Music, meditation, & mental health

This is the seventh article from a guest writer, Kadampa Buddhist, and social worker. The others can be found here.

About 10 years ago when I was training as a social worker I studied and practiced the therapy of examining your past, culture, and values to understand yourself and others more; and became aware that music is quite an important aspect in my life. I had been brought up on classical music — unlike other members of my family I wasn’t that good at playing music, but I always loved to listen to it, even as a small child, and when I discovered pop & rock music in the late 1970’s & early 1980’s, that was it, I was hooked. ShaptavajraShawaddywaddy, Abba, Queen, then all the early 80’s Ska, and synth pop: Soft Cell, The Human League, ABC, Heaven 17, Ultravox, OMD, and New Order, leading onto indie rock like The Smiths, Echo and The Bunnyman, The The, and The Cure. I began to get into heavy metal rock a bit too, such as Iron Maiden and Whitesnake, and progressive rock such as Pink Floyd and Marillion. 

Going under

However, I know now that some of the music I used to listen to contributed to a build up of feelings of despondency, which culminated in a relatively serious few months of depression for me in the early 1990’s, when I was aged 21.  This peaked during my final year degree course, where I needed a couple of weeks’ break from the course.  Thankfully I received some excellent student counselling and I completed the degree course.  During the depression I suffered with insomnia, cold sweats, anxiety (being prescribed medication for anxiety), migraines, occasional panic attacks, apathy & overeating. There were other social factors too that contributed to the depression, such as too much alcohol & cannabis, peer pressure, the shock of my first attempts at working life, living away from home for the first time, & the pressures of the final year degree course; but I feel that a lot of the music I was listening to was a major contribution. I would enjoy the music, but then later feel heaviness and sadness in my heart. A lyric from one song comes to mind:

It was a bite of a night gone wrong and the effect of listening to negative songs.

Who sang this & what song, answers on a postcard please? Another song that springs to mind is called ‘Going Under’, a charming little song about alcoholism:

Can you understand it’s the way I choose to be.  Everything seems so easy this way but I’m going under fast. Slipping away. Am I so crazy???

Listen to the voice of Buddha

The anxiety I experienced made me want to find out how to deeply relax. I investigated yoga and Buddhist meditation, discovering that there is a direct correlation between your breath and your state of mind, and so by learning to breathe deeply you can completely dissipate and even eradicate any feelings of fear and anxiety.

In The New Meditation Handbook there is an explanation of how to experience inner peace and contentment just through breathing meditation:

When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides, and our mind becomes still. A deep happiness and contentment naturally arise from within.

Perhaps the mental health distress I was experiencing in the early 1990’s was awakening me to a potential higher level of consciousness. The interest in meditation led me to Buddhism. I became fascinated with Buddha’s teachings on impermanence, karma, & emptiness (the nature of reality), then later his teachings on love and compassion.

For a while I stopped listening to music. In 1995, I sold my whole record collection at Darlington Market for £5. I missed out on most of the Britpop of the 90’s, not listening to music until the early 00’s, re-discovering Madonna, U2, the Chilli Peppers, and one of my favourites, World Party.

The 7 years or so where I stopped listening to music was one of the happiest periods of my life. Partly I believe due to me not listening to any music, but also partly to do with my enthusiasm at the time for my meditation practice and me living in a community of likeminded people. The happiest times of my life have been when I’ve been living with others, whether friends or family, and the unhappiest times have been when I have been more isolated, with little social contact.

In time, I think I have matured, and now just take music for what it is; the music that I like being a simple pleasure to enjoy in the moment, which uplifts your spirits. There is a danger that any pleasure becomes meaningless or a big distraction, leading to strong minds of attachment to worldly pleasure; but I have found that with mindfulness and an uplifting of the mind, music is great! I have now realised the middle way between hedonism/pleasure and austerity/no pleasure. If it uplifts your mind and has no damaging side effects, then why not enjoy a little music to help you experience happiness from within.

