We receive this sustenance gratefully, appreciating all the forms of life that have offered themselves for our benefit. We are grateful for all the abundance in our lives and for our loved ones – both those present and those who are absent from this table. May the ancestral peoples of the land where we gather be blessed. And may our actions in this world bring peace and happiness to all beings. May it be so.
When I was on my 3-year cancer journey, my psycho-oncologist said that I was “dealing with” cancer. I wasn’t “fighting,” “struggling against,” or battling” it. I was simply dealing with it.
I really liked that construction, and I’ve been using it for all kinds of things ever since.
Since words – being labels – have impact, I choose them with care. Like “strong” emotions. I don’t say “powerful” emotions, because that implies they have power over us. They do not. At least not unless we let them.
All of this came up last night when one of my students asked for suggestions in dealing with her own strong emotions around the recent U. S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe V. Wade. For anyone unfamiliar with this ruling, the original gave women a right to abortions, although each state could place some restrictions on that right. Now, slightly over half of our population no longer has agency over their own bodies.
No wonder emotions are running high.
But this post isn’t about abortion or self-determination. It’s about any strong emotion and how to deal with it.
Here is the process I suggested to my student. It works well for me personally, and I recommend that you try it for yourself. Like a recipe, feel free to add, remove, or adjust ingredients to suit your taste.
1. Face the Emotion
Look at the emotion squarely. Face it head on. Label it, if you like. You might label it “frustration,” “anger,” “disappointment,” or “sorrow” to give a few examples. You might use language to label it, or you may have a felt sense of what it is, instead.
Do not think about the source of the emotion. As Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says, “Let the storyline go.” Continuing to think about it is like pouring fuel onto a burning fire. Instead, encourage the emotion to extinguish all on its own. (Nirvana literally means “blowing out” or “extinguishing.”)
Do not “stuff” the emotion, as that’s unhealthy both psychologically and physically. Sometimes we need to be with the emotion for a few minutes, and that’s all natural and good. Just don’t feed it with the story.
2. Recognize the Emotion is Impermanent
When we meditate – and I hope you’re meditating regularly – thoughts come up all the time. It’s part of the process. When thoughts arise, we realize that they are as ephemeral as clouds in the sky. We notice and acknowledge them, then allow them to dissipate. This is the practice.
We can do exactly the same thing with strong emotions. No matter how intense the feeling or how much it seems like it’s about to overwhelm us, we know it will pass. All things do.
“All conditioned things are impermanent.”– the Buddha
Our emotions are conditioned on our upbringing, the circumstances, what we ate for lunch, and more. Remember that they are temporary and that “this, too, shall pass.”
3. Release the Emotion
Now that we’ve laid the ground work, it’s time to let that shit go. As my grand-teacher, the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, used to day, “Put it all down.” (He also used to say, “Changing, changing, changing, changing, changing…”)
Perhaps this is a purely mental process for you. Perhaps you take a deep breath and blow it out forcefully, imagining ejecting the emotion from your body. Perhaps you feel your body relaxing all over as you sense the strong emotion draining away. It really doesn’t matter. Just let go.
By the way, these three steps can be accomplished faster then it’s taken you to read this far. So don’t despair! Just do the work.
4. Go into “Action” Mode
This is where the rubber meets the road, we put our money where our mouths are, or we walk our talk. (Feel free to choose your expression or come up with your own.)
Don’t like how something is going? Make a plan to change it.
Let’s go back to the example of my student who was experiencing some anger about the overturning of Roe V. Wade. She already participated in a demonstration about it. What else can she do?
- Support organizations and officials who seek to change the law through donations or volunteering her time.
- Educate the people in her circle about why this is important to her.
- Support groups who are providing legal access to abortion to women in states where it is now illegal. (Usually this means providing them transportation to another state and back.)
- Avoiding spending money in states where abortion is illegal.
- Chanting and meditating for the benefit of all involved.
I’m sure you can come up with some others.
The point is that you are not powerless, no matter whether that strong emotion made you feel that way for a tick.
I encourage you to try out my “recipe.” Give it a taste test, then make your own adjustments. At the end of the day, nothing I or anyone else says matters unless it works for you.
