Generating joy and embracing suffering in times of crisis

In the spirit of love and wanting to offer something positive to the many crises that we face. 

Two studies were published recently, one in The Lancet and one in the journal Science, which asked young people from all over the world their feelings about the climate crisis. And the results are shocking: 75 percent of young people are living with a constant feeling of anxiety about the climate situation. And 50 percent feel that society is already doomed. Many of them have already decided not to bring children into this world. It’s alarming. And it’s everywhere: all around the world, all kinds of people, all different situations.

So the question I feel we have to ask ourselves as practitioners is, ‘How can we help?’ What does it mean to be a practitioner now, in this time of crisis? 

Thay used to say: ‘A good practitioner should know how to generate a feeling of joy or a feeling of happiness, and how to take care of a painful feeling.’ He wasn’t saying, ‘If you don’t know how to do this, you’re a bad practitioner.’ He was saying, ‘It’s easy; don’t make it so complicated.’ 

If we know what we can do, then we have an antidote to the feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, and sense of being overwhelmed by the crisis, which come from the sense that there’s nothing we can do, or that whatever we can do is not enough. 

So what can we do? 

I would like to take Thay’s statement about being a good practitioner and modify it a little.

Do you know how to generate a feeling of joy? Do you know how to handle a feeling of pain? If I ask myself those questions, the answer is partly yes, partly no. We can also ask ourselves, ‘How often do I remember that I can generate a feeling of joy? Could I do it more? In what situations?’ 

If you’re with a group of friends and everybody’s in a good mood and something lovely is happening, it’s not difficult to generate joy. So the real question is, ‘Do I know how to generate a feeling of joy when things are difficult or neutral? When I’m feeling restless or distracted?’ These are practices that we have to look into. 

Another question is: ‘Do I know how to do it when I’m on my own? And do I know how to do it collectively?’ Do you know how to recognize when you are avoiding a painful feeling? 

This has something to do with knowing how to handle a painful feeling – because we can’t transform it until we recognize it. That must be the first step: recognizing

And a final question: ‘Do I know how to recognize when I’m underestimating the power of a feeling of joy?’ 

In my approach to the practice, I focused on suffering for many years. I didn’t understand that generating a feeling of joy and being in touch with the wonders of life is a way of handling suffering. So I need to recognize that I may be underestimating how powerful well-being, joy, and simple happiness can be as a response to the situation we are in globally and collectively. 

It may seem like generating a feeling of joy is a spiritual bypass; something false: ‘You can’t just be happy; you have to know how bad things are. Happiness alone is naive, unrealistic, and maybe even foolish.’ So we need to be attentive to that tendency, and to understand the connection between our capacity to generate feelings of joy and our ability to stand tall in the face of suffering, to not be afraid, to be able to welcome it and embrace it. And generating the feeling of joy comes first. 

In the 16 exercises of mindful breathing, the Buddha was very clear: generate a feeling of joy and happiness before getting in touch with a feeling of pain. That way, we create an environment where the feeling of pain can be held and embraced, and where it doesn’t overwhelm us. 

So what is the connection between this and our global situation? 

Firstly, we know that we must reduce our emissions. We know we must stop degrading the biosphere. We must stop polluting the waters, the land, and the air. We must stop cutting down trees and filling the oceans with plastic and toxic waste. This, taken together, we call mitigation; mitigating the harm that we are causing. This is an essential component of getting through the current situation. 

The second part of the solution is adaptation. As the climate becomes more unstable, there will be more extreme weather events: greater extremes of temperature; unaccustomed heat waves that we’re not ready for; and extreme storms, wind, and rain that our infrastructure is not designed to handle. So adaptation of infrastructure is necessary to make our houses, cities, and modes of transportation able to withstand a more unstable climate. 

These are the keys: mitigation and adaptation. 

But, as practitioners, there is a feeling that there’s not much that we can do about these things, because they have to happen on a very large scale. 

But both mitigation and adaptation are going to be carried out by human beings.

