How 3 Buddhist Teachers Work with Difficult Emotions

Working with difficult emotions is a lifelong practice. Three Buddhist teachers open up about their own struggles.

Susan Piver  •  Karen Maezen Miller  •  Norman Fischer
20 April 2024
Photo by Kenrick Mills.

Disturbed But Not Disturbed

By Norman Fischer

Life is very emotional. It’s a constant flow of emotions, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes hardly noticeable, but there all the time.

Strong emotions like grief or fury can knock us entirely out of commission. But even barely noticeable emotions have their effects.

They may seem to pass away, but can remain buried within us and affect our behavior and our general point of view in ways we probably don’t understand or even perceive.

Zazen is for me a daily practice of being open to and wise with my emotions.

Freud and his successors gave us the idea of the unconscious to explain how this happens. But long before Freud, the Buddha and his successors had developed a discourse around emotions that can help us move from disturbing emotions, like fear, anger, or anxiety that cause suffering to self and others, to beautiful emotions, like compassion and love, that can shape our conduct and our experience of living in beautiful ways.

The Buddha called negative or disturbing emotions kleshas, whose fundamental source is the “three poisons” of attachment, aversion, and delusion. Coping with and eventually transforming kleshas is a key, if not the key, to dharma practice.

Like everyone else I know, in recent years my emotions have been aroused not only by things that happen to me personally, but also by things that have been happening to my friends, and to the world at large. Just keeping up with my friends’ illnesses and deaths—not to mention the disturbing daily news that seems to auger a terrible human future—can be an overwhelming experience. How to cope with this, without going numb or crazy with fear, worry, and grief, is a major practice for me.

It helps to have a daily meditation practice. Every day when I meditate, generally first thing in the morning, I open myself to whatever feelings arise in me. In the spaciousness of zazen meditation, which is mostly, for me, a breathing practice, I’m not as disturbed by these feelings as I might be otherwise. They come up without as much passion, so they more easily melt away.

If I am somehow compelled to latch onto them while I’m meditating, making them stronger and more disturbing, I see this fairly quickly and I just keep breathing till things calm down. If I am lucky, I can burn through my disturbances and find some peace before I finish my practice. Other days the peace is there right away.

Zazen is for me a daily practice of being open to and wise with my emotions. It helps me to do the same thing during the rest of the day—to be disturbed without being disturbed.

I want to be disturbed. When I read about or see dismaying things, I want to be dismayed. To be cooled out and indifferent to what is going on around me seems like a bad idea. If I am burying my emotions, it is probably unhealthy, and even if not, disengagement is inhumane. I want to be a human being like other human beings, who feel bad when conditions are bad, cry when there is something to cry about, and whose compassionate emotions spur them to act to make things better.

In the Buddhist analysis of the kleshas, the key element is clinging, holding on. What makes a klesha a klesha is that it compels you—it contains an element of clinging that produces even more disturbing emotion, and it takes you over. So my anxiety, or anger, or attachment, isn’t necessarily a klesha if I am not compelled or controlled by it—if I can experience it fully and let go of it.

That’s where I put my effort. That’s how I can be disturbed without being disturbed.

This practice takes a certain amount of patience and faith. Patience because sometimes it doesn’t go perfectly, so I have to bear with it, and not get frustrated. And faith because I have to have faith that the practice will work to keep me safe and sane.

Fortunately for me, patience and faith are not something you’re either born with or not. They develop naturally as you keep practicing. And since my practice is long and steady, I have enough patience and faith to keep me going. I can be human without being overcome by my humanity. In a world where so much is disturbing, I can be disturbed without being disturbed.

What’s a Little Noise?

by Susan Piver

I live and work in an apartment building in Boston. All around me are noises that accompany apartment living: music from a neighbor’s space, the clank of heating pipes, and trucks rumbling by at night. Noises many apartment dwellers experience.

But a few years ago, a new set of noises were introduced when construction on a new subway station began right next to my building. Convenience, yay! Property values, yay! Insane, incessant banging and noise, no yay! But hey, I’ve been meditating for close to thirty years. What’s a little noise? When it starts to bother me, I thought, I will just let go and come back to my breath. Right?

How does one give up attachments?

Wrong. On a day I planned to spend writing, the construction crew planned to operate pile drivers, enormous machines that act like hammers pounding nails into the ground. Only the hammer is eighty-feet tall and the nail is a forty-foot-long metal beam. It makes a stunning noise: jarring, loud, earth-shaking.

About two days and six hours in, something crazy happened to me. I LOST IT. I slammed my computer shut, walked away from what I was writing, probably about compassion, stormed out of my apartment over to the chain link fence separating us from the construction site, scaled it like an animal, and screamed repeatedly (cussword alert):


To my surprise, they did—for about thirty seconds. Then they all turned back to their work, probably thinking something like,

“Crazy middle-aged lady alert, y’all.”

