Thich Nhat Hanh on how to deal with strong emotions

In this short teaching from the Plum Village App, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how to deal with strong or difficult emotions like anger, worry, or fear, and how to acknowledge and transform them. 

This is an excerpt from a Dharma talk that took place in August 2013 during an Art of Suffering Retreat.


Preparing for the arrival of storm-like emotions

We have to train ourselves with that practice so that when the emotion comes, naturally you’ll remember to practice. An emotion is something like a storm. And you feel that it’s coming. And if you notice that the strong emotion is coming, you prepare yourself in order to receive it and to handle it. Drop anything you are doing. Sit down or lie down, and wait for it while practicing mindful breathing.

In the sitting position or in the lying position, you breathe in and you become aware of the rising and falling of your abdomen. This is a deep breathing. For a strong emotion, we need deep belly breathing. We breathe in in such a way that our stomach will rise as high as possible. And when you breathe out we bring it down as much as possible. 

You might like to put your hand here [the abdomen], to feel the rising and falling of your abdomen.

Instead of staying here on the level of the brain, you bring your mind down. You focus your attention down here on the level of the navel. […] When there is a storm, when you look out the window you see the tree standing in the storm. And if you look at the top of the tree, you’ll see that the branches and the leaves will swing back and forth violently, according to the wind.

Our brain is like the top of the tree: don’t stay there in the time of a storm. Bring your attention down to the level of the navel. That is why it’s good to observe the rise and fall of your abdomen while breathing in and out.

In the sitting position or in the lying position, just focus all your attention on your in-breath and the rising of your abdomen. That’s simple enough. And during that time, keep alive the kind of insight that we already have:

‘I am more, I am much more than my emotion. I am form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. I am much more than one emotion. An emotion is something that comes, stays for some while, and will have to go away. I don’t have to die just because of one emotion. I know I can handle an emotion with the practice of mindful deep breathing. I have survived emotions before.’ 

So we have that kind of insight. We should remember, we should recollect. Mindfulness means also recollection. You have insight, you know things, but you do not know how to make good use of what you know. You have the insight and you should know to make good use of your insight. 

We are much more than one emotion 

A young person is overwhelmed by that strong emotion. She believes that she is only the emotion. She does not know that she is much more than one emotion. She believes that the only way to end the suffering is to go and kill herself. That is a wrong perception.

That is why we have to remind her that she is more than a perception, that a perception is impermanent. It comes and stays for some time, and it will have to go. And that kind of insight, we can transmit to her or to him. Maybe in the future our mobile phones will have that function, reminding us, […] ‘Dear friend, you are more than your emotion. You can handle your emotion with the practice of mindful breathing. You have already survived many strong emotions. You don’t have to die just because of one emotion.’ 

I think that kind of thing will help the young person because it would help touch off the insight that already is in him or in her.

Remember the practice, teach the practice 

And just remember, just keep that insight alive and practice deep breathing. And you can survive the strong emotion very well. And when the strong emotion is gone, you say, ‘Next time, it can come. I know how to handle it. I’m not afraid.’

And if a mother knows how to do it, she can help her son, little boy or little daughter, to do it. When the little boy has a crisis, a strong emotion: ‘Darling, hold the hand of mommy. Shall we breathe together? Let us breathe in. Oh, our stomach is rising. Our stomach is falling, let us breathe together.’ 

Mother and son, mother and daughter: you can use your mindfulness, you can use your energy to help the child to focus his attention on in-breath and out-breath. And together you will allow the emotion to stay for some time and to go. Because we are a practitioner, we can transmit to the child our energy and our practice. And you can train your child to do so [too]. 

If you can train students and children to do that, we may save their lives. Because later on, confronting a strong emotion, they’ll remember to practice. And they are not going to kill themselves. The number of young people killing themselves is very big in each country.

Mindfulness, concentration, and insight 

So the mindful breathing is to help us calm down our body, calm our feelings, our emotions. And we know that we need the insight in order to be able to truly relax our body and calm our emotions. And insight is not something that comes later on. As soon as you have mindfulness, concentration and insight are already there […]. And if you continue, concentration will be deeper and insight will be brighter.

With these three kinds of energy, you can deal with whatever pain is happening in yourself. Yesterday we learned that a practitioner knows how to generate a feeling of joy, a feeling of happiness, at any moment of the day. That’s the fifth and the sixth exercises proposed by the Buddha in the Sutra of Mindful Breathing. 