This Strange Engine, called Marillion

I am grateful to have re-discovered Marillion, whose new singer Steve Hogarth put the soul back into rock music. Some of their songs are quite spiritual, with a whole album entitled ‘Happiness Is the Road’ mostly about staying happy in the moment. Then they have classic tracks such as ‘The Space’ and ‘This Strange Engine’, seemingly about the love and interconnectedness between our self and others. Their concept album ‘Brave’ is about a lady in mental health distress — suffering from epileptic seizures and contemplating suicide. That may sound heavy, but listening to it can be quite uplifting, perhaps cathartic, helping us release the negative emotions we can all get sometimes. Other songs include: ‘Gaza’ (about being a child caught up in a war torn country), ‘A Voice From The Past’ (about not having good sanitary conditions in the country where you live), and ‘El Dorado, (where there is empathy for people who have recently been caught up in the refugee crisis).

These songs have helped me increase my compassion, to move away from my own trivialities and selfish concerns, to be more aware of people in less fortunate situations than myself, and to do something about this. In the book Universal Compassion there is an explanation of how contemplating and meditating on compassion can help move our mind away from our own self-concern:

Instead of being concerned with our own problems, which serves only to make us depressed and unhappy, we should consider the difficulties of others. In this way, we will begin to feel sympathy for them. If we apply this to everyone we meet – friends, neighbours, strangers, rich or poor – we will find every ordinary being has problems.

While my empathy and compassion are increasing with this music, I am also reminded of ‘bliss’. As well as finding Marillion’s music meaningful, I find it blissful — the sounds of the guitar, the keyboards, the colourful lightshows during live gigs, all appearing to my mind and contributing to my bliss. The guitarist Steve Rothery plays many beautiful melodic guitar solos. and there are times when I just close my eyes, listen to the beauty of his music, and go into a small meditation, savouring each note that is being played.

There is a Buddhist practice of mentally offering beautiful things to your Spiritual Guide or Buddha, or of mentally giving away pleasant experiences, which has the effect of increasing and refining the enjoyment of bliss even more. Recalling a blissful experience in meditation can help you to concentrate in meditation. When not in meditation too, recalling a blissful experience can help you feel happy and focus on what you are doing.

Remember Stan ‘Your biggest fan’

Connecting with the singers and musicians can be a positive experience.  Fandom is an interesting concept. The whole set up at live gigs where the band are up on stage, at a higher level than you, and you can be singing and dancing, raising your arms up in the air etc, which can lead to us exaggerating our admiration of the singers and musicians we are enjoying, perhaps literally putting them on pedestals and idolising them. These days I either like to be at the very back of a live gig and observe everything that is taking place, or to stand a few rows from the front and take in and experience everything that is occurring. I see myself more of an observer of the music, taking a step back from it. I don’t totally immerse into the music and be one with it.

The singers and musicians themselves would probably say, don’t look up to me!? Mentioning no names, but many of the artists I mentioned at the beginning of this article have had issues with depression, drink & drug addiction, and relationship issues. Some of it I guess goes with the lifestyle, and some is just part of being human. Perhaps when I was younger there was a bit of transference taking place when listening to some of these people sing and play music in that there was a subconscious redirection of the feelings I had for the singer to feelings the singer has to the person they are singing about. Then, if they were unhappy feelings from the singer, I would subconsciously get unhappy. Today, I see pop & rock stars in a different light. They are very much human, like the rest of us; and some can be people that you can connect with and get to know. Despite similarities to us, they can have a very different lifestyle, the highs and lows of live shows and touring, the loneliness once back to normal life at home, fame & some fortune, big boosts to their egos, and clashes of personalities and disharmony when a band stagnate or split up. I now try and see musicians I like as fellow humans and encourage them to keep playing and performing, and to also try as much as possible to get on with each other, to keep on helping make their fans and themselves happy through the music they play. In the book Universal Compassion, it is said that:

If we sing a pleasant song to make others happy, so that they forget their worries even for a short time, this is also a virtuous verbal action.

In September 2018 I went to see Soft Cell play their farewell show, at The London O2. One song that surprised me was ‘Frustration’. It sounded as if they had stripped it down musically to its original version and added a few up to date topical lyrics:

I’m just an ordinary bloke, I wanna do so many things, I listen to my wife she’s nagging me, I listen to my kids they’re screaming. They want more things. They want iPads. They want mobile phones. I just can’t stand it anymore. I’m having a nervous breakdown.

