Master Shouchu taught:
Language does not help matters.
Speech does not bring forth the truth.
Those who are burdened by language are lost.
Zen values action over words and experience over eloquence. Words can point to the truth, but they are not the truth itself. Zen teaches us that emotions are temporary. Like clouds in the sky, we should simply notice them come and go rather than attach to them and get caught up in or perpetuate our own emotional dramas. This is much easier said than done.
For some of us, analyzing and talking through our emotions can be very therapeutic and cathartic. But for some of us, talking about our emotions is like stirring muddy water and brings no feeling of release. Even if you don’t feel like talking about things, you can still help yourself feel better and move through emotional stuckness by moving your body in mindful ways.
Therapy wasn’t really big in ancient China and feudal Japan. Zen masters learned how to channel their emotional energy and express themselves through teaching, art, music, tea, and martial arts, to name a few. None of these outlets depends on words, but all of them can help with pent-up feelings.
Tea ceremony is amazing to watch and learn, because every gesture and movement is brimming with mindfulness.
From ballroom dancing and tai chi to knitting and cooking, moving your physical body while focusing your mind is a great way to channel emotional energy when words don’t feel like the right avenue. I have friends who sew, who describe a feeling of peaceful tranquility that comes over them once they get into the flow of working on a particular piece.
My own outlet is the art of shakuhachi—the Japanese bamboo flute. The shakuhachi is difficult to play, and I don’t necessarily always achieve a peaceful feeling or lose myself in the flow of practice. Nonetheless, because it is so difficult, playing it requires my full concentration and focus. I must be careful to get the tilt of the flute just right, to place my fingers in the proper positions for each note, and to blow in a way that creates the proper sound for each note, all while trying to read the music (in Japanese) correctly.
When I play the shakuhachi, there is no room left in my brain for thinking about anything other than exactly what I am doing at that very moment. This level of concentration naturally clears my mind. I couldn’t even entertain stressful thoughts or get swallowed up in emotional drama if I wanted to! As an added bonus, the calm feeling and focused awareness I get from playing remains with me long after I put the flute down.
My mentor in Chinese medicine always told his anxious and worried patients to cultivate a hobby that required the use of their hands. A ridiculously large portion of your brain is dedicated to the movement of your first fingers and thumbs. Apparently it takes a lot of brainpower to be prehensile. Take advantage of this biological reality!
- Find a hobby that uses your hands to help focus your mind when you feel stuck and just don’t feel like talking about it.
- Choose something you have a personal interest in, and which satisfies your creative or expressive urges.
- Set aside a regular piece of time to devote to your hobby. It is okay to let go and lose yourself in the flow of well-focused attention at work.
What does your wordless self-expression look like? Get your creative juices flowing in a way that involves your body and mind. When the mind and body move and flow freely, so do your emotions. No magic words required!