Transforming a great sadness: a Buddhist nun’s tale

Here is an article from a guest writer, Kelsang Chogma.

I will explain how Dharma transformed a very difficult situation for me. This may seem like an extreme situation, but hey, this is samsara and you have to work with whatever it throws at you.

A few years ago my brother was killed in Afghanistan, along with thirteen other soldiers. It was a horrendous death in which their bodies were apparently ‘fragmented’; which meant that they had to be repatriated to the UK before all their parts could be identified using DNA sampling. What this meant for my family, and the other thirteen families, was of course a lot of pain, but through it all I also learned an incredible amount about the truth of Dharma, Buddha’s teachings.

The first thing I learned is that we need to have a knee-jerk, reflex action of going for refuge to the Three Jewels. It needs to be the most familiar reaction to any situation, so that it’s instantaneous, spontaneous. For in the first few minutes when I saw my mum almost hysterical with the pain from hearing the news of her son’s death, I forgot to go for refuge. Those few minutes taught me a lot. They taught me how it feels to experience samsara completely exposed without it’s deceptive veneer; how people without any refuge experience such unbearable pain that you feel like your heart has been ripped out and you’ll just die on the spot; and how the moment we go for refuge and pray for others with all our heart, that pain subsides and we become a source of refuge for the people we pray for.

The coffins of the authors brother and his thirteen friends

Within a few days each family got to spend time with all fourteen coffins in a make-shift chapel on an RAF base in Scotland. I remember they looked quite beautiful all lined up together in two neat rows of seven, with Union Jack flags draped perfectly in line with each other; and the smell of the wooden coffins filling the room. As I sat there in silence with the rest of my family, we just gazed at the coffins. At first all the coffins were equal to me as I had no idea which one contained my brother’s remains, for all I knew it might be all of them. Each coffin was just as important as all the rest, and in turn my feelings toward the men who’d died felt equal and my mind felt surprisingly peaceful. I started wondering which coffin my brother was in, and I focused on the one nearest to me, wondering if it contained his body. Immediately my mind became unpeaceful and I started getting really upset. What upset me most wasn’t that here might be my brother’s body but that suddenly that one coffin was the only one that mattered and the other thirteen coffins were irrelevant to me, like they didn’t even exist. It came as quite a shock and it just felt so wrong – these were my brother’s friends, his colleagues, who’d died in just the same way; and yet suddenly they didn’t matter. I will never forget that moment when I realised how immediate the painful effect of delusion is in our mind and how horrible it feels to disregard people who really do matter. I reminded myself that I didn’t know which coffin my brother was in and how all these guys were equally important – and my mind became peaceful again. I realised that what I was experiencing was the beautiful peace of equanimity.

Another thing that struck me as I sat there is that the parts of the body are definitely not the body, just as Geshe Kelsang explains in his books. If someone had come along right then and shown me all the fragmented parts of my brother’s body all put back in the right places, it could never have satisfied my wish to see my brother’s body as a whole, solid, unitary thing. I wished to simply see my brother’s body, not it’s parts assembled together. Nothing anyone could ever show me would match up with the image in my mind, but isn’t it the same now with all phenomena?

Another thing I learned was that even simple meditations done for just a few seconds can have an amazing immediate effect. At my brother’s funeral I was asked to read out fond memories of him that family members had written. I remember sitting in the chapel with his coffin in front of me and a picture of him on the wall above. He was given full military honours and many of his RAF colleagues and other officers were present; with the flag draped over his coffin and his RAF hat laid on top. As the service progressed I could feel myself getting more and more anxious as it came closer to the time for me to get up. I could feel my legs shaking and I didn’t know if I’d be able to even stand, let alone speak. I tried to imagine that my brother’s photo was a picture of Geshe-la, like the one I have above my shrine at home, gazing at me, smiling and encouraging me. I suddenly remembered a meditation Geshe-la had taught at the festival that year, from Mahamudra Tantra, the meditation on turning your mind to wood – absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thoughts – so I did just that. I stopped listening to the service, I stopped feeling anything, thinking anything, held my mind still, and imagined I was an inanimate object, completely without thought. Just for a few moments it felt like slipping the gearbox out of gear, like things were going on around me but I wasn’t engaged at all. Then I started listening again and found that it had worked! I was ok, I had my Spiritual Guide with me and in a very distressing, adverse condition I had remembered some of his instructions and I’d put them into practise and felt their benefit. I knew that I’d be ok, and I was. I got through it with a picture of Geshe-la and one of Tara on the lecturn with me, and with my mala in my hand and my Guru at my heart.

We did a Powa, transference of consciousness, for my brother and I’m certain he went to the Pure Land – he sure has helped me get a little bit closer.

