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Dharma Care

Pastoral Care and Counseling from Buddhist Perspectives

Strengthening Your Equanimity Practice

     Buddhism, as a spiritual practice, does not promise instantaneous transformation. Consistent practice, patience, sangha and a teacher are recommended to help new and advanced practitioners along the way. Popular culture supports the notion that if one practices long and hard enough, they will become compassionate. But what about equanimous? As spiritual caregivers and pastoral counselors, if we are not working toward being equanimous, our caregiving can be a causal link in the chain of unintended and painful consequences. So what is equanimity?

     The state of equanimity feels like solidity in the presence of chaos and rootedness in an earthquake. It is said that The Buddha taught that gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, and pleasure and pain are the eight worldly conditions that keep us feeling unsolid, unrooted, and therefore lacking equanimity. (AN 8.153) Why is that?

     When we experience gain, fame, praise and pleasure, we do not reflect on the impermanence of the exciting feelings, therefore avoiding the truth of how things are. When we experience loss, disrepute, blame and pain, we do not reflect on the impermanence of the sorrowful feelings, therefore we avoid the truth of how things are. Understanding impermanence and recalling the teachings in times of elation and depression are helpful on a cognitive level, but equanimity should not just be an intellectual understanding. As we serve others, it serves others well when we are equanimous.

     Buddhist pastoral caregivers, chaplains, pastoral counselors and care council members serve with more equanimity (and integrity) when they are regular meditators. Through mindfulness, we can become aware of our triggers (when habitual bodily sensations follow habitual thoughts or thought patterns) and how these triggers might get ignited in the course of meeting a patient or counselee. Through concentration we learn how to steady the mind and body through one pointedness. The combination of mindfulness, inquiry and concentration helps us be equanimous. Noticing when we dwell in gain, loss, fame, disrepute, praise and blame and having the strength and courage to remind ourselves of the reality of impermanence, trains our brain toward equanimity. So how do patients and counselees benefit from our equanimity practice?

     Imagine you have something heavy on your heart. You decide to talk with someone about it. Do you prefer to go to the person who can dwell with you, or the one who is likely to interrupt you or offer untimely advice? Chances are, you'll choose the one with whom you can dwell. If all goes well, you will have had the opportunity to be heard, relieve your mind of racing or obsessive thoughts, transform guilt, deepen a friendship, learn how to trust, experience love, be vulnerable and maybe leave the encounter feeling less inadequate and ashamed. Much can be gained from sharing your suffering with someone who is equanimous though you may never see what was gained.

     There is a sutta about a monk who is accused by a nearby woman of fathering her child. She brings him the child to take care of. He does not refuse the child, nor does he question the woman about her claim. He simply asked her if her assertion was true as his reputation suffered. Years later, she returns to claim her child and apologizes for lying. The monk returns the child and returns to his life, reputation restored. May we, as spiritual caregivers, have the strength and courage to recall the teachings on impermanence when those we serve think too highly or too lowly of us. May we always have the capacity to ask gently, "Is that true?" when we hear others talk about us. May we remain steady and rooted in the midsts of gossip, tending to the work we must do.

The Mess

The suttas in the Pali Canon, taken as a whole, depict The Buddha as a friendly demigod. He is not depicted as a foe, not even to the ones who threaten or attempt to kill him. Though many in the Insight tradition talk about The Buddha as a man with extraordinary teaching skills and meditative powers, he is often depicted in the suttas as otherworldly and removed from the grittiness of life. He teaches people to alleviate their suffering, but when called upon to visit those who are suffering, The Buddha dispatches Ananda and Sariputta to visit the sick. Pastoral caregivers and counselors should look at the structure of their sanghas, the demands placed on leaders, and examine attitudes about practice and purity when deciding who in the sangha will attend to the spiritual needs of the sangha. Sometimes it is best to avoid the grittiness if we have not attempted to clean up our own mess.

The Practice

     Given how Ananda and Sariputta are depicted, we can interpret that they attempted to clean up their mess through their devotion to The Buddha, their practice, their monastic lifestyle and their service to others.

Right Intention and Transparency

     When approaching sick people, Sariputta and Ananda often conveyed a common sentiment like, "I hope you are getting well...comfortable...painful feelings subsiding and not increasing..." (MN 143). How do we cultivate the right intention towards people who are sick? What is the value in being transparent about our concern and hopefulness? It is understood through common wisdom that people tend to open up with people who are friendly. Friendliness can be expressed in different ways, but the cultivation of friendliness takes right effort. A consistent metta practice helps.