It sounded so relevant to our lives and society today. I think Marc Almond identified at an early age how dissatisfied many of us can be in our normal, material, domestic lives. Such songs of suffering can raise awareness of the unsatisfactory nature of many aspects of our lives and contribute to dealing with the fear and stigma that still exists in our society towards mental health distress.

I have followed Marc Almond’s solo career a little over the years. Marc has been a ground breaker and pioneer in many ways. Having difficulties with a learning disability – autism I think — in his early life, receiving threats and beatings on stage at early Soft Cell gigs, and his example of being a confident gay man in our modern society has helped shape a better society. Those within the LGBT group, and vulnerable people such as those with learning disabilities and/or who have mental health difficulties, are more accepted and included in our society these days.

The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum

I work in social care with adults with learning disabilities and I have also worked in mental health services. I understand sociology a bit and that is why I am sharing this article — to contribute to a social change towards people who have mental health difficulties. I love watching old clips from the 1970’s and 1980’s of our society and the popular music back then. There were some top pop and rock bands with some quite apt and ground-breaking names. Madness, Soft Cell and Fun Boy Three with their song; ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum.’ Mental health issues were just beginning to come to the forefront of societal view, and these bands and songs have played a part in raising awareness of the institutional care and abuse received by people with mental health problems. We now live in a slightly improved society in terms of both how we treat and view those with mental health distress, and hopefully this improvement will continue.

It’s great that today there is a societal shift towards people being more open about mental health difficulties. Fairly recent examples from the boxer Tyson Fury, Lady Gaga, and even Prince William and Prince Harry, about varying degrees of mental health distress they have experienced have been liberating for so many people. Maybe more and more people will also be able to find their ways toward meditation, mindfulness, and even Buddhism, which I think everyone can benefit from on some level.

I was in my early 20’s when I suffered with depression, and from documentaries I have recently seen about mental health it is not uncommon for the younger generation, say people in their 20’s, to go through some mental health difficulty. It is perhaps a phase many young people work through as they find their feet in life. However, mental ill health can happen to anyone! – young, old, male, female, rich, and poor. The mental health charity MIND says that:

Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.

I do believe that at least half the battle with mental ill health is sociological, in that as a society we need to acknowledge that we all have mental health distress e.g. stress, anger & grief, and that depression is very common. There does seem to be a more open attitude to mental health difficulties now.  Social media is playing a part in opening up these attitudes, with various support groups on Facebook and Twitter for people who suffer from specific mental health diagnoses.  Perhaps, though, there is a danger in getting stuck there, identifying with our mental health distress too much, and not looking for answers to help reduce and heal our distress?

clouds in skyI think half the battle is acknowledging that we can all get mental health distress, but I do believe we can all get better too! As stated, acknowledging our mental health distress is a first step, and eventually we can do this with every moment of our mind so that, as soon as any distress arises in our mind, we are mindful of it. When we do this, quite often the distress subsides. These are just thoughts. All thoughts and feelings are just temporary aspects of our mind. We can give our thoughts too much energy and, yes, some of them can be dark and scary; but they are just thoughts. My friend Marc in his recent live version of Soft Cell’s ‘Frustration’ sings about thoughts we may have towards our boss:

I could be a great dictator, Then I could, I could kill my boss, I have these thoughts, these dark thoughts, I wanna push them away, push them away.

This is the problem — we want to push our thoughts away, fight with them, suppress them, conceal them with something else, perhaps a sensory enjoyment, or some physical or verbal activity or distraction. In the book How to Understand the Mind it states that:

The true nature of our mind is clarity, which means it is something that is empty like space, always lacking form, shape and colour…. Our thoughts are only temporary minds, and very unstable. They suddenly arise and quickly disappear, like clouds in the sky.

If we could just learn to sit with our thoughts and feelings we would learn that they are just like clouds in a sky that come and go, and that underneath them is a clear mind, like the clear blue sky, the true nature of our mind, which is peace. Then if we learn to access this peace, which is inside all of us, we can learn how to stay happy & mentally strong all the time.

I find through observing my own mind that feelings of depression are like an inner anger inside us. Perhaps something we are annoyed about or unable to express, and therefore it stays inside us as we churn things over in our mind. It’s good to learn to express how we are feeling, and ‘get things off our chest’; but, also, meditation and mindfulness is another tool, and can help us become aware of any unhappy feelings in our mind, to try and let go of them and replace them with more positive feelings.

