How can practice help us deal with the strong negative emotions we experience in difficult times, such as anger, hatred, fear, or despair? Fortunately, Buddhist practice is a powerful way to decrease our pain, agitation, reactivity, and preoccupation no matter what difficulties we’re facing, whether the challenges are in our personal lives or out in the world. I talk about nine benefits of Buddhist practice that are especially helpful when you’re facing difficult times.
2. Seeing Clearly
3. Honest Emotional Responses
4. Flexibility of Mind
5. A Larger Perspective
6. Confidence in Practice
7. Clarity of Values
8. Unconditional Determination
9. Faith in Ourselves
Over the years I have encountered a recurring question from Buddhist practitioners: “How can practice help me deal with the strong negative emotions I experience in difficult times, such as anger, hatred, fear, or despair?” People want to know how to decrease their pain, agitation, reactivity, and preoccupation down to manageable levels, and this is a daunting prospect when it doesn’t look like certain things in the world are going to change for the better any time soon.
Fortunately, Buddhist practice is a powerful way to decrease our pain, agitation, reactivity, and preoccupation no matter what difficulties we’re facing, whether the challenges are in our personal lives or out in the world. However, Buddhist practice is like a long-term spiritual health program, not an instant cure for our problems that we can keep in our pocket and then take out an apply only when we need it. Sure, some Buddhist techniques like mindfulness can offer some relief in the moment, but without a strong and sustained practice regimen, such techniques – especially in difficult times – are going to be a bit like putting on a Band-Aid to cure your diabetes.
In this episode I’m going to talk about nine benefits of Buddhist practice that are especially helpful when you’re facing difficult times.
What is “Buddhist Practice” in this Context?
Before I get that list though, I want to briefly state what I mean by “practice” in this context, and then say something about what Buddhist practice is not going to give you, even if you hope that it will.
When I talk about our Buddhist practice in this context, I’m referring to your whole practice regimen: Your meditation, your mindfulness throughout the day, your study of Buddhist teachings, your effort to live by moral principles, your interaction with Sangha, your generosity to others, and anything else you consciously chose to do in order to decrease suffering for self and other, and to increase your wisdom and compassion.
There may be particular practices – such as mindfulness of breathing, or Metta practice – which are useful when you’re experiencing troubling emotions and mind states (see Episode 147 – Loving-Kindness (Metta) Practice as an Antidote to Fear and Anxiety), but the benefits I’m going to discuss are the result of a holistic approach to practice. It may not be immediately obvious how sitting silently in meditation helps you deal with pain, agitation, reactivity, and preoccupation, but every aspect of our practice strengthens our spiritual, emotional, mental, and even physical health. The nine benefits I’m going to describe are essentially descriptions of a strong and healthy mind.
What Buddhist Practice is Not Going to Give You
There are number of things Buddhist practice is not going to give you, and it’s valuable to know this so you don’t waste your time trying to achieve them. First, practice is not going to help you avoid difficulty. Practice will not give us superpowers allowing us to prevent bad things from happening, and it won’t prevent stress, fear, or a broken heart when things fall apart within us or around us. To be human is to experience pain and difficulty at times. If your practice is helping you be emotionally distant when faced with pain and suffering, you’re probably spiritually bypassing. Practice should open our hearts, not close them. Fortunately, when we are spiritually healthy, we are much better able to bear things without breaking down. Think of it like this: Practice is like a fitness routine maintained by a firefighter. Fitness will not prevent fires, but it will help the firefighter be effective when responding to them.
Second, practice will not give you a way to see terrible things as wonderful, or even as neutral. It will not give you a worldview which makes sense of everything and explains how injustice is really justice, pain is really pleasure, or violence is really peace. The human mind and heart are easily poisoned by greed, hate, and delusion, and no one knows why. Even if there was a “why,” it’s unlikely such knowledge would really help our situation. As I discussed in Episode 188 – What Does Practice Look Like When Your Country Is Broken?, facing and accepting difficult things is a prerequisite to peace of mind and an effective response. It doesn’t mean we give up and become cynical or passive. There is also great potential in humankind, and in our own minds.
It’s natural to wonder why the world is the way it is, but it’s a waste of time trying figure everything out before we truly give ourselves over to practice. Like the Buddha said, that would be like a person with an arrow stuck in their body refusing medical attention until they found out who shot the arrow, what kind of bird the arrow feathers came from, and a whole host of other irrelevant details. Practice is about removing the arrow of our suffering, not speculating about how it got there. Cultivating what we call “don’t-know” mind is a way to face reality and respond without being attached to our ideas. (See Episode 32 – The Practice of Not-Knowing: Relief, Intimacy, and Ground for Effective Action.)
Third, practice will not tell you what you should do to best respond to difficulty. It will not tell you what decisions to make, or how to affect change in the world. Sadly, no amount of practice will tell you what medical treatment to pursue if you’re sick, or how best to help someone stuck in a cycle of poverty, or how to preserve justice and democracy in your country. However, practice can put us in the best possible frame of mind to make these kinds of decisions.