I slunk back to my office, perhaps a tad exhilarated at my machismo but mostly mortified by my horrendous behavior. How could I have been so angry? How could I have lost all control? How could I have been so attached?

Attachment is a problem often discussed in Buddhist circles and for very good reason. The Buddha’s second noble truth (after truth number one: life is full of suffering) is that grasping or attachment is the cause of this suffering. Here, suffering is not considered the main problem. Attachment to the idea of a life free of suffering is.

But how does one give up attachments?

Such a question gives us the perfect place to start. Nonattachment does not have much to do with converting all phenomena into an equal tone of equanimity. It may actually be the opposite. Rather than resisting responses to various irritations, nonattachment is the willingness to surf those experiences fully. I don’t imagine surfers establish a stance and then freeze. Instead—and I’m guessing, never having surfed—they must meet each wave’s ebb and flow, constantly reestablishing their center of gravity in response to this moment, and this one, and this one.

To move with each wave is a more human, earthy view of nonattachment than any ideas I may have about being perpetually cool.

To give up your attachment to nonattachment by turning toward your sense perceptions, toward what is happening, toward the truth of your experience (pile drivers and temper tantrums included), is where true nonattachment begins.

An Angry Person with a Zen Practice

by Karen Maezen Miller

I wasn’t an angry person until I became a Zen Buddhist. Sure, I yelled. I slammed things. I broke things. But I wouldn’t have called myself angry. It was always another person making me angry. How was that my fault?

The night I flung my wedding ring across the lawn during an otherwise piddling argument with my husband the truth began to dawn: I was a really angry person. But there was hope because I was an angry person with a Zen practice.

Anger is something most of us try to avoid. It’s harmful, destructive, and frightening. Yet through meditation, we can observe that the source of our anger—and the source of all our mental states—is none other than ourselves. No one makes us feel, think, or do anything except as we allow. When we see that, we can begin to free ourselves from the delusional grip of anger, hate, and fear, and the cycle of suffering they cause.

When I acknowledge my anger, it loosens the noose and lowers the temperature.

Anger comes from our attachments. We all have our likes and preferences, dislikes and aversions, and our fiercely held opinions about how things should be. We cling to what we want—to what we think is good and right—and reject what we don’t want in what amounts to a near-continuous war with reality. We don’t get our way all the time, and besides, even when we do, it doesn’t last. Everything is empty and impermanent, guaranteed to change, which means we could be ticked off all the time. These days, a lot of people are. They nurture grievance and anger until it explodes into blind hatred. But wisdom lurks beneath our ignorance.

The wisdom of impermanence shows us the way to work with anger, that is, to not work with it at all.

Through the practice of zazen, just sitting, I’ve slowed my mind down enough to recognize anger as a physical sensation before I’m overtaken in emotion. I feel anger rising in my body as energy, a physical tightening that pins me in place. That’s when I stop.

I stop thinking. I may stop moving. And usually I can stop myself from reacting. Without my ruminations and reactions, anger does what all sensations do. It goes away by itself, providing I don’t chase after it.

Now may not be the easiest time to believe that the only way to work with anger is to sit down and practice. But what happens when you try being still and quiet, staying out of the deepening darkness in your head? You may think that when you sit on a cushion it’s only to bring peace to your own mind—it is. There is only one mind, so your little practice, your calming breath, and your fearless presence extend everywhere throughout the chaos of the hell-bent world.

One more thing has changed my relationship with anger: admitting it. When I feel myself getting angry around others, I try my best to say, “I’m angry right now.” When I acknowledge my anger, it changes me, it changes my body. It loosens the noose and lowers the temperature. It clarifies the situation for me and for everyone around me. Outbursts are allayed. Spoken, the words by themselves are safe. Unspoken, they smolder into fire and brimstone.

These days, though I still get angry, I’m no longer afraid of my anger. I don’t try to hide or avoid it. I remind myself not to rationalize it, justify it, or react in anger. I let it be, and then I let it be gone.

Susan Piver

Susan Piver

Susan Piver is a Buddhist teacher and the New York Times bestselling author of many books, including The Wisdom of a Broken Heart and Start Here Now: An Open-Hearted Guide to the Path and Practice of Meditation. Her latest is The Four Noble Truths of Love: Buddhist Wisdom for Modern Relationships. She is founder of The Open Heart Project, an international online meditation community.
Karen Maezen Miller

Karen Maezen Miller

Karen Maezen Miller is a priest in the Soto Zen lineage of Taizan Maezumi Roshi and a student of Nyogen Yeo Roshi. In daily life, as mother to daughter Georgia and as a writer, she aims to resolve the enigmatic truth of Maezumi’s teaching, “Your life is your practice.” Miller is the author of Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, and most recently, Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden.
Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.