We know quite a lot about our nervous system: when we feel threatened, overwhelmed, or powerless, we tend to freeze. We may first try to fight or to run – the fight-or-flight reflex – but very quickly, we freeze and shut down. This psychological paralysis, a feeling of ‘I can’t do anything’, can very quickly become, ‘I don’t want to think about it.’ It can become denial: ‘It’s not that bad; if it was that bad, we would have stopped already.’ That’s what happens when we procrastinate. And we are in a moment of collective procrastination; we are carrying on business as usual. 

What transformation there is, isn’t happening fast enough – which may be because of the emotions that we are experiencing but don’t know how to cope with. That’s where the sangha can act, because we already have a lot of experience dealing with feelings of pain and happiness. As practitioners, whatever experience we have gained about dealing with suffering during our personal journeys is immediately relevant to our global situation: how to transform our suffering, accept it, face it, meet it, not run from it, not deny it, be gentle with it, embrace it, and create a foundation of joy and well-being so that it can soften and transform. This experience is the answer. It is what we can do. And it is desperately needed right now. 

Think of those overwhelmed young people. Who is going to help them learn to handle their feelings of pain? To generate the feelings of joy that they need so much? To stop denying the pain and allow it to be? To not underestimate the power of joy and of well-being? 

We have to do that. That, I believe, is our task. 

And it’s so wonderful, because we already know what to do; we already have so much experience. We hear that, ‘We have the technology already; we know what to do.’ So do we: we have the spiritual technology. 

When I get in touch with these feelings of being overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, by the immensity of the suffering that we already face and that is likely coming, I try to remind myself that the moment for me to act is now, with that feeling. That’s where I have to do the work. That’s where I can engage. I don’t have to wait to go to a protest or to vote. Of course, I have to do those things as well, but I can already act now, in this moment, with this feeling. And it’s immediately connected to the global situation because we know that we are the Earth. The Earth is not outside of us. 

As practitioners, we perhaps feel that we see with the eyes of interbeing and don’t behave as victims. But what happens when we think of the giant corporations that have caused so much harm? The oil companies that have lied and covered up scientific evidence of climate change, and paid millions or billions on lobbying to delay the changes that we need to make. If we see them as the enemy, as the ones who are to blame, then we become victims. 

And Thay said something very challenging: ‘As a practitioner, you do not have the right to be a victim.’ 

To notice when we slip into that mode of thinking, we must be very attentive. Similarly, whenever we feel helpless in the face of this crisis, we are being victims. So we have to recognize that and know how to handle it, because being a victim is a feeling of pain. 

So, as a good practitioner, what do we do? We know how to handle a feeling of pain, we know how to handle being a victim and how to transform it. We may contemplate our interbeing with the beautiful, noble, and majestic trees. But how often do we contemplate our interbeing with those who cut the trees down? How often do we contemplate our interbeing with those who pollute the oceans and rivers? How often do we see that they are in us and we are in them; that we are part of the same system of extraction and exploitation, and that we have benefited from it? 

Because we have profited from it. I don’t say that to make us feel bad or guilty. On the contrary: if they are in us and we are in them, then when we transform, they transform.

That is our power. That is our agency. That is why we are not powerless. That is why we can do something. 

Do we really think that our feelings are our feelings are ours alone? Do you think your feelings stay within, that they don’t leak out? 

I once did an exercise with a group of friends: I asked them to pair up and one of each pair had to share with the other the most inspiring, wonderful, joyful thing that had happened to them in the past week. And the listener had to remain completely indifferent; feel nothing while the other person shared an amazing thing that had happened to them. 

And the result is clear: it’s impossible.

When somebody starts sharing their joy, inspiration, and passion, you feel it. Because that feeling is not only theirs; it doesn’t end at their skin. So when we generate a feeling of joy, it is not just for us: it has no no boundary; it transforms the world. It is not something small, it is not trivial, and it is not a spiritual bypass. 

To generate a feeling of joy is a powerful, courageous act; an act of resistance. We need to do that, both individually and collectively, share with each other, and learn and find new ways to inspire each other. 

