Back to work blues?

Apparently, that’s a thing, as explained in this article on CNN. And not surprisingly.

There is the predictable reason of having to go back to drudgery and a zillion work emails in a grey office or cold building site in a dark January after days and days off indulging in food, drink, sparkly lights, and entertainment, and waking up and going to bed whenever we feel like it. back to work blues.jpg

There is also the problem of even more attachment than usual, where our high hopes of stepping off the treadmill didn’t pan out quite as we anticipated. So we are feeling particularly let down – yet after all this disappointment we still don’t get a break, but instead are obliged to get right back on that treadmill. It’s not fair!

We see this in study after study. People tend to have high hopes coming into Christmas thinking time with their family will be like the Waltons or thinking Santa will bring us all that we want, but it never totally works out that way even if it was a really good holiday. That can leave you feeling let down, too. We see this every year, with a lot more calls to the crisis line, a higher number of deaths and there are even studies that show the letters to Dear Abby sound much more depressed after the holiday. ~ CNN

Conversely, for too many people in our fractured society it is initially a relief having to go back to work because they have just spent a thoroughly sad holiday all on their own. Worldly happiness is relative. That’s why Buddha called it “suffering of change“.

Not to mention all those who would dearly love to have any job to go to at all.

Looks like, one way or another, none of us has any choice in samsara but to feel dissatisfaction, not get what we want, and/or get what we don’t want. Samsara is set up for that, not to mention the big sufferings of birth, ageing, sickness, and death.

What’s the answer?

If we don’t like the back to work blues, the answer is probably not to engineer it to stay on endless holiday (even if we could, which of course we can’t), as that would get old very quickly. On Christmas Eve I passed a teenager in the back seat of his family car on an endless highway, staring sulkily out of the window – Christmas had already gone on way too long in his opinion. Imagine even the best holiday season lasting all year – old, young, or middle-aged, I reckon we’d all soon be pretty desperate to escape irritating conversations, all that sitting around feeling stuffed, Santa images, and torturous Christmas tunes. Classic suffering of change.

So what can we do about the back to work blues? I am going to borrow CNN’s research and do a Buddhist take.

Treat all colleagues like they are insane for the next couple of weeks, it works with family members, too. Know that most people feel like they are in the same sinking boat.

This is good advice for all times – we are all insane because we suffer from the hallucinations of the delusions. And we are all in the same sinking boat of samsara, all wanting and not getting the same thing, which is just to be happy and free from pain, please, is that really too much to ask? renunciation and compassion

So we can use our back to work blues to remind us of our wish for permanent freedom from our own delusions and contaminated karma, and develop empathy for everyone else in the same boat, wishing them the same happiness and freedom. These attitudes of renunciation and compassion will help us feel happy and fulfilled both at work and at home, both in holidays and in jobs.

Stay centered

Ease back into work. Don’t jump into the cold water, you’ll have a heart attack. Ease your way back into your routine. Set small goals to feel a sense of accomplishment. If you ease into this with full awareness, rather than trying to plan a ton and hope to get it all done in the next 24 hours, it helps.

As explained in this article, we can avoid stress and burn out at work by learning to feel more centered and happy in our heart. Even 10 to 15 minutes sitting quietly before we start work is immensely helpful if we do it properly and take refuge in it. Even a few 5-minute breaks through the day can be the difference between a joyful, balanced, creative day and a day that is just angst-driven and draining.

Also, we can overcome that feeling of being too busy and over-stretched by trying out the meditation in this article, as well as learning to be more in the moment. We have all of tomorrow to do what needs to be done tomorrow – so there is no point in worrying about it today. We need a method to shut down the tape that runs in our minds about all that needs to be done that day, that week, that year.

Don’t dwell. Know that something you enjoyed has come to an end, but make peace with it and know it will come back again.

636025932437932618-536324797_o-LIVE-IN-THE-MOMENT-facebookIt is so incredibly helpful and life affirming to learn to live in the moment — wherever we are. So, why not allow your back to work blues to motivate you to do just this?