Metta Practice

     In a conventional metta practice, practitioners recognize and accept the difficult and harsh feelings they have for others, refrain from wishing them harm, and wish them well instead. This practice inclines one toward friendliness for all beings. The inclination towards friendliness for all beings in all conditions, can go undetected by the care receiver if the love and kindness are not expressed.

From Isolation to Community

     Insight practitioners have been accused of practicing spirituality in isolation. There is some truth to that assertion, but each pastoral caregiver should search themselves to determine where and how they take refuge and what the consequences are for that refuge-taking process? Is avoidance of others the path and mainstay of the practice? If so, try to move from isolation to sangha communitas -- get to know people in your sangha and let them get to know you. Create your sangha culture together and work through any social inhibitions (anxieties or phobias) with the help of friends, advisors, counselors or therapists.

Initiating the Alliance

     Some chaplains and counselors have the good fortunate, at times, of being the object of a sick person's positive fantasies. In situations where patients idealize you because they know you are a "holy person," the alliance may be easier to create. Others are not always so fortunate (like when a patient requests a chaplain thinking the chaplain is a man and a woman appears). Positive fantasies or disappointment upon arrival are both dynamics that can be worked through to arrive at a more authentic exchange. Consistent visits, a smile, bright eyes, an ability to listen deeply and a genuine curiosity about others should be made transparent if your intention as a caregiver is to make a connection -- the beginning of a good relationship. Good relationships heal. Our job as pastoral caregivers is to know about Buddhism and other religions to a degree, but ultimately our jobs are about creating good relationships. Let's start with creating a good relationship with ourselves and let the rest follow.

The Mind-Body Connection

     It is said that Saccaka boasted of his debating skills and challenged the Buddha to a debate on the topic of pleasure. Saccaka argued that sometimes the mind is subservient to the body and sometimes the body is subservient to the mind and that the Buddha’s disciples were more interested in developing the mind. The Buddha asked Saccaka what he knew about the development of the body but was unimpressed with Saccaka's answer and was unimpressed with what Saccaka said he knew about the mind. The Buddha taught:

     When pleasant feelings arise in an untaught ordinary person, the pleasant feelings leads to wanting more pleasant feelings, but due to impermance, the pleasant feelings give way to pain when the pleasant feeling ceases. The pain resulting from the loss of pleasure gives way to sorrow, grief and lamenting which turns into physical distress. Through development of the body, pleasant feelings do not remain in the mind and through development of the mind, pleasant feelings do not remain in the mind. (MN 36)

     The Buddha's teaching on the mind-body connection serves as a reminder that when creating an alliance with the patient, prisoner, student or counselee, we need to be mindful of the whole person (including ourselves) not just their mind, and we need to pay attention to addictive qualities of mind and body even in the absence of substance abuse. Why is this important in forming an alliance?

     Buddhism, as presented in the Pali Canon, is presented as mental consciousness in an age of magical thinking. One of the great things about Buddhism is how cognitively advanced it was in its earliest years. But caregivers formed in Buddhist practice and doctrine, may only lead mentally when the care receiver is also prone to magical and mythical thinking. Radically different types of consciousnesses may not align well, therefore the Buddhist caregiver would do well to possess the ability to communicate from different kinds of consciousnesses, including the don't know (aperspectival) mind. But we cannot operate from mind alone.

     The body is a source of information, communication and healing. We do well to be attentive to how we sleep, what we eat, whether we exercise, our patterns of of defecation, the places in our body that are absent of pain as well as the areas that are painful. (The advanced practices on mindfulness of the body, MN 10, are instructive.) If a counselee shares thoughts that constitute a habitual way of thinking that is destructive, use mindfulness of the sensations in your own body as a way connecting with the counselee. For example, if a counselee seems preoccupied with getting a particular person to love them, notice the sensations your body when you image seeking pleasure from a loved one. You can ask the counselee to pay attention to her or his body as they reflect on their preoccupation. Let's say they feel the striving for pleasure as constriction in the chest. At this point you may, in your wisdom and discernment, ask them to bring their attention to their chest and breathe through the pain as a way of learning how to soothe the pain of habitual wanting.

     Creating an alliance in not just a mental exercise in being nice, it can involve being aware of the body (without touching one another). The more in touch we are with our bodies, the better able we are help others know their body better. For people caught up in unproductive habitual patterns of thought and behavior, we can help them increase their awareness by bringing mindfulness exercises (with permission) into the caregiving space.