Accepting unhappiness without panicking

Another instinctive reaction to hurt feelings (accentuated these days by 24/7 availability) is to try and distract ourselves from them, hoping that by sweeping them under the carpet they’ll go away.

Carrying straight on from this articlejack in the box

Maybe we switch on a miniseries on Netflix for 6 hours, get drunk, run away, try and put ourselves somewhere else. We are trying to get away from our own thoughts, but what we resist persists; and by ignoring, repressing, or denying what is going on inside the more intrusive our thoughts become. Undealt with thoughts have a habit of coming back and biting us even harder the next time. What happens to a jack in the box when we try to push him down?

Do you remember me mentioning this experiment in Science Journal? The scientists got 700 people to sit in a room on their own, that was the experiment! But … they took away their smartphones. Horror! And how long do you think those poor souls lasted? Apparently all of 6 to 15 minutes before they preferred to administer themselves with electric shocks than endure any more time in solitary confinement. People are seemingly incapable of sitting with their thoughts due to unaccepted and unprocessed grief, loss, sadness – so, when left alone, they started to get sad. People everywhere have lost the art of accepting, processing, working through, letting go, moving on.

IMG_6725So, suppressing our unhappy thoughts is not the way to get rid of them, whereas accepting that they are there, like clouds, is the beginning of being able to transform them. We need to let them be, without panicking. As Ven Geshe Kelsang says in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Unfortunately, by reacting so quickly we do not give ourself the time to see what is actually going on in our mind. In reality, the painful feelings that arise on such occasions are not intolerable. They are only feelings, a few moments of bad weather in the mind, with no power to cause us any lasting harm. There is no need to take them so seriously.

Phew, what a relief!

No need for internal conflict

12743909_945984215455688_7422037828919330423_nSo, instead of trying to immediately get rid of an unpleasant feeling with blame, suppression, or distraction, we can instead be confident enough to welcome it, saying: “Come in! Sit down! Join us! I find you not so intolerable really, you are in fact quite interesting, like a weird grey cloud formation; but bear in mind that I don’t believe a word you are saying, not for a moment. Your advice has always been blinkered and disastrous. I prefer the advice of my wise friends over here, my friend patience for example. You’re acting all self-important as usual, but there is plenty else going on in my life and my mind if I think about it.” We have perspective. However bombastic or seductive they may be, we stop giving them the platform, stop listening to them, stop writing stories about them. We realize our delusions are ludicrous and self-seeking and stop taking them so seriously. (Hmmm, could be writing this about the upcoming US elections.)


Geshe Kelsang says:

Just as there is room in the sky for a thunderstorm, so there is room in the vast space of our mind for a few painful feelings; and just as a storm has no power to destroy the sky, so unpleasant feelings have no power to destroy our mind. When painful feelings arise in our mind, there is no need to panic.

don't panic.jpgLove that last line. It reminds me of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When I read this book in the past, I started saying this to myself when thoughts seemed to be racing away with themselves, “DON’T PANIC!” We panic – “I can’t handle this!”, and we spin out of control because we can’t handle this feeling of being upset or betrayed or lonely. It fills our mind and we overreact. We give our thoughts power, not realizing that there is nothing behind them. Literally nothing. We really don’t like being unhappy and because we have no patience with it, we are not accepting it, we feel actually hurt by it — which means it sits there looking inherently horrible, all solid and real.

How effective is it to cling onto misery really tightly while at the same time wishing it would go away?

I was in New York in January for the monster Storm Jonas, but within a day the sky was crystal clear again. We know this about weather, so we don’t panic that we are never going to see the sun again. I used to even enjoy the raging thunderstorms in Florida, knowing that in a day or two the sky would be blue once more. We can be more like this with our minds and our moods.

So we don’t pretend that unhappiness is not there, but we do know that this thunderstorm is not all that big shakes, that it’ll pass, that it is never going to destroy my sky-like mind. This gives us the 12744175_1002357209802864_5939240562791456254_nspace and wisdom to see more deeply why we feel mad or jealous or anxious or saturated with longing — how these painful appearances, however overwhelming they seem, are arising, for example, from the unfurling of the karma in our mind — just karmic projection.