Nowhere Now?

Ward Thomas are two young sisters who mainly sing country songs, many of which they have written themselves. They’ve had a recent single called ‘No Filter’ which is about self-acceptance. They say themselves that it is about learning to accept who we are and to embrace every aspect of ourselves — in a world where we are tempted to cloak our lives in a filter online, with social media etc.

 

Buddhist contemplations on music

Music is everywhere, and is part of every culture, including Buddhist ones. There was one Buddhist meditation master in Tibet, called Milarepa, who used to sing all of his teachings. There is a story of Sadaprarudita told in The New Heart of Wisdom, and how his teacher Dharmodgata explained emptiness, the nature of reality, to him using sound as a basis. How is a musician able to produce their music? Where is it? Can you point to a part of the music, and say “there it is”? I love a good traditional rock band: singer, lead guitar, bass, drums, (& perhaps a keyboard) — and it takes all these parts and chemistry together to form the music of that band. There are many parts: the minds, intentions and memories of the individual members, the instruments they are using, and the collective chemistry and sounds coming from them as a whole. Not one of these individually is the music, and yet take even one of them away and the music of that band vanishes.

Where exactly can you say the sounds and music are? Where does each note come from? And where does each note go? What is that space between the notes? Where did one note end and the next begin? This is contemplation on the emptiness, or lack of inherent existence, of the music. The music is not ‘out there’ anywhere. There is no real coming or going. Each elaborate piece of music or song was imputed by our mind on a stream of sounds, each sound coming from nowhere and going nowhere in order for the next sound to arise, and our minds imputing some kind of continuum on that, to end up with the music we love.

The point is, we describe a ‘thing’ as if it were really out there being a thing, we try so hard to label it and itemise it and make it even more of a ‘thing’ — when in fact it came from nowhere and went nowhere, and is completely empty of existing out there or from its own side.

In the Buddhist story Dharmodgata asked Sadaprarudita:

Where does the sound of the lute come from and where does it go to? Does it come from the strings, from within the lute, from the fingers of the player, from his effort to play, or from elsewhere? And when the sound has stopped, where does it go?

Buddha in rainbowMusic depends on other things for its existence, which means it is empty of inherent, or independent, existence and is a mere imputation or projection of the mind. You cannot find it existing anywhere outside the mind, however hard you try. If you cannot find something existing outside the mind, or from its own side, you can know it doesn’t exist there. For example, we cannot find a dream existing outside the mind or from its own side, so we know it doesn’t exist there. So, where does a dream exist? Where does music exist? Where does anything exist? Everything depends upon the mind.

Although music is empty of inherent existence, it can still appear in dependence upon many causes and conditions and, when they cease, it can no longer appear. Therefore, there is nothing solid or objective about music – it is a manifestation of its emptiness, with no more concrete existence than a rainbow appearing from an empty sky.

Understanding this makes listening to music even more beautiful and blissful. And in general, the more blissful the mind, the more blissful the music becomes, proving again that the object depends on the mind. Test this out for yourself, please do an experiment if you can: next time you listen to music, see if you can find it, and report back. Any type of music, even heavy rock. Buddha would say: ‘it is all arising from empty like space.’

I love going to live gigs, but I always want the gig to last longer, maybe into the night. When it’s over, where has all that music gone? It’s finished, gone, now just a memory in our mind. So, when at a gig or when listening to music I try and savour every moment of the music, every note, relax and enjoy.

With a little help from my friends

Picture1.pngEverything in moderation. I’d recommend a good life outside of music too, good social contacts, loving relationships, a job, regular income, exercise, and especially spiritual meaning. Making music can be a way of offloading and expressing how you are feeling, but yes it can be quite negative for the listener if there is some transference of any negative feelings from the singer to the listener, and we can get really attached to music, it taking us to a completely different world where we can find ourselves too often, not dealing with the present people and challenges in our lives. Maybe though, through just accepting what music is, a simple enjoyable pleasure, and learning how to become mindful of every moment of our lives, we can enjoy music more, becoming mindful of every note and every sound.