As it explains in these articles on subtle impermanence, yesterday’s weather, for example, has completely gone, we accept this, we know not a trace of it remains today, so we don’t get all bent out of shape about it. But, heck, the whole of yesterday is like that – it has all completely gone, including yesterday’s me and yesterday’s holidays and/or yesterday’s work. So why try hold onto the past, onto something that has completely gone? Living in the moment by contrast is free, rich, fresh, and deep.

Resist feeling sorry for yourself.

Yep. Self-cherishing is never any good for any of us. It is a “foolish, deceptive mind”, as it says in The New Meditation Handbook, that always upsets our inner peace and blocks us from making the most of our human life. We can remember we are just one person and others are countless, and enjoy the joy of spreading the love we normally reserve for ourselves to everybody. Suddenly our day is a great deal brighter.

Self talk and being optimistic is important. Look at kitten pictures online if you need a little lift.

Whether we have a good day or a bad day at the office, or anywhere else for that matter, depends on the quality of our thoughts = Buddhism 101. So we can focus on anything that brings out our love and compassion and joyful effort – perhaps it is kittens, perhaps it is not! Here are a few of my fosters, just in case it is. IMG_1961

Talking of online pick me ups … further to this article on some pitfalls of social media, I have been thinking that if we always approach our feed not with a craving for affirmation or FOMO but with the intention to spread love and good thoughts, it can be a force for good. We can use it to encourage others, be supportive of their trials, and rejoice in their happiness.

The point about self-talk is important. Our thoughts are free, and with meditation practice we get to let go of the ones that do us no good – after all, what happens to a thought if we stop thinking it? And we can choose to think more and more thoughts that are wise, positive, and happy-making. So, those blues are yet another inducement to get good at meditation.

Am I happy in my heart?

Take advantage of the break in your routine and start new office habits. Even if it is something small like being friendlier to random co-workers or getting up to walk away from your desk once an hour, it helps.

Yes, and we can use the small pauses in the day to get into the best habit of all, connecting with the peace in our hearts. There are so many of these gaps – waiting for the kettle to boil, waiting for the lights to change, waiting in a long line at the Post Office, sitting in an irrelevant meeting, using the restroom. All the times we would normally pull out our phone and start checking texts, those are the times we could instead go within to check what is happening in our heart. Am I happy? As it explains in this article, we have a motto in the Kadampa tradition:

Always rely upon a happy mind alone.

pauses.jpgThroughout the day we can adjust and fine-tune the mind so that we are relying upon — or only trusting — a happy mind alone. If we notice our mind becoming agitated, we know not to rely on the evidence portrayed by this mind, because delusions distort reality like a storm destroying the accurate reflections in a still ocean. We can pause for a few valuable moments to reconnect to whatever can instantly bring us joy, such as love for our kittens (?!) or, indeed, being kind and friendly to random co-workers. And then carry on.

This way our life will also be a spiritual journey to a new destination, not just going around in circles.

Controlling the mind

I have a question for you: What can we control if we cannot control our own thoughts?

Without control, we have no choice. This is why meditation is so important. Even breathing meditation is taming the bucking bronco of our uncontrolled mind so we can steer our thoughts in the direction we want to go as opposed to being painfully tossed around by them. Our mind is very powerful and full of potential, as Buddha pointed out with that horse example; but it needs mastering or it will destroy our happiness on a daily basis.

With breathing meditation, we give ourselves a breather, literally, from most of our problems – the ones that are like a cracked record, where we go round and round in sad circles thinking the same boring and hopeless thoughts. Most of these thoughts are to do anyway with something that has gone, completely, or that may or may not happen in a future that doesn’t exist either. mountains black and white 2

We might find, even from the simplest breathing meditation, that we are in no hurry to pick up some of our problems again. We realize we don’t need them. And the ones that insist on hanging around longer – at least there is now some space around them, we don’t have our heads stuck in the clouds as if that is all there is, but are identified instead with the vast open sky.

Our world is a reflection of our minds. With this inner space, we might feel we now have more outer space to deal with the pressing situations at work.

Bliss is already inside you

Think about what you liked about your break and bring an element of it to your work.