Kadampa parenting: A guest article

My friend, who has five children including two new twin boys!, has written an article for Kadampa Life on what it is like to be a Kadampa parent.

Some people believe that having children and a family is an obstacle to one’s Buddhist or Dharma practice. This has certainly not been my experience. My children and my family ARE my Dharma practice.

What does it mean to practice the Dharma? It means to clearly understand that we have no problems other than our own negative minds or delusions, and that the solution to all of our problems is to replace our delusions with virtuous minds. To practice Dharma is to apply effort to train our mind in this way.

An Old Kadampa master once said:

The essence of Dharma practice is to harm our delusions as much as possible and to help others as much as possible.

This, for me, is the key to transforming my family life into my spiritual path.

Some people think that situations that provoke delusions are obstacles to our Dharma practice. From my perspective, just as a beggar is needed to practice giving and an annoying person is needed to practice patience, so too situations that would normally provoke delusions in us are needed to practice Dharma. It is (relatively) easy to keep our minds virtuous when everything is pleasant and easy, but it is when we are being pushed to our limits that we are really forced to practice the Dharma.

From an ordinary perspective, family life can be hell on earth – woken up countless times every night, changing dirty diapers, constant crying, total irrationality, kids sticking their fingers in electrical sockets or every other dangerous thing they can find, the emphatic “NO” of a toddler, struggling to get your kids to eat something other than McDonalds and plain butter pasta, constant interruptions, no peace ever, constant fighting between siblings, dealing with “but all my friends already have a cell phone” at age 8, the occasional “I hate you” and “you are ruining my life”, just trying to get out the door or get anywhere on time, and this doesn’t even include the teenage years! Oh, and don’t forget that the average cost of a kid today is close to $400,000 by the time they graduate from college!

But for a Dharma practitioner, these experiences are priceless. Each one of these situations, and the countless others, will generate within our mind all sorts of delusions, such as self-cherishing, miserliness, frustration, anger, jealousy, wishing for gratitude, attachment to our own wishes, etc. When these delusions arise, it gives us a valuable opportunity to practice training our mind in the opponents to these delusions. Day after day, we can work on overcoming our delusions in some of the most challenging situations of our life. If we can learn to be a parent without delusion, frankly, we can do almost anything!

Parenting likewise gives us countless opportunities to “help others as much as possible.” Throughout Venerable Geshe-la’s books he describes all the different ways in which a mother is kind. Of course he does so to try help us generate gratitude for our own mother, but I also think there is a second layer of meaning for us parents: namely, he is telling us everything we ourselves need to do to be a good and kind parent towards our own children. There are of course the obvious things like caring for them, providing for them, changing their diapers, feeding them, taking them on special outings, etc. But often the best thing we can do to help our children is to be a good example for them.

One thing I have learned is it almost never matters what I say. It is just endless blah blah for my kids. But the example I set of the type of person I am is where the real helping comes. If I show the example of somebody who is giving, morally correct, patient, forgiving, dedicated, understanding, compassionate, calm, playful, joyful, fun, hard working, etc., then it is this example more than anything else which will help shape them. How we deal with the challenges of our own life, especially in the context of the family, will shape how they will deal with the problems in their lives. If we constantly blame others for our problems, so will they. If we assume responsibility for our own experience, they will do this too. So all the time in our family life, we can directly or indirectly help others.

Seen in this light, I personally believe that family life is my spiritual practice. I see no contradiction between the two. Yes, it sometimes creates obstacles to be able to go to all of the formal teachings I would otherwise like to or makes it sometimes difficult to find the time to do my daily formal practice, but all day, every day that I am with my family I can practice what it really means to be a Kadampa – to harm my delusions as much as possible and to help others as much as possible. When I see this clearly, instead of viewing my family as an obstacle to my practice, I view them as a gift from all of the Buddhas for my practice. When I see this, I am able to remain happy even when dealing with an outbreak of the stomach flu!

___________________

Like this?! Kadampa Ryan now has his own blog!

What can we do about tragedies?

I wrote this on the occasion of the Japanese earthquake some years ago, but Buddha’s advice still holds true.

How can we help?

“What did you feel when you heard about the colossal tragedy in Japan? Powerless or not? What are the best ways you think you personally can help?”

I asked these questions on Facebook and share some replies below.

I just saw three fish struggling for their lives, inevitably losing the battle. One was big, one was medium, one was small. Their mouths were gasping and their silver bodies thrashing about, eyes wide with fear, drowning in the air. I felt sick. There was nothing I could do. They were surrounded by fishermen who would neither understand nor appreciate my wish to throw them immediately back into the silky water, their home. I said prayers for them as I walked slowly back home.

