Meditation versus action … more from our social worker

This is the fifth article from a guest writer, Kadampa Buddhist and student social worker. The others can be found here.

In this article, he is asking significant questions about the relationship between Buddhism and social action, important to address, especially in our modern age.  Please share your understanding in the comments box below, particularly if you work in any of the caring professions!

Continuing on my reflections on working for a mental health charity as a student social worker, I found that being mentally prepared for the work I did was essential.

Meditation on compassion

I tried to make universal compassion my main practice throughout these months, making sure I started the day with a meditation on compassion or at least incorporating compassion into my meditation e.g. having a compassionate motivation/intention at the beginning of the meditation and a compassionate dedication at the end.

I always dedicate my meditations for the enlightenment of each and every living being, but I feel it is ok to include people you know who have a particular suffering (which could include service users) and pray (without attachment) for their liberation from their present suffering.   In fact this makes my meditations and virtue more personal and more powerful.

At work, most of the time I was able to remain unnerved and at ease with service users, with love and compassion (being relatively free from my own self-cherishing) protecting my mind from any negativity in the working environment.

Tackling stigma and leading by example

Another aspect of working for a mental health charity can be tackling the stigma and discrimination there is against people with mental health distress. It has been encouraging to discover this year that mental health charities are beginning to make progress in this area, but there is still a long way to go.  I found that talking openly about my own past and present mental health distress has helped service users and their families considerably.  It can be so beneficial to open up and talk about your difficulties and, once you do, and there is some acknowledgement, difficulties can be shared and reduced, and as a society we can all become more aware of mental health distress.  You do have to check, however, how much you can self-disclose and such practice is more accepted in social work than it is in healthcare.

This placement experience reminded me that it was my own stress, anxiety and depression that led me to Buddhist meditation; and it is this medicine for the mind that I keep on taking several times a day for the rest of my life, gradually improving each year.  People can be relieved and less frightened too when they realise that you are human and experience similar difficulties.  They become more open to your help.

Meditation v. action

Trying to lead by example is the main way I help people, but there are times in social work where you have to act as an advocate, representing a group of people or to politicise a little.  You can become very passionate about this and feel justified in becoming angry.  On my course at university I was a student rep as I felt sorry for the younger students struggling with the course.  It felt good and beneficial to encourage them to stand up for themselves, but I struggled with representing groups of people who were angry or upset; and I realised that the Buddhist belief in personal responsibility doesn’t mix with trade unionism.

These are areas where I can have difficulties, and I am interested in what any of you have to say.  Are your own meditation, prayers and example enough, or could we do more for our society? Could the products that Kadampa Buddhism offers such as the meditation CD’s, teaching in schools, chaplaincy and any other act of public service be more offered and marketed to areas of our society that need it?

I often found that in the academic training in social work, my use of my knowledge and experience of Buddhism wasn’t appreciated, and perhaps there is danger of mixing Dharma too much into our worldly work life and that it is best to quietly lead by our own example? What do you think? If I was to train as some kind of mental health practitioner I would have to study practices that are similar but different to Buddhism.  Could and should Kadampa Buddhism offer more to the care industries in our societies?

Perhaps you would be willing to help me by letting me know what you think below.

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Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

13 thoughts on “Meditation versus action … more from our social worker”

  1. It’s wonderful to read this conversation. I too have worked with the homeless and mentally ill for twenty years, and Kadam Dharma has helped me more than I can ever say.
    I just had a conversation with a family member in which she was questioning why the Kadampa centers do not have an active social service program similar to Christian churches (soup kitchens, homeless outreach, 12 step programs, etc.) I explained that as Kadampas, we are encouraged to do all of these things as part of our practice of the perfection of giving, but that the centers themselves are exclusively focused on the teaching of dharma. That did not sit well with her, and to tell the truth, it has troubled me from time to time. To be clear, I completely understand why our dharma centers don’t want to devote time and resources to traditional social service activities in an official way, but I’m wondering if there are practitioners who come together to do social service-like work on their own––does anyone know?

    1. There may well be, somewhere in the world. I know many individuals do things so it wouldn’t surprise me if some informal groups did too.

  2. I work with children in an elementary school setting. I try to lead by example but I also try to engage in appropriate action. This would include giving basic Dharma lessons in the 6 perfections when the proper situation arises. It also includes giving, I donate and purchase clothing items such as winter coats, gloves and socks. I struggle as well with how to balance my Dharma practice with political/ social activism. Is there a line that should not be crossed? Is it appropriate to ask if not me then who? Is being in service to your community the appropriate outlet for Dharma in action? Thank you for writing these posts as now I know I’m not the only one asking this and struggling with it. I do always come back to the ultimate form of giving us to teach Dharma.

