Zen adventure transformation
Life Transformation

What About the Bad Days?

Last Updated on May 5, 2020 by Alex

Bad days. We all have them. It’s essential to learn to work with them, not be beaten and keep your progress going while the negative energy does its thing until it’s used up. 

First, realize that bad days are going to happen. They don’t give you any warning, they just come up from behind and clobber you. 

It could be something stupid you said the night before after a couple of beers coming back to haunt you in the form of an offended friend you now need to ameliorate. 

It could be a bad night’s sleep and a foul mood.

It could be your significant other who has had enough of you, or a colleague at work who has grown more and more aggressive and unfriendly. 

It could be something much worse. Losing your job, a serious illness.

Or it could be just a bad day in a more limited sense. This morning I had a really crappy run. It’s a recovery day for me after a hard hill workout yesterday and apparently my body had enough. My heart rate was high despite a very slow pace, I felt fatigued and uncomfortable the whole time, and even worse after it was over.

I’ve had a bad running day.

So what about the bad days? What do we do?

There’s a story in the Zen Buddhist tradition that goes like this:

A householder comes to the Zen master in his village. He says, “Master, please help me. My life is going so badly, there are so many problems I cannot solve. What can I do?” The master smiles gently and says, “Good man. Go home, your life will be much better soon. Just wait.” The villager thanks the master and does as he was told. Two weeks later he returns to the Zen master, excited. “Master, you were right! My life is much better and my problems are resolved! Thank you!” The old monk smiles serenely and says, “Just wait.”

The meaning of the story is obvious. It is in the nature of life to be like a roller coaster. One moment it’s great, everything is going your way, the next, bam! 

This is a fact for everyone. When times are good you cannot count on them to last. When times are bad, you cannot count on them to last.

So what about the bad days?

First, accept. Don’t make matters worse by resisting the bad day. It was inevitable. One way or the other, from one source or another, there was going to be a blow because this is the nature of life. It’s ok. 

Second, investigate. Every downturn, every failure or reversal is an opportunity for greater insight. Slow down and consider the sequence of events. What can be learned? Did you have a hand in bringing about the circumstances? If so, how would you act or think differently in the future? If not, how can you respond in the most constructive way?

Third, detach. We tend to identify very, very closely with our thoughts, experiences, and especially our feelings. When we feel a certain way we don’t say, “I am having a moment of anger.” We say, “I am angry!” As though we were anger personified. And yet anger, like everything, is only an appearance in the mind—here one moment, gone the next. You are not your mood, whether good or bad. You are not your thoughts. You are not your experiences or circumstances.

Zen meditation harmony

Be like the Zen master and find your stable center, the equilibrium of your awareness, your observer consciousness, and remain there, allowing thoughts, feelings, and external events to come and go at their own pace. Observe them and don’t identify with them. When they are ready to go, let them go. 

Struggling with the bad days only makes them worse. Allow them to be, look into them with interest and an open mind, and don’t identify with what is going on in your mind, simply observe.

Final Thoughts

I thought about quitting during the recovery run this morning. Then I thought I ought to instead struggle through, keep to my training plan. All the while I was frustrated and angry that my body was rebelling against my will. 

Then I realized what I was doing, let go of my attachment to these feelings and remembered to practice mastering the moment. I looked down at the ground and watched my feet trotting along. I opened my ears and listened to a boat chugging down the river off to my right. I became aware of my own awareness, steady and bright. 

Time passed, miles passed, and when my mind would drift away from the present moment, from just the running, I brought it back as soon as I realized it had fused with its thoughts. 

My body didn’t get lighter and the run wasn’t easier, but I did stop suffering. It was just a run, after all, requiring effort but to be experienced directly for what it was, neither good nor bad. However long this sluggish running lasts, one thing I know for sure—it will pass and the runs will become more enjoyable again as my body has another upswing before the next downturn before the next upswing…

Hi, I'm Alex. I’ve been working since the age of 12, have had over 30 jobs in my life, and have been a professor for over 20 years teaching environmental studies. During that time I’ve consulted for governments around the world as well as UN agencies and the European Union, have published poetry and short stories. I’ve been married, divorced and married again, and have four incredible children, and I am a long time student of Tibetan Buddhism. I’m deeply interested in how to navigate change in a constantly changing world and how to optimize our lives for happiness, well-being and growth.

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