(Scroll down for a simple 10-15 minute meditation you can do at home.)
As I don’t need to tell you, a lot of people around the world have been doing their best for several weeks now to practice social distancing — staying home, avoiding crowds, wearing masks, etc. Some projections have us doing some kind of social distancing for the next 12 months, possibly longer. Although living like this can be lonely, inconvenient, and even frightening, insofar as people are managing it is because they know it’s for the collective good.
This global pandemic has altered the very fabric of our existence, in one fell swoop shutting down everything we hold dear, from sports to movies to cafes to the very notion of human interaction. It’s uncomfortable to wake up each morning still under lockdown if we’re not used to it, and especially if we prefer being around people all day doing lots of stuff …
… BUT it doesn’t have to be all bad, especially if we can use the time to explore different ways to be happy and productive. Therefore, I’m going to share seven ways in which meditation can support our mental and emotional well-being during this time and indeed any time. I have basically stolen this whole list from a brilliant friend of mind who teaches meditation all over Ireland (with his permission, and his points are in blue). As Kadam Adam says:
By integrating some meditation practice into our daily routine, we will discover some of the benefits that meditators have experienced for thousands of years.
Just so you know, if you are coming upon this blog for the first time — you don’t need to be a Buddhist to learn Buddhist meditation and find peace, positivity, and joy in your life, whatever circumstances you find yourself in. Meditation basically means familiarizing and identifying ourselves with positive and happy ways of thinking, and breaking negative habits of mind that cause stress and unhappiness. It helps us a lot, and it helps us to become strong for others.
1. When we can’t go out, it gives us an opportunity to go in.
In meditation, we take a little time out each day to be alone, recover our strength, collect our thoughts, and see things in perspective.
Many of us usually have a habit of keeping ourselves mentally and physically busy, and almost exclusively oriented toward the never-ending externals of life. So now that we are stuck at home, I mean safe at home, with loads of time – as opposed to on the frontlines or suddenly having to homeschool the kids – is this not a perfect time to pick up those neglected meditation books and/or tune into a livestream channel (aka Buddhist TV) near us?!
Anyone can learn to meditate providing they have a mind to. I would argue that it is considerably more constructive and fun than being a media junkie using up all our new-found spare time to stay up to date with what dreadful stuff has happened in the past ten minutes. We can do nothing about the vast majority of headline news, after all; so all that happens after a bit of titillation is that we end up feeling more enervated or anxious.
This interruption in the routines of daily life can give us a chance to form a new habit—to turn inwards a little more often instead of habitually outwards. As Gen Rigpa, the Kadampa Buddhist teacher in Los Angeles, put it to his students:
“Free time can either lead to more movies, more eating, more drinking, more sleeping, more mindless diversions, more nervous energy, more boredom … or more enjoyment of your own mind through the magic of contemplation and meditation. See if you can learn to relax your mind more often and a little more deeply, and get more familiar with the richness and power of simple meditation practices. And remember, small changes and seemingly small decisions add up to massive differences in the long run. From one point of view you are the summation of your habits, and now is a great time to form some new ones, or strengthen the good ones you already have!”
2. Stay calm and cope
In meditation, we learn how to develop and maintain a calm, clear, and peaceful state of mind that helps us cope with the difficulties we face at this time, without feeling overwhelmed by them.
As Gen Rigpa said:
“During lockdown, it is easy for restlessness, anxiety, or boredom to creep in and take charge, but we can improve our response to this new combination of adversity and free time. Meditation practice is the one thing that can really protect us from the painful appearances we are always trying to escape.”
Buddha divided problems into two – outer problems (circumstances we find ourselves in such as weird pandemics) and inner problems (our unpeaceful uncontrolled feelings or mental reactions). These two types of problem have two types of solution, epitomized in this COVID-19 sign: staying calm is dealing with our inner problems and washing our hands is dealing with our outer problems.
For example, if you try the breathing meditation helpfully offered by KA below, you might find that you relax and feel more peaceful and happy in your heart. Feeling peaceful is the opposite of feeling unpeaceful. Therefore, with this new experience we are directly antidoting the unhappiness, depression, worry, and so on that (1) cause our mental pain and (2) get in the way of our doing anything constructive with our outer problems.
Rather than “Freak out and wash your hands!”, solving these inner problems also helps us to solve our outer problems because when we are feeling peace and love at our heart we’re more likely and energized to do the right thing and be productive. As the saying goes, we can’t wring our hands and roll up our sleeves at the same time.
3. Feel happy inside, feel happy everywhere
We discover that the more we meditate the more peaceful our mind becomes, and the naturally happier we feel. In this way, we find we are at peace with, and simply happy to be where we are, even if that’s in self-isolation.
All meditations from simple breathing meditations to the most profound meditations on wisdom or Tantra have a common purpose, to make our mind calm and peaceful. As it happens, our mind is already naturally peaceful. As we experience and develop that peace by mastering our own thoughts through the application of Buddha’s practical teachings, or Dharma, it becomes richer and deeper, until one day we discover we can stay happy day and night.