    1. I think it is not only appropriate but very desirable to be in service to your community as a way of putting Dharma into practice. You might also be interested in the article I put up today, starting to explore the themes of Buddhism and social action. Do feel free to put a comment there too, and invite your friends to comment 🙂

  3. I, too, am studying social work and will complete the course at the end of 2012. I love what you say and I agree entirely. I certainly believe there could be more meditation and chanting tapes made available to people who really want and need them. Like me, for example, who finds it almost impossible to buy anything. I had a wonderful buddhist chanting tape that I played to extinction and then a well meaning friend threw it out. It broke my heart as the tape gave me huge solace. I am also a volunteer with the homeless and disadvantaged, having been very disadvantaged myself, and I also agree that we need to go out more among the people and help at ground level. No frills, just be a friend. The area I move in is the park and we feed our friends and I find clothes for them and you know what, my life has changed dramatically since I commenced. I don’t have any money, I don’t have anything flash, but I am happier than I have ever been and I have met some wonderful friends in the last four years that I love dearly. Fae

    1. Good comment Fae, thank you! Hopefully from this article & comments made, those who can make the Tharpa meditation CD’s more accessible, will do. I try & do this whenever I can get to a public dharma teaching & when it’s relevant in a work setting.

      Yes it’s great being on the ground level – helping those who need it – you are doing brilliant work there!

  4. Thank you for your comments Drima!. It’s all making much more sense. Like you, I am into the power of prayer a lot. Thank you for reminding me not to worry too much, by keeping a good motivation and relying on our spiritual guide.

    Yes, I guess the people at Tharpa are stretched and so too anyone working for a Dharma Centre, and it is wonderful how we are all helping/caring in our own small ways throughout the world.

    I don’t know of any developments in care homes – has anyone any information on this?

  5. Dear social worker,

    Thank you for your very sincere and humble article.

    Here are some thoughts I had about your questions;
    1. Are your own meditation, prayers and example enough, or could we do more for our society?

    Geshe-la said once, our main job is to pray. I find this helps me to have faith in the power of prayer and to do it more. It’s so instinctive to help physically and verbally – and of course this is good and necessary but prayer also is a wonderful pure action and personally something I have to work harder at to motivate myself to do. We can never harm others through our prayers and can be certain that they will benefit. Verbal and physical actions, it’s not so clear.
    2. Could the products that Kadampa Buddhism offers such as the meditation CD’s, teaching in schools, chaplaincy and any other act of public service be more offered and marketed to areas of our society that need it?

    Maybe – when the guys at Tharpa have had some time to sleep ; )

    3. I often found that in the academic training in social work, my use of my knowledge and experience of Buddhism wasn’t appreciated, and perhaps there is danger of mixing Dharma too much into our worldly work life and that it is best to quietly lead by our own example?

    I found that comment VERY helpful. I think you’re very right and wise to know when to be quiet and when to speak up. The times people ask me and are genuinely interested in Buddhism are rare, and then of course I try my best to explain in ways that will benefit them. But for the most part, example is a wonderful thing – and a very good practise for us.

    4. If I was to train as some kind of mental health practitioner I would have to study practices that are similar but different to Buddhism.

    Yes, I began to find that tricky in my work life. You just have to do what you have to do and try to maintain the best motivation. I follow the advice of a very kind teacher who says to make strong prayers to be given the circumstances in which we can be most beneficial to others…then we don’t need to worry so much about what our activities (ie work or work related study) are and just focus on benefitting others. I find more and more that if you try to cut to the truth of things, it is Dharma. That’s what it says in Modern Buddhism somewhere isn’t it? Something about how Kadam dharma IS our everyday experience and that’s why it is so easy to relate to.

    5. Could and should Kadampa Buddhism offer more to the care industries in our societies?

    Well, the school is on its way…next the residential homes…? The care homes….? The hospices……who knows what out guru will reveal!
    I think our personal practice as you so delightfully illustrated is what we offer in terms of caring. There is something very pure and powerful about our trying to do this in our own small ways. If you think across the globe of all the Kadampas out there practising love and compassion etc etc. It’s a wonderful vision. Kadampa Buddhist centres and teachings offer a way out of all suffering, if we can flourish them and make them as accessible to people as possible, I think this is a most powerful way of benefitting all.
    I hope this helps. Its just some ramblings from me ; )

    Love Drima xxx

  6. Thanks for these comments! Yes, I guess we can practice dharma all the time at work, holding virtuous thoughts, practicing compassion & patience & also giving dharma in many different forms. At the UKDC Kadam Bridget reminded us that we can benefit others in so many ways.

    I guess two things that I was getting at was 1. that it is possible that we can confidently and openly talk about Kadampa Buddhism when asked, and perhaps even have knowledge of links to local Dharma Centres & the meditation CD’s. I feel the CD’s would benefit nany workplaces, especially mental health care settings. 2. personal responsibility vs helping/empowring people is interesting and was a difficulty for me. I don’t think I would be any kind of union rep in the future and I have become more mindful of not getting angry when standing up for vulnerable people.

    I have been in an accademic setting for the last three years and been asked to question my values a lot, hence these articles. It’s great that there are many Kadampas throughout the world showing a good example in mamy ways in different surrounding communities.

