Forget positive thinking: A Zen Master explains the best way to deal with difficult emotions

What’s the secret to dealing with negative emotions?

It’s not an easy question to answer.

Some people say you should ignore negativity and focus on being positive. Other people advise you to try meditation or yoga or some sort of spiritual practice.

But according to Master Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, it’s actually more simple than that.

In a brilliant passage below, Thich Nhat Hanh explains how to use mindfulness to deal with negative emotions.

Thich Nhat Hanh Explains How to Deal With Difficult Emotions

First, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the function of mindfulness in recognizing your suffering and, surprisingly, why you should embrace it:


“The function of mindfulness is, first, to recognize the suffering and then to take care of the suffering. The work of mindfulness is first to recognize the suffering and second to embrace it. A mother taking care of a crying baby naturally will take the child into her arms without suppressing, judging it, or ignoring the crying. Mindfulness is like that mother, recognizing and embracing suffering without judgement.

So the practice is not to fight or suppress the feeling, but rather to cradle it with a lot of tenderness. When a mother embraces her child, that energy of tenderness begins to penetrate into the body of the child. Even if the mother doesn’t understand at first why the child is suffering and she needs some time to find out what the difficulty is, just her act of taking the child into her arms with tenderness can already bring relief. If we can recognize and cradle the suffering while we breathe mindfully, there is relief already.”

Facing our emotions and accepting them are different strategies than what we’re usually taught.

Most people prefer to hide from negative emotions because they’re too difficult to bare.

But what happens?

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Negative emotions fester in the background and eventually bite you back even harder.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that we need to view our emotions as ever-changing, and as a result, we’ll see that they’re not as scary as we might think:

“When we are angry, what do we usually do? We shout, scream, and try to blame someone else for our problems. But looking at anger with the eyes of impermanence, we can stop and breathe. Angry at each other in the ultimate dimension, we close our eyes and look deeply. We try to see three hundred years into the future. What will you be like? What will I be like? Where will you be? Where will I be? We need only to breathe in and out, look at our future and at the other person’s future.

Looking at the future, we see that the other person is very precious to us. When we know we can lose them at any moment, we are no longer angry. We want to embrace her or him and say: “How wonderful, you are still alive. I am so happy. How could I be angry with you? Both of us have to die someday, and while we are still alive and together it is foolish to be angry at each other.”

The reason we are foolish enough to make ourselves suffer and make the other person suffer is that we forget that we and the other person are impermanent. Someday when we die we will lose all our possessions, our power, our family, everything. Our freedom, peace, and joy in the present moment is the most important thing we have.”

This is incredible wisdom from the Buddhist Master. If there’s one thing that’s true, it’s that the universe is constantly changing.

So when we’re experiencing negative emotions, we need to understand that it won’t last forever.

And we can’t rely on possessions or status to make us happy because those things don’t last forever, either.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that happiness and suffering are like two opposite ends of a pole, and you can’t have one without the other.

“NO MUD, NO LOTUS. Both suffering and happiness are of an organic nature, which means they are both transitory; they are always changing. The flower, when it wilts, becomes the compost. The compost can help grow a flower again. Happiness is also organic and impermanent by nature. It can become suffering and suffering can become happiness again.”

Thich Nhat Hanh says that we can put an end to suffering by realizing that our suffering is not worth suffering for:

“The greatest miracle is to be alive. We can put an end to our suffering just by realizing that our suffering is not worth suffering for! How many people kill themselves because of rage or despair? In that moment, they do not see the vast happiness that is available. Mindfulness puts an end to such a limited perspective. The Buddha faced his own suffering directly and discovered the path of liberation. Don’t run away from things that are unpleasant in order to embrace things that are pleasant. Put your hands in the earth. Face the difficulties and grow new happiness.”

“One way of taking care of our suffering is to invite a seed of the opposite nature to come up. As nothing exists without its opposite, if you have a seed of arrogance, you have also a seed of compassion. Every one of us has a seed of compassion. If you practice mindfulness of compassion every day, the seed of compassion in you will become strong. You need only concentrate on it and it will come up as a powerful zone of energy. Naturally, when compassion comes up, arrogance goes down. You don’t have to fight it or push it down. We can selectively water the good seeds and refrain from watering the negative seeds.”

(If you’re looking for specific actions you can take to stay in the moment and live a happier life, check out my best-selling eBook on how to use Buddhist teachings for a mindful and happy life here.)

This article was originally published on Hack Spirit.


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Notable replies

  1. ACD says:

    I do not take this article’s message to be “forget positive thinking.” It has a remarkably Christian undercurrent if not taking a veritable page from the new testament.

  2. I appreciate this article very much. I think the Buddhist notion that life is suffering , at face value is a dramatic exaggeration. Of course suffering is real to someone in a traumatic accident, or victims of violence or malevolence, but for most of us today, we think we suffer if our phone dies, or traffic backs up .
    I think life essentially is struggle, struggle is growth and growth is continuous.
    The use of tenderness in the face of suffering is natural to someone that does not suppress the anima or maternal feminine aspect. Those that do suppress it as a weakness can only react with suffering or rage in response to the stimuli, making rational decisions difficult at best.

  3. Would it depend to a great deal on the character of a person on how much they suffer?
    Also, if you are suffering but do not feel you are suffering, are you actually suffering?
    Last, is suffering totally context dependent and totally subjective?

  4. ACD says:

    Suffering is like art: you know it when you see (feel) it.

  5. To some, it is their responsibility to carry the burden that some would call suffering while others suffer needlessly because of their own character flaws. If you see someone in need because of their own making and you can guide them out of such a condition but they refuse and you feel bad, you suffer because a solution is both possible and not possible, you suffer, right? Perhaps you see a problem that you feel great empathy for but know there is no solution, you suffer, right? Suffering can be physical or mental and both may be very painful. Many do not understand the suffering that hurt people in the mind.

  6. ACD says:

    I think the article is addressing how one deals with one’s own suffering.

  7. I have been ostracized for thinking differently since I was 10 and entered the world of science fiction and science. People did not understand me and avoided talking to me. In science fiction most of the stories took place in a universe technology advanced and lacked problems caused by the bias we see from humans. In these stories there were problems but they were mostly resolved and religion and human flaws were avoided. I also looked for people with exceptional imaginations and too often when I looked for this in a person they did not understand and ran away.

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Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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