When it come to mental-health, the road to recovery begins under a Bodhi Tree, 2500 years ago. Last summer I set out to find firsthand what Buddhism offered, discovering how the paths of psychology and spirituality intersect.
Tucked away in a little corner of Hertfordshire England, in midst of forest grove and glade, is the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery. Here monks and nuns in amber robes, see out their lives in quiet contemplation. In spring, where the first buds appear on the cherry trees, to the winter where the gardens are jewelled with frost, it’s a place of rest and retreat. Here at Amaravati, after I a diagnosis of BPD, I found strength to move on. In the single story Pagoda the giant golden buddha, surrounded by candles and chrysanthemum, smiles benevolently. And of course, I was wondering could he answer my questions.
I had a chance to sit down and talk to the new abbot of Amaravati Ajahn Amaro. He was able to tell me how a daily practise of mindfulness can help all of us attain a better quality of life.
’The Buddha was a pragmatist. He was concerned with what worked. Not with the way things should be, but how they are.’
Amaro was surprisingly frank about serious mental health problems: ‘Buddhism isn’t just meditation. It can be that some individuals will be suffering illnesses which makes them too unwell to practise; the cliffs too steep.’ Nevertheless he believes, ‘things that you can enjoy, people you can empathise with, and methods of work which are rewarding help bring sufferers out of the mental realm to a more physically involving level. Participation is a very healing activity.’ Yet can mindfulness be adapted for daily life? Amaro says yes: ‘Here at Amaravati when you meditate it’s like being a music room. You’re learning the methodology. However, the point is to learn how to play music wherever you find yourself. By practising here, learning to identify emotions without reacting to them, you develop insight which carries through to everyday life.’ However, in today’s fast-paced consumer world, is their a place for deeper contemplation. We began talking about the Buddhist concept of Metta:
‘Loving-kindness (Metta) meditations are very important. By practising Metta you are not simply developing compassion for others, you’re also learning how to be compassionate towards your self; your own chaotic or difficult mind states.’
This is especially relevant to people with mental illness who struggle with the chaos of their own minds. Amaro says we can all practise ‘weeding the garden.’ Some mind states are unhelpful and can be gently changed by patience and compassion. He says, ’you’re still relating to your thoughts in a kind way, but also recognising you don’t have to suffer them. You can cultivate your garden so it is more fruitful.’ Beyond all this, is the simple yet profound teaching of acceptance. Some problems unfortunately require an acknowledgement of the ‘the way it is.’ This a mantra constantly repeated at Amaravati. It is not a fatalistic pronouncement about the world, but rather a knowledge born out of reflection. The Three Marks of Existence as Buddha called them: Anicca (Impermanence) Dukkha (Dissatisfaction) Anatta (Non-Self) help us ‘let go of the fire, but still sit and warm ourselves beside it.’ This means, acknowledging the reality of illness, the conditions of the life in which we’ve found ourselves, but that peace is possible.
So what are the techniques? Buddhism means to be awake and alive to the present moment. In its purest form meditation is called Anapanasati and involves counting the breath, to attain calmness
Jongrom or Walking Meditation, is another method, which helps the practitioner get in touch with reality through the five senses, especially touch. Another practice involves body-scanning; directing attention to different parts of the body in order release tension. Metta meditation aims to cultivate loving kindness, using imagination to wisely reflect on our humanity. Finally Vipassanā is an analytical meditation which aims to cultivate insight into reality through the lens of Kamma. Despite the variety, the starting point is always in the breath, which creates calm, but also anchors consciousness in the present moment. If we practice this mindfulness in all areas of life benefits will arise. We learn to understand our personality, its fears and frustrations. Amaravati has been a place where I learnt to heal. Over Sunday Dhamma talks with Chai tea, to Meditation workshops with the monks and nuns. Recovery is a word stretched out over years, but Amaravati taught me patience.
Yet, we don’t simply have to take the the monks and nuns of Amaravati’s words for it. Study after study has shown meditation can rebuild the brain. A recent Harvard led neuroimaging programme has shown just a little mindfulness each day, increases grey matter, in the parts of the brain that deal with emotional-regulation, compassion and attentiveness. Previous studies have confirmed it improves stress levels, heart rate variability, and can even halt the cognitive decline associated with age. Mindfulness is not only a biofeedback system, but also a building block to neuroplasticity. Ajahn Amaro was right to point out
‘The NHS is now prescribing Mindfulness Based CBT in many parts of the country because it’s effective but Buddhism is an open source.’
Of course for me personally, the strongest evidence is when I sit quietly in the temple in front of that golden Buddha, noticing that, in the stormy ocean of thoughts, the waves have finally abated. And how telling the Buddha has answered my questions, with the knowing silent smile of serenity.