A house mate was telling me today how concerned he is about his younger brother, aged 22 – why? Because he is suffering from anxiety, along with a surprising number of his friends. A couple of weeks ago a mother told me that her child is also suffering from chronic anxiety, aged 15, as are many of his schoolmates, even in their affluent area. And yesterday another mother shared that her young daughter was already experiencing anxiety and, again, she is not alone, her friends are too: “What is going on? They are only 8!” (This child at least is now benefiting from meditation classes.)
There are many theories why the younger generations are struggling – this is the generation who have never known life before social media, who have just lived through a worldwide pandemic, who have the fear of nuclear catastrophe back on the horizon, who are bearing the brunt of economic uncertainty, and so on. An old Buddhist friend wrote today on Facebook that he was recently asked by two young people what Buddhism can teach us about coping with Climate Grief, feelings that they strongly suffer from. He said it felt a big honor to be asked – but daunting – and continued:
“Climate anxiety is widespread: a recent survey across 10 countries found that 60% of young people are “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change. And I definitely feel it myself. For sure Dharma helps me, but I don’t fully know how to deal with my own grief and anxiety. For me, there’s something about what we’re facing — the mass extinctions, destruction of habitats across huge areas, the scale of the resultant suffering and death, that somehow feels different, and harder to deal with, than the “everyday” suffering that we all face.”
I wrote a very long article about a Buddhist response to climate change, Climate change and Buddhism, if you have a spare 20 minutes or so! (Would also love your contributions because that article is by no means exhaustive or conclusive.) Buddhism does give us a deeper picture and a perspective that helps us get beyond anxiety and even become part of the solution.
But, as with all anxiety and grief, we need to start by connecting to our mental peace or we won’t stand a chance.
Real relief starts here
We need to develop the skill to create space inside us, space we can rely on, even at short notice, which is sometimes all we have in our busy overwhelmed daily lives. This is why we need meditation – it gives us the ability to tune more and more quickly into the natural, peaceful heart that we all have when we just let go of following the blah blah blah in the mind. This peace arises naturally simply because we stop thinking about all the other stuff – let go and there it is – and, if we focus on this peace, it grows. In other words, this peace is natural to us. And if our mind is peaceful, we are happy and able to cope, even as things are going wrong outside.
We can think, “I have a natural source of peace and happiness in my heart; and the potential within that is literally limitless.” If we feel rejoice or happy about that, we are creating an unbelievably positive basis with which to greet the world, as opposed to “Hello, I am overwhelmed by everything that’s going on at the moment. I am an overwhelmed person; good morning overwhelmed person.” Without changing our sense of who we are on the basis of even a little peace and stability in our minds, we cannot help but grasp at this limited and suffering sense of self, this person who’s like, “I can’t take too much more.”
Here’s a quick 5-minute meditation to help us do this. (If you want a longer version, click here: Drop into your heart and breathe.)
Begin by sitting comfortably with a straight back and so on. Allow the heaviness and tension to fall away from your body, and imagine your body just melts into light, becomes hollow and weightless.
Drop from your head to your heart, starting to feel some of the space and peace you have inside you. Feel happy to be here, doing this. Buddha likened our awareness to a boundless crystal clear ocean. Our turbulent wavelike distractions gently subside into this peaceful ocean — just imagine.
To get a little bit more absorbed, focus for a couple of minutes on your breath, slowing down and calming your mind. Focus simply on the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves through your nose. Feel your mind and your breath getting closer and closer together, becoming as if one.
As a result you feel a little more centered in your heart. You can imagine that everything outside of your body in all directions infinitely has melted away into this pure clear awareness in your heart. Everything up to this moment in time has also dissolved away — the past has disappeared like waking from a dream because it is no more real nor substantial than that. Everything after this moment has also disappeared – it is not even there to begin with.
In this way you feel centered in your heart in the present moment enjoying the peaceful clarity of your mind. Focus on any peace that has arisen, however slight, thinking: “This is my own natural inner peace. And within this peace is the potential for endless bliss and lasting freedom from worry and suffering. This is my Buddha nature.” Rejoice or feel happy about this, and think: “This is me. I am a peaceful person with limitless potential.”
You can also feel that this peace is already connected to or merged with the universal love, compassion, and wisdom of those who have already actualized their spiritual potential and are awakened from all suffering and limitations.