Smiling at our anger 

The fifth is to generate a feeling of joy, thanks to mindfulness. Because with mindfulness you recognize the many conditions of happiness that you already have in the present moment. And you make joy possible right away; you make happiness possible right away. And that is the art of happiness. 

A good practitioner is capable of generating joy and happiness in his or her daily life, to nourish and heal himself or herself. And then a good practitioner also knows how to handle the pain in him or in her. And mindfulness is the kind of energy that helps you to recognize the pain, to smile to the pain. The energy that helps you smile to the pain is mindfulness. You are not overwhelmed by your pain if you know how to smile at it: ‘Hello, my little anger. I know that you are there. I will take good care of you.’ […] 

As a practitioner, we should be able to smile to our anger, to our irritation. Smiling at it means you are aware of it. You don’t try to suppress or to run away from it. And with the energy of mindfulness you are strong enough to be with your anger, to be with your irritation, to be with your loneliness. And the first function of mindfulness is to recognize things as they are. 

The art of suffering and the art of happiness  

The second function of mindfulness is to embrace and calm it [the emotion] down. Mindfulness is a kind of energy. Your anger is another kind of energy. The energy of mindfulness, recognizing the anger, embraces the anger like a mother, a loving mother holding her baby very gently. And you get a relief after a few minutes of practice. And that is the art of suffering. How to recognize the pain in you, how to calm down the pain in you… We have to train ourselves to do it, and we get a relief. And with other exercises of mindful breathing that follow, we can completely transform the pain, the afflictions in us. 

And we know that there is a deep connection between suffering and happiness. And we have learned that suffering plays a very important role in creating happiness. It’s like the role of the mud in creating the lotus flower. Without mud, you cannot create lotus flowers. 

The same thing is true with suffering and happiness. You need the suffering in order to […] create happiness. And we know that there is enough suffering already there. You don’t have to create more. The problem is to learn how to make good use of the suffering to create happiness […]; how to make good use of the garbage in order to create flowers. Because looking into a flower, you see the sunshine, you see the rain, you see the compost that has helped nourish the flower. And the compost is made of garbage. Garbage is suffering. 

So, a good practitioner knows how to make use of the garbage in her, the suffering in her, […] in order to create something more positive, like understanding, compassion, joy. And it’s an art. The art of suffering, the art of happiness. 

In Buddhism, we do not use the expression ‘Kingdom of God’, but we do have the expression ‘Buddhaland’, ‘Buddha Country’. Many of us believe that the Kingdom of God is a place where there is no suffering. I don’t believe it. If there is no suffering, then there is no happiness either. Because happiness is made of suffering. It’s like the left is made of the right. The left cannot be by herself alone. The left has to inter-be with the right. You cannot remove the right from the left. You cannot ask someone to come and bring the right to Boston, and someone else to bring the left to New York. No. They are always together. Without this, the other cannot be. That is the teaching of the Buddha. This is because that is. So simple. 

So, trying to run from suffering [to] look for happiness is not wise. It’s impossible to do so. And most of us are doing that: trying to run away from suffering and looking for happiness. We don’t know that happiness is made of suffering. What we should do is to learn how to make good use of suffering. 

Yesterday we learned a very important thing: if you know how to suffer, you suffer much less. And the seventh and eight exercises of Mindful Breathing are to help you to suffer. You learn how to suffer. […] And then you know how to make good use of suffering, to create joy and happiness. The art of happiness and the art of suffering always go together. 

The Kingdom of God is not a place where there is no suffering. Because if there is no suffering, people have no ways to cultivate understanding and compassion. It is by contacting suffering, getting in touch with suffering, looking deeply into the nature of suffering, that understanding arises. 

Creating the energy of compassion and understanding 

Understanding suffering is very important. When you look, when you listen to the suffering with mindfulness and concentration, you will come to understand the nature and the roots of suffering. And understanding suffering naturally gives birth to the energy of compassion. And the energy of compassion, once born, begins to heal, to heal yourself and the world. 

So understanding and compassion are born from suffering. It’s like the lotus flower is born from the mud. That is why running away from suffering is not a wise attitude. You don’t want to send your children to a place where there is no suffering. Do you? Because in such a place, your child, your son or your daughter, [would] never have a chance to learn how to understand and how to love. And that is why there is suffering in the Kingdom of God. 

So my definition of the Kingdom of God is a place where people know how to make good use of suffering, in order to create happiness and love.


You can watch the full teaching below.

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