South Wales is poor and steelworkers job losses will make it poorer still. What does Buddhism, with its stress on self development have to offer? And how does caring for yourself connect with caring for others?
It’s been a bad week here South Wales, with news that 750 people are losing their jobs at the Port Talbot steelworks. In the mid-70s over 60,000 people worked in the Welsh iron and steel industries. Now it’s down to a few thousand and, along with the end of coal mining, West Wales and the Valleys has become the poorest region in the UK.
At times like these I find myself asking how I can respond. Historically, Buddhism hasn’t made social service a duty as some faiths have, and its most distinctive contributions, such as meditation and and mindfulness, focus on the individual rather than the community. How can that help people potentially facing a lifetime of unemployment?
As interest in mindfulness has spread, to my surprise I’ve found myself working with some of the most deprived groups and discovered that what I’ve learned in Buddhist contexts is immediately relevant when it’s offered in a secular form.
Last week for example, I spent two days teaching mindfulness to a group of cancer care nurses in a hospital in the Welsh Valleys. I was moved by the nurses’ commitment to their patients, many of whom are nearing the end of their lives. But while the nurses were good at caring for others, they gave much less attention to themselves. They loved learning simple ways to relax and settle their minds, but said they felt guilty. Wasn’t it selfish to spend time on themselves in that way?
The Buddhist view is that if you want to help others you must also attend to your own needs and foster your own resources. This is partly because resilience means absorbing shocks and managing difficult emotions. But it’s also because being hard on ourselves undermines our capacity to respond compassionately to others. As Buddhist teachings say, kindness is essential for a healthy mind and our states of mind underpin our lives as a whole.
I believe this translates to social change more broadly if we can say that what we want is a more caring society. That’s not just about economics. It’s also about steelworkers needing the resilience to make a challenging transition, and nurses helping their patients through cancer treatment or sitting with them as they die. People who contribute in that sort of way have helped a sense of community survive in Wales. But they need ways to look after themselves; and that’s a basis for caring for the wider community and society as a whole.