Cyberbullying in Schools and Teenage Suicide
The triggers for teenage suicide were brought to my attention through a drastic and dangerous situation with one of my young friends. He had slipped into a deep depression caused primarily by being bullied at school and was seriously contemplating suicide. His father had phoned me in alarm and I suggested that his son come and stay with my wife and I for a while. This would take the heat out of the situation. I also had a long conversation over the phone with the young man without mentioning the word “Suicide.” I talked to him about our kayaking adventures and other things that I knew would bring some joy and happiness to his mind. These were the first steps to transform the hurricane force of his strong feelings and emotions that led him to consider suicide. Over the phone I also taught him a simple meditation about being a tall tree. He was open to Buddhist “stuff” through my and his dad’s practice and somewhat curious about both of us! The analogy I used for the meditation was that of a storm of strong winds coming up and shaking the tree tops and breaking branches, while the bottom of the tree trunk stays solid. So that when something arose like a strong wind to hurt him, to think of these things as the tall branches being damaged by strong winds. If he placed his hands on his tummy and breathed deeply in and out to this trunk for ten breaths, then his distress and anger would slowly calm down. He then accepted my invitation to come and stay with us. I also learned over the phone with this youngster that what destroyed him the most was cyberbullying from anonymous sources.
I had no knowledge or insights about cyberbullying. Before he arrived in Ottawa, I consulted with savvy school councillors across the country. I learned that cyberbullying was now an everyday reality for teenagers in schools. I was shocked by the ramifications of the dark shadow of cyberbullying and by the fact that a whole generation of school children had grown up with it. Most adults were as ignorant as I about the intensity of hate and cruelty crashing through the virtual world of cell phones, twitter, chat rooms and email. Cyberbullying had become an everyday mosaic in the life of teens. The field they played in was a free-for-all virtual reality for immature minds to vent their spite, malice, hatred and cruelty without restraint–simply because they could-as they hid behind a veil of anonymity. The impact on victims was very severe leading to breakdown, depression and sometimes to death through suicide. I learned from multiples sources that cyberbullying, mental issues and depression were a huge issue in most schools across the nation. Parents and teachers were often completely unaware of this odious shadow playing out in schools. With this new and alarming knowledge I knew I had to present to this young teen some simple practices, even if their source was complex.
This prompted me to think deeply about what Buddhist practices would be useful to ground the troubled minds of teens so they could resist cyberbullying and prevent being pulled into self-hurt. I had to be selective and intelligent about mindfulness practice. Strategic too, so that it would be readily grasped by a young teen. It was clear to me that cyberbullying was a malicious enhancement of unworthiness and hate. Many teens played both sides of this virtual reality, victim and bully, so rampant and vicious was this spectre of hate. I started to talk to my young friend about foundation practices I used every day and how they might help to calm his mind when he was troubled. He really got the Two Arrows Teaching from the Buddha. In a nutshell this teaching is about a man walking along a path when suddenly he is hit by an arrow fired by a hidden and unknown attacker. The pain was terrible. Then a second arrow was fired into the same spot and the pain and suffering became unbearable. I asked him if he knew who fired the second arrow. He slowly nodded his head and said: “That would be me. All my fears and insecurities would come up to inflame the hurt of the first arrow.” I was very impressed. I told him that he was exactly correct, that our fears, anxieties, exaggerations and dramas inflame the first wound, causing a small ember to explode into a raging forest fire. The point of the teaching was to assist him and me to come to a STOP, to calm the mind and body. Then find a way to NOT fire the second arrow into a trigger that had hurt us. Buddhism was not such a drag after all.
My wife and I had picked him up from the airport in Ottawa and made him completely at home. At first there was no mention of his depression and strong urge to commit suicide. My wife fed him with mounds of food. It seemed that he emptied the fridge at least twice a day. He could sleep in as long as he needed to and rest. On occasions he would join me in the meditation hall in the basement of our bungalow. He was curious about my practice, so I taught him how to make good friends with his breath, concentrating on the whole length of the in-breath and the whole length of the out-breath. That if he would do that ten times without distraction he would feel calm. He also joined in when I did walking meditation. Here the breath was co-ordinated with each footstep and a simple mantra to follow each breath.
