Emotional Health: How to Be the Zen Master of Your Moods

Learn how to apply Zen-inspired mindfulness, discipline, and wisdom to master your emotional health.

The Fall and Winter seasons can bring shifts in mood that make it more challenging to maintain our emotional health. Whether it be full-on seasonal affective disorder, a response to the stress of the holiday season, or just a touch of the nerves or blues brought on by the change in weather, there are things you can do to help balance your mood. And not just in the Fall and Winter, but anytime.

This article is all about putting some intention into your emotional health, which can make a BIG difference in how you feel on a regular basis. It’s about taking active steps and making conscious choices to support your emotional health, rather than leaving your mood to chance or circumstance. To be the Zen master of your emotions, you have to bring mindful awareness, discipline, and wisdom to them.

What is a Zen Master?

Technically speaking, a Zen master is someone who has studied Zen philosophy and trained in its practices long enough to have become a master of its teachings. Often, they become teachers to students wanting to learn the path. Of course, I’m using the term much more loosely here. So, what exactly do I mean when I say be the Zen master of your moods?

I’m talking about applying some of the general concepts of the Zen tradition in a practical way to support your emotional health. And, accessing the kind of equanimity Zen masters embody. That peaceful serenity they exude. That simplicity with which they approach life. The stillness they keep at their center, even in the midst of movement and chaos.

Zen, at its foundation, is all about meditation. More specifically, it’s about the patience, acceptance, and wisdom one gains while sitting for long periods of time in meditation. It’s a reprogramming of the brain that helps it not be so reactive to life. And isn’t that what emotions are really? Reactions to life?

But, how do we go about accessing this Zen way of being in the world, if we can’t sit for long hours of meditation everyday? If we haven’t dedicated our life to this path? Is there a way for us to apply some Zen to our ordinary, busy lives and become less reactive, less emotional, and more in control of our happiness?

The answer is yes.

Mindfulness is a Must for Emotional Health

Whether or not you want to dive into a full-on mindfulness practice, the quality of mindfulness is necessary to mastering your emotional health. To be mindful is to observe what’s happening in the present moment, objectively. In order to exert control over your emotional reactions, you have to first be aware of them. You have to be able to witness them without getting swept up in their energy. This is mindfulness. Just watching. Acknowledging that you’re feeling happy, sad, excited, or angry as opposed to getting caught up in being those emotions.

How does this benefit us? When we are mindful of our emotions, we are able to choose our thoughts, words, and actions consciously. Emotions arise with big shifts in our brain and body chemistry that can propel us into thoughts, speech, and actions that further feed the energy of the emotion. When it’s a good-feeling emotion, like happiness, this isn’t a problem. But, when it’s an emotion that brings about suffering, such as anger or sadness, injecting some mindful wisdom can keep us balanced. It can ease our suffering.

Observing our emotional reactions regularly can help us detach from them. We get to see how emotions arise and fall. They don’t last, but instead move across our psyche like clouds floating across the sky. That is, if we let them. How much and how long emotions affect us depends on how much we latch on to them or feed them. Recognizing this can help us develop that Zen quality of equanimity, which is a state of steadiness. A calmness that’s not easily swayed by environmental stimuli.

Try this: Next time you notice you’re having an emotional reaction, stop whatever you’re doing. Stop whatever you’re thinking. And just sit with the emotion. Observe how and where you feel it in your body. Don’t try to change it or support it with thoughts. Just let it be, even if it peaks. Keep observing it in this way until it passes.

Moods Last Longer than Emotions

To be the Zen master of your emotional health, it’s important to pay attention to your moods, not just your emotions. And this can be tricky, because moods aren’t as noticeable as emotions. An emotional reaction is short-lasting but packs a harder punch. It’s typically in response to a specific circumstance, and we feel its spike immediately.

Moods, on the other hand, stretch out over hours, even days. It’s a tendency toward feeling positive or negative. A lens through which you’re likely to view all circumstances. If it’s a positive mood, you’ll likely experience happy emotions. If it’s a negative mood, you’ll likely experience sadness or anxiety. It can be harder to notice our moods right away, because there’s not an instant spike in feeling. And, there’s often not a single cause we can pinpoint.

Being mindfully aware of our moods, therefore, is even more important than being mindful of our emotions. If we’re not noticing the pattern of responses we’re having, we can’t do anything to shift our mood. It becomes a sort of quicksand we’re stuck in. Each emotional reaction we have that supports the mood helps to perpetuate it.