And they reminded me of how ghastly the drowning deaths of so many thousands of human beings in Japan has been. Again, what can I do about it? I am many miles away. I can’t even directly help one of these poor scared people as they transition so abruptly and alone to their next life.

One of the first things I did was donate some money to the Red Cross, as that seemed practical and obvious; but I am not rich and know my contribution will not go terribly far, maybe it will provide the survivors some clean drinking water or a blanket. Still worth it, of course.

Don’t feel helpless

But the truth is, from a Buddhist point of view, we don’t need to feel helpless. There are things we can do. Every suffering we see is a reminder and an incentive to progress quickly from an ordinary limited state (of someone who cares but feels relatively useless) to that of a trainee and then real Bodhisattva with universal compassion and an enormous joyful confidence to help, and then an enlightened being with the power to bless everyone’s mind each and every day forever.

As people pointed out on Facebook, we can meditate on any or all of the following spiritual thoughts, and in this way make spiritual progress and become increasingly able to help others: our precious human life, the certainty of death, future lives, refuge, renunciation (the wish for true mental freedom, from which all other practical freedom arises), love, compassion, taking and giving, bodhichitta, wisdom realizing the way things are

Buddha Shakyamuni

If you’re interested, what I do when I sit down to do these practices (as opposed to doing them on the fly) is believe that Buddha and all the holy beings are in front of me and that the world is transformed into a Pure Land – all those who are in pain are seated around me, and they too are coming under the protection, love, and influence of all pure, compassionate, powerful beings. This instantly makes everything less helpless, bringing the future result of spiritual practice into the present, imagining it is so, right now.

Practical meditation on compassion

If I am meditating on compassion, I will focus on one person in particular to make the love and compassion real. For example, one story was told of a woman who was my mother’s age and looked a bit like her. The day of the tsunami, she was hours away from an eagerly anticipated birthday celebration; instead she instead found herself fleeing for her life, her family and friends disarrayed, her livelihood destroyed. I put her next to me in my meditation. If that was my mother of this life…?! And I take it from there, focusing on and then spreading that wish for her to find happiness and be free from all this pain to more and more people in her situation, and then to other situations (remember those in Haiti) …

The power of prayer

You know, even in the short term we can alleviate suffering through the power of prayer. It is good not to underestimate prayer – by tuning into the minds of all enlightened beings, and acting as a conduit between them and those who are suffering, we can bring about enormous change, individually and collectively. At one Festival my teacher Geshe Kelsang said:

“Our main job is to pray”.

Study upon study shows the power of prayer to heal, to comfort, to transform. Anyone in any tradition can pray – if you have any belief in the existence of holy beings or transcendent forces, you can simply ask them to protect the people who are suffering. Whenever we see someone suffering and there is nothing obvious we can do, we can immediately pray: “Please help them. Please help me to be able to help them.”

Always something to rejoice in

In this instance, even if we cannot be there in person to help, there is so much opportunity also to rejoice and feel happy about others’ incredible qualities and actions. People everywhere are bending over backward to help, and the rescue workers are all far out of their own comfort zones. The Japanese in general are behaving with such integrity, there is no looting, people are looking after each other… And what about those 50 faceless workers who have sacrificed their health and their lives to protect their fellow citizens by staying behind at the nuclear plant? Kindness, unselfishness and good karma are alive and well in Japan.

What will happen if we do nothing?

If we feel there is nothing we can do, and so we do nothing, what will happen? After the initial shock, eyes glued to the appalling but sensational footage, we will feel guilty, we will make ourselves feel indifferent, we will change the channel, we will quickly forget… already the news of the earthquake and tsunami are fading on the front pages, to be replaced for sure by the fear of nuclear catastrophe over there, and also of other disasters such as Libya. But with the slow fade out in the news, have we also forgotten the people who are suffering so badly? How often do I remember Haiti? How often do I remember anything that happened even last year?

Feedback from other people

So here is how people answered those questions:

Powerless, but…

One person replied to my question: “It makes me feel powerless, grateful to live in England where we are relatively free from such dangers. It makes me aware of death — that it can arrive at any time. It also makes me aware of my laziness. This should help me increase my compassion & bodhichitta but rather I just think “what can I do?” This is very sad. It also seems rather unreal – like in a movie.”

Another said “i feel powerless…..but send loving thoughts through meditation.”

And another said: “I saw these pictures, first thing this morning, and almost couldn’t leave the house. I did make it to Prayers for World Peace, and the topic was Refuge, which helped. But truthfully I’m kinda wrecked by this. This magnitude of devastation is unfathomable. I must remember refuge and prayers. And I must find some way to help in a material way.”