One practical suggestion from me is to avoid binge-watching every single TV show and movie you can lay your eyes on, and instead get to bed and up again at a reasonable hour. First opportunity we get in the morning, we can grab ourselves a tea/coffee and a meditation book, and start the day anchored in happiness. As we prepare to get up from meditation, we can set our mental compass to caring for others and therewith more happiness throughout the day.
Back to Gen Rigpa:
“This way, rather than our mind getting hijacked by the relentless assault of the news and ordinary distractions, we can use these as fuel for our already primed and activated Dharma mindset. Make creating a Dharma experience within your mind the first priority of the day, then embrace the day from that space.”
4. Identify and let go of unhealthy feelings
We learn how to mindfully identify unhealthy feelings such as anxiety, fear, stress, and loneliness as they arise, without feeling overly identified with them. In this way, we can use meditation to let them go and deal with the difficulties we meet with a calm, peaceful and flexible mind.
When we learn about meditation, we come to understand that, far from being fixed and solid and real, our thoughts are as fleeting and insubstantial as clouds in the sky. By stepping back and identifying with our spacious sky-like mind rather than each passing cloud, we can see the bigger picture. Indeed we can step back and create the bigger picture.
This is because we get to choose our thoughts. We can learn to temporarily let go of all those mistaken distorted ways of thinking and seeing things, which make us unhappy, depressed, angry, worried, and so on; and then dig deeper with wisdom to eliminate them entirely. There is a lot about this essential spiritual practice of overcoming delusions in Kadampa Life, for example here.
5. Grow our innate good qualities
We learn how to cultivate the innate potential we all have for qualities such as loving- kindness, compassion, and wisdom. This helps us to feel increasingly at peace with ourselves, others, and our troubled world, as we develop healthier and wiser ways of relating to our current situation.
We have the choice to cultivate new ways of viewing ourselves, the world, and each other that make us feel more and more loving, connected, compassionate, and patient.
There is no limit to this process. Everyone with a mind has the potential to become an enlightened being – someone who has removed ALL their delusions, obstructions, and limitations and cultivated their love, compassion, and wisdom to perfection. Here is my favorite quote from William Blake:
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
In times of uncertainty, we can always trust our peaceful Buddha nature, our potential for enlightenment. This is who we really are. We have goodness and sanity at our core, we ARE goodness and sanity at our core — we simply need to learn how to go inside and access that. That is the practice of meditation.
6. A guaranteed way to help others
A little daily meditation can be the kindest thing we can do for everyone, at this time. The more at peace we are with ourselves, the more at peace we can be with others. This can be especially helpful if we are spending more time with our loved ones, than we are normally used to.
As I mentioned in this article, even the media is encouraging people to take up meditation:
So, you’re stuck at home. You’re stressed. Now is as good a time as ever to pick up a meditation practice. Scientific findings from an 18-year analysis on a Buddhist monk found that daily intensive meditation may significantly slow brain aging. There is a slew of other health benefits to the mindfulness and quiet peace that often accompanies meditation. And if you feel weird about getting Zen with so much happening in the world, remember that even the World Health Organization warned people this week to take care of their mental health as well as their physical health.
In the comments to that CNN article, someone wrote, “I feel guilty about doing this meditation practice when there is so much going on.” I have experienced this survivor’s guilt myself in the past, but now I understand that feeling bad about feeling good, as it were, is like one drowning person who wants to help another drowning person feeling guilty about making for dry land. We can’t help others if we are in no position to do so. Or another example is like one cell of the body of life feeling guilty because it is healthy when in fact its own health helps the health of those around it.
We can remember too that meditation doesn’t just mean sitting on a cushion (or couch), closing our eyes, and absorbing within. That is meditation, but meditation is also whenever we familiarize ourselves with wisdom, kindness, and other virtuous states of mind as antidotes to our delusions. Which means we can be practicing meditation all day long, it is a way of life.
For example, when you’re practicing the patience of happily accepting suffering with something difficult coming up in your day, not yelling at someone, you know how this is very different from getting upset and annoyed? This is every bit as much meditation as when we are sitting with our eyes closed in single-pointed concentration.
For those of you wondering what meditation practices to do during this time, I would like to share this advice, courtesy once again of Gen Rigpa:
“Newer practitioners may like to start with basic breathing meditations (like the one below).
“You can also create your own meditation practice by reading a paragraph or two from How to Transform Your Life, How to Solve Our Human Problems, Modern Buddhism, or any other favorite Buddhist book; and then close your eyes and think about what you have read until it “touches your heart”. Then just hold that special feeling gently in your mind for a few minutes so that you take it out of meditation and into your daily activities. In that way you transform your day into an expression of Dharma and everything becomes part of your spiritual path. [Ed: two of those books are free, see links on the right column of this blog.]
