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Finding Peace in Turmoil: Practicing Zen In Difficult Times

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Life sometimes hands us challenging situations that evoke difficult emotions. We experience joy, sadness, frustration, anger, fear, and everything in between, sometimes in one day!  But what happens when we are faced with difficult or triggered emotions that seem overwhelming? How can we find peace during the turmoil of difficult feelings? This is where I find the practice of Zen to be incredibly valuable.

At its core, Zen emphasizes meditation, being present in each moment (mindfulness), and accepting what is. While it may seem mysterious or esoteric to some, the principles of Zen can be applied to our everyday lives, especially when dealing with challenging times. At Rising Lotus Zen we are all about making Zen a simple, gentle practice that works with every aspect of everyday life.

In thinking about concrete ways to practice Zen when experiencing difficult times or triggered emotions, I’m listing below those that I use in my practice and that I teach when working with students. 

Pause.  At Rising Lotus, we call this “Taking the Sacred Pause.”  We must get space between the emotion and any knee-jerk reaction, or the potential spiraling that can happen when emotions run high. The way we do this is to move ourselves physically.  If you can get to your cushion, go there. If you are at work, maybe remove yourself to the lavatory. If you’re on the phone, excuse yourself and hang up. Go anywhere you can be alone for a few minutes. Pausing first involves being able to identify in your body when the emotion is rising.  It may take some time and practice, but you can begin by thinking about a strong emotion you’ve had recently and where you felt it in your body. Do your cheeks get red?  Do you clench your jaw or your hands?  Do you feel it in your chest? Stomach? The ability to identify the sensation of the feeling, and getting to a place where you can take a moment for yourself is imperative to the rest of the process.

Acknowledge Your Feelings: Name what you're feeling. Whether it's sadness, anger, anxiety, or a different feeling, allow yourself to experience the emotion without reaction or judgment. Zen teaches us to be present in the moment, and that includes being present with our emotions. Try reframing what you feel by switching “I am angry." to “Anger is with me.”  Switch, “I’m sad,” to “Sadness is with me.”  It may sound weird, but reframing in this way helps remind us that we are not defined by our emotions. 

Breathe Mindfully: The fundamental practice of Zen is being in the present moment,  which sometimes (especially when feeling strong emotions) involves focusing on the breath. When feeling overwhelmed by difficult emotions, take a few moments to sit quietly and focus on your breath. Notice the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves your body. This simple act of mindfulness can help calm the mind and bring a sense of peace.  There is evidence that supports that triggered emotions can be worked through in 90 seconds.

Practice Acceptance: Zen teaches us to accept things as they are in the moment, without resistance, or judgment. Instead of trying to fight against difficult emotions, try to accept them for what they are, just for the present moment. So, sadness is sadness just for now.  You don’t have to do anything with it - just breathe, and know that whatever the feeling, it's just for now. It will lift. It will change. This doesn't mean resigning yourself to suffering, but rather acknowledging that difficult times and difficult feelings are a natural part of the human experience.  

Let Go of Attachment: Often, our suffering is exacerbated by our wanting certain outcomes or having set expectations. In Zen, the concept known as "non-attachment," involves letting go of our depending upon specific outcomes and learning to be with the natural ebb and flow of life. When experiencing difficult emotions, try to let go of any set expectations for how things "should" be and instead focus on accepting things as they are. I’m not going to lie, letting go is perhaps the most difficult part of this process because our ego is involved.

I feel I’m right. I need this to change or that to change. I want a specific outcome to a situation. If we can remove the heavy armor of our ego for just a moment and set it aside, we will most likely feel a release of the strong emotions we are feeling.  Remember it’s not wrong to feel these emotions, but if we let them take over, our reactions may not be the greatest, which will perpetuate our suffering and the suffering of others. 

Find Stillness in Movement: Zen doesn't necessarily require sitting on a cushion. You can practice Zen in everyday activities, such as walking, cooking, or cleaning. The key is to approach these activities with mindfulness and awareness. Pay attention to each movement, each sensation, and each breath as you go about daily tasks. This can help bring a sense of stillness and peace even during difficult times.

Seek Guidance and Support: Finally, don't be afraid to seek guidance and support from others when struggling with difficult emotions. This could be a trusted friend, family member, or therapist who can offer compassionate listening and practical advice. A Zen teacher and sangha can also provide spiritual guidance and support for your practice every day as well as in difficult times.  There are also support groups for working with emotions that follow a mindful approach.

Pausing, acknowledging our feelings, breathing mindfully, and accepting what is happening in the present moment by letting go, are the key components to working difficult emotions skillfully and effectively. We can navigate the ups and downs of life with greater ease and equanimity if we can do these things even some of the time. I want to tell you that I’m a great success story, but I am very human. It’s taken me lots of Zen practice and a good teacher to get to a place where I can identify a feeling in my body, acknowledge a strong emotion, and take a sacred pause most times.  I am a work in progress and so are you.  We can do this - together. Imagine if everyone could learn to pause instead of reacting - what a different world we would have. 



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