Incentive to improve ourselves

“Remember that death can arrive in any moment, and make our precious life  meaningful!”

“This event certainly provides motivation for renunciation, which frankly can be hard to generate in beautiful Sonoma County. It’s a heckuva wakeup call to get off my complacent tush.”

“I think we can’t stop all external problems like these directly, but the causes of most of what you hear in the news is delusions. E.g. pollution, reccession, broken families, heavy consumerism, debt and war. If we overcame these delusions even… superficially the environment would become clean, families happier, the soil richer and undepleted, nature would increase and everything would become more beautiful, fresher, and this depressing pessimism about the future and feeling doomed would be replaced with feelings of hope for happiness for living beings.”

“It is the impetus for me to renounce samsara, generate bodhichitta and gain wisdom realizing emptiness; also, to set a beneficial intention towards all suffering sentient beings.”

“This is just the most recent event motivating us toward Buddhahood — where we can really do some good.”

“Automatically having much compassion for all the victims of this Japanese apocalypse and also having in mind all the others suffering great problems at the burning points of conflict on our entire globe.”

“Every day in your garden is like Japan except in the garden most die quickly so I suppose it isn’t 30 years of struggling with a disability from an earthqquake for example.”

“We can work on our compassion and wisdom! The vast and the profound – developing a good heart and try to reduce our negativity; and worry as little as possible.”

Taking and Giving in particular

“Taking the suffering and giving peace, calm (in Lojong)”

You can read about how to do this powerful practice in Transform Your Life. It instantly increases our love and our compassion and makes us feel we are doing something that counts (which is true). I think it may be the best antidote to feeling powerless, along with prayer.

Importance of prayer

‎”Our main job is to pray.” Didn’t Geshe Kelsang Gyatso say that at a festival? We are so not powerless when we can pray for the welfare of others.”

I’ll conclude with something Geshe Kelsang has often said:

“Try, and don’t worry.”

Your comments are welcome.

What is the point of faith?

Do you remember the Chilean miners? They were stuck underground for several months but then were miraculously saved. After they were rescued, they traveled the world like heroes, being feted wherever they went, having a grand old time.

Imagine being stuck down a mine. Imagine you have been down there so long that you don’t even register the possibility of a bright shiny world outside the mine, or, if you do occasionally wonder about such a thing, the thought quickly fades.

Then imagine that one day something amazing happens. A crack appears above you in the solid darkness, and light rays stream through.

When I was at high school, before I discovered Buddhism, these David Bowie lyrics from his song Starman inspired me for some half-remembered reason:

“There’s a starman waiting in the sky. He’d like to come and meet us but he thinks he’d blow our minds.
There’s a starman waiting in the sky. He’s told us not to blow it ‘cause he knows it’s all worthwhile.”

I had always had an intermittent sense that there was something more to life than these painted appearances, all this superficial stuff, and that I was supposed to be striving for something deeper and more cosmic than just getting through life; I just was not sure what it was. I also felt that someone somewhere was trying to tell me something, I just wasn’t sure who or where they were!

I think everyone has thoughts like these, even if it is 3am in the morning and the thought quickly fades or is pushed away. These are tiny cracks of light. They don’t amount to anything consistent or even life-changing, but they are an expression of the actual interdependent nature of all phenomena and our pure potential or Buddha nature (mystic theistic traditions might say our divinity and potential for apotheosis) — and they give us an intuition of something beyond this world of ordinary appearances. Whether we choose to pursue those existential thoughts or not depends on many things, of course.

Back in the mine, imagine now that the crack above your head becomes larger. And there is now a voice coming through from outside.

That voice is telling you that he wants to come and meet you and not to blow it because there is a way out of this mine…

… in fact he has all the equipment we’ll need to dig ourselves out with his help.

I remember when I first realized I had met my own Spiritual Guide. I was a student at university and was, strangely enough, at a disco (it was the 80s!) dancing with a friend. We had both met Geshe Kelsang a few weeks or months earlier, I don’t really remember. Suddenly, I was hit with a very blissful understanding — my starman had arrived. I shouted to my friend over the music, with unchecked teenage exuberance and somewhat to his (and probably everyone else’s) embarassment: “Do you realize our Spiritual Guide has found us?!!” And yes, it did blow my mind.

Since then, my teacher Geshe Kelsang has given me exactly everything I need. If all the enlightened beings had gotten together to figure out what I personally needed to escape from ignorance, anger, attachment, mistaken dualistic appearances and suffering, and start helping others to do the same, they would have done exactly what they have done. They would have emanated as someone I can communicate with and relate to because he appears in a relatively ordinary form, and given me through that person all the teachings, inspiration and conditions I need.

