The mainstream media headlines tell a disturbing story. From the Washington Post: Teen suicides increasing at alarming pace outstripping all other age groups, a new report says.
Zen Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh, addresses teen suicide in “Peace is Every Breath.” In a chapter entitled, “Riding out the storm,” Thich writes:
Some young people are unable to cope with the storms of emotion that rise up in them, like rage, depression, despair, and so forth, and they want to kill themselves. They’re convinced that suicide is the only way to stop their suffering…. It seems no one is teaching them to handle their strong emotions.
He explains that emotions come and go and that we should look at emotions as a kind of storm. He offers teens a simple practice for calming and steadying the mind so they can navigate these storms with ease.
The practice is to sit cross-legged or to lie down on your back and begin breathing into your belly. It’s helpful to place your hand on your belly and notice how your belly rises and falls with the breath when you take a deep breath.
He uses the metaphor of a tree.
When trees get hit by a storm, the treetops are thrashed around and run the highest risk of being damaged. The trunk of the tree is more stable and solid; it has many roots reaching deep into the Earth. The treetops are like your thinking mind.
When a storm comes up in you, you get out of the treetop and go down to the trunk for safety. Your roots start down at your abdomen, slightly below the navel, at the energy point known as the tan tien in Chinese medicine. Put all your attention on that part of your belly, and breathe deeply. Don’t think about anything, and you’ll be safe while the storm of emotions is blowing.
Practice this every day for just five minutes, and after three weeks, you’ll handle your emotions successfully whenever they rise up.
It’s a good idea to teach belly breathing to the “tweens” and younger children as well as teenagers.
Thich mentions schoolteachers can save lives by teaching abdominal breathing to all of their students so they’ll be prepared “when the whirlwind of strong emotions starts churning inside them.”
For the babies—the pre-schoolers, you can have them put a stuffed animal on their abdomen and notice how it rises and falls with the breath. What they’re learning is how to be in their body, how to take their attention to their breath and breathe deeply, and how to get out of “thinking,” which is the cause of suffering. They’re learning how to self-soothe and how to be in their center.
Know that taking your awareness to and breathing into your belly center is also a skillful practice for adults. Try it the next time you’re in a gnarly situation and see what happens. It will work best in a challenging situation if you have practiced it every day for five minutes so that it’s second nature in a challenging moment.
Next time you see someone doing Tai Chi, Qigong, or martial arts, notice how connected they are to the the belly center and to the ground. The masters of these practices grasp the power of this center. We too can re-claim our connection to the ground, to empowerment, and to pure being through the hara, the belly center.