How to Stop a Meltdown Before It starts

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Four Slogans to Stop a Meltdown and Start Buddha Mind

People often think Buddhism focuses exclusively on staying calm and keeping calm in calm peaceful atmospheres but Buddhist tantra values a different kind of entry point – crisis.

Extreme experiences are regarded as fertile ground in Vajrayana Buddhism. When things are at their most difficult, when we are in high intensity moments, our awareness is naturally heightened. This is why practices orbiting around birth, dying, dream and post death are primary practices of the Buddhist Yogis. So too – when we are pushed to the max, when things are falling apart around us – these are also moments that have potential for encountering our intrinsic strength. These are times when concepts and business as usual are inadequate. Therefore they are natural opportunities for arousing greatest presence.

Four slogans can help wake up Buddha-mind in such times. Such advice is of course quite necessary. The state of total and complete exhaustion cannot always be avoided. It’d be nice to stay balanced all the time but there are times for the sake of life, love, duty or warriorship when the going gets tough and we keep going and going. All too often this leads to all those embarrassing awful moments – a meltdown where we get mean, crazy or make rash decisions we regret later. Some Buddhist slogans are useful in this case, so we can remember other options.

There is a legend of the Female Buddha of Tibet, Yeshe Tsogyal. It conveys a Buddhist notion of stress leading to breakthrough instead of breakdown. She faces a series of harsh obstacles and hardships. At first, it is a matter of self-imposed physical austerities. But her body begins to break down and she can barely endure it. After this, she gets distracted. Despite all her focus and discipline she is assaulted by one distracting fantasy after another. Then she faces both physical and psychological hardship – she is viciously harassed by young boys. Then, she is attacked by wild animals. Later she is almost poisoned to death by the sting and venom of scorpions, snakes and insects. She is then attacked by locals who gang up on her.

Perhaps you can imagine what happens next? If this was an ordinary story it would follow with her freaking out, having a meltdown, getting depressed, giving up, harboring anger, adopting a victim mentality, getting paralyzed in trauma…  But in the story of the female Buddha, there is a shocking conclusion. After enduring one trial after another, instead of breakdown, she breaks through and becomes a Buddha. The legend says that she passed “through the states of exhaustion and then she awakens to realize her full potential.

Perhaps that seems too high a goal for ordinary people facing hardships, after all, isn’t this a legend? What is possible for ordinary people in real lives? In states of exhaustion, just having the goal of making it through tough times, just surviving intact, is a great victory. However, that story communicates a sense of possibility which can remind us of our own intrinsic courage. It bears the message of endurance and awakening to a sense of fuller presence in the face of adversity.

What practical wisdom can Buddhism offer to help us break through?
Here are four slogans, some Buddhist advice for how to stop a meltdown, before it starts.

1. Forget the idea of “take like a man.” Instead “Take it like a Bodhisattva.”

We could harden, toughen up, hold to together, but we also run the risk of suppressing our feelings and accumulating undigested emotion. Instead, in the face of difficulty, we can open our heart and dedicate our circumstances to a greater purpose. Endure until we emerge victorious, not only for ourself, but for the sake of others.

Remember – this particular difficulty is not just about you. Remember everyone else who has gone through a similar circumstance. Remember the many people who are facing the same thing in their lives who are not as well prepared or supported as you are. Remember others who are the same as you are. Think of these people. Open your heart and send them love, pray for all others in the same situation. Let them give you the strength to go on.

This is a new kind of hero for global culture – but an old kind of hero for Buddhism – the awakened mind warrior (Tib. chang chub sem pa). A Buddhist warrior is the hero whose source of strength is compassion. When the going gets tough, the tough dedicate their actions to happiness, benefit and relief of others.

The main Buddhist meditation to generate the mindset of heroic compassion is called sending and taking, aka tonglen practice. Basically, tonglen practice is a contemplation for opening our hearts to others. We imagine other’s wish to be free from suffering. We hold a vision of them becoming free from suffering, becoming happy and becoming free. Opening your heart is away to make it through difficult times without baggage. A knee jerk reaction is to resist opening our hearts in hard times, because there is so much pain there. Surprisingly, connecting with others facing such times allows us to remember our innate strength and connects us with our greater purpose. It explodes the tight confines of “me, me, me,” and therefore allows us to see our situation from a greater perspective.