Nine Benefits of Practice When Facing Difficult Times
That brings me to the nine benefits of practice when it we’re facing difficulty. Obviously, there may be other benefits I’m forgetting, and there are other ways to divide up this list, but I think you’ll agree that each of these benefits reflects an important aspect of spiritual, emotional, and mental health. You may naturally be endowed with some of these benefits, and you may have achieved some of these benefits through means other than “Buddhist” practice, but in my experience our practice can help increase our “spiritual fitness” in any or all of these ways and thereby help us be at our best when we’re facing difficulty.
1. Strength. You might also call this “resilience.” Basically, it means we can endure stress, discomfort, and challenge without breaking. What does it mean to break? It means being incapacitated or driven into harmful behaviors by our depression, despair, anxiety, or anger. No matter how hard we practice, most of us still have our breaking points, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. The best we can do is work on being as strong and resilient as we can be.
There are many ways practice can build our mental and emotional resilience. Simply learning to be mindful of our thoughts and feelings in the moment helps us be less overwhelmed by them. For example, instead of being consumed with the experience of “I’m angry!” we observe, “Anger has arisen in me.” The anger is still there, but it loses some of its energy when we are no longer completely identified with it. We also become better able to remain centered and grounded through our meditation practice, which basically consists of not reacting to the swirl of content in our own minds and hearts. Over time, practice can also help us recognize and work on harmful habits of body, speech, and mind that undermine our strength.
2. Seeing Clearly. In our practice, we seek to end our delusions, recognizing them as the ultimate source of our suffering and unskillful behavior. Life is going to be painful and troubling sooner or later, but we compound the problem with how we respond to it. In other words, as the popular saying goes, pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional. As the Buddha said in the Arrow sutta, what we usually do is pierce ourselves with a second arrow when we experience the pain of the first, increasing the intensity and duration of our misery as we “sorrow, grieve, lament, beat [our] breast, [and] become distraught.”[i] As long as we’re caught up in self-concern and fail to apply the medicine of the Dharma to our situation, we remain in a fog of delusion.
When we’re facing difficulty, it’s essential to be able to see clearly – to at least momentarily be able to step away from our narratives and reactivity, to rise above our fears and biases, and to be honest with ourselves. Seeing clearly doesn’t mean we have the answers, but it does allow us to respond to reality to the best of our ability.
3. Honest Emotional Responses. Because practice helps strengthen us emotionally and mentally, and because it helps us see through our delusions, we end up more in touch with our honest emotional responses, and more willing to experience and show them. When faced with difficulty – such as pain, injustice, poverty, violence, or loss – our honest emotional responses are probably going to be grief, fear, anger, or despair. By “honest” I mean our deepest level of feeling, not our first or habitual response. Usually, under our first flash of anger is fear, under our sense of righteousness is grief, and under our inability to accept something is despair.
With practice, we can recognize emotions within us that we’d rather not experience – or we realize we’d rather not be the kind of person who experiences them. Having built up some spiritual resilience, we have the courage to face these emotions and feel them. Having practiced seeing through delusions and facing reality, we are determined to be real. Having practiced mindfulness, we know that no feeling lasts forever. Not being overly identified with our emotions, we can work on showing or expressing them to others without worrying that we will be defined by them.
4. Flexibility of Mind. A typical way for human beings to cope with difficulty is to attach to particular ideas or groups. This can give us a sense of certainty: We know what’s right and wrong, we know the good people from the bad, we know who’s to blame, we know what needs to happen, or what should be. Certainty feels preferable to the vulnerability of not knowing, even if maintaining and defending our allegiance to certain beliefs or to our tribe takes a lot of energy, requires us to embrace some delusions, and alienates us from others. Unfortunately, no fixed idea, set of beliefs, or tribe is accurate or helpful 100% of the time. Therefore, we’re left feeling defensive and anxious.
Practice can increase our flexibility of mind. Our strength doesn’t come from fixed ideas, or from identifying with a group, it comes from being centered in our own direct experience. Our clarity doesn’t depend on having found the right answer at last, but from an ongoing process of discernment. The truth is we don’t know everything, and we can’t know everything. All we can do is prepare ourselves as best we can to meet each moment to the best of our ability. This approach leaves us responsive and flexible, as I discussed in Episode 32 – The Practice of Not-Knowing: Relief, Intimacy, and Ground for Effective Action. It helps us listen to others and be more patient.
5. A Larger Perspective. Hopefully, over time, practice allows us to appreciate and understand the independent dimension of reality, along which existence is miraculous in a way that can never be destroyed or corrupted. As I discuss in Episode 202 – Two Truths: Everything is Okay and Everything is NOT Okay at the Same Time, access to the independent dimension of reality provides us with strength and solace as we engage with the dependent dimension, where things – to put it bluntly – can really suck big time.
