Doomscrolling?

Me too! “Doomscrolling” was the Macquarie Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2020 and throughout the year I embraced it with gusto! I would find myself awake at 3am scrolling through the newsfeeds in Australia, in the UK, in the USA, in the world, reading the latest updates globally for pandemic news and more news on the chaos in America and other political hotspots. It became like a vital urge to know everything. And it developed into a deeply entrenched habit. A bad habit.

Of course, it was natural to be concerned about what was happening with Covid19 and it was indeed sensible to be kept up-to-date and informed. But I found that my mind was in a constant state of ‘noise’, like an annoying buzzing sound in the background of everything I did. When my attention to the pandemic went beyond the need-to-know level and gradually escalated to catastrophising, it began to impact on my mental health. And before I knew it, I was just feeling anxious all the time.

One night, in the wee hours, when I was doomscrolling away, it suddenly hit me that I was constantly feeding this shit to my mind and it wasn’t healthy! The constant buzz of negativity was now becoming like the dark, consuming background to my whole waking (and sleeping or non-sleeping!) life. I wanted to stop this obsession with the news… but how?

There is a teaching in one of the old Pali sutras, which says:

Whatever a person frequently thinks about and ponders, that will become the inclination of their mind. If you frequently think about and ponder unhealthy states, then your mind will incline to unhealthy states. If you frequently think about and ponder healthy states, you will abandon unhealthy states, and then your mind will incline to healthy states.

Majjhima Nikaya 19

There is no doubt about it – any bad habit is very difficult to stop. However, I do believe that the years I have invested in a meditation practice, although clearly is not a panacaea for every mental ailment, did in fact help me. It provided me with an awareness tool that I needed to even realise there was a problem. In the midst of one of my doomscrolling sprees, I had just enough mental space to bring in that sudden awareness that is essential to breaking through a habit you want to change. The awareness is the key and the first step. And of course, as with many moments in our lives, it was simply a “WTF am I doing?” moment!

So here’s how I changed my doomscrolling habit. This was my own process and I found something that worked for me, but that doesn’t mean that this particular solution will work for you. Nonetheless, I think the underlying process is a useful tool that you could adapt to your own personality and inclinations.

The first question I asked myself was, “What can I replace the newsfeed with, so that I can begin to cultivate a ‘healthy’ state of mind?” My solution was to subscribe to a feed from Tricycle (Buddhist journal) called “Dhamma Wheel”: a daily quote from a Buddhist sutra, which then has a brief Reflection and a recommended awareness Practice for the day.* So it is just one small thought or action to use throughout the day, which acts as an anchor for my day and provides an alternative background to the doomscrolling.

So instead of turning to my newsfeed the moment I wake up, I read the reflection and just make a note to myself of one thought or action that I can focus on during the day. At the start of this change, I made a conscious decision not to look at the newsfeed after reading the Daily Dhamma, just to try and curtail the habit. It was actually pretty difficult and I was surprised by that! Doomscrolling had really hooked me in.

This method of replacing doomscrolling with reading something inspirational may sound a bit corny, but it has been surprisingly effective. If you’ve been stuck in doomscrolling, I would highly recommend finding some online uplifting daily feed that suits your own personality and try it. There are plenty of offerings out there to suit any spiritual inclination. I actually find the Buddhist Daily Dhamma helpful because it isn’t just a saccharine feel-good inspiration meme, of the kind that proliferates Facebook feeds! Instead, it is giving me something to reflect upon and then act – it is the daily shift to action that has helped me change that doomscrolling habit.

This new practice doesn’t mean that I just turn away from what is happening in the world – well, let’s face it, that is pretty much impossible anyway! No, I’m still aware of the headlines but I’m no longer actively engaging with doomscrolling – it is no longer an anxiety producing buzzing. Instead, I can remind myself throughout the day of the note I’ve made first thing in the morning, which becomes a gentle humming background instead. It’s such a relief 🙂

*Just to let you know, “Dhamma Wheel” is a paid subscription, which acts as an engaging year-long course in Buddhist teachings from Tricycle’s online courses, but you can also get a free “Daily Dharma” inspirational quote from Tricycle by subscribing with your email address, which also link to an online article.