2.  Be like water

Dropping all our fixed concepts can be freeing. Change is most brutal when we refuse to change along with it. Sometimes when things are most painful – this is due to our non-accepting of things beyond our control. There is so much stress in trying to force things to be as we want them. Life is hard at times. Welcome to the jungle. The Buddha’s own spiritual awakening pivots on two experiences – first the experience of having it all, and then witnessing the possibility of losing it all as he confronts old age, sickness and death. To be able to withstand the full scope of life experiences is part of becoming a spiritual adult. This means learning to surrender, to let go, to go in the directions that actual circumstances open to us. We can’t control everything. We won’t always get our way. The Buddhist advice is – when circumstances change, we must change with them. This is what the zen proverb means when it tells us the slogan “be like water.”

3. Accept Help and Ask for Help

Accepting help allows us to access greater capacity than we have on our own – by harnessing the power interdependence. Asking for help is a sign of courage and confidence, not a sign of weakness. If we know we have fundamental goodness, this gives us room to acknowledge our limits and work with them compassionately. This is because we recognize that human limitations don’t cancel out our intrinsic worthiness, our innate goodness. Therefore, there is no fundamental threat incurred from admitting limitations, we thus afford ourselves the opportunity to address limits skillfully rather than deny them.

This slogan may lead us in surprising directions. As the saying goes, during tough times it may become suddenly clear who your friends are and who they are not. In difficult times help may be hard to come by. But there will usually be someone to help. It might not make sense who shows up. It might not be who you expected or wished – but be brave enough to ask for and accept that help. Accept the help you are offered.

Also be sure to let others know you need help. This will require vulnerability. But that vulnerability is a gift and an honor to offer to our friends. It can be an egoless-ness that will upgrade our life and maybe even lead to beautiful new relationships.

A helpful piece of Buddhist advice to remember is – genuine compassion is for the whole situation; it is a compassion that runs both ways, towards ourselves and others.

4. Just Put the Fire Out

Be alert before manufacturing a warped sense of “self.”  One of the greatest distractions in every hardship is the tendency to adopt a victim identity, or a blaming posture that locks us into fixed identities about self and other. This is a waste of time and energy during a crisis.

Tough times and obstacles happen, they come and go, this is part of life. We could easily stew in feeling badly about what is wrong with ‘me,’ or ‘how women are,’ or a variety of other story lines. In uncertainty, a knee jerk reaction is to fortify ourselves with a story and get lost in a quicksand of self-absorption in that story. These stories hold great power and can become substitutes for a direct communication with life. External circumstances do not define what you are or are not.

Deal with the circumstances directly and with minimal extrapolation about with this means about you and others. Save reflection for later. Avoid paralysis by analysis. Once past a crisis, we are in a better position to assess the situation and draw meanings. While in a crisis, deal with it as straightforwardly and simply as possible. As the Buddhist story says, when your house is burning down, don’t stand outside and try and figure out how the fire started. If your house is on fire, concentrate on putting the fire out.

These are four slogans for stopping a meltdown and starting Buddha mind.

  1. Take it like a Bodhisattva
  2. Be Like Water
  3. Accept help and Accept for help
  4. Just Put the Fire Out

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Notes and References

This is a public teaching transcript adapted from a Berkeley teaching with Pema Khandro in 2011.

For more on this topic see Pema Khandro’s article on facing death and rupture:
Pema Khandro – Bardo teachings – 4 Points for Letting Go in the Bardo

The featured image is an image of Yeshe Tsogyal from:
http://dakiniasart.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Yeshe-Tsogyal-Detail-A-Images-Of-Enlightenment.jpg

Pema Khandro
Pema Khandro is a Tibetan Buddhist scholar, humanitarian, and teacher in the rare lineage of Tibet’s Buddhist Yogis. Raised in the west, ordained in the Nyingma lineage, enthroned as a tulku and trained as an academic, Pema Khandro presents both a traditional perspective and a modern voice. Read more at: https://www.pemakhandro.org/pema-khandro-extended-biography/