CULTURE

How a free meditation class helped me in a time of anxiety

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Meditation isn't about closing yourself off from the world. A clear mind allows you to be more aware of your place in the world and how you affect others. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In between a full-time job, a side hustle, commuting through hellish traffic, and trying to maintain a healthy work-life balance, life becomes incredibly stressful. There are so many thoughts constantly running through your head, and should you find yourself in a moment of calm, the question “did I forget something?” starts gnawing at you. The calm immediately dissipates and is replaced by a growing anxiety.

A few years ago, a friend of mine mentioned that she had been going to meditation class that was offered for free at a Buddhist temple in San Juan. It piqued my curiosity, but I couldn’t figure out a way to fit it into my schedule. But a few job changes later, I was finally able to give it a go. I was able to convince another friend to join me, so we met up one Tuesday evening in Quezon City and made our way to San Juan. The commute took us three different rides before we finally found ourselves in front of the monastery.

I’ve been attending meditation class for several terms now. Here are my five main takeaways:

1. Everything that happens to me is a result of my actions.

There are days where everything just seems to be going wrong — you get caught in a rain shower, end up on the wrong bus, accidentally spill your coins out on the street, and so on. Moments like these usually cause my temper to skyrocket, complete with very colorful expletives aimed towards whatever it was that I perceived as the inconvenience. I’m definitely not what you’d call cool, calm, and collected.

In Buddhism, one of the core teachings is karma. Shifu (what we call the Abbess, our teacher) taught us that karma is the effect of action. When we experience hardships, it isn’t without reason: it is a result of one of your previous actions, even going back to your previous lives. Karma isn’t just limited to the physical either — words and thoughts also have karmic effects. The law of karma simply states that whatever you put out into the world is what comes back to you.

While the idea of karma isn’t exactly new to me, revisiting it has made me take a closer look at how I react to things. This isn’t to say that I’ve started blaming myself for all the things that are going wrong, but rather, I acknowledge that I am the creator of my experience. Maybe there was something that I did that led to this, and how I choose to react can lead to something better.

2. Karma does not determine my fate.

That person who got the last piece of the cake I’ve been craving for all day may have been a person I stole from in a past life. Maybe the boy who made me incredibly happy for a short while was someone I helped a couple lifetimes ago. Karma definitely has a lot to say about the people I encounter and the things that happen to me in this lifetime.

But a couple of bad decisions way back then doesn’t mean I’m condemned to a terrible fate now. Shifu compares our karma to water — hot water being bad karma, and cold water being good karma. My karmic bucket needn’t stay full of hot water; I could easily change its temperature by adding cold water — good thoughts, good speech, and good actions.

3. It’s all a matter of practice.

Sitting still, alone with your thoughts, for nearly 30 minutes is not easy. It feels like an uphill struggle, especially the first few times, but soon it gets easier and begins to feel more like a natural reaction. The sensation of sitting still and slipping into a meditative state is now a familiar one, a muscle memory of sorts.

Shifu emphasizes the importance of developing good habits, of practicing constantly. Nothing comes easy, especially since we carry with us a ton of karma from our previous lives. But the more we practice, the better we get. By going to class regularly, we get to cultivate our meditation practice.

Constantly choosing to be kind and to do good, both to others and myself, can be quite a struggle. It’s especially difficult when I have to wrestle my way through a dense crowd of commuters just to get off the bus, when I walk into an unexpectedly deep puddle of dirty rainwater, when I’m feeling particularly off and lazy. But being aware of these negative thoughts as they come and choosing to go against them really does get easier with practice, and they eventually become a natural tendency instead of a conscious action.

4. Let it go.

The very first lecture that Shifu gives us (after a quick introduction to the basic gestures and postures that we’d be doing for class and meditation) was about being the “masters of our minds.” Basically, it’s about being in control of your emotions and reactions to everything that’s going on around you, and ultimately being in control of your own happiness and life. Honestly, it’s a very difficult lesson to live out. Even with plenty of practice, the world can be so overwhelming that it becomes near impossible to not let any outside conditions affect you.

But part of being the master of your mind is deciding your own value. I decide my value, not you, not Shifu, not any outside condition. My job and ability to complete my work does not decide my value. My relationships or lack thereof do not decide my value. My temper, anxiety, inability to focus — these do not decide my value. If it’s making me question my own value, then all I have to do is to let it go. Outside conditions are precisely that: outside of you, and there’s no need to let them affect you.

5. Meditation isn’t about retreating into yourself, but opening up to others.

When one meditates, it entails sitting silently for a period of time. There’s no talking, no eye contact, no interaction at all. It’s clearing your mind of thoughts that distract you. But it isn’t about closing yourself off from the world. A clear mind allows you to be more aware of your place in the world, and how you affect others. My actions are ripples that reach others before they return to me, and in meditation, I am made acutely aware of this.

From simply counting my breath to clear my mind as I meditated, I moved on to contemplation. Shifu taught us the Seven Round Compassion Contemplation, where we contemplate for seven rounds on seven groups of people: elder-dears, peer-dears, junior-dears, elder-foes, peer-foes, and neutral ones. I go beyond simply thinking of myself and my misdeeds, but I also dedicate my merits to others. I acknowledge the merits or good that they have shown me, and make amends for any faults.

It’s incredibly difficult to contemplate and offer merits to my foes, but Shifu puts it quite nicely: we offer our merits to them so that we can help them change for the better. If they do so, this means that they will no longer be doing whatever it is that they have done to hurt you.

It seems simple, but this made such a big difference. Anger — when left to fester — is unproductive and will only cause me harm, but forgiveness and the offering of my merits may do us all good. It doesn’t make sense to constantly rage against the things that bring us pain, whether it be traffic, skyrocketing prices, or an inefficient government, without action. And while these are outside conditions, the rage that I (and many others, I’m sure) feel against them is justified. Buddhism teaches us to not let outside conditions mess us up, but it also teaches us that we should do our part in ensuring that other sentient beings do not suffer. Meditation and contemplation is a practice that has helped me dedicate more headspace to the things that matter, be it my personal mental health or however I can contribute to solving problems that are bigger than me.

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I don’t claim to know more or any better than those who don’t practice meditation. But being able to practice clearing my mind to make way for the things that matter is certainly something that’s been able to help me deal with the craziness in the world. Besides, I’ve got a long way to go before I can even dream of achieving enlightenment and true inner peace. But at least, as Shifu said, I’ve begun to practice — the smallest of steps is still a step.