals — a mixture of worldly and spiritual. Although my temptation to eat anyone with a face is now down to zero, this list has been helpful in helping me get here. Much of this is explained in the book Eating Animals, the rest in Buddha’s teachings on karma and rebirth.

Benefits of not eating animals

  • I am more conscious to avoid harming animals

    “Let us out. We *really* want to go outside.”
  • I avoid the hypocrisy of saying I love animals and then eating them
  • I’m healthier and slimmer
  • I’m helping the planet
  • I’m less likely to create the karmic causes to be tortured or eaten myself in the future
  • I am trying to purify the karmic causes of taking an animal rebirth where it is eat or be eaten in samsara
  • I’m increasing my empathy and compassion

Faults of eating animals

  • The opposite of the above
“Cute, aren’t we? … but where are you taking us …?”

This, or any similar checklist of your own, might work for reducing your factory farmed intake, one way or another. Ignorance is not bliss according to Buddhism. In fact, it is the complete opposite of bliss (which is indivisible with the wisdom realizing emptiness, more another time). So my feeling is that if we’re going to eat factory-farmed animals, we should at least do so with full possession of the facts. I don’t think we need to harangue others (sorry if I am haranguing you!) — in Buddhism we try to identify and get rid of our own faults, rather than dwell on the faults of others. But nor do we need to, as it says in one of my long-time favorite quotations from Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (who doesn’t eat meat):

“Act as if we are sleepwalking or let our habits dominate our behavior.”

Find out more.