Serenity in the storm

7 mins read.

It’s no secret that humanity has been living through some difficult times and a lot of people have been struggling to stay afloat.

Friends all over the world have told me they’ve been having a challenging two years. Some who were relatively carefree have been experiencing levels of anxiety they didn’t expect, for example, and I know what they mean. I read that therapists cannot keep up with demand because stress and other mental health issues are, not surprisingly, at an all time high. Samsara (the cycle of impure life explained by Buddha) was not exactly working out even before this pandemic; but the pandemic has functioned like a magnifying glass for vulnerabilities.

Nine out of 10 therapists say the number of clients seeking care is on the rise, and most are experiencing a significant surge in calls for appointments, longer waiting lists, and difficulty meeting patient demand. Nearly one in three clinicians have 3-month waiting lists, and report hating having to turn so many people away.

This has got me thinking even more than usual about the value of Buddhism, or Dharma. Buddha specialized in overcoming adversity and suffering. His teachings address all aspects of the human experience, including trauma, grief, loneliness, depression, anxiety, anger, and overwhelmingness. Buddhist meditation is both therapeutic and transcendent, and anyone can learn how to do it, Buddhist or not.

We can go to classes now all over the world. There is no waiting list, no one has to be turned away, and weekly classes are kept accessible and inexpensive — not much more than this over-priced coffee I am nursing. And once we learn how to meditate we can do it whenever we like, for free. It doesn’t require special clothing or equipment. We can do it wherever we like too — on our bed or on our commute or on a park bench.

Hole or door?

I have been wanting to share a bit of advice for any of you who might be feeling fear and worry in these difficult times — advice I am just going to go ahead and repeat verbatim from a fellow ancient Kadampa:

This moment that humanity is living through can be considered a door or a hole. The decision to fall into the hole or go through the door is yours.

If you consume information 24 hours a day, with negative energy, constantly nervous, with pessimism, you will fall into this hole.

But if you take the opportunity to look at yourself, to rethink life and death, to take care of yourself and others, you will go through the door.

Take care of your body and mind. When you take care of yourself, you take care of others at the same time. Be kind to yourself and others.

You are prepared to go through this crisis. Grab your toolbox and use all the tools at your disposal.

Don’t feel guilty for feeling fortunate in these difficult times. Being sad and without energy doesn’t help at all — enjoy life! You have the right to be strong and positive. You have to maintain a beautiful, cheerful, and bright demeanor. This has nothing to do with ignoring the world’s problems, it is a strategy of resistance.

When we walk through the door, we have a new view of the world because we have faced our fears and difficulties. This is what you can do now:

  • Practice serenity in the storm
  • Keep calm, meditate daily
  • Make a habit of encountering the sacred every day
  • Demonstrate resilience through faith, patience, and love.

I hope this year that lots of people will add tools to that resilience toolbox by taking advantage of the meditation centers existing all over this big wide world.

While we remain with delusions such as aversion, uncontrolled desire, confusion, and fear, we are all of us mentally unhealthy to a greater or lesser degree. If we don’t understand ourselves, we cannot heal ourselves, let alone anyone else. Therefore, we need to learn to apply the medicine of Dharma to our own actual problems; and with a skillful meditation teacher this is exactly what we can do. Moreover, Buddhist meditation is not only immediately curative but also an entire path to the everlasting bliss of enlightenment – meaning that we can practice it at whatever level we wish.

For any Kadampas amongst you, this pressing need for Dharma to stay widely available has got me thinking about a related topic that seems quite relevant  …

Find your Sangha

Listening recently to one of Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s teachings from a Festival he taught years ago, I heard the laughter of thousands of people in attendance. It struck me how important these Festivals are for the flourishing of Kadampa Buddhist teachings in this world, providing the glue to keep this tradition alive and whole.

I really appreciate the opportunities that livestreaming meditation classes have created for people everywhere – it has been a genuinely silver lining to this pandemic, and I hope it stays put. However, from what I can tell, there has also been a lot of inevitable fracturing over these past two years of involuntary separation, and the sooner we can all try and get back in person to our Centers and Festivals, the better. (Maybe not this minute, with Omicron raging, but as soon as the coast is clear.)

We talk about the Three Jewels of refuge in Buddhism – not just Buddha and Dharma (his teachings), but also Sangha (the community of practitioners). Our Sangha provide the antidote to the isolation so many of us have been feeling, as well as the advice and help we need to make sustained and happy progress. I recall Venerable Geshe-la saying years ago:

People come for the teachings, but they stay for the Sangha.

What is our Center for?

What is your Buddhist Center for you?

I think this might be quite an important question to ask ourselves as we deliberate on whether or not to head on back there.