If I want to get out of the mine, I need to stay close to that light source and voice — not stray too far or get all skeptical about it — and keep believing that there is another world beyond the world of suffering. As my teacher says in Transform Your Life:

“Without faith, everything is mundane. We are blind to anything beyond the ordinary and imperfect world we normally inhabit, and we cannot even imagine that pure faultless beings, worlds, or states of mind exist.”

Dakini (female Tantric Deity) in the Metropolitan Museum, NYC

In truth, the world outside the mind is not somewhere else – the Pure Land is right here, it is the emptiness (lack of independent existence) of all phenomena that is always mixed indivisibly with the blissful wisdom of all enlightened beings. (When Milarepa, the great Buddhist meditator and poet, was asked in which Pure Land he had attained enlightenment, he famously pointed to his cave.) This bliss and emptiness pervades all phenomena, and we are only subtle mistaken appearances away from that experience ourselves. Faith in the enlightened beings and teachings necessitates faith in one’s own infinite potential. I sometimes like to think that we are just a trick of the mind away from enlightenment. As Geshe-la says in Yoga of Buddha Heruka:

“The moment our mind is free from subtle mistaken appearance, we open the door through which we can directly see all enlightened Deities. For as long as our mind remains polluted by subtle mistaken appearance, this door is closed.”

Through understanding that, I think we can understand what blessings actually are. But perhaps that can be the subject of another blog article.

Your comments are welcome!

(If  you are interested in knowing more about my teacher, see this article.)

Meditation in the pursuit of happiness

Geshe Chekawa 1102-1176

Geshe Chekhawa, famous Kadampa master, told us how we could measure our success in training our minds:

“Always rely upon a happy mind alone.”

This has many layers of meaning. But one thing I think it reveals is the best perspective for approaching our spiritual practice in the first place. If we can get that right, our meditations flow, and we make easy progress. If we don’t get it right, meditation and spiritual practice seem like more hard work, more duty, and one day we might just pack it in.

Discouragement naturally leads to the laziness of indolence and attraction to meaningless activities too…

Over the past 30 years, I’ve seen umpteen people start off enthusiastically, as they glimpse the infinite possibilities of developing the mind; but then the sky clouds over and they become discouraged. Sometimes, people who have been supposedly “practicing” Buddhist meditation for years just stop. That makes no sense to me because meditation gets better and better if we do it right. I love meditating. So I’m sharing some ideas in the hope that they might help a few people keep relying on a happy mind alone instead of giving into the laziness of discouragement. After all, do we get discouraged or stop doing something if we are really enjoying ourselves?

Happiness-training

Buddhist meditation or Dharma is designed to make us happier and more free. We talk about “practicing Dharma”, or “training in meditation”, which means that we are practicing or training in becoming happier and more free. “Practicing” or “training in” implies we already have the potential for happiness and freedom, otherwise we would have to say something like “adding happiness” instead.

To borrow my friend’s gym analogy again… There is no point in going to the gym unless we have a muscle. We go the gym precisely to train our muscles, so we need to have at least some muscle, however weak, in order to train it. Well, Dharma is happiness-training. In other words, we need to have some happiness for us to train. We can also say Dharma is love-training or compassion-training or wisdom-training, and similarly we need to have some love or compassion or wisdom in order to train.

This is why it so important to identify and abide with our natural good qualities of happiness, wisdom, compassion etc., however feeble they may be at the moment. Then we naturally approach our training with such faith and optimism — regarding realizations as natural, even inevitable.

This will give you actual meditation experience.

Where are you starting from?

Buddha said our true nature, our Buddha nature, was like a clear sky and that our faults are not our intrinsic nature but adventitious or temporary defilements, like rain clouds scudding across the sky.

To see if we are approaching our spiritual practice from the best and indeed only useful perspective, we can ask ourself :

“On a daily basis, how much time do I spend identifying with my pure potential for happiness and freedom? And how much time do I spend identifying with being deluded e.g. irritated, worried, diseased, insecure, lonely, ugly, unhappy, addicted? When I do meditation or prayers or go to a teaching or remember spiritual advice in my daily life, where am I starting from? From the standpoint of being a limited, dark cloudy being who is a million miles away from where I want to be, or from the standpoint of being right now a spacious-sky-like blissful Buddha or Bodhisattva or good person, just temporarily obscured by the clouds of delusions?

Am I slogging away at this because I know it is supposed to be good for me, or am I enjoying myself every step of the way?”

What is enlightenment?

