Suicide Awareness: Thich Nhat Hanh on dealing with painful emotions 

Questions around suicide prevention are often asked at Plum Village public events, and some of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s answers have been recorded so everyone might benefit from them. In support of National Suicide Awareness Week, we are sharing an excerpt from a Dharma Talk in which Thay talks about suicide prevention and how to handle difficult emotions.

The seventh exercise of mindful breathing is to recognize a painful feeling, a painful emotion. Many of us do not know how to handle this. And many young people believe that, to end the suffering caused by a strong emotion, the only way is to kill themselves. There are so many young people committing suicide in our society. 

The Buddha told us how to handle a painful feeling, a painful emotion. He said, ‘Suppose that someone is hit by an arrow. There is pain in the body. And suppose a few minutes later, it’s like an arrow strikes exactly the same spot. And the pain not only doubles, it could be a hundred times more intense. So we should try to avoid this second arrow striking us.’ 

What is the second arrow? When there is physical pain, with mindful breathing we can recognize it as physical pain and not exaggerate, not allow fear or anger to magnify the pain. If we allow fear or anger to come, we suffer much more.

That is the second arrow. And this is what the Buddha recommends: ‘It may be in mind no pain that you can handle. With mindfulness and concentration, you’ll recognize things as they are and not exaggerate them. And we shall train in order to follow this practice.’

When a strong emotion comes, we should not continue thinking about it, because that may feed the emotion. The method recommended by our teachers is to bring your attention down to the abdomen, and pay attention to the rise and fall of your abdomen when you breathe in and out. ‘Breathing in, I notice that my abdomen is rising. Breathing out, I notice that my abdomen is falling.’ And you focus your attention only on your inbreath, your outbreath, and the rising and falling of your abdomen. The emotion is like a storm, and if you know how to handle it, you will survive it easily.

While breathing in and out, we can remember that one emotion is just one emotion. Emotions are impermanent. They come, they stay for some time and they have to go after a while. And we are much more than one emotion. Why should we die just because of one emotion? It is a very simple truth: you are much more than an emotion. An emotion can last maybe half an hour or an hour. Why do you have to die because of one emotion? And nobody has told a young person that, and that is why, when they are overwhelmed by an emotion, they try to kill themself.

So a good practitioner should know how to practice mindful deep breathing with our abdomen, when there is a strong emotion. It’s like holding the trunk of a tree.

During a storm, if you focus your attention on the top of the tree in the backyard, you have the impression that it is very vulnerable. It can be blown away by the wind at any time. But when you focus your attention on the trunk of the tree, you see that the tree is deeply rooted in the earth. 

So we are like a tree, and the brain is only the top of a tree. And during the storm of the emotion, we should not stay here [points to the head] and continue to think and to imagine. We should bring our attention down to the level of the navel, the dantian spot. And we should follow the practice of mindful breathing, deep breathing, and pay attention only to the rise and the fall of the abdomen. And we feel safe. And emotion cannot do anything to us.

There’s only one thing to remember: an emotion is just an emotion. I know how to handle an emotion.

But we do not wait until we have a strong emotion in order to begin learning, because we will forget. That is why we have to begin the practice right now. And if we practice for two weeks, three weeks, every time, for five, seven minutes, then we’re used to practicing mindful deep breathing. And next time, when a strong emotion comes, we will certainly remember to practice.

And after we have survived an emotion, we have confidence in the practice. We tell ourselves the next time, when the strong emotion comes, we will do just that. And you can help our children to do it too. You can hold the hand of your little boy, or little girl, and say: ‘Darling, let us breathe together. Breathing in, I have noticed that my abdomen is rising. Breathing out, it’s falling.’ And you now share your mindfulness to the child. And you teach him or her to breathe deeply and stop thinking and pay attention only to the rise and fall of the abdomen. And your child will learn, and when they have a strong emotion, they will know what to do in order to survive it. 

I think parents should know how to practice that and how to transmit the practice to their children. I also believe that schoolteachers should know the practice and transmit it to students in the class, because the young people in our time suffer a lot of fear, anger, despair. And the young people, when they suffer too much, they think of suicide. And that is why we should be able to help them by, first of all, mastering the techniques of practice.

So the seventh exercise of mindful breathing is to recognize a painful feeling, a painful emotion.

[This transcript was edited for readability.] 

Watch the full video here:

Other resources:

How to Deal with Suicide in Your Family is a short audio teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh recorded during a public Q and A session.

‘What to do with strong energy’ is another short teaching video by Thay recorded during a Q and A session.

‘Pain, Despair, and The Second Arrow’ is an excerpt from a talk about how to address our physical pain and our despair about what’s happening in the world, as well as the Buddha’s teaching of The Second Arrow. 

◾ Brother Peace of Deer Park Monastery tragically lost both of his parents to suicide. He wrote the song It Won’t Always Be This Way’ for them, and for all who suffer from depression.  

We wish for those sufferers deep healing. May all beings be happy, safe, and free from sorrow and fear.

Disclaimer: The information in this blog post is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental health condition. If you are in crisis, or in need of immediate assistance, we encourage you to reach out to friends, professionals, and other groups to gain relevant support for your particular situation.


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