The Art of Handling a Storm

(by Thich Nhat Hanh)

When a storm comes, it stays for some time, and then it goes. An emotion is like that too—it comes and stays for a while, and then it goes. An emotion is only an emotion. We are much, much more than an emotion. We don’t die because of one emotion. So when you notice that an emotion is beginning to come up, it is very important that you put yourself in a stable sitting position, or you lie down, which is also a very stable position. Then focus your attention on your belly. Your head is like the top of a tree in a storm. I would not stay there. Bring your attention down to the trunk of the tree, where there is stability.

When you have focused on your belly, bring your attention down to the level just below the navel and begin to practice mindful breathing. Breathing in and breathing out deeply, be aware of the rise and fall of the abdomen. After practicing like this for ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes, you will see that you are strong—strong enough to withstand the storm. In this sitting or lying position, just stick to your breathing the way that someone on the ocean would stick to a life vest. After some time the emotion will pass.

This is a very effective practice, but please remember one thing: Don’t wait until you have a strong emotion to practice. If you do, you will not remember how to practice. You have to practice now, today, while you are feeling fine, when you are not dealing with any strong emotions. This is the time to begin learning the practice. You can practice for ten minutes every day. Sit and practice breathing in and out, focusing your attention on your belly. If you do this for three weeks—twenty-one days–it will become a habit. Then when anger rises up or you are overwhelmed by despair, you will naturally remember the practice. Once you succeed, you will have faith in the practice and you will be able to tell your emotion, “Well, if you come again, I will do exactly the same thing.” You will not be afraid because you know what to do.

Practice regularly. Once your practice becomes a habit, you will feel as though you are missing something when you don’t do it. It will have a good effect on your health as well. This is the best kind of protection you can offer yourself. I always think that the energy of mindfulness is the energy of the Buddha, the energy of God, the Holy Spirit, that is inside of us protecting us all the time. Every time you touch the seed of mindfulness and practice mindful breathing, the energy of God, the energy of the Buddha, is there to protect you.

When you learn the practice, you may like to tell a friend, a relative, or your children, if you have any, how to practice. I know mothers who practice with their children. They hold their child’s hand and say, “Darling, breathe with me. Breathing in, I am aware that my abdomen is rising. Breathing out, I am aware that my abdomen is falling.” They guide their child to breathe with them until he or she gets through the emotion.

If you know the practice, you will be able to generate the energy of stability, and you will be able to hold another person’s hand and transmit to him or her the energy of your stability. You can help that person cross out of the eye of the storm; it may help save someone’s life. So many young people these days don’t know how to handle their emotions. The number of people who commit suicide is enormous. This is a simple exercise, but very important.