In Mahamudra Tantra, my teacher Geshe Kelsang says:

“Enlightenment is defined as an omniscient wisdom whose nature is the permanent cessation of mistaken appearance and whose function is to bestow mental peace on all living beings.”

Nothing is being said here about adding anything. By freeing ourself permanently from mistaken or dualistic appearances, and by ripening our Buddha nature, we will naturally possess omniscience and universal compassion. We will then have the power to help each living being every day by bestowing our blessings on them, teaching, and emanating.

Love and all non-deluded minds are our Buddha nature — our innate potential for complete purity and bliss — which is never separate from any living being. This means that to increase our good qualities of love, happiness, wisdom and so on, we do not need to add anything. In fact, to go all the way to becoming an enlightened being we do not need to add anything. We simply need to (1) remove all cloud-like delusions and obscurations from our mind through the practice of wisdom and (2) ripen our potential for all good qualities with the so-called method practices of contentment, faith, renunciation (the mind of liberation), love, compassion, bodhichitta (the mind of enlightenment), and so on.

No time like the present
Our Buddha nature is like a jewel wrapped in rags

Anyone at all can tune into their spiritual potential, starting right now, if they know how. When you feel some peace from doing simple breathing meditation, for example, identify this as your true nature, your Buddha nature. Disbelieve or ignore all the ordinary cloud-like thoughts you have of yourself as a limited, deluded being, and in this way leave the space for the naturally pure, positive, loving thoughts to arise instead. Actually, the Pure Land is right here, right now – we are just not looking at it.

This is one of my favorite quotes:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thru’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

~ William Blake

The more we grasp at things as real, the more out of touch with reality we are. Delusions (our unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds based on mistaken appearance and exaggeration, such as anger, greed and ignorance) grasp the most tightly, and their objects do not exist. Anger, for example, grasps at and wants to push away an inherently unpleasant person or situation; and there is no such thing. Attachment does the opposite — grasping at and pulling toward us something or someone out there that we feel is necessary for our happiness, when in fact our happiness is within, a state of mind. When any delusions are functioning, our life feels precarious, out of balance, somehow lacking.

Love, compassion, wisdom are in touch with reality and offer us transcendence – we can feel it, and it is why they make us feel good. When our love is arising in our mind, for example, it feels spacious, peaceful, and wholly connected with a wider reality. It also feels as if the elements of our life are in balance as we are in a state of not lacking anything — so it is impossible, for example, to feel guilty or worried about all the things we “should” be doing but are not…

Avoiding burnout at work

In this article, I try to explain how to use this understanding to prevent stress and burnout at work.

Your comments are very welcome. And please share this article if you found it helpful.

Where is a problem? … more from our social worker

This is the second article from a guest writer, Kadampa Buddhist and student social worker. For the first, see Meditation Helps Me Be a Better Social Worker and Vice Versa.

The problem is not in the person — the problem is the problem and the person is the person.
~ Solution-focussed social work theory

Our problems do not exist outside our mind.  The real nature of our problems is our unpleasant feelings, which are part of our mind.
~ How to Solve Our Human Problems, Gyatso, 2005, p3.

When I first started training as a social worker I was immediately drawn to an approach which I feel is similar to Buddhism.  It’s called “solution-focussed assessment and intervention”.  As the first quote says, you don’t identify a problem in the person — the person is the person, the problem is the problem — and it is about identifying with solutions, and not giving too much energy to problems.

This reminded me of my Buddhist practice of trying to acknowledge my delusions, then let go of them and increase my positive qualities (solutions), and how as an aspiring Bodhisattva I can have a special view of others by not looking at their negative qualities, but focus on their good qualities and let these outshine any negative ones.  As Geshe Kelsang often says:

“Where is a problem?  It does not exist outside our mind.”

Many social workers are into empowering people and I find solution-focussed social work to be empowerment at its very best.  You try and get clients to understand that they don’t have to identify with their problems, to get them to try and see the changeability of a problem and that they can eventually deal with and even transform the situation.For example in a mental health charity I worked for I helped a service user realise that external problems such as personal relationship difficulties and negative people within the community weren’t always problems and that, when she was feeling good, the people were friendly and the problems weren’t there as much.  She understood the changeability of the situations and my advice helped a little. This person lacked self-esteem but I was able to help her improve her view of herself by helping her understand her good qualities such as being a good cook, being good at arts & crafts and being a very social person.  She learned to deal with her problems and difficulties better.