IN – OUT, with left foot and right foot.
NOW – WOW! With left foot and right foot.
He smiled at that. Furthermore, when I added the final concentration of being aware of how our feet touch the floor-heel/ball of foot/toe-he could in fact align himself with Earth Energies. I told him that this part of walking meditation was very important, as it was the catalyst for the strong earth energy already inside his mind to come to the surface. And that this energy was stronger than his troubled feelings and emotions. He looked at me quizzically as I provided a demonstration. Then when he practiced it, he found it to be OK. He related, much later, that walking meditation was the best for him, as he felt a sense of steadiness and of being refreshed. Over the two weeks he stayed with us his visits to the meditation hall were intermittent but by the second week he came down every morning in his pyjamas to keep me company in the meditation hall.
Once he got dressed each morning and after a late breakfast, I would take him to the various science and technical museums in the city, as that was his passion along with First Nations culture. Fortunately in Ottawa I knew several curators, one at the Aviation Museum and one at the Museum of Civilization, which had the Grand Hall of North West Coast Cultures. My friends in the museums kindly gave him individual tours. I could see his sense of self-esteem rising with the tours and kindness. He was over the moon about receiving such special attention. We were gladdening his mind – a vital point that arises later.
We played board games, charades and kept on gladdening his mind. This was a vital step in the Buddha’s teaching on mindful breathing. He meditated with me quite often and each time we would do the Tree Meditation together. When the time felt right I asked him if he would like to talk to me about what was going on. He told me about three boys who bullied him at school. He also felt that they were behind the cyberbullying, though he had no proof. Also, that neither of his parents really listened to him. I listened quietly until he finished talking. Then I picked up the telephone and found the number of his school and talked to his vice-principal for a while. She was very open and supportive and had already taken steps to separate the three bullies, keeping two in detention during every recess. I also telephoned his parents and reminded them about deep listening, which they promised to put into practice with their troubled son. This boy had listened to the phone calls and was amazed at the support for him that was being galvanized right before his eyes.
I also brought to his attention that his father and mother were deeply worried and doing their best for him. That if he decided to “off” himself, his father, mother and little sisters would be devastated. He genuinely did not want any of that to happen. We also talked about emotions and feelings overtaking us. He totally understood that he was letting one or two strong emotions get him down, when he had so many others to choose from. I managed to convince him that his feelings and emotions were not fixed. They are self-created in his mind by triggers. That in fact we sort of make it all up as we go along and often increase the impact of triggers. The trick, I told him, is to notice when we are getting stuck on one or two heavy emotions. Then we ask ourselves: “Do I want to go there, knowing what it will lead to?” I repeatedly emphasized that with this kind of awareness we can begin to stop the process of causing harm to ourselves. He really got this. His understanding was that triggers such as cyberbullying were a spark. He could either stamp it out or create a raging forest fire. He had turned the Two Arrows teaching into a personal tool and clearly understood the difference between responding rather than reacting. He was a smart teen.
I introduced him to parts of the Buddha’s teachings about the mindful use of the breath. The focus was on his feelings, emotions and mind. Keeping it simple, I outlined the sixteen breathing exercises that focus mindfulness, concentration and insight first on the body, then on feelings and emotions, then on the mind (mental formations) and finally on objects of mind (perceptions). The Buddha starts with the body where the brain and consciousness are located. The point of this teaching is to take us through each avenue of investigation so we grow stronger and gain some control over our emotions and thoughts. Then we can begin to recognize the triggers that can cause harm to us. The exercises were a systematic package to retrain his troubled mind. There were two aspects of the teaching that I brought to him – that was enough.
The second group of four breathing exercises provided an intelligent focus for his feelings and emotions. We studied them for a while.
