Mastering powerful emotions

From time to time, we are all overcome by strong emotions:  anger, despair, envy, fear, grief, guilt, loneliness, etc.

It is counterproductive to ignore such overwhelming emotions and pretend that they are not there. The person who is not mindful of his or her emotions will be mastered by them.

But surely mindfulness alone is not enough. How is it possible to master such powerful, internal forces? Thich Nhat Hanh offers a rare combination of spiritual insight and practical advice.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and poet. He was once nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In this excerpt from one of his books, Nhat Hanh is discussing Buddhist meditation. But the reader can benefit from these insights without necessarily assuming the lotus position and meditating in the formal sense of the word.

Stopping, Calming, Resting, Healing

Buddhist meditation has two aspects — shamatha and vipashyana. We tend to stress the importance of vipashyana (“looking deeply”) because it can bring us insight and liberate us from suffering and afflictions. But the practice of shamatha (“stopping”) is fundamental. If we cannot stop, we cannot have insight.

There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, “Where are you going?” and the first man replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!” This is also our story. We are riding a horse, we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t stop.

We have to learn the art of stopping — stopping our thinking, our habit energies, our forgetfulness, the strong emotions that rule us. When an emotion rushes through us like a storm, we have no peace. We turn on the TV and then we turn it off. We pick up a book and then we put it down. We sit with the person we love, but we don’t know that she is there. We are someplace else, thinking about the past or the future.

The horse of our habit energy is carrying us along, and we are its captive. We need to stop our horse and reclaim our liberty.

Mindfulness is the energy that allows us to recognize our habit energy and prevent it from dominating us. The first function of meditation — shamatha — is to stop.

The second function of shamatha is calming. When we have a strong emotion, we know it can be dangerous to act, but we don’t have the strength or clarity to refrain. We have to learn the art of breathing in and out, stopping our activities, and calming our emotions. We have to learn to become solid and stable like an oak tree, and not be blown from side to side by the storm. The Buddha taught many techniques to help us calm our body and mind and look deeply at them. They can be summarized in five stages:

  1. Recognition — If we are angry, we say, “I know that anger is in me.”
  2. Acceptance — When we are angry, we do not deny it. We accept what is present.
  3. Embracing — We hold our anger in our two arms like a mother holding her crying baby. Our mindfulness embraces our emotion, and this alone can calm our anger and ourselves.
  4. Looking deeply — When we are calm enough, we can look deeply to understand what has brought this anger to be, what is causing our baby’s discomfort.
  5. Insight — The fruit of looking deeply is understanding the many causes and conditions, primary and secondary, that have brought about our anger, that are causing our baby to cry. Perhaps our anger was triggered when our friend spoke to us meanly, and suddenly we remember that he was not at his best today because his father is dying. We reflect like this until we have some insights into what has caused our suffering. With insight, we know what to do and what not to do to change the situation.

After calming, the third function of shamatha is resting. Suppose someone standing alongside a river throws a pebble into the air and it falls down into the river. The pebble allows itself to sink slowly and reach the riverbed without any effort. Once the pebble is at the bottom, it continues to rest, allowing the water to pass by.

When we practice sitting meditation, we can allow ourselves to rest just like that pebble. We can allow ourselves to sink naturally into the position of sitting — resting, without effort.

Calming allows us to rest, and resting is a precondition for healing. When animals in the forest get wounded, they find a place to lie down, and they rest completely for many days. They don’t think about food or anything else. They just rest, and they get the healing they need.

When we humans get sick, we just worry! We have to learn to rest. Don’t struggle. There is no need to attain anything. Our body and mind have the capacity to heal themselves if we allow them to rest.

[adapted from chapter 6 of The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation]

Stopping/mindfulness
Calming
   (recognition; acceptance; embracing; looking deeply; insight)
Resting
Healing

I invite you to comment on one of the above principles, and describe how it has helped you to master powerful emotions.

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