Skill Building

So, what exactly is "happiness?"

The teacher welcomed the student and offered him a cup of tea, which the student greatly enjoyed. When he finished the tea the student pleaded with the teacher.

A Zen student begged his teacher, "Please teach me the truth of this life and how to find happiness."

The teacher smiled. "Did you just drink your tea?" he responded.

"Of course," said the student.

"Then go wash your cup," the teacher replied.

The simple instruction, go wash your cup, is actually a great teaching. And it was delivered by the teacher in a wonderful way. He used the activity of the moment, the condition life presented to him, instead of preaching a sermon derived from somewhere else.

The tea itself was the sermon and also the student drinking it. Happiness is right here under your nose, the teacher was saying, in whatever condition life presents. Be fully aware of it. Drink your tea, enjoy it, and then take care of the cup. (Take care of whatever surrounds you).

Don't leave your teacup for someone else to clean. See what has to be done right now and do it. Honor the cup for offering the tea and wash it carefully. Nothing is too simple or ordinary to be overlooked in Zen. By seeing what is needed and doing it immediately and full heartedly, happiness is right here.

In fact, happiness is both drinking the tea and washing the cup. It is the gratitude that accompanies it. Happiness resides in the very action itself. No need to look somewhere else for it. Happiness exists in the simplest actions of your life, when done without complaint or resistance. When you stop wanting to hand over the tasks of your life to someone else, stop refusing them and just do what is here before you now.

Happiness is not some state of euphoria we achieve that hits for a little while and then passes. That can be like a drug. If we chase that kind of happiness, we'll always be going up and down on the merry go round looking for the next thrill or delight. However, when we both drink our tea and then wash our cups carefully, a life of completion and fulfillment is right here at hand.

Learning how to tolerate distress

Pushing away unpleasant emotions 

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) from Dr. Marsha Linehan offers a behavioral intervention most of us have probably done at least once in our lives and didn’t even think about it. The skill is called “pushing away” and refers to the act of making a mental or concrete note of an unpleasant emotion and its trigger (person, place, or thing) and setting it aside temporarily.  

Here’s an example from one of my clients that worked especially great for her: 

Sally (name has been changed) was going through an ugly divorce from Tom (name has been changed) and could not help but break down in tears or begin hyperventilating at the mere thought of her estranged husband and the loss of their 20-year marriage. She was having trouble sleeping, could not eat, and felt like she was walking around in a fog.  Sally knew the marriage was over, but no amount of words could shake the emotional turmoil she felt inside.  Her emotions were overwhelming and debilitating.  We both agreed she needed to find some relief from her pain, and fast. 

And so, one day during a therapy session, we agreed to do something different.  Sally wrote down her and Tom’s name on a piece of paper like so:


As illustrated above, Sally noticed how intricately linked her identity had become with her husband’s, an emotional attachment that was keeping her literally held hostage.  Sally and I then decided to tear the paper in half so that her name and his name could be separated like so:
Sallya | ndTom

We then placed each piece of paper in a Ziploc baggie with some water and stuck it in a freezer.  I encouraged Sally to go home and plan a shopping trip to her local gardening center where she could buy some seeds to her favorite spring flowering plant.  

The following week we removed each of the Ziploc bags from the freezer.  We went outside to the back of my office building and carried out the following ritual.

First, we removed Tom’s ice cube paper from his bag and decided to throw him away, literally.  After showing Sally where the trash receptacle was outside, she walked over, opened the lid, held her nose to keep from breathing the stench of garbage inside, and tossed the ice cube with Tom’s name on it inside.  

Second, we removed Sally’s ice cube paper from her bag and set it aside carefully on the ground.  I had brought a small shovel with which I encouraged Sally to dig a hole in the ground and place the seeds she had bought at the store since her last session.  I then told Sally to carefully place the ice cube containing her name into the hole after the seeds and to cover the hole with potting soil. We put a place mark over the planted seeds so that we would know where to look for the flowers come the springtime.  

Sally reflected on her experience after this experiment and identified feeling lighter and stronger, and more capable of focusing on her recovery from the breakup of her relationship.  In addition, she looked forward to witnessing the birth of her favorite flower, a metaphor she felt was perfectly in tune with the kind of rebirthing process she herself was going through. 

Pushing away is a skill from DBT’s Distress tolerance module, a set of behavioral skills designed to help us survive an intense emotional crisis without making the crisis worse; to hold on like a rock on the shore of an angry ocean, until the waves settle.  


fear push away.jpg