July was a busy month working with anxious students who have had a great deal to contend with since March. The Covid-19 pandemic has taken their freedom, their friendships and in their minds, their future.
In 2016 I studied to become a Mindfulness educator, the focus was on awareness of what was going on inside the body. The objective was to ask the students to be present and to notice where they were feeling stress or anxiety. To breathe into those places and learn to pause, reset and respond. However, with the spiral of thoughts and feelings now being experienced and without the support of friends or a framework, like school, it is all too much.
They are overwhelmed! One of my students said she felt like she was drowning in a sea of sadness. I need to find suitable life jackets that they could grab, slip over their heads and feel safe.
If I find that I am struggling to find solutions to some of my own problems, I ask myself, “What would the Dalai Lama do?”. As always, his wisdom points me back to Buddhism’s four noble practices of mental development;
- Perfect virtue of sympathy, which gives happiness to living beings.
- Perfect virtue of compassion, which removes pain from living beings.
- Perfect virtue of joy, the enjoyment of the sight of others who have attained happiness.
- Perfect virtue of equanimity, being free from attachment to everything and being indifferent to living beings.
These virtues call for us to be less self-centred, to allow us to realise we are not alone in our suffering. Once we can shift our thinking to being more compassionate towards others, we can offer ourselves the same compassion and dissolve the sadness.
The definition of Compassion is to recognise the suffering of others and then to take action.
An ancient method of cultivating direct healing to yourself, by being compassionate to all sentient beings, is known as “Tonglen”. This compassionate meditation comes from Tibet and it means to ‘give and receive’ – as you breathe in you take the suffering of others, as you breathe out you send them relief. It calls upon you to visualize the person you wish to free from suffering, a friend, a family member, yourself, a stranger and with practice those that we have challenges with.
If we live in a state of fear that we may absorb the negativity or suffering of others, we miss the opportunity to allow change. Using the breath to visualise and release the dark emotions evokes transformation from suffering to love and kindness.
His holiness, the Dalai Lama, says that,
“Our own experience of constant fear and constant anger destroys our inner peace. More compassionate feelings bring inner strength and inner peace.”
I know from my own experience of having a mindfulness practice and sharing with my students the benefits to the mind and body. This helps me navigate the choppy seas of stress and sadness.
The science now proves that through mindfulness and meditation you can in fact rewire the brain. Researchers are finding that Compassion based meditation can improve mood, lower stress, build relationships that have had difficulties and increase empathy. There have been many studies from 2005 onwards that confirm the power of Compassionate Meditation.
This is one of the ways I implemented this with my students;
Firstly, I would ask them to be still and think of something that was causing them pain and think about others that may be suffering in the same way. The realisation that we are in fact not alone and others feel this way too can be a relief.
Secondly, I ask them to breathe in the pain of the emotion that those people are feeling and dealing with and breathe out relief from their collective pain or discomfort.
Finally, they begin sending compassionate thoughts to others and themselves with this simple act, they are giving not to receive in return. The body and mind relax, stress and anxiety are visibly reduced and the students became more attuned to their emotions as well as those of others.
This is the new lifejacket for my students, with exam results on the horizon and the possibility of the safe harbour of school beginning again in September. I wish them every success and know now that they can weather any sea if they just make time to breathe.
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”