Kadampas are all about living a more heartfelt, enlightened way of life. That’s the theory, anyway. We really are supposed to mean it when we say, “Everybody welcome”; and this is because we are trying to be Bodhisattva communities. We share in the vision of bringing about lasting peace and freedom in the hearts of each and every single living being! Every Center is dedicated to this very aim. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we always maintain the recognition “I am a member of a Bodhisattva family; our community is a Bodhisattva family,” we will develop respect for our community, which in reality is Mahayana Sangha and an object of refuge.

If we go to our Center in person, we can help build up a warm, inclusive, and kind-hearted Sangha community, and it really will become a place where anyone feels they can come for company, joy, and mutual support. It can also act as a reliable base from which we can take everything we learn back out into our family and wider communities.

But, to paraphrase Gen-la Dekyong from last Summer’s International Festival, how can we say “Everybody welcome” if we’re not at the Center to let them in?!

We need to show up, somehow, to do our bit if we possibly can. I think so, anyway. As Venerable Geshe-la says in a talk he gave called “What should our main practice be?”

We cannot cherish all living beings immediately because our self-cherishing is too strong. Therefore, to train in the intention to offer happiness to others we need to choose one object to begin with. Eventually we can apply this practice to all mother sentient beings. I can say that for us this object is our own Dharma Centre. If we help Dharma Centers, in reality we are giving happiness to all living beings.

He goes on to explain exactly what he means by that, summing it up like this:

By helping Dharma Centers to flourish we are helping pure Dharma to flourish, and if Dharma flourishes people will have the opportunity to listen to, contemplate, meditate on, and realize Dharma. In this way they can solve their problems and gain permanent freedom from suffering.

Without our Dharma Center flourishing, what would be left in our area? Would we even have the rather convenient livestreaming we have all come to know and (sort of) love … ?!

Finally, in the current climate I think it’s worth mentioning also that Kadampa Centers are political-free zones. There is so much more we humans have in common than not, and Buddha’s teachings help us to appreciate this such that we can genuinely understand and respect one another. Something the world could use more of, wouldn’t you agree?

Comments on this subject (pros and cons of livestreaming) are appearing on this article, and your experience is very welcome if you can take a moment to write about it in the box below.

(One thing I want to just add is that, in my observation, livestream has worked well as a way to stay connected for those who had already attended Centers and somewhat knew their Sangha. Less so for complete newcomers — livestream is not quite as supportive — which may be why some Centers are now noticing that there are more “new” people than old-timers showing up for in-person classes. Your thoughts are welcome on this too.)

Related articles

Articles that deal with anxiety

Portals to peace

A vision of hope in troubled times

Coping with anxiety

I am hoping this article will help you if you need to find some peace and calm during this particularly anxious time of COVID-19.

You might have heard the expression “Xanax is the new Prozac”? This is because worry worryand anxiety have already reached epidemic proportions in our modern society. And if we are prone to worry, there certainly seems more and more cause for it as the days and months roll by.

You’ve probably seen the articles. They report that, for example, in 1980, 4% of Americans suffered a mental disorder associated with anxiety. Today half do. A third of Britons will experience anxiety disorder at some stage in their life, with an explosion of reported anxiety among teenagers and young adults.

And so on and so forth, all over the world. It’s bad. It’s sad.

But it is not inevitable. And (along with the medication in some cases) meditation and Buddhism can help; they are designed to help.

Plus, we need to try and solve our own sense of anxiety and hopelessness if we have any desire to help our world. As we have probably all noticed, it is not easy to help others when we are feeling unbalanced or unhappy ourselves.

I am carrying on from this article.

How is it that some some people can cope with worry and stress and even thrive on it, whereas others get overwhelmed and even ill? Of course there are various factors at play, but there are also good methods for alleviating worry and stress that anyone can try.

I was interested to see that the dictionary.com definition for worry is:

To torment oneself with or suffer from disturbing thoughts; fret.

Note the word “oneself”. We are tormenting ourselves, no one is doing it to us. We are the ones thinking our thoughts. If we could control our thoughts, we could get rid of our worry. If we could change our thoughts, we could — we would — learn to be peaceful.

Break the vicious cycle

IMG_1750-EFFECTSWhen we notice our anxious symptoms, responding to some perceived threat, we think that we can’t cope with the situation, and therefore we become more anxious. This is the start of the vicious cycle of anxiety, the cycle we have to break.

If we are prone to worry, this means that our thoughts are thinking us us rather than the other way around. We have inadvertently boarded trains of thoughts that are taking us from worry stations right through to panic stations. We have to find a way to get off.

We don’t have to think all our thoughts. We don’t have to give them power – the only power a thought actually has is the power we give it. If we learn to control our mind, we can think our thoughts rather than the other way around. We can transform our thoughts and we can transform ourselves.

Thoughts depend upon the thinker just as the thinker depends upon the thoughts – change one, the other changes automatically.

