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Handling Strong Emotions with Meditation

by April Crocker

The circumstances of my birth broke me, over and over. Adulthood was a tooth and nail struggle for survival. I was always seeking relief from my suffering and meaning in life. I found the path when I was 35.

One evening, nursing a wretched heart break and hangover from my bathtub, I typed “Buddhism” into the YouTube search bar. A video by Thich Nhat Hanh appeared. I clicked on it and waited. What I heard made me feel like I could breathe. Finally, someone spoke aloud the words that previously were only silent lamentations in my mind: “We do not know how to handle strong emotions, so we use drugs and alcohol to run away from ourselves. Even young people are committing suicide because they don’t know how to handle strong emotions.”

Thus began the strongest love that I have ever felt for another human being. I could not believe that such a being existed. Previously, I was constantly at war with injustice, ignorance, cruelty, the unexamined life, and myself. I made an identity out of cynicism, and clung to it with such fervour that I was experiencing constant and worsening depression and anxiety.

For all the ignorance and misery that had poisoned my consciousness, there was finally something living, something real, something shockingly beautiful that gave me the courage to exist and change. Thich Nhat Hanh (or Thây as his students call him) is the embodiment of profound wisdom, beauty, and sometimes incomprehensible strength. For me, the way that he teaches offers no resistance, no contention, no suspicion, and no fear.

It was a retreat at Thây’s monastery in Plum Village that finally opened me to seated meditation. Seated meditation is a practice that I willfully maintain while living in modern society. For me, it is the antidote to the stifling constant focus on appearances and attempts to seek fulfillment and happiness by controlling the external. Whenever I stray from this practice and cannot find a spiritual community, I realize that my suffering increases and my life takes on a very small and fear based quality. It is through meditation, the teachings of the Buddha, and the spiritual community that I cultivate what Thây calls “a safe island of mindfulness”. I finally have a home within myself. This is the greatest gift in life.

I also use meditation to help maintain recovery from drugs and alcohol. It is an invaluable method of accessing and strengthening the place in me that remains steadfast in the chaos of life. As it has often been said, through meditation we learn to respond to the difficulties in life, instead of reacting to them. As a result, I experience less conflict, better friendships, and more success in my professional life. I also have less fear of death, as I no longer constantly identify with the small, fixed sense of personal identity. By cultivating more wholesome qualities and being present more often, I have far more meaningful days and sleep better at night.

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