Arya Asanga

As a social worker you are a mediator between an individual and society.  You are concerned with helping vulnerable people and can often be a positive change agent for individuals.  Helping vulnerable people can be very beneficial.  In Joyful Path of Good Fortune my teacher Geshe-la quotes Arya Asanga’s eleven ways of helping others such as: alleviating the suffering of others and offering them assistance in their work, teaching others skills when they do not know how to accomplish tasks, removing dangers that threaten others, consoling others when they are in grief and giving material assistance to those who are destitute. (Gyatso, 2006, p457)

My Kadampa values have definitely helped me in my social work practice!  Through them I am now adopting my own individual assessment and intervention approach based on solution-focussed theory.  You always have to be aware of risk and assess this, but resilience, people’s strengths and solutions to problems are the main emphasis.

Your turn: your comment, questions and observations are most welcome! Please leave them in the box below. And do share this article if you found it helpful.

Other articles by our guest social worker are available here.

Meditation: simple easy instructions for getting started

Recently the New York Times did another article on the benefits of meditation – along the lines of how scientists are finding it makes your brain bigger in all the right places. It attracted a great deal of interest and hundreds of comments. This is good.

But reading the article and especially the comments, I was struck by how many people don’t know how to get started with meditation and feel a little overwhelmed by the thought of what might be involved. And this reminded me of when I began 30 years ago this fall. Back then, in the Friday night meditation classes I attended, I felt encouraged to take baby steps, and that every little counts. Meditation is not as difficult as it may seem. In fact, it feels surprisingly natural, once you get going. Getting going is the main thing.

How to Begin Meditation

The advice in the book Transform Your Life, in the chapter What is Meditation?, (and specifically in the section How to Begin Meditation), is perfect. A lot of friends and family have asked me over the years to explain to them a simple 5 or 10 minute meditation so they can relax and get rid of anxiety, and I show them this chapter.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, my Buddhist teacher, is a completely accomplished meditator who has spent much of his life in Tibet, India and the West in meditation retreat. He has used his combined understanding of meditation and the exigencies of modern life to teach thousands of distracted Westerners everything they need to know to be successful at meditation themselves. So if you really want to start meditating, you could do no better than to consult this chapter. A lot of it can be found here: and I have copied/pasted from there.

“The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid. This can be accomplished by practicing a simple breathing meditation. We choose a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position. We can sit in the traditional cross-legged posture or in any other position that is comfortable. If we wish, we can sit in a chair. The most important thing is to keep our back straight to prevent our mind from becoming sluggish or sleepy.

We sit with our eyes partially closed and turn our attention to our breathing. We breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control our breath, and we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.

At first, our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but we should resist this and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath. If we discover that our mind has wandered and is following our thoughts, we should immediately return it to the breath. We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.”

The 1980's

This is the meditation I started with in 1981 as a college student, just sitting on the end of my bed each day for the few precious minutes I could spare between the discos, pubs, and odd lecture. I’ve never looked back.

Step One ~ Sitting

As Geshe Kelsang teaches, the first thing to do is find a quiet spot where we won’t be interrupted. Mainly, these days, we need to find the will power to turn off all those gadgets!! Once we’re sitting in our comfortable position, we can relax our shoulders, rest our hands in our lap or wherever is comfortable, tilt our head slightly forward, and partially close our eyes to allow some light to come through the eyelashes (a lot of people also gently close their eyes). We can rest our tongue on the palate to keep our mouth moist.

(By the way, people sometimes wonder if it is ok to lie down to meditate — you can, but be wary that you are more likely to fall asleep if you do. Sitting with a straight back helps us stay alert.)

Step Two ~ Motivation

Before turning the attention to the breath or any other object of meditation, I think it is very helpful to think briefly about what we’re doing and why. The benefits of meditation are probably infinite, but I just pick one or two of my favorites, depending on the meditation. Geshe Kelsang explains the far-reaching benefits of breathing meditation here. Through this, our mind becomes light and happy, and we can make the decision: “This meditation will really help me and those around me. So for the next 5 (or 10) minutes I will focus on this meditation alone; everything else can wait.” Generating this good motivation makes it far easier to find the discipline to stay focused.

Step Three (optional) ~ Relaxing your Body

If your body is feeling tense, it can be helpful when starting out to spend a few moments deliberately relaxing your body (eventually, concentration on the breath alone has the side-effect of relaxing the body). We can do this by first dissolving everything outside our body into light (including the past and the future), so just our body remains. We become aware of the feelings in our body from our crown down to our feet; and then, as we become aware of any feelings of tension or tiredness in any parts of our body, we let go of them and imagine that they fall away –- as if dropping heavy luggage. All our muscles feel as if they are softening and relaxing. Our body then dissolves into light from our crown to our feet, so that just its merest outline remains. Our body is weightless like a feather in the breeze, clear and translucent like a hollow body, and so comfortable that we’re hardly even aware that it is there.

