Meditation versus action … more from our social worker

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

In this article, he is asking significant questions about the relationship between Buddhism and social action, important to address, especially in our modern age.  Please share your understanding in the comments box below, particularly if you work in any of the caring professions!

Continuing on my reflections on working for a mental health charity as a student social worker, I found that being mentally prepared for the work I did was essential.

Meditation on compassion

I tried to make universal compassion my main practice throughout these months, making sure I started the day with a meditation on compassion or at least incorporating compassion into my meditation e.g. having a compassionate motivation/intention at the beginning of the meditation and a compassionate dedication at the end.

I always dedicate my meditations for the enlightenment of each and every living being, but I feel it is ok to include people you know who have a particular suffering (which could include service users) and pray (without attachment) for their liberation from their present suffering.   In fact this makes my meditations and virtue more personal and more powerful.

At work, most of the time I was able to remain unnerved and at ease with service users, with love and compassion (being relatively free from my own self-cherishing) protecting my mind from any negativity in the working environment.

Tackling stigma and leading by example

Another aspect of working for a mental health charity can be tackling the stigma and discrimination there is against people with mental health distress. It has been encouraging to discover this year that mental health charities are beginning to make progress in this area, but there is still a long way to go.  I found that talking openly about my own past and present mental health distress has helped service users and their families considerably.  It can be so beneficial to open up and talk about your difficulties and, once you do, and there is some acknowledgement, difficulties can be shared and reduced, and as a society we can all become more aware of mental health distress.  You do have to check, however, how much you can self-disclose and such practice is more accepted in social work than it is in healthcare.

This placement experience reminded me that it was my own stress, anxiety and depression that led me to Buddhist meditation; and it is this medicine for the mind that I keep on taking several times a day for the rest of my life, gradually improving each year.  People can be relieved and less frightened too when they realise that you are human and experience similar difficulties.  They become more open to your help.

Meditation v. action

Trying to lead by example is the main way I help people, but there are times in social work where you have to act as an advocate, representing a group of people or to politicise a little.  You can become very passionate about this and feel justified in becoming angry.  On my course at university I was a student rep as I felt sorry for the younger students struggling with the course.  It felt good and beneficial to encourage them to stand up for themselves, but I struggled with representing groups of people who were angry or upset; and I realised that the Buddhist belief in personal responsibility doesn’t mix with trade unionism.

These are areas where I can have difficulties, and I am interested in what any of you have to say.  Are your own meditation, prayers and example enough, or could we do more for our society? Could the products that Kadampa Buddhism offers such as the meditation CD’s, teaching in schools, chaplaincy and any other act of public service be more offered and marketed to areas of our society that need it?

I often found that in the academic training in social work, my use of my knowledge and experience of Buddhism wasn’t appreciated, and perhaps there is danger of mixing Dharma too much into our worldly work life and that it is best to quietly lead by our own example? What do you think? If I was to train as some kind of mental health practitioner I would have to study practices that are similar but different to Buddhism.  Could and should Kadampa Buddhism offer more to the care industries in our societies?

Perhaps you would be willing to help me by letting me know what you think below.

Like Kadampa Life on Facebook!

Dealing with anger … more from our social worker

This is the fourth article from a guest writer, Kadampa Buddhist and student social worker. For the others, see Guest Articles.

Who is mentally healthy?

My second placement in my social work training was for a mental health charity. I found myself being attracted to the ethos of this organisation. They believe that we all experience mental health, and at times mental ill health or mental health distress.  Mental health distress only becomes a ‘mental health problem’ or mental ill health when our daily life is interfered with to such an extent that we are prevented from holding down a job or being able to live in stable accommodation.

Buddha would certainly agree with this ethos! In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says we are all sick as we suffer from desirous attachment, hatred, ignorance, and other diseases of the mind (Gyatso, 2006). I think that it is good to remember every day that these so-called delusions are our only enemy and that we all get them and the daily habits that come with them. Geshe Kelsang reminds us to have this awareness before we meditate or go into a Dharma teaching, to seek medicine for our mind through Dharma.