The next time you start to feel yourself getting spun up, take a breath and try this process. I guarantee it’s better than doing nothing.
“The gift of a beginner is fresh eyes.
“The longer you’re in a field, the harder it is to perceive new truths. Your mind is biased toward refining what you’re already doing instead of exploring fresh terrain.
“Take your expertise and apply it to something new.”
– James Clear
Clear is the author of “Atomic Habits,” a book I highly recommend. I wonder whether he knows he’s talking about what Seung Sahn called “don’t know” mind – that state of remaining teachable.
Either way, that advice is Zen AF.
“There is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”
– Martha Graham
VTH (that stands for Venerable “The Husband”) and I went to the small, arts colony of Idyllwild, CA last weekend. After dinner, we were sitting on the porch of our rented mountain cabin, sipping tea. He got out his iPad.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m going to play some Solitaire,” he replied. “What are you going to do?”
“Well, I could get out my Kindle, or I could watch the sky go from indigo to black.” I paused to consider the options. “The latter seems far more interesting.”
As it turned out, I made the right choice. Ah… 🙂
After traveling for six years, studying with several teachers, and practicing extreme asceticism to the point where he nearly died, Siddhârtha Gautama resolved to practice the “middle way.” A woman named Sujata nursed him back to health on rice milk. When he was strong enough, he sat overnight in meditation under a ficus tree. By dawn, he had become the Awakened One – the Buddha.
That day was the 8th day of the 12th lunar month of 596 BCE (plus or minus a few years). Using our modern calendar, most Buddhists commemorate Bodhi Day on December 8th. Bodhi means “awakened” in Sanskrit and Pali.
If you’d like to mark this important holiday, here are some things you can do:
- Set aside a few extra minutes to meditate. Or take the time to read up on the Dharma or the life of the Buddha.
- If you’re feeling festive, you can decorate your home or a tree with multicolored lights. The different colors symbolize the many paths to enlightenment. The tree represents the original ficus – now often referred to as the Bodhi Tree – that sheltered the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment.
- You can also decorate with a strand of beads representing the interdependence of all things.
- You can choose three special ornaments – shiny is best – to represent the Three Jewels of the Buddha (teacher), Dharma (teachings), and Sangha (spiritual community).
- Have a meal of rice and milk. Try eating in silence, using the process of eating as your meditative focus.
At the very least, it’s a good opportunity to remember that Siddhârtha was a human being who woke up to the nature of reality. If he can do it, so can we.
Happy Bodhi Day!
This is the time of year we reflect on our blessings. This year, I’m grateful for the start of the Single Flower Zen Center. I’m grateful to Buddhamouse, the Claremont Forum, and Open Door for hosting us at a low cost. I’m grateful for each person who’s come to practice. I’m grateful for the Dharma, and to everyone who’s passed it on from the Buddha’s time until now. I’m grateful for you. For my next breath. For this moment. And for so much more.
This Thanksgiving, you may want to try going around the table and letting each person express one thing they’re thankful for. Or, you can ask people to write it down on a slip of paper anonymously, then draw and read the papers during or after the meal.
But this isn’t the only time we should remember to be grateful. You can start writing down things as they happen over the next year, putting them onto bits of paper – perhaps some colored or patterned paper that makes you smile. Put the papers in a jar or box. Then next year at Thanksgiving, you can review the wonderful things that have come your way. (Or you could start this on New Year’s Day, too, and review it each New Year’s Eve.)
Personally, I keep a gratitude journal. Every day, I answer these three questions from M.J. Ryan’s book Attitudes of Gratitude:
- What am I grateful for?
- What did I enjoy today?
- Where do I feel satisfied?
Or you could use this list from Seventeenth Century Dutch Rabbi Baruch Spinoza:
- Who or what inspired me today?
- What brought me happiness today?
- What brought me comfort and deep peace today?
Try not to repeat the same list from day to day. I’ve been doing a daily gratitude practice since 2010 – even during my breast cancer journey – and it truly has given me a better perspective on life.
Now it’s your turn. What are you grateful for?