In Edinburgh at the TED Countdown, with climate activists, scientists, and people from the worlds of business and politics, they could feel it. They would come up to us and say, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but please keep doing it because every time I see you, I feel better.’ Well, we’re looking around mindfully, taking care of our feelings, taking care when we feel overwhelmed, supporting each other as a mini sangha. And in fact, maybe because of our presence in Edinburgh, we have been invited to COP26. So we will be there; sangha will be there. 

So, in terms of of interbeing, we are just the tip of the branch and rely on the tree and the roots – which is all of us. And that’s true for everyone. 

It’s wonderful to be a leaf, but don’t just be the leaf. Be the branch, the tree, the roots – and don’t just be the tree. Be the forest. And don’t just be the forest; be the Earth.

If you feel powerless, overwhelmed, or disconnected, you have to light up the interbeing in our hearts. You have to activate it again and again and again. This gives us a vast space to hold our pain with tenderness, with the love of Mother Earth; hold it and transform it. And we can expand in time as well as space: we become the Earth, but we also become the whole lineage of our ancestors. And it doesn’t make us less ourselves; it makes us more ourselves, because that’s what we really are: we are vast and we contain multitudes. 

Part of the art of handling a feeling of pain and generating a feeling of joy, is noticing what kind of story we are telling in our mind about that suffering.

Are we telling a story that puts us into the role of a victim? Are we telling a story that makes somebody else the culprit? Are we telling a story of ‘It’s too late’? Of ‘We’re doomed’? I want to propose another way to tell the story of the young people: twenty five percent of young people are not feeling overwhelmed, do not feel that we are doomed. 

Now, maybe 25 percent doesn’t sound like much, but you’d be surprised. A lot of studies on social change and transformation tell us that the critical mass needed for collective social transformation is between five and 25 percent. So 25 percent of young people is already more than enough. 

We stay with the old story and we keep falling back into it. So we need to have the courage to recognize the good in us and in the world, and to recognize the change that is already happening. And we need to tell those stories: that’s how we transform suffering. That’s how we generate a feeling of joy. 

Every single step that we can take and remember to be aware of is an immediate and direct contribution to the planetary crisis. We face it every time we remember to be aware of our breath entering or exiting our body; by doing that, we are increasing our degree of freedom in the face of our own suffering. We are increasing our capacity to see what is going on in our minds, and the capacity to remember to generate joy – and that is directly linked to the situation that we face. 

What is this practice? It is trauma therapy. This is what you have to do when you’re overwhelmed, when you’re frozen, when your nervous system is overwhelmed by pain. This is what we have to learn to do, and we have to do it at scale because everybody is only going to need it more. 

And the amazing thing about our practice is that, no matter what happens, it is always the appropriate response: generating mindfulness; cultivating the freedom to recognize and embrace our feelings; skillfully generating a feeling of happiness. It’s amazing. It’s transferable to every kind of suffering; in every situation, we are equipped to respond, to act, to help, and to serve. But we need to make sure: ‘Do we have something to offer? Have we mastered it? Can we learn from each other? Can we stay inspired?’ 

These four questions are also about the practice of right diligence – one of the elements of the noble eightfold path. When a positive mental formation is not present, what do you do? Bring it up. What’s generating a feeling of joy? Joy could be compassion, peace, stillness, generosity, or kindness when a positive mental formation is absent. We know how to bring it up. We bring it up. When a negative mental formation is present, what do we do? We help it to go back to sleep. We take care of it. 

When we have more well-being, then we don’t need as much; we can live with less because we’re already happy and satisfied. So this is crucial for this path of moderation that we want to demonstrate and share with the world. 

My sense is that we need a peaceful army with no weapons: an army of practitioners. We can all train and will all be called to stand. We are all called to help to serve every time we meet a feeling of pain in ourselves. You are being called upon every time you meet a feeling of pain in somebody else. 