5. Skilfully training myself – breathing in and breathing out, aware of experiencing joy.
6. Skilfully training myself – breathing in and breathing out, aware of experiencing happiness.
7. Skilfully training myself – breathing in and breathing out, aware of my painful feelings.
8. Skilfully training myself – breathing in and breathing out, aware of calming painful feelings.
Then we spoke at length about how we all love our dramas and allow ego-distortion to run rampant with our feelings and emotions creating all kinds of out-of-control reactions. However, if we can catch our dramas fuelled by painful mental formations, we can do an end run around our suffering by NOT firing the second arrow into our pain. We can go deeper and learn how to respond rather than react. We see how our feelings actually condition the mind. Feelings are totally normal. It is simply a matter of having the stability of mind not to be overwhelmed by them.
I showed him that he could skilfully use his breath to focus in on the experience of joy and happiness (Exercises 5 and 6). That deeply nurtures our feelings and emotions, creating a steadiness within, providing a foundation to bring awareness and calm to his mind. Exercises 7 and 8, recognizing and calming, provide a preventive measure to transform the hurricane force of strong emotions, a very important message to send to all young people contemplating suicide. The first two exercises nurture and sustain our positive feelings, so we can realize that we are much more than one feeling. So why allow one or two feelings or emotions to take us down into the hell of despair, loneliness and suffering? I asked him to write down the main feelings and emotions that drove him to think about suicide. There were three. Then I asked him to write down all the other feelings inside him. He took his time and wrote down thirty. Then I showed him the two figures, three versus thirty. He nodded his head and remarked “I get it. It’s an absurd decision.” I told him that feelings are just one thing focussed upon by the Buddha to show that the methodology of the sutra works. And that a good strategy is to use Exercises 7 and 8 to bring relief to being overwhelmed by strong emotions.
If the reader understands all of this and puts this understanding into practice then he can see that the particular emotion that is overwhelming him, making her dysfunctional, is just one emotion in their vast ocean of consciousness. This insight undermines the predisposition to be totally crushed by one or two emotions, as there are so many positive emotions we can play with. This is important for young people to know about, as they can quickly go into despair and even suicide when overwhelmed by emotions of fear and unworthiness. There is another group of four exercises that I felt were very important. They dealt directly with what was in his mind.
9. Skilfully training myself – breathing in and breathing out, aware of my mental formations.
10. Skilfully training myself – breathing in and breathing out, aware of gladdening my mental formations.
11. Skilfully training myself – breathing in and breathing out, aware of concentrating on the nutriments that feed my damaging mental formations.
12. Skilfully training myself – breathing in and breathing out, aware of liberating my mind by not feeding damaging mental formations.
This is what I told him after he had read through the four exercises with me. In Exercise 9 we use our breath to recognize, and then look deeply at thoughts arising in our mind. Exercise 10 gladdens the mind. This is a wonderful exercise as we deliberately provide the mind with nourishment to become stronger. Deep in our consciousness there exist many positive and wholesome seeds of potential just waiting for an opportunity to manifest in our mind. So we gladden the mind by taking conscious steps with our thoughts and intentions to water the seeds of Love, Compassion, Joy, Equanimity and other concentrations, so that this good stuff occupies the mind. Furthermore, we take positive action by organizing our everyday living so that external circumstances further the nourishment of the wholesome seeds latent in our deep consciousness. I stressed that we become very attentive about not dwelling on unwholesome seeds like hate, cruelty, despair, anger, jealousy and greed. In effect we are re-writing the programs in our consciousness that can be activated by ego to take us into the realm of suffering and harm.
Nothing survives in our mind without our allowing the flow of nutriments and energy to feed whatever occupies our mind. In Exercise 11 we investigate the nutriments that fed harmful notions in our mind, seeing them as an energy that requires some serious surgery. It is like cutting the affliction away. Once we become aware of the causes that feed our negative thoughts we can immediately reduce their potency. We first of all recognize the triggers that kept the affliction in our mind alive. And we realize the negative affliction is there because we are feeding it. This is followed by Exercise 12, liberating the mind whereby we choose to cease feeding the harmful mental formations by cutting off the nutriments that fuels them with energy. We stop feeding our demons – and they become afraid because they realize that you have got their number! And it is Number 12. There were lots of questions which I answered in his form of language. He eventually understood these weighty concepts..
