Surfing Through a Bad Mood

by Site Author

Photo by @unsureshot

Photo by @unsureshot

It takes at least two weeks to build a sand mandala. Tibetan monks handle the painted sand with small, metal funnels and their bare hands. It is a painstaking, difficult process.

But once the mandala is completed, the monks wipe it away in seconds.

The practice symbolizes the Buddhist concept of impermanence. Even the most beautiful possessions we have will not last. This is a fact of life; all things are impermanent.

The objects of our internal lives are also impermanent. Anger, fear, elation; these all arise and then pass away.

But, in the moment, it doesn’t seem that way. When I’m in a bad mood, I feel as though I’m stuck in a dark cloud. And the cloud doesn’t move. It’s difficult to be wise, to remind myself that ‘this, too, shall pass.’

But bad moods are not static. They constantly evolve. The hard part is to pay attention, and notice how they change from moment to moment.

Mark Epstein, a Buddhist therapist, wrote the following about grief.

Many people, in the aftermath of an acute trauma like the loss of a loved one, for instance, believe that should be able to “get over it” within a discrete period of time. There are five stages of grief, they remind me, quoting the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They should be able to go through them in a year or two, they believe. I am cautious in my response. The Buddha took a different approach, one that seems more realistic. There need be no end to grief, he would say. While it is never static—it is not a single (or even a five-stage) thing—there is no reason to believe it will disappear for good and no need to judge oneself if it does not. Grief turns over and over. It is vibrant, surprising and alive, just as we are.

Addiction counselors make a similar point regarding cravings. Cravings are not static; they arise and pass away and then, later, return. And so, addiction counselors recommend a practice they call “urge surfing.” Urges—such as an alcoholic’s urge to drink—almost never last longer than 30 minutes. So recovering addicts are counseled to pay attention to how the urge changes. They notice how the urge arises, and how it transforms, moment to moment, in the body. And, eventually, if left alone, the urge slowly disappears.

Urges, grief, and bad moods are as impermanent as a mandala made of sand. They are here one moment, and then gone the next.