And our collective capacity to do these things, to handle the pain, to generate the joy: these are the conditions for us to be able to do what we have to do, as a whole society, to face the challenge that we are encountering. We will not mitigate or adapt if we are frozen, paralyzed, or overwhelmed. So we have something to do. And the wonderful thing is that it’s easy. We were already doing it. And yet we will be there in Glasgow, channeling mindfulness, joy, love, and the inside of the whole sangha. 


[This transcript has been edited for readability.]

Watch the full Dharma talk here:

8 thoughts on “Generating joy and embracing suffering in times of crisis

  1. I live in the United States and I can’t buy food that’s not wrapped in plastic & when I look around I don’t see how to connect with multitudes whose rampant consumerism seems so … forgetful . They support the corporations who cut the trees and import beef from Brazil & manufacture plastics. Tbe 25% of kids who aren’t worrying may be watching the Kardashians and don’t care. It seems … beyond us

  2. Or put it this way: the global economy is s superorganism taking over the Earth that cannot be stopped. Are we part of the super organism ? Is the superorganism really part of the earth? Thank you.

    1. Dear Stephanie, I understand what you are saying. I become overwhelmed and despair over what seems to be inevitable. For me personally, I have a son who just got married and he and his lovely wife would make wonderful parents but I find myself believing they should not do it. I don’t say it to them though, that is for them to decide. For me, having my two sons was my calling in life and has brought more joy than any and all other things combined. So I wish more than ever that they experience it too. What I took from the article is that our practice is to “mitigate” in ways we can and they may only be small ways. Not surrending to consumerism, eating vegan (even part of the time), recycling, etc. Small ways we as individuals can do our part. Even if in the end it makes no difference, we must. And when I think about the advice to “adapt” I think that I must allow my grief to come up, honor it, but not drown in it. And we must adapt to whatever comes up in our lives and I try to remember that my sorrow is shared and I am not alone. I hope this helps you a little bit. With Loving Kindness and a Bow… Amy

  3. Thank you. Empowering and practical. The way for me and for all of us to work at moving forward to help with mitigation, in the now. I have felt weak on the adaptation side of things, feeling a bit as an either/or. I am in BC Canada where we have extreme flooding now. Also the East Coast of Canada… The same. Since I was a child I have cared deeply about the earth, for 50 years plus. I have tried to do the right thing… Living a conservor lifestyle, speaking out against destruction and oppression. Though i have often been my own worst enemy. Now I am beginning to see, through the help of Thay and plum village and other good teachers (my dear friend, recently deceased fr. Charles Brandt) to say Yes to life, as he one told me. This article is so clear in the message to bring me to adapt. Especially my emotions towards joy.
    That being compassion, generosity, kindness etc. Thanks to the authors for this talk. It is exactly what I need in this moment and it brings me serenity.

  4. Thank you.
    This struck a deep chord, as its something I do a lot!:
    Part of the art of handling a feeling of pain and generating a feeling of joy, is noticing what kind of story we are telling in our mind about that suffering.

    Are we telling a story that puts us into the role of a victim? Are we telling a story that makes somebody else the culprit?

  5. Thank you brothers and sisters for this post. I’m reading it starting from a personal, difficult situation of illness and I found in it the nourishment that I needed to carry on in the present moment, feeling supported by the other humang beings and by our beautyful Mother Earth

  6. Dear Thay, Dear Sangha and especially our dear Monastics: Happy New Year! May we make it so, and May our collective practice bring much needed Joy into our families, our communities, our society and the world.

    Thank you, dear Brother Phap Linh, for this very clear and very helpful teaching in these turbulent times. 🙏.

    On New Year’s Day I held my beautiful 8 month-old great grandson, and was brought to great joy just watching the sparkling in his curious eyes and my delight at his smile. Daily I think of his future and that of his Aunties and Uncles, my 7 grandchildren, the youngest of who is also only 18 months-old. I can fall into despair at times when I think about how our world might be for them at my age of 73. This teaching reminds me of the greatest gift I can offer my descendants, and their brother and sister companions of other species- my smile, my zest for life, my gratitude each morning, each moment. Thank you, dear Sangha, for sharing in this great gift and helping me to stay fresh 🙏🕊

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