“In addition for more experienced practitioners, one practice you may like to emphasize at this time is the incredible meditation called “Taking and Giving”. Many of Venerable Geshe-la’s books teach this ancient healing practice (The New Eight Steps to Happiness, How to Transform Your Life, Universal Compassion, Modern Buddhism etc.), and it is the perfect way to transform adversity into spiritual realizations, meditating and dedicating for the sick, those who have died, the medical workers—for everyone around the world affected by this pandemic.”
7. Transform difficulties into personal growth
Finally we discover, if we can learn to respond to difficult situations — such as the one we are in — with a peaceful, positive state of mind, they don’t need to feel such a problem for us. Indeed, we may even come to regard them as challenges or opportunities for personal growth and development.
By training our mind in meditation we come to experience purer and purer forms of happiness — happiness that, because it comes from within, is unaffected by externals or conditional upon life going our way. Eventually we can be happy all the time, even in the most difficult circumstances.
My teacher Venerable Geshe Kelsang is for me a shining example of this ability to transform difficulties into the spiritual journey toward lasting freedom; and Kadampa Buddhism in particular specializes in this practice. In the 1950s, China invaded Tibet and he escaped in a hurry with just his robes and two texts. He had to leave the only country he had ever known, along with his language, monastery, family, and everything else, to go on an incredibly dangerous and difficult journey to India over the Himalayas. That, to put it mildly, would be a disruption to one’s routine.
Many years later at Madhyamaka Centre, where I first found Buddhism, I met some of the people who knew Geshe-la at the time. They told me that throughout this whole ordeal he stayed as beautifully calm, peaceful, and happy as he always was. Then he entered a long 16-year retreat and also practiced healing. Not once in this exile did he become unhappy or anxious – such is the power of a fully trained mind. Later, in his forties, he was able with compassion to bring all that wisdom he’d internalized through his challenging life to the West, and I and hundreds of thousands of his other students are testament to that power.
So when he says, as he does in The New Eight Steps To Happiness …
By training our mind to recognize the spiritual lessons in all our experiences, we can come to view everyone and everything as our Spiritual Teachers, and we can turn any and every situation to our advantage.
… we can believe him. If he can do it, and I now have all the same methods he had, I can transform anything; and so too can you if you want.
Right now, the narratives of our lives are unsettled. In modern society, we’ve gotten used to a cliched set of plotlines; but these carefully constructed stories no longer apply in the same way. The future looks totally strange and uncertain for many people — obviously for those who have tragically died or lost loved ones or find themselves out of work, but also for those missing major milestones in their own lives such as graduation or marriage. All the things that normally interest us are not holding our attention as much, replaced by endless COVID-19 headlines that people can’t seem to get enough of. Even the usual “he-said, she-said” of political debate doesn’t seem to be fascinating people to the same extent.
When exposed to harsh reality — such as sickness, ageing, and death – the well-trod narratives tend to collapse under the weight of their own contradictions. This is Buddha’s point about the fleeting, deceptive, and dream-like nature of samsara, the cycle of impure life. But in losing the plot we can now chart a new course.
Hopefully this article has helped you see how, if we can learn to stay peaceful and calm and increase our wisdom and compassion, we will become a strong reliable person, a source of refuge for others. This may not happen overnight, but is nonetheless entirely possible.
A simple 7-step breathing meditation practice to support mental and emotional well-being (10 to 15 minutes)
- Find a quiet place to sit (a chair is fine) that is free of distractions. Partially close your eyes. Back straight but relaxed. Hands resting in your lap. Breathe gently and naturally through the nostrils. Let go of focusing externally and gather your awareness inwards.
- Begin by generating a wish to use the meditation to improve your inner peace, happiness and good qualities, so that it will be of benefit to both yourself and others.
- Next, be aware — without judgement — where your mind is at, in this moment. Is it calm, clear and peaceful? Or, busy and distracted? To let go of agitation and distraction and center in a calm, clear and peaceful state of mind, focus – without distraction – on the sensation of breath as it enters and leaves through your nostrils.
- When you notice you are following thoughts and distractions, simply acknowledge and accept their presence, and let go of the urge to follow them. Then, relax and return to the breath, allowing your attention to draw closer and closer to the breath each time.
- Eventually your attention will rest on the breath and you will notice the distractions naturally dissolve, like waves returning to an ocean. You will feel a deepening sense of inner calm, clarity, and peace of mind.
- Just relax into this inner peace and identify with it as your potential to change, to find a deeper and longer lasting peace of mind and happiness. Thinking, if I can become a little more peaceful, a little happier through a little meditation, it follows I can become a lot more peaceful, a lot happier, through regular meditation.
- Conclude the meditation with a determination to maintain this inner calm and peace throughout your day, so that it naturally, and positively, influences everything you think, say and do.
Over to you. Please share with the rest of us what practices or resources you are finding most helpful during these unusual times.
(Images courtesy of scenes from my neighborhood and lame jokes found online.)
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