Year of the Ox

2021 is the Year of the Yin Metal Ox, which suggests a combination of the Feminine with Strength and Resilience. A reflection on this suggests to me that it is a year to focus on our innate, intuitive wisdom that can be harnessed to help us remain strong and to see through any of the difficulties that 2021 may present. The flexibility implied in the Feminine can also help to prevent that Strength from turning into a rigid Metal form: think of Gold, which can be beaten and beaten, but it will just get more brilliantly burnished and spread out into fine and malleable forms without losing any of its beauty.

On my kitchen wall I have a lovely old scroll that I obtained in Japan many years ago: I was immediately taken by its whimsical image, without any understanding of its symbolic meaning. I love the laziness of the image: a peasant quietly and happily playing her flute, sitting comfortably astride an ox, that is glancing up to the clear, bright full moon as it walks through a darkened field, lit up by the moonlight. I always feel instantly relaxed when I look at it.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that the image is a part of a series of Zen images called The Ten Oxherding Pictures that relate to the ten stages of Zen practice. You can read more about the meaning of each picture here and here.

The picture that I have is Stage Six: Riding the Ox Home. It refers to having tamed your mind, represented by the ox, to the degree where you are on your way home together, in harmony, in peace, no longer having to struggle to tame the stubborn ox-mind. In practice terms, it is the stage where you’re able to tame your thoughts and sit in meditation in peace, without being carried away by your incessant thoughts.

The feeling is one of peace, of being freed from fears and worries and anxieties and now you can become truly creative, finding expression from a free and open mind, tapping into the wellspring of creativity. It is really inspiring, isn’t it!

Yet what I notice about my scroll, as opposed to others that I’ve seen, is that the ox here has turned its head towards the full moon, which represents enlightenment, or our innate wisdom-heart. Why? Perhaps it is a gentle reminder that when you feel happy and content and playful and creative – and all the good things that come from an engaged spiritual practice – it is easy to get absorbed in those good vibes and actually forget that more practice is still needed to be free from suffering and to be a compassionate agent of change in the world. So it reminds me to always fully enjoy the good vibes, but remember to keep up my daily practice and don’t become too complacent 🙂

Random Acts of Kindness

20116-12-03_hhdlMy beautiful daughter wrote the following story on FaceBook today and I’d like to share it. Have a tissue handy  ❤

Practice Random Acts of Kindness peeps. Here’s a couple of stories from my week –
I popped in to IGA for an early morning milk run earlier this week, and when the friendly cashier asked “What have you got planned for today? Do you work?”, I explained that I wasn’t working that day and my daughter and husband were at home sick, she sympathised about caring for sick kids and went on to mention that her daughter was sick with a rare form of cancer. I was taken back and wasn’t sure what to say (how do you respond to that?!). When I asked her how she was doing, she replied that she had passed away 2 years ago.

“I’m so sorry…how are you coping?” I said. Her response will be forever in my memory. She replied “every memory I have of her is as fresh as if it happened yesterday and I still cry every day. Even talking about her makes me emotional”. She spoke so calmly and ‘matter-of-fact’ even though I could see tears welling in her eyes. All the while, putting my groceries in a bag and processing the payment etc. At this point, the next person in line was waiting rather impatiently. So she said ‘have a nice day” and started to serve the person next in line.

I got into my car and had to process the story she had just randomly shared with me – a stranger. I could not even begin to contemplate how I would cope if something like that happened to my daughter. And I admired her strength for still going to work, and getting through each day. How do people manage to solider on after experiencing the loss of a child?

Later that day, I went back to IGA to find this woman. Fortunately, she was sitting at the nearby cafe, waiting for a friend. I went up to her and gave her a card and some flowers. “These are for you. I went through your check-out earlier today and you shared your story with me and I just wanted to say thank you for reminding me that each day with my little girl is a gift”. She burst into tears and hugged me and thanked me over and over again…and then we said goodbye and went on with our days…

Yesterday, however, I was the lucky recipient of a ‘RAK’.

