Recently, I had the privilege to exchange via email some thoughts on anger. My friend wrote on behalf of her friend and asked about ways to get unstuck from a repeating cycle of anger especially in a relationship. Later, I had the chance to also exchange thoughts with that person about our tendency to get stuck in age-old stories fed by what we should have done, could have seen happening, or any of those backwards-engineering tactics we use to fix the past.
Below is the full email I wrote on how to deal with anger when it arises. The next post will cover how to look into our ways of sustaining those old stories hoping they will fix ancient wounds and feelings of inadequacies .
Anger is a fascinating issue – especially if we tend to hold our behaviours at a high standard. So here are some possible ways to look at the inner and outer situation with Five Skillful Practices to connect with anger.
(1) Anger is your friend, not your enemy. It’s a bit unruly and overly protective in trying to tell you something is threatening your wellbeing. It’s just not very skillful in telling you that. In effect, anger is your body’s way of communicating to you that you are at the end of your skillfulness and need to find a safe place – just for a moment (or maybe longer).
(2) Anger does not mean there’s something wrong with you. It does not mean you’re a bad at your spiritual practice or an inadequate human. It DOES mean you are not listening to the consistent message that you are putting yourself in harm’s way. It CAN mean that you are seeing things as threatening when they may or may not be so.
(3) By the time your anger is expressed, it’s actually too late to manage it. The best you can do is step back, take a time out from the person or situation, maybe even apologize (yes, the consequence of anger is humility). The lesson to take from expressed anger is that you need to monitor its slow boil. Although it may feel in your body that anger has blown up out of “nowhere,” it actually hasn’t. Very few things in our bodies just explode; there’s usually a slow creep up to the expression.
(4) Start practicing.
(1) Take time everyday to meditate or have a period of contemplative silence. Notice the stickiness of the emotions that arise. Turn into the emotions and notice the sensations. Emotions are just clusters of sensations to which we give a name. Learn the sensations that you’ve named “anger.” Get to know them when you’re off the cushion or chair.
(2) When those sensations arise as you go through the day, pause and take a breath or two or three – even if the specific sensation is not related to “feeling angry” in the moment. You’re training your brain not to use the sensation associated with “anger” as a means of becoming trigger-happy. Cultivate compassion for your body; it’s carrying a heavy load with these sensations! Meet the experiences with curiosity and interest.
(3) Look into your situation. What is true and what is real? Often something can be true but not real. (Ask yourself: Is it happening in this very moment). It can be true that this person is disregarding your needs. Is it happening in the very moment that you’re having breakfast or driving to work? Is that person right there in the car with you or have you, in your mind, invited her along for the ride? Often we practice our reactivity to a noxious issue without even being aware of doing so. Pause/Stop, breathe, come back to your real activity in this moment.
(4) What stories are getting generated because something is true? What are you imagining will happen if this person continues their way of interacting with you? Those stories of catastrophes and bad outcomes tend to be what ramps us up and gives our internal system fodder for sustaining irritation. That irritation then expands into anger when we’re face-to-face with the person because the mind has already associated the sensations of experiential discomfort with a trigger for it.
(5) Get an outside opinion. We’re all deluded. It helps to get someone else’s (likely deluded but not in the same way) opinion of what is really going on. Pick someone who is willing to tell you compassionately what your role is in the situation. Someone you trust to care enough that you get through this with increased wisdom about yourself.