Step Four ~ Following the Breath

Geshe Kelsang teaches that “we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils.” As we breathe in, we’ll come to notice a cool sensation at the edge of our nostrils or on our upper lip, and as we breathe out we’ll notice a warm pressure there. Just that. Once we notice this, we have found the object of meditation. “This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.”

Now, as Geshe Kelsang suggests, there are only two things to do for the next 5 minutes:

(1) We don’t forget the sensation of the breath, our object of meditation – resisting the temptation to follow other thoughts; (2) When we do forget the breath and find our mind has wandered to another object, we gently but firmly bring it straight back to the breath.

“We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.” I think it is important to know that it doesn’t matter how many times we have to bring our attention back to the breath – for as long as we are doing that, as opposed to following our other thoughts, we are training in mindfulness and concentration. In short, we are meditating.

Toward the end of your meditation, see if you can follow your breath for 3 or even 7 consecutive breaths (one breath being an inhalation and exhalation) without getting distracted by anything else! Believe your mind is settled on the breath, and indeed so close that it is as though your mind and your breath are mixed, as one.

Conclusion

If you follow Geshe Kelsang’s simple instructions, you will gradually feel your mind settling and the constant chatter of uncontrolled thoughts, feelings, worries, emotions slow down and even stop. As Geshe-la describes it:

“… gradually our distracting thoughts will subside and we will experience a sense of inner peace and relaxation. Our mind will feel lucid and spacious and we will feel refreshed. When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear. In a similar way, when the otherwise incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through concentrating on the breath, our mind becomes unusually lucid and clear. We should stay with this state of mental calm for a while.”

Enlightened beings are free from grasping.

Feel yourself dissolve into this clarity and peace at the level of your heart — drop from your head to your heart. Stay here as long as you can, giving yourself permission to really enjoy yourself. Know that you can always return here.

Before arising gently from meditation, resolve to bring the peace you have experienced back with you into your day.

Some Tips

Can I suggest that you get used to this idea from the outset: no pushing allowed in meditation. It doesn’t work. We bring our attention back to the object in a determined but relaxed manner, and stay light. We also don’t need to grasp at results — we do that enough in the rest of our lives. Meditation is the best way to let go of grasping and just be, and this naturally leads to incredible insights and open-hearted positivity, the manifesting of our potential.

In our busy modern world, preoccupied with yesterday’s memories and tomorrow’s plans, we may have lost touch with the immediate, what is literally right under our noses; but it is actually very natural and normal to follow your breath. This is another reason why it is not necessary or advisable to attempt to control the breath, as Geshe Kelsang points out, or to push. Even though distractions interrupt seemingly non-stop to begin with, don’t panic; it is only because we are not used to focusing on anything single-pointedly for any length of time, and so have little or no control over our thoughts. That is our problem, and skillful meditation on the breath will overcome it.

The other problem people new to meditation sometimes complain about is drowsiness – not surprising insofar as usually the only time we allow ourselves to really relax and let go is when we are about to fall asleep in bed at night. Concentration is the antidote to drowsiness, and in the meantime, until we have some concentration, it is a good idea to meditate at a time of day when you are relatively alert e.g. after morning tea, and to sit in a light space. Avoid meditating after a big meal or wearing heavy clothes.

In fact, if you are doing just 5 or 10 minutes meditation at a time, there is a good chance that you’ll avoid both distraction and sleepiness – so a good tip is to keep your meditation short but professional. If you are enjoying it, meditate again for another 5 minutes later in the day! You’ll see your capacity and enthusiasm grow naturally.

Geshe Kelsang also teaches variations on the theme of breathing meditation, such as, in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, first identifying and then breathing out all your problems and anxiety in the form of thick smoke, and then strongly believing you are breathing in all lightness, joy and blessings in the form of blissful golden or white light. Some people prefer to do breathing meditation this way, and the basic instructions remain the same.

I hope you get started soon. You’ll never regret learning to meditate – it is the most problem-solving, mind-freeing and happiness-inducing skill in the world. It has no adverse side effects. It is free! And no one can take it away from you. Here is that website, About Meditation. If you get a chance, do go along to a meditation class in your area – you can’t beat live instructions from a real person.

For two more helpful articles on meditation see Meditation in the Pursuit of Happiness and How to Use Meditation to Avoid Stress and Burnout at Work.

Postscript

I have recently had the surreal experience of unexpectedly reconnecting with my closest childhood friend, whom I played with in Guyana when we were 10 years old. Four days after we talked again, laughing at our memories of that different lifetime, she was diagnosed with cancer. She asked me how to meditate to find peace. This article is for you, Debra.