This quartet of exercises played a big part in in this young teen’s rehabilitation. The focus by my wife and I on gladdening his mind was vital for him to eventually see that he could change the internal CD’s he listened to. We had listened carefully to him in order to identify the nutriments that fed his impetus towards suicide and then did our best to encourage him to eliminate them, so he could stop feeding the nutriments that inflamed his damaging mental formations. After emptying our fridge one day and finding it bare he started to laugh and said – “Nothing survives without food!” He got it and I was very proud of him and told him so. He had learned very valuable tools from this teaching and found some balance and steadiness.
The “treatment plan” from my wife and I was not in any way codified or formalized. In fact, we did not really have a plan per se. On reflection, I saw some key factors that are useful to highlight. They are not offered as a recipe for all situations of potential suicide by teenagers in schools. The causes of the desperate contemplation of suicide are complex and each situation has to be dealt with uniquely. Nor do I think it is always possible for the components of the adventure with this young man to be replicated in other circumstances. This young man had a prior exposure to Buddhist practice that helped him to be open to methods of breathing and walking that a street kid would find somewhat alien. Cyberbullying is a new phenomenon for our times, scarcely twenty years old. It affects all strata of society, not just teens, through online forums, listserves, social media and other internet vehicles that provide a semblance of anonymity for the perpetrators. The explosive birth of cyberbullying coincided with the ramification of distraction technologies. Cell Phones, chat rooms, ipads and the internet created an ecosystem of interruption technologies that many teens have become addicted to. They crave a global interconnect directed by this virtual world, yet rarely know how to use it responsibly so that harm is not done to others. In less than a generation the world has been fundamentally changed by this virtual reality and we have yet to catch up with its consequences. Nor are there sufficient failsafes and regulations for curbing cyberbullying. Parents and councillors are scrambling to deal with it and parenting skills have to adapt radically in order to protect our young children. Thankfully, an organization of dedicated educators-The Mindfulness in Education Network-has taken huge strides over the past decade to turn the tide through the development of mindfulness education programs for all levels of the school system. Their reach is expanding across North America and the planet. My fervent wish is that their efforts are not too little, too late.
The bottom line, however, is that distracted people do not realize they are in so much danger. I am reminded of a terse view from Rumi:
“Sit down and be quiet. You are drunk and this is the edge of the roof.”
Neuroscientist Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows (2011) documents a vast amount of scientific evidence that excessive use of the internet impairs precious human mental capacities. Margaret Wheatley (2013) writes:
“We have made this world into an unpredictable monster because we’ve refused to work with it intelligently. And the ultimate sacrifice is the future.”
There are many other reputable sources bringing attention to an issue that is overwhelming. We need many antidotes, especially as young people see before their eyes on a daily basis many forms of systemic cyberbullying – from Negative Political Attack Ads, Facebook rants to brutal Twitter attacks. Are these aspects of modern society any different from the anonymity of sitting behind a computer spewing out violent malice, simply because they can? Think about it.
This is why I refer to our cobbled together “treatment plan” because it worked. It evolved on a daily basis and I think it was effective for several reasons. Having this youngster leave a troubled environment was a great start. Consulting with his parents about his home situation was crucial. Surrounding him with love, attention and deep listening was a vital key. Teaching him how to be calm, in control of his feelings, and taking back his power through the teachings was an effective strategy. It worked well, as he has grown into a mature, thoughtful and caring young man. He was prepared to notice the behavior of cruel distractions that devastated him and then take steps to try something different. I pray that other teens suffering from cyberbullying will be so open.
Thanks to Leonard Poole and Catherine Cosstick for their critical eyes on this essay. And to:
Carr, Nicholas, 2011, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Minds.
Wheatley, Margaret, 2013, Living in the Age of Distraction. Shambhala Sun May, 2013.
Mindfulness in Education Network: MiEN@yahoogroups.com