Even from slight experience of a simple breathing meditation we can figure out that we don’t have to eat loads of food, watch blockbusters back to back, or hang out and get drunk with friends to be happy – we have peace, happiness, even bliss right inside us already. This can be a revelation.

So by all means think about what you liked about your break and then, rather than doing a poor job of trying to recreate it externally, take control of your own happiness and do the transforming enjoyments meditation explained here! This will help you reconnect to the bliss you have inside you – bliss that, one day, will be on tap. Take that! back to work blues.Hobbes euphoria

This ties in with some later advice:

Prescribe yourself an evening out with relatives or friends in the upcoming weeks without, of course, being drunk or overeating or staying up too late to start the cycle over again. It can help you be mindful that while the holidays are over, yes, but you can have fun again soon.

Why wait? — you can have fun again right now if you put your mind to it! This is because all peace, happiness, and bliss comes from the inside not the outside. So we can do it all, and without the unwanted side effects of outgrowing our skinny jeans or feeling hung-over.

Let’s say we are enjoying the presence of a person in our life. We can enjoy it, but understand that he or she is in truth a reflection of the enjoyment that already lurks within our own mind. Bliss is possible — but only if we stay with its actual source, which is not the person but our own experience. So instead of reaching outside the mind to grasp onto this person with attachment, we stay inside with the enjoyment and wisely recognize, “This person is a surface manifestation of the bliss that is always deep in my mind, like a wave arising from an ocean. Thank you very much! You’ve just reminded me of all that bliss I have inside me! (Even if you are walking out the door for the last time …)”

Only connect

Pajamas may not be in the dress for success plan, but if you enjoyed connecting with friends you don’t normally see, squeeze them into your weekly schedule, even if it’s for a 15-minute coffee. And do connect. People who are blue tend toward withdrawal. Push yourself to interact even if you don’t feel like it. Company helps avoid misery.

Water-cooler-conversation.jpgIt is indeed worthwhile to remain connected with friends, circumstances permitting, if they bring out our heart of love. And we can accomplish something similar by learning to love the people who are around us with equanimity, making them into our friends.

Imagine being at least as pleased to see the person who works at the desk next to you as to see that old college friend you hung out with over the holidays? Going to work would be a lot more fun. And this can happen, just do this meditation.

(As for pajamas, however, if it was up to me I would let people wear them all day long if they wanted to … )

Last and not least, for Kadampa Buddhists all over the world January is in fact their FAVORITE month because it is “retreat month”, when we emphasize our spiritual practices – whether this be for a day or so at the weekend or taking vacation time to do weeks on end. So check out your local center for those opportunities.

Over to you. What are your strategies for overcoming the back to work blues?

Don’t quit your day job (to practice dharma)

A guest article by a modern Buddhist practitioner who works full time as a manager of software engineer teams.

kamparipa
“Transform your daily task into an internal meditation … the result is the immaculate dharmakaya.” ~Kamparipa, the Mahasiddha who attained enlightenment in his daily life as a blacksmith

What do a Weaver, Musician, Cobbler, Blacksmith, Merchant and Potter all have in common? They are a few of the professions of ancient practitioners who attained full enlightenment through their day jobs. How did they do this? The common theme in the stories of these great yogis is that they used their daily appearances as fuel for their practice of meditation.

These ancient Mahasiddhas knew that everything is a mere appearance to the mind. By changing our mind and learning to see the appearances of our day job as a Dharma teaching, there is no need to change external appearances. Rather than our job being an obstacle to realizing Buddha’s teachings, it becomes our path of meditation. Then the focus of our job is not on escaping it so that we can really practice Dharma. Rather, the focus will be on transforming it in the most profound and meaningful way possible.

Our day job is not an obstacle to our practice
Manibhadra
“When I realized my mind is the nature of emptiness, all phenomena that appeared to my mind became emptiness itself.” ~Manibhadra, the female Mahasiddha who attained enlightenment in her daily life raising her family

Thinking that we need to quit our job to practice Dharma puts the results of our practice into the distant (and often unlikely) future. Often the wish to leave our job to practice Dharma is an aspect of aversion. We believe that if we only could have the space and time to actually focus on our practice, then we could make a dent in our delusions. This way of thinking obstructs us from living in the moment. It also disengages us from transforming every experience into one that destroys our delusions.