I am grateful for all the music I have encountered in my life so far, even if some had a negative effect on me when I was younger. It’s brought me to where I am now, and I have learnt to listen to music in a different light. If I hadn’t gotten depressed when I was younger, I wouldn’t have found the answers to questions I was looking for, nor the techniques I have learnt to deal with and transform problems and difficulties.

Personally, I believe that whenever someone is having some mental health crisis in their lives, it’s almost like a spiritual or existential crisis. We are all very sensitive souls, and when we are getting way too sensitive to cope, this can be an indication that we need to try and get some help, talk with someone; and perhaps there could be a spiritual life of some sort available for you.

It’s great that people are now talking more about mental health in our society. Long may this continue! Please do seek help if your mental health distress is getting too much. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. We all have it. Find someone to talk to about it.

Over to you. Comments for the guest author and other readers are very welcome.

Reaching out ~ more Buddhist thoughts on suicide

8.5 mins read

When it comes to suicide, one of the best things we could probably do is reach out – those considering it and the rest of us too.

Carrying on from this article on suicide.

help i want to dieClearly fame, money, and the rest of it is not enough to keep the demons at bay. If we are not in control of our thoughts, they will control us. Judging by the number of articles about them, the recent celebrity suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade have been a bit of a wake-up call. Time magazine describes it as:

A one-two punch to our belief that there are some people who are living the perfect life.

The article describes their lives and achievements and then asks, “What more could a person want?”

Inner peace.

Without inner peace, we have no real happiness OR safety, whoever or wherever we are. Fame, fortune, relationships, and everything else outside the mind are causes of changing suffering, not causes of real happiness. As Time magazine puts it:

Many lives are not as they appear. Happiness is not the end result of a sum of accomplishments. The people whose wealth/wardrobe/job/talent we wish we had have their own struggles.

Thought experiment

inner peace outer peaceImagine having everything and everyone you’ve ever wanted and worked for and dreamed of. You made it!

Now, are you happy?!

……

Maybe, for a minute, until something upsets us, or we still feel we haven’t got it all, or we wonder why on earth this isn’t working. As Bourdain put it at the end of one show:

What do you do after your dreams come true?

According to this article in USA Today:

In an interview this year, the comedian and actor Jim Carrey talked about “getting to the place where you have everything everybody has ever desired and realizing you are still unhappy. And that you can still be unhappy is a shock when you have accomplished everything you ever dreamed of and more.”

As it says in How to Transform Your Life:

External conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful. We can understand this from our own experience. For instance, even if we are in the most beautiful surroundings and have everything we need, the moment we get angry any happiness we may have disappears. This is because anger has destroyed our inner peace.

Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain had everything many of us can only dream of:

Yet these two could not bear to live their lives any longer. ~ Time

Depression

chink of lightTalking of anger, going so far as to inflict such painful violence on ourselves must involve some anger. Anger directed outward — or perhaps more inward, as depression or self-loathing.

A couple of friends lately have told me that during times when they felt very depressed, the darkness that took over seemed impossible. Even getting out of bed felt like having to climb a mountain. There was no chink of light. Feeling trapped in their own minds, by their own minds, they only didn’t take their own lives because they understood that death is not the end of suffering, that it simply brings new sufferings. They knew that they would still be trapped in their minds where all the pain was really coming from.

However, they also found that by not going that route, a chink of light did have an opportunity to emerge. Hope reappeared and the clouds gradually parted. Now their lives feel very meaningful and blessed. They are both beyond grateful that they didn’t kill themselves.

Reach out

People need to find the refuge of inner peace and the refuge of love that overcomes loneliness, for nothing external can take away that ache, at least not for long. People need wisdom and compassion. People need some kind of Dharma.

If this master storyteller left us a lesson, it is this: You are not truly alone. People care about you more than you realize. Please don’t leave us. Reach out. ~ William Falk in The Week 

Anthony BourdainPeople were astonished to hear that Anthony Bourdain, that great lover of life we thought he was, had taken his own life. He was not alone, everyone loved him, he apparently knew that in his wiser and happier moments. But not when under the influence of the deceptive demon of self-cherishing telling him that he was alone, that no one truly cared.

