Today I had the chance to listen to a Buddhist Monk answering questions from Quakers. (I put that last bit in because I felt at times that he was explaining why the question he’d been asked wasn’t the right one to answer – for instance, he didn’t seem very interested in explaining the day to day life in a monastery, which he described as boring. He did describe it briefly, but first he pointed out that life in a monastery was very much like life elsewhere, the same things have to happen, it’s not special).
I haven’t processed everything he said yet. Part of me wanted to scribble down notes, but that didn’t seem the right thing to do, so I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate (to be in the moment I guess) to help me remember as much as possible. Of course, I haven’t remembered everything he said and I have quite probably misunderstood or not fully grasped some of what he said, so this is my little disclaimer that this blog post is about my understanding of what a Buddhist monk said, and I’m not sure how far that is from what he actually said.
One thing he said really struck me and made me take notice. He was mentioning in passing how school was miserable and treated children badly (I can’t remember if he was talking about school in general or his own schooling, I think the latter) – which didn’t seem familiar to me. Then he used the phrase “punishing with reward”. This unfamiliar concept leapt out at me. He went on to mention exams. If I understand correctly his point was that there is (in our culture/schooling system) always something more to do, another exam to pass, another thing to achieve and that this trains us to feel we are incomplete, not good enough, that we should be doing more – which leads to feelings of low self worth and anxiety.
This really struck a chord with me. I am starting to recognise the internal dialogue that says I’ve not done something well enough, I’m not doing the right things, I haven’t got to where I “should” be in life. My next step is to challenge this thinking. It had never occurred to me that the culture of setting tests/exams/rewards/promotions/etc. contributes to setting up this negative thinking and trains up Bitchface. Hmm, a friend of mine once commented that people with higher degrees seem prone to mental health issues (ok, she was speaking from a small sample set as she, like me, has a higher degree so I’m guessing a large part of her circle of friends do but hey) – so maybe if this is the case it’s partly due to the fact we’ve been in the system training up Bitchface longer and her voice is stronger. A disturbing thought.
Another thing that interested me (apart from everything he said) was when someone asked him what he thought about the current trend of using Mindfulness to treat mental health issues. He said that whilst he might me expected as a monk to bemoan the watering down of Buddhist teaching, he thought the spread of mindfulness was good and he was happy that it was helping people. What bothered him was the way it had become a commodity. That people charged for teaching it. And that people felt the need to pay for it in order to justify spending some time breathing in their busy lives. He pointed out that mindfulness is on tap all the time, you don’t need special tools or to be anywhere in particular, and he guided us for a few moments in how to mindfully think about our breath to prove his point.
He also commented on how he likes working as a chaplain in prisons. Someone asked him why and he explained that when he talks to “normal” people they listen and think, “that’s nice” and then go off and get on with their lives. They have a myriad of reasons not to put things into practice right now. But he said that prisoners are in a desperate place, they can only sink or swim. When they choose to listen, they do so without excuses and they practice, because they have no alternative and this can result in quick transformations.
This blog post doesn’t seem to have a snappy conclusion, it’s just me, trying to remember what was said, rolling it around in my mind, wondering how to do something other than think “that’s nice” whilst not giving myself another thing to try and do and fail and beat myself up about.
PS I just tried to preview this post and for some reason WordPress used the title but the post was blank and all the had disappeared from my draft copy. I have managed to recover it rather than rewrite it (phew) but I wonder if that would make a better post, it certainly looked profound 😉