The most common objection to this is that we need to do solitary retreat for years to make progress. Geshe Kelsang has explained that with consistent practice we can attain the fourth stage of tranquil abiding in our daily life. In Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, Geshe Kelsang explains how to attain actual tranquil abiding and superior seeing using this level of concentration. This teaching unlocks the complete path to enlightenment without the need to quit our day job.

The complete path to enlightenment is available in daily life
Tantipa
“I weave the strands of my experience … and the finished fabric is the dharmakaya.” ~Tantipa, the Mahasiddha who met his teacher at the age of 89 and attained enlightenment in his daily life as a weaver

Geshe-la has explained again and again that we can easily attain the same results as the ancient practitioners of the past. He said that their stories are our proof that these practices work. We have access to the same techniques, presented in a modern context that are clear and easily understood. Due to many special qualities of Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings, attaining the results of these practices is even easier now than it ever has been before!

So what other excuses do we have that stop us from fully embracing every appearance in our life as our spiritual path? What is stopping an Art Manager, Graphic Designer, Performer, Event Coordinator, or Software Engineer from becoming a modern-day Mahasiddha?

We need to fully believe that we can attain enlightenment in our day job and encourage ourself again and again until this becomes our reality.

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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How to avoid stress and burn-out at work

This is related to the article, Meditation in the Pursuit of Happiness.

Do you or any of your friends have any of the following symptoms of chronic stress or burn-out?

  1. Do you have to drag yourself to work and, when you get home, do you have no energy left to do much other than flop in front of some entertainment?
  2. Have you become irritable or impatient, critical or cynical?
  3. Do you feel emotionally or physically exhausted?
  4. Do you feel disillusioned, discouraged or dissatisfied with your job?
  5. Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?

In this article I’ll try and explore an effective solution based on Buddhist meditation practice. There are also external triggers for stress and burn-out that you can find solutions for elsewhere on the web.

Symptoms of stress and burnout

Everywhere, working people sometimes suffer from long-term stress and burn-outs. They push too much, overdo it, and find themselves running on empty. Some hallmarks are that they feel inefficient, unenergetic and useless — their sense of accomplishment and interest wasted — and they feel emotionally and physically exhausted. Sometimes people get ill, sometimes they have to quit for good, never is it a pleasurable experience. The results can last for years. And it can happen anywhere, in any job, even in a non-profit or Buddhist Center.

We can also become a less nice person when we are burning out. Our tolerance and flexibility diminishes — we want everyone to do things our way because we think that’ll make our life more manageable. Sometimes we hold others at a distance out of a misguided self-protection but then feel isolated, as if we are doing all the work and no one is stepping up to help us.

Snowball delegation

Not to get too sidetracked from the main point of this article, but this ties in with our (in)ability to delegate and empower others. When we are stressed it seems we tend to delegate less rather than more, trust others less rather than more; but we still might get heavy with them and make them feel guilty because we don’t think they’re doing enough. Overly controlling our job and the people helping with our job is a bit like trying to push a snowball all the way down the hill ourselves — not letting go of it or giving it a gentle push and letting it just roll for a while so it picks up momentum and snow on its own. A snowball doesn’t actually grow bigger that way.

Solving the problem

Luckily this counter-productive syndrome can be averted. If we are practicing Buddha’s advice, we can stay relaxed and centered even in the midst of the busiest or most responsible job. We can maintain joyous effort, the fuel we need for both the short and the long-haul, and bring out the best in others too.

My teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is a perfect example of this. Even retired, aged 80, he still accomplishes more in any given minute than the rest of us accomplish in a day ;-), yet he is always entirely relaxed, blissful, and patient, and of course the master of instigation and delegation.

Over the decades of being in various positions and jobs, I and others have tried to observe how Geshe Kelsang does it so we can emulate him. In discussion with a good friend and successful long-term meditation teacher (who like me has had any number of “responsible” jobs and positions within the New Kadampa Tradition in the last 30 years), we have come up with the following suggestions.

