The seventh way to foster resilience is to find a way to laugh at our own adversity. To see the absurdity and true nature of samsara and to take it less seriously or feel less threatened by it. “Samsara makes me laugh,” as Shariputra says.
Carrying on from this article, Not an ordinary death.
““Humor can be very helpful during times of serious stress”, Charney said, pointing to research he and Southwick did with Vietnam prisoners of war.”
I’ve spent a lot of time this past year or so with my parents, meeting numerous nurses, doctors, carers, and hospital workers in London. I have been somewhat blown away by their courage and kindness in the face of long exhausting workdays, too few resources, and often not a whole lot of gratitude. As well, I have loved the way Brits have a knack for joking around with each other even in, or especially in, the darkest of moments – the ambulance drivers, for example, making me laugh with their gallow humor. It’s a main way to stay light and find human connection during long hours of carting around the sick and the dying. These were the same ambulance drivers who took all the time in the world to help my mother when she started to feel anxious: “Just breathe, sweetheart”, one said as he held her hands and guided her in an impromptu breathing meditation, “Breathe in. Now, breathe out.”
As the original article says:
“Another proven technique for managing emotion is to use humor. Look for the levity and encourage others around you to do the same. Humor prompts us to step back from a situation and reset our emotional buttons, which also serves to broaden our perspective.”
The other day at the airport I called the person who kindly lends me a car (and who never gets irked about anything) to break the news that my “Find my” app had beeped me that the car was no longer in the garage, ergo it was stolen. He actually chuckled. Hours later, when I realized it was just a glitch in the technology, I called him again. Upon asking him why he had not been more concerned, he replied simply:
I am not going to worry about a car.
I liked that so much that I have been trying to say it myself now when things go wrong. “I am not going to worry about a delayed flight/cross boss/money problem/sore leg/etc etc etc.” What a great freedom, I thought, to be this light-hearted, not taking an outer problem too seriously even as we work to solve it. This is something we can all get better at. For example, letting go of my uptight self-cherishing and relaxing into cherishing others always seems to work in restoring my equilibrium – every time, everywhere.
Feeling less judged
Along with humor in grim situations, perhaps, is simply the ability to be honest about what we are experiencing. Have you ever noticed that when you open up to someone about something, it turns out they’ve been in the same situation or know other friends who have? There are no original problems in samsara. We are not alone.
A lot of people have been struggling to stay afloat these past few years. Therapists report that anxiety, financial stress, substance use, job worries, and other issues have surfaced during the upheaval of the past few years. Racial justice issues are ongoing. Political upheavals and climate disasters are affecting and worrying people everywhere. Many therapists say they are counseling health care workers who are utterly overwhelmed and, worryingly, leaving in droves.
I see this sign on my bike to work, “Therapy now free for all youth in Colorado.” This is because so many of them need help. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this generation because I keep hearing about or seeing their problems. I know Dharma can help, so how can we reach them with it? How can we be role models for younger people we know, providing hope so that, amongst other things, they don’t feel that all adults are dysfunctional, the planet is going to hell, and there is no point in growing up? I would genuinely love to hear your ideas.
Samsara was not exactly working out before, but the pandemic — and all the crises since the worst of the pandemic — have functioned like a magnifying glass for vulnerabilities. People of all ages who used to be relatively carefree have told me that they’ve been experiencing unusual levels of anxiety, for example. This is borne out by the number of people seeking therapy in general:
‘There is so much grief and loss,” said Anne Compagna-Doll, a clinical psychologist in Burbank, Calif. “One of my clients, who is usually patient, is experiencing road rage. Another client, who is a mom of two teens, is fearful and doesn’t want them to leave the house. My highly work-motivated client is considering leaving her career. There is an overwhelming sense of malaise and fatigue.”’
One of my theories is that we are all part of this world together, sharing collective karma — so it is not just the karma of physical sickness but also mental anxiety that has been ripening on us all. In which case, developing anxiety is nothing to feel embarrassed about — “But I’m supposed to be a chilled Buddhist!” as someone said to me the other day — because it is simply our collective karma ripening. Accepting that, we can deal with it.
One silver lining of these troublesome times is that there is less of a stigma around admitting to mental health issues because they are now so common — we are more likely to get nods of understanding. People can be more open about saying “I’m feeling scared. I’m feeling anxious. I cannot cope.” Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka helped break the mold when they spoke openly about their own mental health struggles in the sports world, for example. The list of celebrities opening up about their mental health issues grows by the day — Ryan Reynolds has spoken about his anxiety, Jonah Hill announced he would no longer do press tours because of panic attacks, and everyone from Selena Gomez to Jay-Z has extolled the virtues of mental health care. People are less timid about coming to meditation classes to find solutions. Prince Harry said that The New Eight Steps to Happiness is his favorite self-help book.
How to be genuinely optimistic
People are acknowledging that mental health is vitally important, just as important as physical health. And it just so happens that our delusions or uncontrolled thoughts make all of us mentally unhealthy to a greater or lesser degree. Buddhism helps us to understand and accept this about ourselves in the context of our limitless capacity for wellness – and through this we can become resilient and we can truly heal. We are not broken – it is our delusions that are the problem. If we don’t recognize them, how can we get past the delusions to identify with our indestructible Buddha nature, which is completely whole and healthy all the time?
We need always to start by connecting to our inner peace, our potential, at whatever level we feel it. Please don’t be a perfectionist because that’s just another method we’ve developed for knocking ourselves down – it’s like, “I can’t even get to a peaceful mind!” Maybe, but you can get to a slightly less agitated mind, and that’s good enough for recognizing, “This is my Buddha nature.” Of course we have to start somewhere, and once we have, we focus on feeling happy about this little bit of inner peace, however slight or relative, and start constructing the mental sanity of compassion and wisdom upon that authentic foundation.
If on the basis of a slight experience of any good quality we can recognize, “I have this potential for huge and increasing love, compassion, joy, wisdom, positive virtuous qualities, and so on”, this means that our relationship to ourself is fundamentally optimistic. This is why I believe we need Buddha’s teachings out there. Some people are saying things like, “Yeah, let’s be positive and optimistic!”, but they’re not actually explaining why and how we can be positive and optimistic. And in fact this can come across as a bit trite: “Think positive!” while meantime there’s a plague and a war etc going on.
Whereas, to paraphrase Buddha, his point is, “Yes, of course there’s a plague, of course there’s a war, because we’re deluded, we’re all out of control and insanely projecting things that are not there, so what do you expect? But if you dive below the surface, you’re completely pure. You’re completely sane. You’re completely well.”
More about resilience and mental health coming up soon. Meantime, would love to hear your comments below.