By Jean D’Cruz
Recent times have been challenging. We have been through the stress, isolation and dislocation of the pandemic. Many people are still getting sick, and we are experiencing the follow-on effects economically. Through daily news we see the suffering of the war in Ukraine, and our own region is militarising.
All this is occurring with the backdrop of climate change with forecasts of dire changes to the world’s ecosystems and the visceral experience in Australia of recent devasting unprecedented floods.
As well as these challenges we all face our own personal ones and the challenges of loved ones. How do we deal with these difficulties in the world and our own individual challenges?
Science of the mind
The Dalai Lama said that “Buddhism is more than a religion. It is a science of the mind.” Based on this science, Buddhism has developed a set of methods and techniques that allow us to respond to adversity with more equanimity and compassion, and recover from hardship more quickly.
When difficulties occur, we tend to respond with anxiety, fear, helplessness, stress, pessimism and anger. Our reactions amplify the suffering we experience. They can lead us to act in a negative or harmful way and they hinder our ability to think clearly about what we can do about the situation because our minds are unsettled and unclear.
A key insight that Buddhism offers is that the thoughts underlying our reactions and responses come from the mind. Therefore, we have an opportunity to train our mind to respond differently.
We can change our habits
We might feel that the way that we respond is automatic and unchangeable. But because it is mind, it is not actually fixed. It’s just a habit, and we can change our habits. They are not who we are. Our minds can be trained and developed though meditation. Science is uncovering that people with even small amounts of meditation experience have reduced stress responses and recover from stressors more quickly.
Also, when confronted with difficulty, Buddhism reminds us to recognise that things are always changing, that they are impermanent. We can think, “It is the nature of things to be impermanent, not to stay the same.” When we do this, it leads to us having a more open, dynamic, realistic perspective. We are not living in denial. In this way, we change the feeling of being out of control and helpless to having a more relaxed, open and flexible mind.
We can also learn to respond to difficult circumstances with patience instead of anger, agitation and tension. With distress and anger, we have no peace, no control, no joy, we are reactive and have bad judgement.
Buddhism also teaches that patience is a mind that can bear any difficulty with strength and stability. Patience can be trained by deliberately bringing a mind of calm and peace to difficulties, starting with the common, small ones. As we become more familiar with this mind and it becomes more ingrained, it becomes more natural to respond calmly and wisely.
Cultivating compassion is powerful
Another very powerful technique of Buddhism is to respond to adversity by focusing on cultivating compassion for others. Usually when we encounter problems, we get unhappy and feel sorry for ourselves. Instead, we can change our mind and think, “There are many people who are also experiencing suffering like I am and worse. Just as I wish to be free of my suffering, I also wish for all others experiencing similar and worse suffering to be free of their suffering.” Thinking like this naturally reduces our suffering.
Expanding our perspective with compassion makes us happier. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said in a Mind Life dialogue in December 2021, “If we focus too much on ourselves, we’ll not be happy. … If we’re really serious about happiness in the long term, we need to open our hearts and focus on others, as well as ourselves.” and “… we find that fear, stress, anxiety and suspicion come about when we are disproportionately focused on ourselves. If we’re able to open up some space for courage in relation to others, we can be more relaxed.”
Through these Buddhist methods of meditating, reflecting on impermanence, developing patience, and practicing compassion, we can strengthen ourselves to face not only our own challenges, but also the challenges of our world community.