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.