Bringing mindfulness to our moods can empower us to exert energy in the opposite direction to slow and even halt its momentum. We can consciously choose to let go of negative thought loops. We can take actions that support a more positive mindset. If nothing else, at least acknowledging what we’re experiencing is just a mood, rather than getting lost in the emotions of it, can help minimize its impact.

Getting Disciplined about our Emotional Health

Zen Masters are disciplined. They are mindful of every aspect of their lives. What they eat, what they consume energetically, and what they produce or put out into the world. Likewise, if we want to be emotionally healthy, we have to approach our lives with some measure of discipline.

What we eat impacts how we feel emotionally. There’s been a lot of research recently showing the powerful connection between our gut and our brain, especially with regards to mental health. Additionally, some foods are known to either exacerbate or alleviate anxiety and depression. If you know you tend toward anxious moods, you can eat in a way that supports your emotional health (learn more). The same goes for a tendency toward depressed moods (learn more).

Beyond food and drinks, we take in all kinds of things from our environment. What we expose ourselves to energetically can have a significant impact on how we feel. Music is a prime example of this. When we listen to uplifting, positive music, we feel happier. When we listen to sad, angry, or otherwise negative music, we feel worse. Research has shown that not only does music affect our emotional states, it can also change our expectations and the way we perceive the world. It can set up a self-fulfilling prophecy of positivity or negativity.

Be Mindful of Your Media

It can be hard to let go of music we’ve grown fond of, despite its negative impact on our moods. Maybe we’ve grown attached to it out of nostalgia. Or, it’s somehow become tied to our sense of who we are. But, if we want to get intentional and disciplined about our emotional health, it’s important to surround ourselves with positive messages and energies that support healthy moods.

In recent months, I’ve gotten a lot more mindful of how music affects my mood, and I’ve taken to listening to the Spa channel on Sirius. It’s not as exciting as some of my favorite fun music, but it puts me in Zen-mode. Peaceful and calm, just like when I get a massage or do yoga. Of course, you don’t have to go to that extreme if you don’t want to. Just choose music that makes you feel good, really good. The same goes for movies.

And while we’re on the subject of media, excess social media has been linked to anxiety and depression in a number of studies. Setting limits on your social media use can support your emotional health. And, being mindful of not just the amount of time you spend on social media, but also what sorts of interactions you’re exposing yourself to, is important. You can block or un-follow people who consistently have a negative impact on your mood. You can also join groups that are focused on positive, healthy topics.

What Are You Projecting into the World?

Not only is what we take in from the world important for our moods, but also what we put out into the world. You can look at it as karma or the third law of physics. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. To be the Zen master of your moods, you have to take responsibility for them, rather than projecting them onto life circumstances or other people.

Sure, there are real situations that naturally provoke emotions. And experiencing those natural emotional reactions is healthy. Otherwise, we’d be stuffing. Not healthy. However, we’re still responsible for how we react, if for no other reason than that we’ll have to face the equal and opposite reaction we’ve triggered.

Injecting some discipline into our emotions can take the heat or energy out of the situation. That might look like taking a breather to let the initial emotional charge calm. It might look like going for a walk, taking a warm bath, or simply stating what emotions you’re experiencing.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a great contemporary Zen master, talks about holding our emotions tenderly. Offering compassion to ourselves in the midst of feeling a difficult emotion, rather than acting on it. At least until the initial, powerful surge has passed. I’ve found this practice to be incredibly helpful, particularly when dealing with anger.

Moods, even more so than emotions, can wreak havoc when we project them into our world. If we’re caught in a negative mood, just about anything can trigger anxiety, anger, sadness, or irritability. The more we interpret our life through the lens of our mood, the more miserable we become. And, often times, the more miserable we make others around us, which only serves to further feed our negativity loop.

When we notice we’re in a negative mood, it’s important to inject the discipline of discernment. Asking ourselves, is this situation really so bad, or am I just in a bad mood? How can I think, speak, or act differently to shift things? Take the focus off external factors, and give yourself some self-care instead.

Bringing Wisdom to Our Emotional Health

The libraries of the world are filled with books of wisdom that aim to ease our burden of emotional suffering. Certainly, I don’t expect to cover all that wisdom in this short post. However, the following three pieces of Zen wisdom I’ve gathered through the years can produce powerful results when applied regularly.