These teachings can also help us develop compassion for people we come into contact with in our daily lives and especially have compassion for those with strong delusions. Working in a mental health care setting I believe I came across people with strong delusions and some who had had quite horrendous and negative lives but their delusions, behaviour and wishes were perhaps most of the time no different to mine.

Anger management classes

On this placement I found myself helping run anger management classes, encouraging young men that anger and violence were not the best ways of coping when having relationship problems. The classes were based upon CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and I found the content and format quite similar to the practicalities of some of the teachings in the General Programme Classes run by Kadampa Buddhist Centres. I assisted the teacher in encouraging the service users to realise what triggers their anger, to recall/examine their thoughts and feelings the moment before they got angry and how to have nice thoughts about yourself.

During these classes I found my knowledge and experience of Shantideva’s teachings on anger in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life very helpful and beneficial. I recalled teachings on the faults of anger from How to Solve Our Human Problems, Gyatso 2005:

Anger robs us of our reason and good sense.

and why we get angry:

Anger is a response to feelings of unhappiness.

I would put this experience into practice by relaying these ideas in more everyday language to them without mentioning Buddhism or that I am a Buddhist e.g.

Have you ever wondered why you get angry? From my experience it is when I am disappointed and often my main triggers occur when I am tired.”

At times I could really relate to the guys on the course, the relationship problems they were having and the attachment that was causing their anger and jealousy. I didn’t see much difference between myself and them perhaps only in that I have in the past been aware enough not to do physical actions through anger whereas these men had acted out with their anger such as head-butting strangers, physically lashing out on their partners and attempting to commit suicide.

 It’s been challenging coming across people who commit really negative actions but the Buddhist meditation on universal compassion has helped here. – that you can take a step back from the person or situation and see and feel a bigger picture leading to compassion for those who are creating the cause to experience suffering in the future as well as those who are experiencing suffering now (Transform Your Life, Gyatso, 2006). Also to distinguish between delusions and persons:

The fault I see is not the fault of the person, but the fault of delusion.

(Eight Steps to Happiness, Gyatso, 2006).

Through reading about mental health care and various therapies I can see similarities between them and Buddhism and I could relate to the more psychodynamic therapies that recognise that feelings precede thoughts. Meditation, relaxation and complimentary therapies are becoming popular in mental health care settings. At the end of the anger management classes I co-facilitated we went through relaxation exercises similar to meditation. I would encourage service users to do these exercises and I would talk about the benefits of meditation to them such as a calm and peaceful mind, less fluctuations of mood, improved health and better relationships with others (The New Meditation Handbook, Gyatso, 2008). The meditation CD’s that Tharpa Publications produce are becoming popular throughout the world and could be utilised more in the mental health care world.

Has anyone else got experience of using these CD’s in workplaces or with the general public?

Mind-training and social work

This is the third 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 and for the second, see Where is a problem? 

Throughout my three years of training to become a social worker I have undertaken three long-term work placements.  The first was in a baby’s hospice caring for children with life-limiting illnesses.  They offer palliative and respite care for babies/infants from birth to five years old. I loved this job!  To be honest I have never felt so much unconditional love for others in one organisation, especially towards the ill children.  I have lived and visited many Kadampa Buddhist Centres in my time who show a brilliant example of tolerance and acceptance to people from all backgrounds without wanting anything in return, and the experience at the baby’s hospice was similar.

Exchanging self with others

At times it was quite a busy environment and twelve hour shifts too.  I try and always make time to do my meditation though, even if very tired I do my daily offerings and pujas (chanted prayers) to keep the blessings going (and me).  One of the main meditations to focus on when in a busy care environment is exchanging self with others (from the Lojong or mind-training tradition).

In the morning before work, I always try and include prayers in my meditation such as Prayers for Meditation (available here) or Heart Jewel and try to feel close to Buddha.

Before actual meditation I dissolve Buddha into my heart and imagine that I already have the spiritual realisation of exchanging self with others, imagining what it would be like to have this mind.

