Mental Health Tips from the Urban Buddhist Monk: Some Simple Tips that Helped the Many
during the Covid-19 Pandemic
As a major urban city centre, and the city with the largest population in Canada, Toronto has
faced several waves of Covid-19. The residents have had to struggle with the spiritual and
psychological stressors induced by multiple pandemic lockdowns and changing restrictions. At
the outset and throughout Covid-19 pandemic, people sought some psychological and emotional
support to deal with their own mental health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. As
Toronto’s Urban Buddhist Monk, I made it my mission during the pandemic to think creatively
about ways that I could bolster the spiritual resources needed for Canada to weather the
psychological storm and come out smarter, wiser, and kinder. I am delighted to share with you
some tips for mental health based on the teachings of the Buddha which I believe have the
powers to heal the psychological and spiritual sicknesses of our world.
One of the prominent concerns was panic, worrying, overthinking, and anxiety regarding the
uncertainities that came with the pandemic. Fear of getting infected with Covid-19 virus, loss of
jobs, loss of loved ones, getting stuck inside the house, and not being able to move around freely
as we would like, all brought a flood of feelings of worry, loneliness, stress, anxieties and
depression. Covid-19 is like a hurricane or tornado that hit the people across the world hard, and
brought widespread economic, psychological, and physical destruction in its path. I myself was
reflecting on some words of wisdom given to us by my monastic and meditation teachers. They
taught to stay calm and patient during difficult times in our life. If something is under our
control, we can and should do everything possible to alleviate the situation. However, if we have
no control, we must let it go without worrying. All worries drain us and make us weak physically
and emotionally. What cannot be controlled should be let go. Why? Because Nothing is
permanent. Everything is in flux. Even Covid-19 itself is not permanent. Therefore, we should not
hang onto the transient experiences. This is the insight we can equip ourselves with in order to
get through and overcome any tough circumstances in life. This does not mean pacifism or
laziness, but means that we should be diligent when diligence is required, and have the wisdom
to recognize when letting go, being patient, and doing nothing are necessary.
Until Covid-19 is gone, we should try to keep ourselves calm, patient and sane. I saw a video clip
of a huge elephant that tried to crush a man walking in the forest. Instead of running away, the
man decided to stay very calm, without moving. The elephant came closer to the man to smash
him with its trunk. However, the elephant, seeing the man staying calm and still with eyes closed,
started going backward slowly and then it went away. When the elephant was gone, the man
kept walking in the forest at ease. Pandemic and life’s struggles are like this elephant. If we don’t
want to be smashed and crushed, we should try to stay calm and patient with a mind free of
fears. Impatience, fear and agitation cannot help us. Therefore, let us recollect with mindfulness
the importance of staying calm and patient during any difficult time in our life, especially during
the times when it is hard to endure.
Those who have mental health issues should be mindful to seek help from some people who are
closer to them or from mental health experts who can provide guidance and support. We should
talk to them. In fact, talking helps. Mental health difficulties are not unlike falling into a pit full of
mud. If we fall into the pit, we will certainly sink in the mud of mental health issues. If we want to
stop sinking further, we must cry out for some help. That is making an effort to talk to someone
who can extend the hand and pull us out of the pit. Though this can seem like weakness when
we are stuck in the mud, in reality this is wisdom. This is recognizing that we need help, and
having the bravery and courage to ask for help from our spiritual friends, guides, teachers, and
mental health providers.
This is where I was able to help people by offering one on one spiritual counselling session and
by offering daily and weekly mindfulness meditation sessions for the public. To me, mental
health challenges result from being thrown out of our centre. Life stressors can through us out of
our centre. Furthermore, when we have destabilizing events, such as a global pandemic, we can
blown far away from our centre, and resort to doing or acting in ways that are excessive or
compulsive, merely out of a wish to cope. We should be mindful to not allow yourself to fall out
of our centre. Any form of excessiveness will make us to fall to a side. We will get pulled in to
emotional draining. That is why Buddha gave the first advice to the world, “Avoid an extreme.
Don’t follow an extreme. Follow the middle path and stay in the middle.” Excessiveness causes
imbalance in life. Being in the middle will help us find a balanced life which is the source of
mental health. Therefore, let us be mindful to train ourselves to remain grounded in the centre.
Although it is difficult, we must train our minds to see the bright side during the difficult times of
our life. For good mental health, we should be mindful to see the bright side of everything.