  7. In my work with children I did my practice while working throughout the day. I would do mantras and practice taking and giving. Sometimes in harder situations I learned to practice giving love to those in conflict. Also in a situation where I had to stand up for someone, patience and love helped. I usually kept this practice to myself. Noticing how calm others were when I practiced was helpful, but also realizing that it would help them sometime in the future if there was no sign now. It is wonderful to be able to integrate all the teachings into our work! Thanks for the article. Many blessings to everyone who works so hard to help in this way and all living beings.

  8. I find Kadampa Buddhism helps me immensely as a social worker with older people, and vice versa. Most of my service users are experiencing the inevitable sufferings of old age and sickness, many are close to death. I try to use my work experience to strengthen my compassion and bodhichitta motivation, which in turn helps me to give a better service. I do the best I can to practically help the service users and their family, but ultimately I have to recognise that at the moment the help I give is only temporary and I cannot alleviate the roots of their suffering. I often encounter anger – quite often aimed at myself or my service! – and I find the practice of patience immensely helpful in managing these situations and returning to a constructive dialogue quickly and calmly, also trying to ignore my own self cherishing wittering on about professional pride (particularly when dealing with other professionals with different views!) so I can take feedback, criticism and opposition constructively and examine my own practice.

    I also find that my Buddhist practice helps to protect me from the stresses of the job. Recently I did lose my cool over a particularly intense situation, however I was at least relieved that my colleague’s reaction was a shocked “It isn’t like you to get upset!”. I don’t hide the fact that I am a Buddhist, but I don’t reference it much in conversation either as I worry people would find it a bit off putting. Sometimes people will ask out of interest and then I’m happy to help. Mostly I try to just set a good example and give advice based on Kadampa teachings but without the spiritual side being too overt. For example, I’ve had endless conversations with care workers who are upset and threatening to withdraw from service users who (or who’s carers) they feel show a lot of anger and ingratitude to their services. I try to help the workers to see that this anger is not a reflection of the worker’s services (which are often vital and life saving) but that the service user/carer is just deeply unhappy within their own mind, and would therefore view anything and anyone with hostility because only unhappy things appear to such a distressed person. I also find that living from a belief system that views Samsara as the nature of suffering is a great help working within local authority processes and systems!

    A good friend and teacher in the tradition advised me that I could be doing more to help people accept their situation, I think she was right. I often feel that in the name of empowering people we social workers can try to minimise very real sufferings and disabilities that will never stop producing suffering for the people affected however much we try to improve their lives. I continue to contemplate how I can better foster acceptance amongst my service users and carers in a way that is still constructive and empowering. I think Kadampa Buddhist philosophies of acceptance, patience, compassion and even emptiness could be applied in an accessible way to help older people, and other vulnerable adults, come to terms with their sufferings and overcome the sadness, anger, loneliness and feelings of powerlessness that often accompanies a loss of independence, disability and isolation. Also I believe older people are much more keen to learn about new (new to them, rather than to the world) ideas and philosophies than we give them credit for, and if short, taster, meditation classes were offered in places like Age UK centres and exta care facilities we might be pleasantly surprised at the engagement from these people. Geshe-la comments again and again that the instructions we are given can be helpful to anyone, regardless of spiritual or religious denomination, and many of us know this to be true from our own experience as teachers, friends and advisers.

    (I am so sorry, I appear to have written an essay, my apologies but this is a subject I think at great, great length about!)

  9. From my experience, I see Kadampas everywhere actively engaged in the “care industries.” You are an example. We spread Dharma, although in ways that can be understood and accepted in this modern world by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. When Geshe-la approached his teacher and asked how to teach Buddhism in the West, he was told: “You don’t worry. Buddha himself said that the way of presenting Buddhadharma should be like the way a doctor gives medicine to different people. The doctor never gives one medicine to everybody, every sick person. Different sick people receive different medicines, because they are not the same. Similarly, the way of presenting Dharma is necessarily going to be different according to different people.”

  10. I do think we can take Dharma out into the community. I think there is so much that people want to know about Buddhism, but are afraid to ask. I find that they are especially curious that I am a white American from West Virginia and practice:)

    I think in some situations we can openly talk about our faith and in other cases, we just lead by example. We have participated in community clean ups and different fairs and music events where we invite the public back to the center to have refreshments or go on a tour. They really like it and feel comfortable asking questions.

    Other times, i feel we do need to just be an example and have people notice that we are different by choice. Eventually, they may ask us why we are kind to them when others might not be.

    I then use this opportunity to talk about my faith. Sometimes they will come back and say things like “what does Buddha say about…” and I do my best to answer. I think this is very beneficial.

    I work in advertising, which is know for being a very cut throat, unkind business. I treat the stations I work with and the sales reps with respect and kindness. Sometimes they want to know what my angle is!!! They eventually come to realize that the only angle I have it to try my hardest to be kind and caring.

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