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Hey Natasha, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk. Can you share how you started practicing Buddhism?
Natasha Red: Thank you for thinking of me. I’m happy to share my experience. I was actually introduced to chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo when I was 8 years old by my mother’s close friend.
I remember being encouraged by how welcoming the Buddhist community was in my neighborhood. It felt very comfortable. Everyone was so willing to share and be vulnerable, and this type of exchange was not what I had experienced before. In fact, it was pretty much the opposite at home.
As I got into my teen years, my home life became very volatile. My mother was battling substance abuse, and my father was absent, as he faced a similar struggle. I started to chant for 15 minutes in the morning before school and before I went to bed. I was chanting to hold it all together. I began reading from Daisaku Ikeda’s writings to find answers on how to move forward. I soon began to feel like something was going on inside that I couldn’t shake. I voluntarily admitted myself to the hospital and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I now believe being properly diagnosed was a result of my Buddhist practice, but I didn’t see it that way at the time.
How did your diagnosis as a teenager impact you?
It was really scary. I stopped chanting and distanced myself from going to the local meetings because it was all too much. I went through a lot of denial in terms of my own mental health but I will say that I never forgot those positive experiences I had from chanting and the support I received.
I never forgot those positive experiences I had from chanting and the support I received.
Wow, thank you for sharing so openly and honestly.
Of course. It all came to a head when I was living in Los Angeles. I had experienced homelessness; I was still working but I wanted a fresh start. Even though I didn’t know anyone practicing in my area, I just started chanting again to a blank wall. Things started to sync up.
I had gotten a call from my grandfather who offered for me to move to Seattle and pursue my education. When I got there, I went to the Buddhist community center and found the closest neighborhood group. After attending my first meeting in a long time, I was reminded of the beautiful and warm atmosphere. I felt so blessed to be a part of a supportive group to begin my fresh start and revive my own spirituality. My mother began seeing the change in my life and she even started chanting too!
So powerful. What happened next?
I started attending the local community college to fulfill some basic course requirements but when it came time to apply for an undergraduate program, I decided to go big. In my personal statement, I shared my life experiences and how that had motivated me to want to work for people who are suffering the most in our society. I was admitted to The New School in New York City, my dream school. But when it came time to pay for it, I was nervous. I didn’t have anyone in my family who could support financially, and the one person I thought might be able to was out of the question.
I thought, Okay now is the time to test this practice. I chanted seriously every day and through that had the courage to reach out to the family member. To my shock, she offered to give me the down payment for school! I moved to New York City and started working and going to school. Every day was a challenge, especially with checking in on my mental health. But the whole time, my Buddhist community was everything and kept me going.
I successfully graduated and moved back to Seattle to begin working in a crisis solution center for people experiencing homelessness. My main role was diverting folks from hospitals and jails to providing services rather than temporarily holding them. It was very stressful work. With no training and limited resources I found myself de-escalating potentially violent situations almost daily. With my practice, I continued to do my best. My shift team became one of strongest and reliable. I received a promotion.
Congratulations! As a front-line worker, how did the pandemic impact you day-to-day?
I’ll never forget the day we began shutting down. Within a matter of hours, no shelters were available, and all we had to give people were tents and sleeping bags. It was heartbreaking.
We work with clients daily who are looked down on as second-class citizens. For example, a client, who was experiencing homelessness and struggling with mental health issues, requested that she be taken to the hospital. When we arrived, the hospital staff member was visibly agitated and asked why she was there because she had seen her multiple times that week. The nurse kept asking me questions regarding her care. I advocated for her to be treated fairly and advised the nurse to have a conversation directly with her. For the client, knowing I was there to support gave her a sense of ease.
How do you use your practice to navigate the difficulty of your work?
Every day when I chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, I pray to bring out the same determination to help others as my mentor, Daisaku Ikeda. I then go in to work with a fresh face and energy, and with the belief that I can transform any situation that may come up. I also determine to work well with my co-workers and empower them to ensure their safety.
Today everyone in healthcare feels burned out and so done. There isn’t a space to decompress or be supported. It can be challenging, especially while caring for my own mental health. With the practice, I am able to not only hold space for someone else to be vulnerable, but also to care for myself. And more than anything, with people in my life who care about my happiness and well-being in the Buddhist community, I’m never alone.
With the practice, I am able to not only hold space for someone else to be vulnerable, but also to care for myself.
I also now realize that the mental health challenges and homelessness I experienced in my own life have become my greatest strength as they help me bring forth greater respect and compassion for those who I am serving at work.