Lamrim has solutions

If we have studied and appreciate the Lamrim meditations, we can think for example that this unhappiness is reminding me to clean up the projector of my delusions and negative karma while I still have the time to do so, while I am still breathing, in this precious human life. I am on parole from the lower realms – states of existence where suffering appearances are so overpowering that there is no longer anything we can do about them and we have no idea that we even have a choice. I’m going to break parole and flee to12717396_1002005613171357_141140646733730239_n the Pure Land, I owe nothing to Officers Self-Grasping & Self-Cherishing, I’m not going back with them. Then I’ll be in a position to start busting everyone else out of samsara’s prison too because they don’t belong here any more than I do.

Slowly but surely we take responsibility to transform our minds to view the world in different ways, ways that don’t engender feelings of unhappiness and further delusions in the first place. Eventually we learn to control what weather comes up in our mind, which will help us now and always, and allow us to be there for others.

Next installment here.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

15 thoughts on “Accepting unhappiness without panicking”

  1. Lovely, just what I needed. My mind was pretty clear the last few days and then one sentence from someone and a full blown thunderstorm blew in. In the past this storm would not only have lasted a long time but I would keep bringing it back into my mind by replaying the sentence. Now I am more interested in what Dharma I need to use now to calm the storm. I understand that I can’t change other people’s minds, only my own. So the storms still come but they blow away faster. This is only possible since I met Dharma.
    Your articles are so accessible and practical, thank you. There is nothing more important and helpful I think that understanding we can learn to control our mind.

  2. When the airplane takes off,most times, i think, that pretty soon the sky will be clear, and a feeling of happiness comes true, thinking, that the best thing that I have in my heart is Dharma, and then I have this journey again, with all my teachers and the teachings in one more flight…

  3. I posted it on my timeline because you don’t need to be a buddhist to appreciate this article. <3

  4. Thank you Luna. I shared this article on my FB timeline because you don’t have to be a buddhist to appreciate this article <3

  5. Excellent article. The solitary confinement experiment and your advice addresses an important preparation for extended solitary retreat…no news, no electronics, no phones, nearly no communication, just you, and your mind. How kind the Guru is to give us plenty to occupy ourselves with to navigate that level of confrontation!

  6. Hi Luna. I’m now a Cognitive Behavioural therapist. This article, (though I know based on Buddhism and patience) reminds me a lot of a relatively new type of therapy within the third wave of CBT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, ACT. Thanks for the article. Best wishes

  7. Long Comment Warning!

    Here’s a take on fear from Elizabeth Gilbert . . . singing a tune quite similar to that of our dear Kadampa Life Coach.


    “…I don’t try to kill off my fear. I don’t want to go to war against it. I make . . . space for it. Heaps of space. Every single day…I allow my fear to live and breathe and stretch out its legs comfortably. It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes too. In fact, I cordially invite fear to come along with me everywhere I go. I even have a welcoming speech prepare for her, which I deliver right before embarking on any new project or big adventure.

    It goes something like this:

    “Dearest Fear,
    Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you have an important job to do in my life, and the you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting – and, may I say, you are superb at our job. So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must. But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still – your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”
    – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

    1. thankyou for posting this Tim. She puts it so well.

      ps, everyone, i asked Tim to post this very long comment after he sent it to me privately 😉

  8. This article is so appropriate because we live in a culture super obsessed with being happy all the time. However, lasting happiness in samsara will never happen. While my deepest wish is actually to experience lasting peace and happiness, I have learned that happiness is something I have to continue to work at this time. I feel unhappy sometimes, and I’ve realized it’s not the end of the world. An older and wiser coworker reminded me one day that happiness is something we have to maintain. What she meant, or inadvertently I think she meant, is that we have to keep creating the causes of happiness. Lately, my beloved dog died, my day job has been very stressful, and unhappy feelings have arisen. When those unhappy feelings become strong, I try to weaken them by remembering 1) the quote from Geshla you stated above and 2) how those unhappy feelings have no true substance–they are empty. Somehow, remembering that unhappiness is just a transient phenomena makes my mind more flexible. Luna, I appreciate your articles and you sharing many years of practical experience. Pleas keep writing. Thank you!

    1. Yes, good comment. I think knowing how to keep some wriggle room makes us feel a whole lot better, more flexible, less stuck. And then we can create the causes for real lasting happiness by remembering some Dharma, any Dharma! eg, all happiness comes from wishing others to be happy.

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