No. 1: “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.” – Alan Watts

In Zen thinking, emotions can be compared to muddy water. The mind is the water, clear in its natural state. Undisturbed, the mud beneath the water can be seen clearly through the water, but it doesn’t alter the water’s state. Emotions are the movement and energy that stirs the water and the mud, thus making the water muddy. The water remains muddy until it has stilled, and the mud settles back into the ground.

The wisdom of seeing our emotions as this agitating energy, as opposed to the actual state of our mind or our being, can help us stay in touch with our inner peace even when emotions or moods arise. The less we identify with our emotions and moods, the more we’re capable of resisting the impulse to grab onto them and let them take us for a ride.

When we identify instead with our clear, still mind, we can trust that the emotional stirring will eventually settle. This steadies us and minimizes our suffering. And, it supports the stillness that ultimately enables our emotions to run out of energy, leaving our mind to be clear and calm again.

No. 2: “The Only Zen You Can Find on the Tops of Mountains is the Zen You Bring Up There.” – Robert Pirsig

So often, we look for our external circumstances to be just-so in order for us to feel happiness or contentment. But, the reality is, life is rarely just as we want it to be. This quote speaks to the notion many of us hold, that if we just get to some idealized point in our life, we can finally be at peace, feel fulfilled, or rest with the triumph of our realized goals. So long as we think our happiness or contentment lies somewhere other than right here and right now, it does.

I posted this quote on social media a while back, and someone responded with an insightful comment. He said perhaps it was the journey to the top of the mountain that produced the ability to experience Zen. I think that’s true. It’s often the struggles we go through that teach us the most about how to accept each moment for what it is. We have to dig deep to persevere, and in doing so, we become stronger and wiser. We learn to trust in our capacity to rise above our struggles.

The point is, Zen contentment, emotional health, and inner peace all begin inside us. It will never be handed to us by the outside world. And when we find it within ourselves, we can access it at the bottom of the mountain, on the way up, or at the top.

No. 3: “Life Always Gives Us Exactly the Teacher We Need at Every Moment.” – Joko Beck

The quote goes on to say: “This includes every mosquito, every misfortune, every red light, every traffic jam, every obnoxious supervisor (or employee), every illness, every loss, every moment of joy or depression, every addiction, every piece of garbage, every breath. Every moment is the guru.”

I love this concept, and seeing life through this lens has perhaps given me more resilience and steadiness in difficult times than any other. What an enormous shift in thinking it is to look at life’s struggles as an opportunity for growth. Even the little ones. She mentions traffic jams and red lights. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been anxiously late to an important appointment and found myself further delayed by one traffic obstacle or another. My blood pressure can rise enough to make me sweat!

But these days, I take a deep breath and tell myself two things. First, the delay might just be saving me from some catastrophe down the road. Second, and most effectively, I take it as an opportunity to practice patience and surrender to what lies beyond my control. Every minute in my car, no matter how many tick away, becomes my practice then. It makes a HUGE difference.

Of course, what’s far harder to swallow is life’s bigger road blocks, hurts, and disappointments. Looking for the lessons and opportunities for growth in these times can be a powerful way to tap into resilience and hold our footing. It doesn’t mean we don’t experience the emotions that naturally accompany such circumstances. It just means we don’t fall into the trap of being completely consumed by them. This helps keep our eyes open to what life is offering us and allows us to stay consciously engaged as we walk forward into new territory, instead of shutting down or losing hope.

Closing Thoughts…

With some intention and effort, we can all support ourselves with greater emotional health and balance. And given how much our emotions can color our life experience, it’s well worth the effort. Start applying some Zen-inspired mindfulness, discipline, and wisdom to your life today, and see if it doesn’t go a long way in helping you become the master of your moods.

Tell me what you think! What piece of Zen feels like it might be the most helpful for you?

Author: Rose Hahn

Rose Hahn's passion for inspiring intentional wellness has evolved over the past 20 years from a personal practice, to working as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist, to founding the first neuroscience and mindfulness-based addiction treatment center in Texas with her husband. Currently, her energy is focused on her wellness blog, an upcoming book, and her yoga/music/arts event production company.

3 thoughts

  1. Great post Rose! I love how you broke down emotions and moods and how to use Zen in dealing with them using a different mindfulness and discipline. Always nice to see a new perspective! Thank you for sharing!

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