Offered by J. Tobia on January 28, 2021
There are several simple methods for taking care of our strong emotions. One is “belly breathing,” breathing from the abdomen. When we are caught in a strong emotion like fear or anger, our practice is to bring our attention down to the abdomen. To stay on the level of the intellect is dangerous. Strong emotions are like a storm, and to stand in the middle of a storm is very dangerous. Yet that is what most of us do when we stay in our minds, letting our feelings overwhelm us. Instead, we have to get rooted by bringing our attention downward. We focus on our abdomen and practice mindful breathing, just giving all of our attention to its rise and fall. We can do this either sitting or lying down.
When you look at a tree in a storm, you see that the top of the tree is very unstable and vulnerable. The wind can break the smaller branches at any time. But when you look down to the trunk of the tree, you have a different impression. You see that the tree is very solid and still, and you know that it will be able to withstand the storm. We are also like a tree. Our head is like the top of the tree during a tempest of a strong emotion, so we have to bring our attention down to the level of our navel. We begin to practice mindful breathing. We concentrate just on our breathing and on the rise and fall of our abdomen. It is a very important practice because it helps us to see that, although an emotion may be very strong, it will stay only for a while and then go; it cannot last forever. If you train yourself to practice like this during difficult times, you will survive these storms.
You have to be aware that your emotion is just an emotion. It comes, stays for some time, and then goes away. Why should someone die because of an emotion? You are more than your emotions. It is important to remember this. During a crisis, when you breathe in and out, maintain the awareness that your emotion will go away if you continue to practice. After you have succeeded a few times, you will have confidence in yourself and in the practice. Let us not get caught by our thoughts and feelings. Let us bring our attention down to our belly and breathe in and out. This storm will go away, so don’t be afraid.
Seeds of Anger, Seeds of Compassion
We often talk about consciousness as soil. The seeds of all mental formations are buried in our store consciousness. These mental formations are born, arise in our mind consciousness, remain for some time, and then return to the store consciousness in the form of a seed.
Our compassion also rests in our store consciousness in the form of a seed. Every time we touch or water a seed, it will spring up and manifest itself in our mind consciousness, the upper level of consciousness. If a positive seed, like the seed of joy or compassion, is watered and manifests, it will make us feel happy. But if a negative seed, like the seed of jealousy, is watered and manifests, it will make us feel unhappy. As long as our joy or anger is buried in the soil and no one touches it, we call it a seed. But when it manifests in mind consciousness, we call it a mental formation. We have to recognize anger in both its forms: as a seed in our store consciousness and as a mental formation, an active zone of energy that comes up in our mind consciousness. We have to realize that even when anger does not manifest, it is still there.
Everyone has a seed of anger in the depth of their consciousness. When that seed does not manifest, you don’t feel angry at all. You don’t feel angry with anyone. You feel fine, you feel fresh, you look lovely. You smile, laugh, and talk. But this does not mean that anger is not in you. Anger may not be manifesting in your mind consciousness, but it is always there in your store consciousness. If someone does something or says something that touches the seed of anger in you, it will manifest very quickly in the living room.
A good practitioner is not someone who no longer has any anger or suffering. This is not possible. A good practitioner is someone who knows how to take good care of their anger and suffering as soon as they arise. Someone who does not practice does not know how to handle the energy of anger when it manifests, and they can easily be overwhelmed by anger.
But if you practice mindful living, you do not allow anger to overwhelm you like that. You invite the seed of mindfulness up to take care of your anger. Mindful breathing and walking will help you to do this.
Habit Energy and Mindful Breathing
We all have habit energy in us. We are intelligent enough to know that if we do something or say something based on our habit energy, we will damage our relationships. And yet, even with this intelligence, we still do things out of anger, we still say things out of anger. Therefore, many of us have caused a lot of suffering in our relationships with other people. After the damage has been done, you are full of regret and you vow that you will never do such a thing again. You are very sincere; you have a great deal of good will. But the next time the situation presents itself, you do exactly the same thing, you say exactly the same thing, and you cause the same damage again and again.
Your intelligence, your knowledge, does not help you change your habit energy. Only the practice of recognizing, embracing, and transforming can help. That is why the Buddha advised us to practice mindful breathing to recognize and take care of our habit energy as soon as it manifests. If you are capable of embracing your habit energy with the energy of mindfulness, then you are safe, you are not going to make the same mistake again.
There was a young American friend who came to Plum Village and enjoyed the practice very much during his three weeks with us. He was very stable, compassionate, and understanding during his stay. One day, he was asked by the monks to go shopping for the community in preparation for Thanksgiving. While doing the shopping, he suddenly realized that he was rushing and wanted everything to be done very quickly so that he could go back to Plum Village.
This was the first time during the whole three weeks that he felt this kind of feeling: of rushing, of wanting everything to be done quickly. In Plum Village, he was surrounded by a community practicing with solidity. He profited from their energy, and so the habit energy of rushing, of becoming stressed, never had a chance to manifest. Shopping in town, he was alone. He did not have the same kind of energy supporting him, so the seed of his habit energy arose right away.
Very quickly, he was able to recognize this habit energy and realize that it had been transmitted to him by his mother. His mother was always rushing, wanting everything to be done quickly, quickly, quickly. With this insight, he returned to the practice of mindful breathing and said, “Hello Mom, I know you are there.” After he had done this, the energy of rushing just vanished. He recognized his habit energy, embraced it mindfully, and was able to transform it. He regained the peace and solidity that he experienced before he left the community. He knew he was only able to do this because of his practice at Plum Village.
All of us are capable of doing this. Whenever our habit energy comes up, all we need to do is recognize it and call it by its name. We breathe mindfully and say, “Hello, my jealousy; hello, my fear; hello, my irritation and anger. I know you are there, and I am here for you. I will take good care of you and embrace you with mindfulness.” Breathing in, we greet our habit energy, and breathing out we smile towards it. When we do this, our habit energy can no longer dominate us. We are safe. We have liberated ourselves.