My teacher Jonathan Foust likes to say that meditation will make you feel better. It will make you feel sadness better, it will make you feel frustration better, and it will make you feel anger better. The practice of mindfulness and meditation brings us to a state where we can feel what we are feeling when we are feeling it. And that gives us a choice. What will I do next? It offers the glimmer of possibility to respond thoughtfully instead of react habitually. But we must be quite gentle as these mind states arise.
“You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.” – Undetermined
Thich Nhat Hanh offers this simple teaching for when you are angry:
It may seem these phrases are passive. Perhaps there are situations where immediate responses (or withdrawal) are necessary, but I have found this advice to be near-perfect in its ability to bring me back to myself and the present moment. It is a radical act of self- (and other) care and compassion.
Anger is what is called a “secondary emotion.” Most often, our anger masks an underlying primary emotion that we don’t want to feel. Things like sadness, jealousy, or fear elicit a reaction that triggers the secondary emotion such as anger. And sometimes related action like lashing out, arguing, or withdrawing.
I can recall a car ride on a cold winter day with my family. For some reason, I was frustrated and angry. My guess is that there was some distance between how things were in my life and how I wanted them to be. With every utterance from my wife and boys, I wanted to react, to criticize and diminish. But instead, I silently repeated these phrases, “Do Nothing. Say Nothing. Breathe.” After about 45 minutes, I felt a softening, and was able to reengage and share in my family’s joy. Later that evening, my wife said something along the lines of, “it really seemed you were having a tough time today.” This sympathy was enlivening and probably wouldn’t have come had I acted on the anger that was arising earlier that night.
Importantly, this practice doesn’t eliminate anger. Anger and all emotions are valuable information that our body, heart and mind give us to alert us to something meaningful, important or scary. When we try to shove them down or freeze them out, they’ll only find a way back into our experience. If instead, we can be with these emotions, witnessing but not becoming these emotions, we take a path of peace and understanding. The practice below works with this concept of witnessing:
What’s your experience with anger? Share your comments below. We’ll continue this discussion in upcoming weeks, exploring ways to communicate to those we love that we need a little space so it doesn’t seem like we are disconnecting or isolating ourselves.