Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Handling Strong Emotions

Thich Nhat Hanh, photo courtesy of

Last night after a pretty intense meditation and yoga class I came home to eat peanut butter by the spoonful watch a video of a speech made by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. Since I friended Thich Nhat Hanh on facebook (yeah, me and the Buddhist monk are buds) I get regular updates about where he is speaking next, where he just spoke, what he spoke about and links to watch videos of his speeches. I say "speeches" but what he really does is talk in a calm voice and immediately draws you into (through a computer screen!) his calming, loving presence.

I was first introduced to Hanh (is it appropriate to refer to a monk by his last name?) in my East Asian philosophy class in college taught by our teacher who had gone to Japan and lived in a Zen Buddhist monastery for 12 years.  I tell you this man was the calmest, brightest and most un-ruffled human being I've ever met. I loved being around him because things just felt clearer. He taught us about Buddha and meditation and he had us read (among many other books)Thich Nhat Hanh's short book "The Heart of Understanding." Since reading that book and reading an interview between him and Oprah in O Magazine, I was instantly hooked on this man's words. I wanted to hear him speak and read his words every day. Naturally, I friended him on facebook. (Oh, modern technology.) So when I got a status update that he had given a speech on "Handling Strong Emotions" I clicked the link right away. If anyone needs some advice on how to handle strong emotions, it's me. My emotions are not like rain showers in tropical rainforests, where the light rain comes in and dribbles over the plants for food and nourishment and then is swiftly replaced by bright warm sunshine. No. My emotions have the size and fury of a hurricane, a tornado and a tsunami all in one . They come in and knock me off my feet, sweep me into churning waters right below the eye of the storm. I become whatever I am feeling. I become bowled over by anger, jealousy, fear, sadness, despair all at once in a matter of seconds and sometimes cannot find dry shores for an hour.

In his speech Thich Nhat Hanh describes the 8 steps of mindfulness in handling strong emotions. The first step is awareness of the in/out breath. Being aware of "breathing in" and being aware of "breathing out" is the first step because the breath is the bridge between the mind and the body. Focusing on the breath yokes together the mind and body.  Hanh encourages one to recite:

"Breathing in I know that I am breathing in.
Breathing out I know that I am breathing out.”

You can also put your hands on your belly over your belly-button and feel the belly rise with the in-breath and fall with the out-breath.

So step 1) awareness of the in/out breath, step 2) following the breath with the mind, step 3) awareness of the body, step 4) releasing tension in the body, step 5) generating joy, step 6) generating happiness, step 7) recognizing pain, step 8) embracing pain like a mama embraces her baby child who is crying. Hanh also says that the key to becoming a practitioner of mindfulness is to join a community of people who can support you when your thoughts/emotions become too big for you; he says that the strength, energy and solidarity of a community can help you through your weakest moments and hold you up.

If you don't know the difference between joy and happiness (I didn't) then watch this video. If you would like to feel peaceful and calm for an hour, then watch this video. AND, if you are anything like me and you like to be taught by a person rather than read on your own, you would greatly benefit from watching this video and learning Hanh teach you all 8 steps in depth using props/images. Yes, it is rather long (about an hour and 20 minutes) but I've spent that long crying, screaming, ranting, raving and thinking negatively and never considered that a waste of time. Trust me when I tell you this will be the best hour and 20 minutes you spend. You can skip to the 9:15 mark to get started. Go ahead, watch it! :)

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