Bourdain once noted that although he had “the best job in the world,” he often woke up in hotels far from the people he loved. “The truth is,” he said, “I’m alone for most of that time.”

USA Today suggests “community and family bonds have broken down, as people work endless hours in pursuit of material success and numb their loneliness with drugs, alcohol, TV, and the internet. The shallow interactions of social media do not fulfill our yearning for connection.”

Small talk

While I agree with this in general, I have had some deep conversations on Facebook and shallow conversations in person. We cannot blame the medium for our shallowness or lack of connection – I think it is more about where our interests lie and how deeply we are prepared to think.

small talkSometimes the people I talk with seem entirely uninterested in the real questions of life, even though they affect us all equally, including IMHO:

“Who am I? Where do I come from? Where are we all headed? What happens to me when I die, which will be in a few hundred months, at most? What are the real causes of this suffering we are all experiencing, including all that outrageous ageing and sickness, and how can we get rid of it permanently, especially as politics as usual is never going to be enough? Etc.”

I know the value of small talk, especially if we are genuinely interested in the other person. But if all we ever talk about is the weather, or the job, or where we’re going on vacation, or who has to be voted off Love Island, etc, I confess to finding it a little frustrating and tiring, to be honest, because people are ignoring the elephant in the room and yet that elephant is trampling all over their lives. Finding ways to communicate more meaningfully and with less inhibition seems invaluable if we are to genuinely help ourselves and others. What do you think?

Love is the great protector

We need love. Love cures loneliness. And I am not talking about self-involved attachment for just one person or a few people, but open-love is the great protectorhearted love for everyone we meet, a growing affection and concern for everyone we think about. This positive mind is based on reality and will keep us happy and free from danger.

This month I was walking down a pretty steep hill in Archway, London, when I saw an old woman, bent almost double, slowly walking the other way. She paused to pick up a piece of rubbish and carried it to the next bin. Then as we passed, she looked up and gave me what I can only describe as a radiant smile, accompanied by a cheery Good Morning! Then she carried on up the hill.

A day later I was walking down the same hill at a different time. Once again this old lady hobbled past me, looked up, and said good morning. She was smiling not just from her mouth but from her eyes, and I felt the affection coming off her.

She must be in pain to be bent over like that, her arthritis not only hurting her back and shoulders but crushing her internal organs. Yet she seems happy to be alive, happy to smile at strangers. I don’t know her full story, of course, but it seems she has at least some ability to transform suffering through love.

Buddha calls love “the great Protector.” As Falk puts it, beautifully I find:

At the heart of human experience is a paradox: We are each trapped inside the boundaries of our flesh, alone with our histories, our wounds, our brokenness. Yet our isolation is an illusion — a constriction of perception. All the great spiritual traditions teach the same truth: We are connected in a fundamental way to everyone and to everything. 

How can we help?

Someone who works with suicide victims wrote an interesting comment on the first article about suicide, and I quote a bit here:

While there are many people more qualified than me to discuss the determinants of suicide, a common thread I see seems to be a patient’s strong belief in their separateness; and so while I can’t necessarily help all beings yet, I can be kind. I can choose to extend myself a little further in my conversation with others to give them time and space to be heard. I can cultivate a genuine interest in their experience so that the possibility of connection can begin to outweigh that of separateness; so that the possibility of relationship can become more appealing than that of severance. I certainly pray for this.

Kate SpadeWe need to be alert, to look a bit more deeply, to remember that:

Outward impressions of people’s lives are often wildly off-base. ~ Time

Back to my thoughts on Denis at the time … 

Our friends in retrospect are saying “If only we could go back 24 hours and find him!” But we can’t. There are many things we want to say to him, but we can’t. We will do the Powa he requested, obviously, we would have done it even if he hadn’t requested — we will do our best to get him to the Pure Land, but his self-cherishing has not made it easy. It is lucky he has made friends in high places. Venerable Geshe-la said he was doing prayers and Powa for him. Denis did create a lot of good karma, so there is something there for the Buddhas to work with.

This may be what the Buddhas think about us — we will do our best to help you, but your self-cherishing does not make it easy. Still, they never give up and this has strengthened my determination to never give up as well. I really appreciate this precious human life right now, and what we can do with it, including the transcendence of all suffering. Right now, at least, I don’t want to waste another day.

