Karmic School Blues

Question: A friend’s son lately found it difficult to focus and could not study at all. He had applied leave of absence from school. But, currently he is preparing for a special exam required for studying the subject of choice later.  At times, he is quite frustrated, tense and irritable.  He sleeps in the wee hours and wakes up at noon. How can I help him?

Answer: Perhaps I can relate, as I once had what could be a similar experience… When I was in Secondary 4, something bizarre happened to me. While trying to do my homework one afternoon, I suddenly realised I didn’t know how to solve a simple math sum. In panic, I flipped through my textbooks, and to my shock, memory of seemingly all the lessons of all subjects learnt was lost. I found it hard to focus too, and swiftly lost confidence in schoolwork. I had no prior history of stress issues, and was in the second best class in school. In fact, I had deliberately signed up for the second best class to reduce any possible pressure of self-expectations from being in the best class. I too became extremely frustrated, tense and irritable, unable to sleep well. Despite being a relatively brilliant student, I couldn’t figure out the reason why this was happening.

Things got so bad that I felt suicidal. What held me back was that I already knew the Buddha’s teaching – that death by suicide usually leads to a worse rebirth due to dying in an extremely negative mind-state. I lacked courage to face a worse outcome! Seeing my great distress, my family took me off on a long 14-day holiday in NZ, which helped to take my mind off school work. When I got back, I was still apprehensive of school, but somehow things gradually improved and life returned to normal. I did okay in my O-Levels that year. In fact, they were the best set of exams I had ever taken. A lot of help came from my family’s support, which assured me that even if I failed, it would be okay. When expectations were reduced, I became relaxed and confidence arose naturally. I had much expectations to do well myself too, but realised that focusing too much on them made me lose focus in studying well in the moment.

On hindsight, a rational explanation for why the above happened was that I got carried away when I forgot how to do just one math sum. In that single moment of panic, which made me lose focus, I sabotaged myself by flipping textbooks haphazardly. The more I focused on my panic, the less I could focus on the school material. And it just compounded to great stress that I didn’t know how to relieve. It was important to me not to fail, not to be a loser, for I dreaded failing greatly. I had never failed a major exam before. The inbuilt dread of failure was so great that being stuck at the math sum became a condition for all the hidden dread to manifest. I thought I was already quite intelligent, but I clearly wasn’t mindful or wise enough to discern this and how I could help myself. Sometimes, looking back, I think the experience could also be due to the rebounding of negative karma from being too proud of my intelligence. A case of strong pride that comes before a hard fall. It was a very humbling experience – to realise that my negative karma can strike without warning, that reminded me of the value of being humble to forces larger than myself. (From being what I could had turned out – a student who lost all confidence in school and exams, I eventually became a happy Dharma teacher. I received my MA in Buddhist Studies recently. That’s the happy ‘ending’ so far!

Apologies for rambling, but I thought the parallels were many and possibly relevant… My advice for your friend’s son is that he does something similar to what now I did – take a holiday with the family. Forget the exam for the time being. Postpone it if possible. Adding stress to a stressful situation doesn’t help at all – it only worsens it. Taking leave of absence is for taking a break, and that’s what it should be – a real break from all school stuff. A holiday to scenic wide open spaces can help to broaden the heart and mind, to help relax, to realise that there is much more which is wonderful in life that is missed when we overly focus on our relatively smaller goals. There’s no need to give up these goals though – but a break from thinking too much about them is good. If the goals keep coming to mind, it might be good to reflect on whether they are worth pursuing – in the sense that if there is already so much stress in getting to these goals, will there be more stress after they are realised? It can be a turning point of life for the better if goals are reassessed for their worth. The holiday might not feel like something deserved, but it can be therapeutic and thus needed. My NZ holiday was unnerving to some extent, due to on and off recollection of the exams that I had to face later, but it did help to take my mind off much needless stress.

Something extra you can do is to practise chanting Amituofo (name of Amitabha Buddha) with him, accompanied by a CD perhaps, to help her relax, to take his mind take mind off the stress. This is the simplest chant, which nevertheless is very spiritually beneficial. The calming rhythm is useful too. Don’t create great expectations of being able to chant single-mindedly! Just chant. If possible, it’s good to share with him the Pureland teachings, on how mindfulness of Amituofo can help us receive his compassionate blessings. It can help him to sleep well too. Instead of being overly focusing on school stuff when it’s time to sleep, just be mindful of Amituofo’s name. As the mind can only hold one thought in each thought-moment, when the mind is suffused with ‘Amituofo’, negative thoughts and feelings cannot arise in the same moment. They key is to practise sincerely. How I wish someone advised me to practise this when I was having school blues back then!

4 thoughts on “Karmic School Blues

  1. I would like to add on to the above with plenty of sunshine, outdoor exercises and adequate normal sleep hours. Do engage counsellor help as sometimes talking to non-family members helps the person to open up and see things from a different perspective. Perhaps some dark chocolates too? 😀

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