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.

Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead … more from our social worker

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

At this time of year, Mexicans specifically remember the dead with the Day of the Dead.  Traditionally, on the 1st or 2nd November for Mexicans, the souls of dead loved ones are invited back to visit the living.  Communities across Mexico and elsewhere gather together to remember dead relatives and friends, toast their memory and reaffirm their feelings for loved ones who have died.

Health agencies around the world now celebrate the Day of The Dead to raise awareness of death issues to get people talking more about death for, as I try to point out in the following articles, it is important individually and collectively that we do so.  In the UK, the Day of the Dead is the 4th November.  Watch out for news and events relating to this, or why not do something yourself?

In my next couple of articles, I’ll be explaining how I used Buddhism and meditation to help me in my care of the elderly and the dying.

How to help the dying

In my third and final year as a student social worker I decided that my Buddhist values were best suited to the care of older people and the dying as there is less theorising about different types of care and more practical and dynamic compassion.  I feel the elderly, frail and dying are the best service user group where Buddhism could have a lot to offer. There is a lot of good information in this website and in Geshe Kelsang’s book Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully.

In Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully (2009) Geshe Kelsang says you can benefit those who are about to die. He encourages those benefiting the dying to help keep the dying person’s mind calm and peaceful, trying to prevent them from becoming upset or unhappy.  He stresses the importance of dying peacefully without any disturbance.

Geshe Kelsang (2010) also talks about the power of prayer. He says:

Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara

The power of our prayers depends upon the strength and purity of our intention and that having a mind of compassion for the dying or deceased is very important – if we have a genuinely compassionate motivation our prayers will definitely be effective.

Several times a day I dedicate my good fortune/merit to the vulnerable people I meet in my work as a student social worker; and when a service user I know dies, I do “powa” puja for them (transference of consciousness).

And how not to

During my final year of training I worked in an acute hospital trust within a discharge liaison team and I also focussed my dissertation on the care of older people and the dying. At work I played a part in helping service users leave hospital swiftly, but safely and legally.  It’s been my toughest job so far because it can be a very busy environment in which to remain calm (I had to interrupt busy doctors and nurses in their wards – asking them to improve their paperwork and inform me about discharges).  I was not Mr Popular with them but I managed the conflict well and made sure I got all the necessary information.

In my work it was challenging to see health and social care professionals disagree at times over the care and funding of care of a dying person. One memory that stands out is of a team colleague liaising in the battle between health and social care over who was going to pay for the service user’s care – whilst the actual service user was in the process of dying.  What affect must this have had on the service user?

Most discharges are not deaths; they are often issues around finding an appropriate care home for the service user, perhaps issues around mental capacity and their medical fitness.  Whenever there was a death there was often confusion about what was the appropriate action to take, whether to rush them off to home to die or to allow them to die in hospital.  This was the topic of my dissertation – how to have a good death.

Where would you like to die?

In the UK, 56 to 74 per cent of us would like to die at home but 60 per cent of us actually die in hospital.  Numbers of home deaths have been declining (to below 20 percent).  Roughly 500,000 people die each year with fewer than 8,000 specialist doctors and nurses, so there is not sufficient capacity. This combined with an ever increasing ageing population and more people living with multiple and degenerate conditions means there are increasing pressures on the health and social care system. Many people are not getting their wishes fulfilled of having a good death – at home.

Talking openly about death

There is an increasing awareness campaign in the UK to address these problems and in the future there may be more of a role for social care and social work to pre-empt matters.  The campaign is a continuous one that encourages everyone in our society to talk openly about death e.g. making wills well in advance, and planning and caring well for those who we know are very ill and perhaps dying. They even discuss issues around advance directives involving not using resuscitations and switching off life support machines, in certain circumstances.

I found similarities with this campaign and Buddhism in that they both recognise that we don’t like to talk about death too much.  In Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully, Geshe-la says:

Although intellectually we all know that one day we shall die, generally we are so reluctant to think about our death that this knowledge does not touch our hearts, and we live our life as if we were going to be in this world forever.

Through my dissertation research I found sociologists who agreed with this view, saying that, historically, institutions in our society have protected us from thinking about death, helping us suppress or suspend our thoughts about death.

At Kadampa Buddhist Centres we don’t have to wait for the Day of the Dead to discuss death and dying and how an awareness of death can enrich our spiritual practice 🙂 These kinds of discussion take place regularly!

Your turn
What do you think? Is it too morbid or depressing to think or talk about death? Or has it helped you live a happier, fuller life, and/or to help others who are dying or bereaved?

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.

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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