One more article here about ways to cope with others’ suicides, including doing transference of consciousness (Powa).

Over to you. There were some great comments on the first article, and I value any more comments, stories, or other feedback that might be helpful to other readers. Thank you.

Related articles

A brother’s suicide  

Happiness from the inside out 

Feeling lonely? 

What can we really know about anyone? 

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?

How to get out of bed when you’re feeling hopeless

The world is pretty much a mess right now, it seems. A lot of people have been feeling hopeless and depressed, including some close to me. So I want to share a few ideas on how to cope when things go wrong, based on some skyof my own recent experiences. It’s in two parts — hope you have time to read this first one before you get up to face your day.

Don’t panic

Whenever I get one of those phone calls containing bad news, eg, a shocking bereavement or break up of a good relationship, or am sickened by some cruel and unusual politics, the first thing I tell myself is not to panic because feeling sad for a while is not going to kill me. I’ve been through worse and ended up happy again. These are temporary cloud formations in the sky. Things seem so solid when we are unhappy, but the truth is they are not.

Through practice in identifying with a pure and peaceful mind, it has gotten to the point where I can still feel the bliss of the clear sky mind even under the thick cloak of the dark clouds. So if I can do it, you can too.

Stay present

Then I tell myself, as soon as I remember, “Don’t rewind and don’t fast forward”. This was what my close friend Lovely Lekma told me after a calamity I had some years ago, and it sustained me then and sustains me now.

Stay in the moment. Stay in today at least.

Today I can handle. Today I can transform. Tomorrow will take care of itself. And I really don’t need to be thinking about how this will impact me all next year, let alone the rest of my life … especially considering I may die today.

We live life from dream to dream

As I explain a lot in these articles on subtle impermanence, due to our permanent grasping we spread our present mood over the past, missing what we think we had, and over the future, dreading a cold and depressing future. But neither of those scenarios release shacklesexist — the past has gone, and the future doesn’t exist yet, plus I guarantee you that it will be very different to how you’re envisaging it while you’re in a sad mood.

When we are feeling blessed again, or just back in a reasonably okay mood, we appreciate past lessons and welcome the opportunities of the future. The immediate past can feel like a beautiful dream, and just one of many now passed. The dream-like future can feel ripe with the potential for lasting bliss, freedom, and the ability to help others.

In other words, I only have to make the effort to change the present moment. And that is very do-able.

The rest takes care of itself. It really does. Try it and see.

Let me take that away for you

One way I like to transform the present moment is to acknowledge my current feeling of sadness rather than push it away, and use it to empathize with and absorb the similar refugesadness of so many other living beings, thus releasing them from it. This practice of taking others’ suffering makes my suffering feel meaningful, rather than like useless pain. Taking pacifies my mind with compassion and motivates me, lifting me out of discouragement.

And the deeper the sadness, the more effective this practice is in some ways! So we need not fear our sadness.

Also, as our suffering is always arising from one delusion or another, such as attachment, we can also take on others’ similar delusions as explained in Great Treasury of Merit (which I will quote in full as it is such a helpful paragraph):

If we find it difficult to prevent a particular delusion by transforming it into its opposite, we can try to overcome it by practicing taking and giving. For example, if we are having difficulty in preventing attachment towards a particular object or person, we should think how there are countless beings afflicted by attachment which is often much stronger than our own, and out of compassion decide to take all their attachment upon ourself. We imagine that we draw all their attachment towards us in the form of black smoke. As it enters us, it completely destroys our own attachment, and then we meditate on emptiness for a while. We can use the same technique to overcome hatred and ignorance. In this way, we use our delusions to cultivate pure minds, rather as a farmer uses manure to grow crops.

people on banks of river

I remember discussing this meditation with another friend, Gen Rabten, last year — he told me it has been his go-to for overcoming delusions for many years. IMHO it seems to be working for him very well, so I may as well copy him! Spiritual friends can be so useful.

Part 2 is now here, including practical stuff on prayer, blessings, and how to view ourselves completely differently.

Care to share?

Meantime, have you dealt successfully with any calamities lately? Are you finding ways to avoid falling into despair over the current world situation?