Identify with your potential, always

The key is to feel centered and happy in the heart, and identified with our potential rather than our limitations.

This entails relying upon at least a little meditation practice, not neglecting it however busy or responsible we feel. Even ten to fifteen minutes sitting quietly before we start work is immensely helpful if we do it properly and take refuge in it. Even a few five-minute breaks through the day can be the difference between a joyful, balanced, creative day and a day that is just stressful and draining. (Make the restroom live up to its name if you need to, go meditate in there!) And even a ten-minute unwind and let-go meditation between work and settling in for the evening or weekend (or whatever little downtime you have) can help you disengage and relax such that you enjoy your time off from work and it rejuvenates you.

You can start with some breathing meditation, such as the simple meditation taught here. If you like, you can combine this meditation with visualization: examine your mind to see what stress, problems and limited self you’re holding onto and then breathe these out in the form of dark smoke, feeling that you’ve completely let them go. Breathe in the peaceful light of wisdom and compassion blessings into your spacious heart. Then spend a bit of time simply enjoying that peace with a still mind, however slight or relative it is. Give yourself permission to be happy.

This is the important part: We need to recognize that this peace is our Buddha nature, that this slightly peaceful mind represents our actual nature, our potential for vast peace and happiness; and that therefore we are not stuck in our unhappiness or frustration, but rather we can change. We identify with this.

Meditating skilfully

The main point here is that we don’t need to be great meditator to discover our potential. In truth, even if we are just able to stay with the breath for three consecutive rounds, our mind will become slightly more peaceful than it was. If we give ourselves permission and a few moments to abide with that slight peace, to savor it with a still mind, to enjoy it, we will discover that the actual nature of our mind is peaceful. It is only the delusions that produce agitation.

If we have time to go onto other meditations, the rest of our meditation, whatever it is, happens from that peaceful, happy place onwards. It is easy to develop any Lamrim mind when we are connected to our happiness and our potential. It is actually impossible to generate any Lamrim mind when we are identified with the self that we normally perceive, in other words when we are identifying with our limitations.

In fact when we “try” to generate a mind of renunciation, for example, while grasping at ourself as an inherently angry, unhappy or unlovable person, we end up relating to liberation dualistically, as something other than and outside of our own mind.

I am always here, freedom is always there, never the twain shall meet.

Consequently our meditation gives rise to tension or guilt, rather than an authentic and deeply joyful and relaxing peace.

We don’t need to give ourselves a hard time – our delusions do a very good job of that already, that’s why they’re called our “inner enemies”. Don’t let them. They are no match for our pure potential, any more than clouds are a match for the sky.

Try an experiment

To see if this is true, those of you who know the Lamrim cycle already, try this experiment. Meditate on your precious human life while not identifying with your potential but identifying with your limited, faulty self. What happens? Do you feel guilty for not doing enough, do you start giving yourself an even harder time? Meditate on your impending death with a mind of not identifying with your potential and what happens? Do you feel doomed?!

But meditate on your precious human life from the vantage point of being naturally pure, and what happens? You feel very joyful and lucky, your effort increases. Meditate on death from this vantage point and what happens? Your joyful effort increases even more, you know you can make the most of the time you have, everything falls into perspective and your worries and negative thoughts diminish. You can try this experiment with any of the Lamrim or Tantric meditations!

Back to work

When you rise from a meditation like this, I promise you’ll feel far more ready for what comes next, you are ready to be productive at work again. It is amazing how much burn-out will be averted if we actually experience the restorative powers of our own pure natures. And when we are happy, we naturally engage with the world, feel involved, and are efficient.

And when you start to stress out again later in the day, because it is a bad habit, take yourself off to rest in that room for five minutes! It is always going to be worth it.

Please let us know in the comments section if this method works for you and/or if you’ve had other successful ways of overcoming stress and burn-out.

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Anyone can try!

(Anyone who is stressed out can learn to do five or ten minutes simple meditation a day and hopefully get something out of this article. I met someone in the ocean just yesterday who has never meditated and knows nothing about Buddhism, but he is experiencing stress at work due to new bossy middle management, so I gave him advice based on this article and he seemed very ready to try it out.)