As I’ve talked about many times on this podcast, it is a grave mistake to pit the independent dimension against the dependent dimension. If we alleviate some of our own emotional and mental discomfort by convincing ourselves that old age, disease, death, loss, injustice, violence, and abuse – for example – are somehow okay, we’re perverting spiritual practice to serve our own desire to feel safe and free from pain. Fortunately, practice helps us learn to tolerate ambiguity, and increases our ability to hold both truths – independent and dependent – simultaneously. Having a larger perspective when we’re facing difficulty helps us avoid depression, anxiety, and rage. It lets us engage fully without getting overly attached to results.
6. Confidence in Practice. Once we’ve used the tools of practice to achieve a measure of peace and wisdom in our lives, we gain confidence. This confidence is not so much in our own capabilities, but in practice itself. Whatever happens, we know we can rely on practice to relieve our suffering and increase our wisdom and compassion. We may find ourselves in a deep pit of depression, despair, anxiety, or rage at some point in our lives, and it may be a long, hard climb to get out of it. But we know how to climb, and we know which way is up.
Confidence helps when we’re facing difficulty in our personal lives as well as in the world. There inevitably will be moments when we are doubtful, confused, frustrated, or overwhelmed – moments when we may want to turn to less-than-healthy behaviors such as taking refuge in intoxication or distraction, blaming or vilifying people, complaining, or pontificating about our righteousness. If, instead, we have confidence in practice, we can endure momentary emotional and mental discomfort while staying true to our aspiration to reduce suffering for self and others. Because of practice, we know we’ll be okay.
7. Clarity of Values. Practice helps us define, clarify, and remember our deepest values. Not only are there Buddhist precepts we help one another keep, we’re also called to release all self-attachment and to benefit other living beings.
When we face difficult decisions, or we’re trying to decide what stand to take in the world, we sometimes get preoccupied things like pride, shame, allegiance to political party, fear of the unknown, or desire for wealth or power. Clarity about our deepest values – such as the belief that all beings have Buddha-Nature and thus are worthy of respect, or the recognition of interdependence – help us steer past the distractions and orient us toward our deepest aspirations.
The great thing about Buddhist values is that we can use them to guide our lives without insisting everyone else adopt them. Some of our values, naturally, we would love to see universally embraced. But ultimately, each of us clarifies our values for ourselves and stands up for them as our gift to the world. At each moment, we use our best judgment to decide what’s right, and courageously stand up for what we believe – while also having the humility to acknowledge we are never perfect. Our stand may be flawed, our means less than skillful, and even our values may change over time. Yet none of that needs to stop us from doing our best.
8. Unconditional Determination. When we have a strong practice, our motivation is less likely to be based on attachment to outcomes. We may have high hopes, but ultimately, we make an effort because we are called to do so out of a moral or spiritual conviction. This isn’t to say we don’t get discouraged at times, or that we never reevaluate our efforts in order to make them more effective, but ultimately, we’re doing what we think is right, regardless of whether our efforts can be judged successful in any objective sense.
If we stand for justice, compassion, democracy, equity, or sustainability, those values remain at the core of our motivation regardless of what happens. It is very easy to insert the concerns of the small self into our efforts – needing to know we are making a difference, or needing some kind of guarantee that we will be successful, or needing to have a sense we are good people. If, through practice, we have managed to separate our selfish concerns from our desire to be of benefit, we will continue to act according to our values no matter what.
9. Faith in Ourselves. Finally, practice helps us get to know ourselves intimately, and to accept what and who we are. Much of the trouble in the world springs from people’s defensiveness – from their fears that they are wrong, or will be seen as wrong, or that they will be rejected, judged, or controlled by others.
Fundamental to a calm, centered response to difficulty is a faith that we are doing the best we can, and that no one can or should expect any more of us. This is not a faith we arrive at through wishful thinking. Instead, through practice, we learn to recognize our own Buddha-Nature. Despite our limitations and faults, all we really want is freedom from suffering, and to feel connected to all life. We can recognize and apologize for mistakes while never doubting our core goodness. This allows us to venture into the world with a profound sense of confidence mixed in equal measure with humility.
I recommend developing and a maintaining a strong Buddhist practice if you want to be able to face challenging situations with some degree of equanimity, and to be able to respond in accord with your deepest values. Like anything else we do to take care of ourselves – eat well, exercise, maintain positive human relationships, etc. – our practice makes us stronger, more resilient, and better able to endure hardship, remain centered when things are falling apart, and respond to the best of our ability. If we neglect practice because we’re too distraught about our circumstances, eventually this will compromise our ability to cope with them. If we keep up our practice, it’s very likely we will be better off when it comes to strength and resilience, seeing clearly, honest emotional responses, flexibility, being able to maintain a larger perspective, confidence, clarity of values, unconditional determination, and faith in ourselves.