In this brief meditation, we’ve started to change our sense of self through understanding how our mind is naturally peaceful and how everything depends upon our mind, so that it is possible for me to find an authentic stress relief and happiness that cannot be destroyed. And then I can really help others do the same.
The importance of Dharma Centers
Our mind is powerful, for good or for evil. Therapists all over America and indeed the world are worried about mental health right now.
“As Americans head into a third year of pandemic living, therapists around the country are finding themselves on the front lines of a mental health crisis. Social workers, psychologists and counselors from every state say they can’t keep up with an unrelenting demand for their services, and many must turn away patients — including children — who are desperate for support.”
Unsurprisingly, requests for antidepressants or anti-anxiety prescription drugs have risen exponentially. Medication can be useful, sometimes essential. However, meditation is also extraordinarily helpful for mental health, whether we are on medication or not.
Venerable Geshe Kelsang has said that a Kadampa Center is a hospital for the mind. People of all ages can learn to apply the medicine of Dharma to their own actual problems with the help of a skillful meditation teacher and supportive community.
“Nine out of 10 therapists say the number of clients seeking care is on the rise, and most are experiencing a significant surge in calls for appointments, longer waiting lists and difficulty meeting patient demand.” Nearly one in three clinicians have 3-month waiting lists.
“I hate it that I have to turn so many people away.”
Reading this, I was thinking that this is all the more reason for people to discover their local Buddhist meditation Center. No waiting there! Anyone can walk in whenever the doors are open. Plus of course Buddhist meditation is immensely therapeutic and curative. And although financial and insurance issues are among the biggest obstacles to patients finding therapy, everyday classes at a not for profit local center are usually kept inexpensive, cheaper than a couple of coffees or a movie or an exercise class; and at the Kadampa Centers I am most familiar with, at least, no one is turned away for financial reasons. Once you know how to meditate you’ll be able to do it whenever you like, for free. It doesn’t require special clothing or equipment. You can do it on your bed or at the back of a bus or on a park bench. Heal thyself! Anywhere.
Plus, Buddhist meditation can be practiced at so many different levels – it provides stress relief, yes, but also an entire path to permanent freedom and everlasting bliss. Even if people initially show up for therapeutic reasons, they often find there far more benefit than they expected. If they keep showing up, sooner or later they’ll quite possibly end up discovering the entire path to enlightenment.
Can we believe in ourselves?
We need self-acceptance and self-improvement that is based not on the limited self we normally see, which doesn’t even exist and so cannot improve, but on a realistic understanding of who or what the self actually is, who we actually are. Which is someone with limitless potential.
Something happened yesterday that filled me with hope. I had been talking about bodhichitta, the supreme good heart, only a couple of times to a group of around 30 people new to Buddhism – explaining and meditating on our Buddha nature, and compassion, and how each one of us had it in us to become Bodhisattvas and, in time, fully enlightened Buddhas. On impulse I did a poll, “Who here actually believes that?!” All but two put up their hands.
I am hoping that this small bit of market research points to the fact that, deep down, everyone is aware that they are not inherently stuck. That if people hear about and apply the methods that enlightened beings have given us, they will believe in and realize their limitless potential. As Gen-la Dekyong often says: “Everyone needs Dharma.”
Do my job
Venerable Geshe-la said that once he was gone, we would do his job. What is that job? To work toward becoming enlightened and to get the Dharma out there. But not evangelically! Skillfully, according to the moral discipline of benefiting others, which meets and respects people where they are and gives them help according to their needs and wishes.
Quick note on live-streaming
During the pandemic, all Kadampa Centers went online. They are now back in person only, with exceptions for the study programs. Live streaming has for sure made things easier in terms of increasing access to meditation classes and is invaluable for those who are living with disability or far away, for example. However, even therapists are discovering that doing everything online is not the same:
“While telemedicine can be effective and therapeutic, I think something is missed when not meeting in person.”
“An in-person office can help you slow down and provide a comfort that sometimes your home environment can’t.”
I was also thinking the other day that even if we have access to fewer live streaming opportunities, we still have total access to the 23 brilliant books by Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, the entire A-Z of Buddha’s teachings and meditations. I know reading is a bit of a lost art these days, but there is nothing to stop us taking it up again! It is through reading Geshe-la’s books that I learned most of my Dharma.
Thank you for reading 😁 Your comments are most welcome.