Related articles

Accepting unhappiness without panicking

More on taking and giving …

Learning to live in the moment

Marvin the manically depressed robot

My parents were staying with me early this year, which was lovely, and one night we watched Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was entertaining enough if you had no expectations whatsoever and were in the mood, which we were.

how to deal with depressionMarvin the manically depressed robot got me thinking. He’s a robot with the brain the size of a planet, but a brain he only uses to find faults with everything, now and in the future. He cannot be happy about anything. He thinks too much, but all the wrong thoughts, despite his vast knowledge. There are a lot of very intelligent people who do the same. Sometimes the more intelligent someone is, the more they tie themselves in unpleasant knots with discursive thinking.

We can grasp at things as being a certain way, and then pride ourselves on our fine critical abilities and poetic sensibilities. We may be in a place that many people find beautiful but we still find fault everywhere we look. “Oh, that is so ugly, what a shame they built it!”, we might say, looking at a building. And we believe our own hype – the person we are with, who finds the building rather appealing, is simply naïve or lacking in discrimination.

Never is this clash more obvious than in the reactions of people watching a politician whom half the country loves and the other half hates, which seems to have happened a lot recently, but hopefully is over for the time being. In Understanding the Mind, Geshe Kelsang says:

The defining characteristics of an object to not exist from the side of the object but are merely imputed by the mind that apprehends them.

He uses the example of a person called John, and for the sake of argument I will use the name Mitt, though I could just have easily have used the name Obama or even Luna or in fact any name at all as there is no one on this planet who gets perceived in just one way.

If one person identifies Mitt as a friend and the other identifies Mitt as an enemy, and the characteristics of friend and enemy existed from the side of the person, there would be two possibilities:

(1) There is a contradiction here as Mitt cannot be both a friend and an enemy from his own side.

(2) One of the people would be wrong. Of course, that is what we normally think.

However, neither of these is correct because “friend” and “enemy” are merely imputed onto the person by different minds:

From his own side, [Mitt] does not have a fixed set of defining characteristics waiting to be discovered by various minds; what he is depends solely upon how he is identified by the minds that apprehend him.

That is clearly a far-reaching statement.

Discrimination associated with conceptual minds functions to impute, label, or name objects.

With our thoughts we create our world.

Marvin of course doesn’t see it that way. If the world is fixed, as he assumes, and inherently depressing, there is no point in changing our mind as our miserable world will just stay the same. It is clear how he makes himself live in a depressed world and how everyone else finds him irritating and hard to be around. We can recognize this behavior as self-indulgent and also a bad habit in Marvin, and if we look closely we may discover that we are doing it too. But in fact, changing our attitude actually changes our world, which shows that the world is not fixed.avoiding self-pity and manic depression

We label things to get a handle on them, but then make the mistake of believing that our rather random labels are 100 percent accurate. “Delicious home-made jelly 2012”. If someone puts another label on it “Gross home-made jelly 2012”, we think they’re wrong and might even get in a fight about it.

In fact, it is even more subtle than that, because there is no object existing above and beyond our label. Everything is mere name. We create our world with conceptual labeling and then think there is something behind the labels when in fact it all comes from the side of our mind. We projected the world and now we have to live in it.

Unpleasant thoughts have only the power to harm us that we give them. Marvin would be better off thinking not ‘Oh I’m so depressed” but “Depression is arising in my mind like a cloud in a clear blue sky, temporary, fleeting, not me.” We need that space to be able to let our negative labels go and think differently, to come up with more constructive labels eg, “This person is my kind mother” as opposed to “This person is a big idiot.”

We have the choice, exercise it

glass half empty and BuddhismWe choose how we discriminate the world. Choose carefully, for our world depends on these discriminations. If we want to see the glass half-full instead of half-empty, we can, and that recognition will be accurate because our world is dependent on our thoughts. If the glass really was half-empty, what would be the point of thinking it is half-full!? We’d be deluding ourselves. But everything is relative because everything is empty and unfixed, and everything is empty and unfixed because everything is relative – it only exists in relation to our thoughts.

If we do understand that we can choose our world by changing our thoughts, and change our world by choosing our thoughts, Lamrim offers 21 powerful methods of thinking that will lead us bit by bit from manic depressed self-centered misery to other-centered permanent bliss!