This is a simple but devastatingly profound insight from Buddha, which can change everything. And we can experience it for ourselves by learning simple meditation.

Meditation has proven benefits in stopping worry – including even the simplest breathing meditation that anyone can do, such as the 15-minute peace meditation I explained in the last article on worry. Basically, in this meditation, we are making our mind bigger so that our problems become smaller. And we are learning that we can control our own thoughts.

Feeling foggy?

IMG_0956-EFFECTSOur mind is naturally peaceful. Our problem is that we keep shaking our minds up, like shaking a clear glass of water up and down, or like speedboats churning through a still mountain lake. Whenever we give ourselves some time and allow our mind to settle and relax, we experience some of our own natural peace of mind. Our inner problems subside temporarily because we have taken our attention away from them. And, even if we experience only a little bit of peace, we can know that there is plenty more where that came from.

Another analogy for our mind — and its infinite depth and spiritual potential – is that of a vast clear sky. When the fog rolls in, the whole sky can feel foggy, as anyone in San Francisco will tell you. But we know this is temporary, not the nature of sky; and that it can and will change. It is only if we are not aware of our limitless sky-like depth that we identify instead with our fog-like delusions and problems, and feel foggy ourselves. Our head is stuck in these as if that’s all there is. We get caught up in our fleeting feelings, clutching onto them as if they comprise our entire mind.

The first thing to do is allow these foggy problematical thoughts and feelings to disappear by focusing on the breath and not following them. Instead of shaking our mind up, we allow our mind to settle down. In this, we can start to experience the restorative nature of our own peaceful mind, which has the power to heal us.

This goes for any problem – relationship problems (is he texting me enough?!), work problems (will I get that thing done on time?), health problems (why isn’t this diet working?), children problems (how can I help them when they don’t want to be helped?), world problems (where do I start?!) — we can let go of the inappropriate attention. Just allow ourselves to forget about all this for a few minutes, relax, let the attachment and anxiety drop away. We’re not going to miss anything.

Hey, I can’t afford to do that!

Maybe we think that if we relax like this we are reneging on our responsibility – that we need to chew over every problem until we have solved it, especially when other people are involved. For example, if I am not worrying about my parents/children/pets/the world, I am letting them down. We feel guilty. We think, “Let me just try and sort this/them out first, and then I can get back to feeling peaceful — I can reward myself, go on retreat or something.”IMG_1950

But this is completely the wrong way around. The fact of the matter is that over-thinking is not the way to solve our own or others’ problems. Trying to sort everything out “out there” is not the way to solve problems. Space is the way to solve problems. The sanity of inner peace is the way to solve problems.

There’s a saying in Buddhism that worldly activities are like a man’s beard – though he may shave it off in the morning, it is growing back again by the evening. Even if we did manage to sort everything out “out there” on any given day (an entirely dubious proposition, at least in my experience), is it not true that there are more problems to sort out by the next day? We need to learn the art of relaxation and letting go as the way to (dis)solve our own and others’ problems.

Then — and this is very much part of it — we can approach the external problems from a far more helpful and realistic perspective.

Who are you?

It’s also helpful to ask ourselves, “Who am I, really?” Once we are feeling more peaceful, we can spend a few minutes developing a really positive mind – for example by contemplating some brief instruction on love.

Then we can relate to ourselves as a loving compassionate person, or at least, “Hey, I’m not so bad!”, as opposed to that limited anxious person, “I am useless and doomed.” We can start to get a foot in the door, some agency in our own narrative.

We are who we tell ourselves we are, and in fact it is closer to reality to see ourselves as loving than as hopeless. The love goes far far deeper, and it is our own nature.

IMG_1037We can learn to go through our day with this relative peace, love, and confidence in our heart — try it out for size, let it grow through practice. At least know it is in there somewhere, that there is an alternative to this anxiety. Dive into the restroom when we forget there is peace at the heart, make it live up to its name.

Also, my advice, if you can: go to meditation classes and get guided in meditation. You’ll learn stuff that you can practice all week, plus you’ll get the support and encouragement of others in the same boat. During COVID-19, there are many classes being streamed by Centers all over the world! Click here to find your nearest Center and enquire.

Start the virtuous cycle

So, through breathing meditation we can develop a little space between us and our suffering — it is no longer consuming all our attention by drawing it into an exaggerated sense of a limited, suffering me. From that perspective, we have a better chance of using our own problems to empathize more deeply with others — and the more we do this the less anxious we will feel. We have started a a virtuous cycle to replace the vicious one.

More ideas for helping with worry coming up soon. Meantime, is this helping at all? Please share your experience and questions in the comments.

Related articles

Want to banish stress?

Overcoming a painful, limited sense of self

Accepting unhappiness without panicking

Gaining perspective on hurt feelings 

 

%d bloggers like this: