Imagine this serene setting:
It is 6:15am and I’ve already been meditating for an hour.
A single candle flickers and the incense is softly wafting into the air.
I am sitting in full lotus facing east as the sun is just peaking over the horizon.
The early morning light illuminates the frozen pond and snow covered woods behind my apartment.
It is a beautiful setting.
And yet in between my ears, “AAAARRRRGGGGHHH!!!!!!” screams an angry voice.
Like it or not, we all get angry sometimes. We are left with the question of how we choose to interact with that anger.
When I first started meditating I had an experience which highlighted how valuable and practical a tool meditation is in my life.
On the way to work I was backing out of my spot in my apartment parking lot when a speeding and oversized pickup truck nearly took off the back half of my car. I wasangry. I cursed the inconsiderate driver the whole way to work and felt like it took the first half of the day to really calm down.
Shortly after this I started meditating regularly and not a month later I encountered the same situation. Backing out of my spot the same truck barreled by, too fast for our shared space.
I had a very different experience this time.
When I slammed on the breaks I clearly saw the shot of adrenaline and panic that comes from fear. In the seconds after, as the alertness started to subside, I witnessed the hot feeling of anger swelling inside my chest.
Think of the difference. At first “I was angry.” The construction of sentence tells us that my entire being was anger. In the second instance, “I witnessed anger arising in me.” This is a very different experience and one that is much easier to let go of.
So what do I do when I am sitting on my cushion in my serene setting and I encounter anger?
- See anger for what it is. I know now that anger is usually a mask for another emotion. Was fear, anxiety, hurt or sadness the real underlying emotion? Understanding the real source of anger helps find the root cause that can be addressed.
- Don’t vent. I used to think anger was an energy that had to be released. I don’t see it that way anymore. I believe anger is a small fire. I can pour the water of forgiveness, detachment and compassion on it or I can inflame it by pouring on the gasoline of angry words and a temper tantrum. I think “venting” is more like exercising the anger muscle and I don’t want that part of me to be very strong.
- Address the body. A dedicated meditator learns about the unity of the body-mind connection. We have countless examples of emotions causing physical states like sadness generating tears and humor generating a smile and laugh.
It works both ways, we also see that physical states create mental states. Being hungry can create agitation, and a good massage can result in mental ease. Anger produces uncomfortable physical states. Addressing shortness of breath, tight muscles and sharp actions with calming breaths and relaxation can turn down the volume on anger.
- Depersonalize it. Most people act mindlessly, unaware of their impact on others. Recognizing that most actions aren’t personally directed at us can be a helpful step in letting anger go.
- Right-size it. We’re all going to die. Yup, I went there. In the grand scheme of things when we tell the story of our lives, will this register? How important is this particular incident? What matters more, my inner peace or this particular spat? Putting something in its proper perspective has a quieting effect. Usually, when the cause of most anger is looked at objectively, isn’t that big of a deal.
- Forgive. People are just people. There are no super humans, no subhumans, just human humans. I believe most people are fundamentally good with some rough spots. Can I put myself in the truck driver’s shoes and find my way to empathy? When I get cut off now I imagine that the driver has just lost a loved one or has been fired from a job. Maybe she is so consumed by the challenges of life that she didn’t even notice me. Empathy and compassion are a great way to start on the path to forgiveness.
- Doubt. A friend recently said to me he thought all anger was rooted in a sense of being right. This is an interesting mental exercise. I’m angry at my colleague because he yelled, so he’s wrong and I’m right. I’m angry at politicians because their way is ruining the world and my way is good for society. They are wrong and I’m right. Can introducing doubt, questioning my “rightness” help me let go of anger?
Meditation is the starting point of many of these techniques and a valuable tool for working with anger. Once I’m calm enough that I can see anger for the imposter that it is, I can let it go and return to my breath.
Need to let go of anger? It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.
May your practice go well.
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.
P.S. The next 90 Minutes Beginner's Crash Course is Wednesday, March 18th at 8PM EST. Sign up at http://goo.gl/forms/aIcKz49TkO