After my card was declined whilst attempting to buy my lunch (I didn’t realise it was the 1st of December and my card had expired the day before!), a stranger overheard my conversation with the cashier and said “I’ll pay for it!” and handed $10 to the cashier. When I asked her for her address so I could drop the money off to her later that day, she said “no, no, no don’t worry about it, just do something nice for someone else”, and looked at me with a big smile on her face. “I will certainly do that!” I replied, thanked her and went on my way inspired by her kindness and on the lookout for who I could return the favour to.

So this week I have been on both sides of a RAK and it’s been a humbling experience. I truly believe that if there were more RAKs occurring, the world would be a warmer place.

And, in conclusion, ’tis a special time of year as Christmas approaches but it is a difficult time for many people – people who are reminded of loved ones who are no longer there to join in the celebrations OR families who are living below the poverty line. All the more reason for RAKs in the coming weeks. I hope that by sharing my little stories (albeit rather lengthy for a FB post!), you’re inspired to practice Random Acts of Kindness :). Happy holidays everyone!

A year with my mother

When I said early last year that I was ‘retiring’, little did I know what challenges the following year would hold. It was as if, without realising it, I was clearing the space so that I could be completely available for the journey I was to share with my mother in the following year. Shortly after I decided to withdraw from my public role as a Buddhist priest, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. What had started as a little sore on her face, which she thought was just a mosquito bite, became a virulent facial cancer that quickly spread to the lymphatic nodes in her neck.

And so I became her primary carer throughout the ordeals that followed as her medical team worked to save her life by extensive face and neck surgery, which left her terribly disfigured, and brutal doses of radiation treatment, which caused her enormous pain, utter debilitation and the distress of losing her ability to eat and speak. The doctors held little hope of her recovery and the treatment was in order that she could die in the least amount of pain. It didn’t seem likely that there was very much of a win any way you looked at it. Then after the radiation finished, when she was supposed to be recovering, my mother suffered from a severe MRSA infection of her radiation burns that meant she another long stay in hospital, extremely ill and in continuous pain.

But throughout this nightmare, my mother met these ordeals with enormous courage, humility and dignity. And she was always so appreciative of every little kindness or attention shown to her by the wonderful nurses in the hospital and at home and she never complained. I saw a side of her that deeply moved and inspired me – she was nothing short of truly heroic!

Then, after all this, in order to give a final prognosis, she had another PET scan to see how far the cancer had progressed in her lymphatic system, but the medical team was astonished to find that the cancer had disappeared! This was completely unexpected as the surgery and radiation were seen as palliative measures only. The doctors were at a loss to explain it. However, for my mother the explanation was simple. She was absolutely sure that what had cured her was love: the love of her children who rallied to help, the love of her friends who prayed for her, the love of the nurses who cared for her. She said that throughout these terrible ordeals she could nonetheless feel healing love flowing through her body and she said she drank it up as a sweet medicine, focussing her meditations on fully opening to this love that was all around her. Then as her strength slowly returned and she felt her life-energy returning, she meditated on feelings of gratitude as a way of returning that love into the world.

16.08.19_blossomsAt the time when my mother’s suffering was at its greatest, the almond blossoms at my home were blooming. I cut a twig of almond blossom that still had tight buds and I placed it in a bottle by Mum’s bed. One by one the blossoms burst open and then gradually the petals fell. Mum and I would meditate on the beauty of the almond blossom and reflect on how fleeting and beautiful life is. Even when all the petals had shed, we left them there because somehow they seemed to embody the journey we were sharing. Then, after all the suffering was past and the healing had begun, a whole year and a lifetime later, the almond blossoms once again bloomed this week and again I took a twig of blossoms over to Mum. When she saw the twig she immediately recognised its meaning and we both just hugged and cried because those blossoms still embodied that journey we had taken and yet here we were a year later, still together. It was indeed a miracle.

For me, to bear witness to my mother’s pain and to share in her journey was a tremendous privilege. It is so hard to watch someone you love suffering and to feel that there is nothing you can do to alleviate that suffering. But now I know that the greatest healing gift you can give a loved one who is in pain is to bear witness to their pain with love, to hold their hand and feel your own healing love flowing from your heart into theirs. This is the source of all miracles.