A belligerent samurai, an old Japanese tale goes, once challenged a Zen master to explain the concept of heaven and hell. But the monk replied with scorn, “You’re nothing but a lout—I can’t waste my time with the likes of you!”

His very honour attacked, the samurai flew into a rage and, pulling his sword from its scabbard, yelled, “I could kill you for your impertinence.”

“That,” the monk calmly replied, “is hell.”

Startled at seeing the truth in what the master pointed out about the fury that had him in its grip, the samurai calmed down, sheathed his sword, and bowed, thanking the monk for the insight.

“And that,” said the monk, “is heaven.”

This Zen story illustrates brilliantly a moment of possibility that can emerge when we bring awareness to a situation. In this story the samurai goes from rage to reverence in the blink of an eye. How does this happen? The external situation remains the same but his interpretation or perception of it alters dramatically. We witness the samurai shifting his perspective in the midst of a strong emotion. Initially provoked by the Master’s words he is identified with his emotional reaction – in that moment he is the emotional energy of rage running through him.

The skilled Zen master directs his attention to what is happening and so allows the samurai to shift from being the emotion he is caught in to seeing the emotion. This shift transforms his perception of the situation and so his response to it. In one moment of insight he moves from anger to gratitude. As Milton noted, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”

We can’t rely on having a zen master to hand offering us insight so we must cultivate an ‘inner master’, or perhaps, an ‘inner monitor’ to track our mental and emotional states and use their energy to guide our action rather than being used by them. When we are controlled by our emotions it is the tail wagging the dog. Wise action comes from holding and channelling emotional energy skilfully.

This begins by noticing and naming. We notice what we are experiencing and we name it: ‘anger’, ‘jealousy’, ‘sadness’, ‘worry’ etc. In naming our state we effect a shift in perspective – we step out of the proverbial river of our emotions, where we can sit by the bank and reflect on what is happening and how best to respond.

Next time you feel caught by a disturbing emotion try the following:

Notice what is happening – become aware of the thoughts, feelings and sensations moving through you and name them: tightness in my stomach, heat, contraction, tightness etc. Then notice, if you look at your experience rather than from your experience, how does this change your perspective?

It is interesting to observe the movement of the machinery of the mind in your daily life. Notice your perceptions. Notice subtle judgements that spontaneously arise. Notice assumptions you make.  Notice when you get locked in to a rigid way of seeing a situation. Then see what you can do to alter your perceptions. Contemplate possibilities with questions like “What if…?” or “What is a different way of looking at this?” Other questions to experiment with include:

“What is the lens through which I am viewing this?”

“What am I believing?”

“What assumptions am I making?”

“How might I be jumping to conclusions?”

“What is an alternative viewpoint?”

In engaging with these questions, we are developing cognitive flexibility – a fundamental feature of a healthy mind. Every time we engage with our minds differently, we are creating new patterns i.e new states of mind which alter our experience of life in that moment. Constantly reinforcing these patterns means eventually turning these healthy states into healthy traits.