Then I contemplate Buddha’s teaching on exchanging self with others, feeling it is possible to change the object of my cherishing from myself to all others, and develop a heartfelt determination to develop this mind.  I find that this meditation is meditation on love — cherishing love, perceiving others as precious and important.

A playful social worker

If it is a good meditation then I can carry this feeling of love for a while at work– even when extremely busy, having staff, visitors and children wanting my attention.  At busy times like this I try and mentally repeat in my heart, that others matter and are more important than me, repeating this like a mantra.  It helps me become more self-aware and less stressed, actively listening to what others are saying and trying to fulfil their expressed needs.

It is perhaps easier with children.  In the children’s hospice it was never a large group and most activities were therapeutic and playful.  In a way you are becoming just like them (although still aware of your duties and health and safety).  You join in with all the activities they are doing such as messing about in a soft play area, arts and crafts, playing with toys, laughing and joking, and trying to get out onto the swings in the park.

This playfulness reminded me of how I should be with my meditation practice to overcome laziness, being playful and light with meditation.

Non-sectarianism

The hospice is on the grounds of a Catholic nunnery and although it is not a religious organisation there seems to be a Catholic religious background and culture to the premises and nearby organisations.  I think people found it quite cool me being a Buddhist and I was accepted into the work life (as a professional and at times as a volunteer) and also, the social life of the organisation and community.   I found that there was harmony and mutual respect between myself and those in the hospice that were religious.

Gen Pagpa and other religious teachers opening the world cup stadium in Cape Town

In Understanding the Mind Geshe Kelsang explains how mixing religions causes sectarianism but that if you practice your own tradition and respect all other traditions at the same time, this leads to harmony and tolerance. (Gyatso, 1997, p162).  I showed this example here well, as did the Christians I worked with.  At times I was asked to attend church services with the children and often with colleagues we shared spiritual or religious beliefs and respected the similarities and differences.

Not so long ago I attended their Christmas party, hoping to be asked to be Santa, having been a Buddhist Santa in other care settings in the past. I missed out, but happily engaged in the fancy dress party (Cowboys and Indians), handing out Christmas presents to the children and making sure that they and their family had a good time – all part and parcel of trying to exchange self with others.

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 helps me be a better social worker. And vice versa.

Here is the article I promised from the friend I quoted:

Being a social worker makes me a better Buddhist. Being a Buddhist makes me a better social worker.

Someone wrote me on Facebook to say they thought this was a good Kadampa motto. Replace “social worker” with your job title.

And ask: Does my meditation practice help my job and does my job fuel my meditation practice? (If yes, you’re all set, as you probably spend most of your waking hours at work… ) Here is how one person is doing it:

“For almost three years now I have been training to be a social worker.  It’s been difficult, challenging and very busy but I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

I feel I have been on quite a journey, developing as a person and as a social work practitioner.  Throughout my time Kadampa Buddhism has helped me cope, stay calm and transform difficult situations for myself and others.

My daily meditation practices have helped me keep a good motivation at the beginning of the day and allowed me to off load any stress at the end of day when I have got back from work or study.

I have found that the Buddhist values and way of life are not dissimilar to that of a social worker. Social workers have a code of ethics which include: human dignity and worth, social justice (e.g. equal treatment without prejudice or discrimination), service (e.g. enabling people to develop their potential), integrity and competence.

Compassion and love for others is an integral part of Kadampa Buddhism and of becoming a bodhisattva.  My kind teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in Meaningful to Behold says a bodhisattva is someone who wishes to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings and that they are motivated by the desire to benefit all living beings (p95-96).

I aspire to be like this and find with practice it can become natural to want to help those who are around you whether that is at home or at work.

In one of my placements I helped people staying in a mental health hostel with their daily living.  I helped and advised them with their shopping and budgeting, encouraging them to go to social activities or work and engaging in therapeutic activities with them such as making pizzas, cookies and playing pool.  This work seemed natural for me from the intentions, minds and values I have discovered through Kadampa Buddhism.”

Part Two, Where is a problem?

Part Three, Mind-training and social work