Nobody is perfect and nobody has everything in life. If you allow yourself to look at what you
have missed, what you don’t have, and what you might lose, that is going to make you miserable,
emotionally drained, fatigued and depressed. An individual may suffer from various mental
health issues such as excessive worries or fears, feeling emotionally down and sad, problems
with sleeping, feeling exhausted, feeling guilty, not being able to focus on something, feeling
confused, overthinking, extreme mood changes of lows and highs, not getting involved with
friends, etc. These are the signs that indicate that there is a problem or problems. All problems
have one or multiple causes. Instead of worrying and panicking, we have to keep ourselves calm
to see the causes. Once we see the cause, then we can take an action to remove them for our
own sanity, relief and health. This requires first establishing the clarity, stillness, and supports to
be able to look at the cause directly.
Mental health issues are often caused by a heavy luggage we are carrying on our shoulder or
head. Perhaps this luggage is full of worries, fears, sadness, pains, anger, resentment, or wanting
something we don’t have. When you have a heavy luggage, you have two choices: either put the
luggage aside or take out items inside the luggage one by one and empty it. This is going to help
you feel lighter. You can function well. You can keep going without feeling any burden.
Oftentimes our luggage is also filled with the mental images of the past and future. Sometimes
this can be mental images of negative memories that we project into the future, thinking “what
if that happens again?” Shifting the mind from “what if” to “I will face whatever it is” with a
patient and calm mind will help us sustain our mental health, and better prepare us to have the
right attitude to deal with challenges, rather than trying to solve the future unknowns by
dwelling in our thoughts.
To enjoy and sustain mental health, the Buddha said, “train your mind to do something
wholesome and meaningful for yourself and others.” There are three ways to train our mind.
1. Train your mind to engage in the act of generosity.
2. Train your mind to refrain from all negative deeds and to engage in all forms of good
3. Train your mind to wish happiness to all and embrace all with a heart full of compassion
To do something good requires some training. If we don’t direct the mind to do an act of
kindness and generosity, the mind is going to occupy itself with the bad memories by triggering
emotional pain and emotional turmoil. Instead, we can set the intention to simply perform one
small act of kindness and generosity each day. This can be as a small as a smile, holding the door
for someone, or giving your time, energy, or resources to someone in need. If we develop small
acts of kindness, we develop the habit of kindness, and our mind naturally gravitates towards the
wholesome and good qualities within our hearts.
In the Dhammapada, the Buddha provides some pertinent advice which I believe relates to
mental health issues. “One should not think lightly of doing evil, imagining “A little will not affect
me”; just as a water-jar is filled up by falling drops of rain, so also, the fool is filled up with evil, by
accumulating it little by little.” When the pot gets filled with the waters of negative deeds and
emotions, memories, hurts, pains, and psychological wounds, it becomes heavy and unbearable.
This makes us stagnant.
For relief from mental health, Buddha says “One should not think lightly of doing good, imagining
‘A little will not affect me’; just as a water-jar is filled up by falling drops of rain, so also, the wise
one is filled up with merit, by accumulating it little by little.” Make your life full of good deeds
and positive emotions.
When a person throws a stone into the water, if that person just prays, “O stone, please do not
go down,” will this prayer work? We should understand that the stone is heavy and it is going to
sink despite our praying. Why? Because it is heavy. This is merely cause and effect. In the same
way, when our mind becomes full with burdens of negativities, it is going to sink. This is where all
mental health crises begin.
When a person throws a feather into the water, if that person just prays, “O feather, please go
down,” will this prayer work? We should understand that the feather is not going to sink despite
our praying. Why? Because it is light. In the same way, when our mind becomes full with good
deeds and positive feelings, it is not going to sink. It is going to stay on the surface of the water.
To make your mind lighter, get into meditation. Engage in daily prayers and chanting. Practice
meditation. Do physical exercise. Go for nature walks. Help others in whatever you can. Don’t
hurt anyone. Be kind to yourself and others. This is where people can enjoy mental health with
happiness and peace!
Those who came to me seeking spiritual and emotional support, these are some spiritual and
psychological guidelines I have followed in bringing relief and mental health wellbeing to
hundreds of people across North America during Covid-19 pandemic. May they be of benefit to
you in your spiritual journey of healing and freedom from suffering.
Venerable Dr. Bhante Saranapala
Founder & President of “Canada: A Mindful and Kind Nation”