Thich Nhat Hanh often talks about how a monk or nun has a second body. Another monk or nun they are responsible for helping and keeping track of. He says just as we must always take care of our own body, help it, love it, care for it when it needs attention....we must also have a second body in the Sangha to watch after and care for as if it were our own. In this way the monks and nuns of plum village never have to worry that they will go unnoticed or be forgotten when they forget to take care of themselves, or when they need attention and cannot, or don't know how to, ask for it.
The first time I read this I thought "What a beautiful idea!" That's such a sweet and thoughtful thing in a Sangha.
In my own Sangha(s), particularly in the various virtual Sanghas, I quite often see people who, for one reason or another, will lapse in to some type of shame or depression and then withdraw from the community. In the simplest terms, it goes like this....they fall in to a depression (sometimes because of a relapse of whatever suffering they live with or just because), they stop posting to social media, they stop texting their friends, they stop chatting and so forth. The less they chat and communicate with friends, the more they feel bad about themselves. The more they feel bad about themselves, the more shame they heap on top of themselves. The more shame they heap on top of themselves, the harder it is for them to re-establish communication because they are afraid of the shame and embarrassment. Next thing you know, weeks or months have gone by and people start noticing "hey, I haven't seen so and so post in ages, I wonder if they are OK."
In the world of social media such comings and goings are so common and frequent that they aren't noticed that much. Eventually, the person snaps out of it, if we're lucky, and they suddenly resurface. Things go back to normal. Until the next time.
When I see these people come back, I often ask what happened. The answer is always the same, or at least a variation on the theme. See above.
Not suffering from depression myself, I have always had difficulty understanding it. But I've seen it happen so often to so many of my dear friends whom I love very much, that it bothers me greatly. I always want to help. I want to fix it. But I can't. The one thing I do know about depression is that there isn't much that I can do for someone who suffers from it.
I've spoken to several teachers about it, and the answer has been pretty much the same every time. Just be there waiting for them when they return, with open arms and an open heart. Accepting of them and of what they have gone through. Don't try to push them to fix it....just show them that you love them and welcome them back. When they show back up, it means that they are already fixing it. They've already began the climb out again. All you have to do....heck, all you CAN do....is show them through your actions that you were there for them the whole time. Welcome them back to the world, as it is. Allow them to return and not walk in to the arms of more shame and embarrassment. Welcome them back to your heart, open and beaming with happiness to have them. It may seem like inaction on your part, but it's actually the greatest action you can commit on their behalf. Acceptance.
This is great advice, and really the only option that I know of. But I think that there is one more thing we can do for one another in these situations, I think that if we each have a second body, then there would be no being left behind, so to speak. Take a look at your own Sangha and make sure everyone has a second body.
This isn't new...if you've ever dealt with recovery circles then you now that this sounds a lot like a sponsor. If you have Joe, Sally, Bob, and Sue in your Sangha then it might look like this:
- You look after Joe
- Joe looks after Sally
- Sally looks after Bob
- Bob looks after Sue
- Sue looks after you.
- When a new member comes in to the Sangha, Sue shifts to looking after that person and that person starts looking after you.
When you do this regularly, you will kind of get a feel for whether they are having troubles or not and whether they are being open about it. Remember that it's not your job to prevent them from having troubles, or to fix them. It's not your job to do anything at all. It's your privilege to care about them. To know when they are having challenges and just be there for them so that they KNOW you are there for them. And the greatest gift for them will be that you don't judge them for their suffering.
This won't solve the problem. I don't know that it is a problem that can be solved, I do know that it's a beautiful practice that can only bring about good in a community. And it doesn't have to be limited to your Buddhist Sangha....this can be expanded to include all people. In the end, after all, we are one big Sangha.