As a new dad, one of the things I Iearned pretty early on was that, when my toddler was throwing a full on tantrum, I couldn’t take it personally.
In that moment, it was simply impossible to reason with my child. There was no way to suppress the tantrum and force it to go away.
All I could do was hold a space.
Be larger than the tantrum so that I could create a safe container for that intense emotional expression of my child to arise, hang around for however long it needed to, and then subside on it’s own.
If you’ve had kids, or you work with young kids, you understand that these emotional outbursts are a normal part of human development. They may not be particularly pleasant, but they’re an expected part of growing up.
Anger needs a container
Well, anger in adults is a pretty normal phenomenon, too.
But, as adults, we’re expected to handle it much better than a toddler would. No tantrums allowed for us!
So, what do we do with our anger?
Well, first off, it’s usually not welcome. Anger is bad, right?
We’re well-adjusted adults. We’re not supposed to get angry. Or, at least, we’re not supposed to show it.
So, the anger is unwanted. Something to get rid of or suppress when it happens.
How’s that working for you?
Yeah, it doesn’t work too well for me, either.
What if, instead of pushing the anger away, we treated it like a child experiencing a tantrum?
What if we gave that anger the same kind of attentive, compassionate container?
Developing the container
Obviously, this is much easier to say than to actually do, especially if you jump into it without prior preparation.
Rather than doing that, here’s a progression to ease into it gradually, which will make your practice much more successful.
This is where mindfulness meditation is so helpful.
It’s a safe, controlled environment where you can practice being aware of what’s currently present in the body and the mind.
If you can forgive an analogy with rock climbing (an obsession of mine), meditation is like practicing in the climbing gym. Thats where you develop your technical skills, your strength and endurance. And then you can take those skills and physical conditioning, and much more successfully head out to the crags and the mountains and climb on real rock.
But you wouldn’t start with the hardest and most dangerous climbs. That would be foolish.
Instead, you work up to them by getting comfortable climbing many easier climbs. And you slowly increase the difficulty from there.
In this way, you develop the mental fortitude required to climb the really challenging routes.
It’s the same with mindfulness of intense or difficult emotions such as anger.
You develop some skill in mindfulness by meditating regularly.
You get pretty good at just observing the breath, and other sensations, without needing them to be a certain way. Without reacting to them, without tinkering with them, without suppressing anything.
Then you apply that skill in the real world, starting with the easy things. Perhaps that itch on your cheek. Or that coffee withdrawal headache (one of my favourites).
And then you work up to the harder things, such as the pain in your knee or upper back while meditating. The feeling of irritation when a driver cuts you off in traffic, or when your partner nags you to do the dishes or clean up that pile of laundry that’s been sitting on the floor all week 🙂 .
And bit by bit, you develop your skill and your confidence and your experience.
Until you can start to face the bigger stuff, like anger.
How to practice with Anger using Mindfulness
When anger arises, you want to avoid getting overwhelmed by it.
To do that, you focus your mindfulness on the physical sensations associated with the anger.
This helps to ground your attention in the body, so that it’s less likely to get caught up in all the seductive mental rumination about the anger.
Later on, when you have more skill and experience, having a good look at the thoughts, memories, mental images and other mental activity associated with the anger is a very fruitful practice. But you need to be patient and work up to that.
Being mindful of those physical sensations, you simply allow them to be present, in the same way as you learned to do with less intense sensations.
When you’re able to do this consistently, you’ll notice something interesting: the anger dissipates much more rapidly.
That’s because when you don’t engage with and react to the anger, you stop the process that re-energizes it and keeps it going.
When you resist the anger, it causes the proliferation of new mental activity: thoughts, memories and so on that keep the anger going.
This is that whole rehashing of stuff like “How dare he do this to me!”, “That’s so unfair!”, “I hate her!”, and on and on. This kind of mental rumination results in the arising of further uncomfortable physical sensations, which cause the mind to spin more stories about the anger as you mentally squirm against all the intense, uncomfortable feelings.
By not resisting the anger, you allow the mental activity to arise and pass away and run it’s course, which short-circuits that whole process.
And so the anger peters out much faster.
Of course, the anger will arise again, and probably multiple times because there’s still plenty of unfinished mental business to work through.
But that’s ok, because you just observe it mindfully again when that happens.
This is how you create that attentive, receptive, non-reactive container for your anger.
Moving beyond containment: Mindfulness of Anger as a Spiritual Practice
So, up to this point, what you’ve been doing is using mindfulness to allow fairly unpleasant, yucky feelings in the body to be present, to tolerate them.
And tolerating things like anger is definitely a necessary step. But it’s really only the beginning of this practice.
You need to develop the capacity to allow the presence of things like anger and other intense emotions, not so you can make them go away through mindfulness (which would be completely missing the point, but which is a very common trap that meditators can fall into), but so you can get a really good look at them.
Why would you want to do that?
Well, by having a really good look at them, you can begin to understand, on an experiential level, what these intense emotions really are, how they behave and how they condition your subjective experience.
And, when you observe them carefully, consistently, with sufficient concentration and mindfulness, you can actually observe the process of the arising of the unpleasant physical sensations and mental activity that you associate with the emotion of anger.
And you become aware of how that conditions a chain reaction of resistance to those unpleasant sensations.
And if you keep mindfully observing, you notice how that resistance leads to the proliferation of more mental activity that results in constructing a self-identity from the anger.
In other words you see the causal links between the unpleasantness of the sensations, the desire to avoid that unpleasantness, and the fabrication of a sense of self.
Why Anger isn’t the problem
Clearly seeing this chain of cause and effect can be quite a big shock, because it undermines our usually unexamined and unquestioned belief in the veracity of the sense of being a separate, abiding self. A “me in here” that watches and interacts with a “world out there”.
This is where the practice of mindfulness goes way beyond merely learning to tolerate being uncomfortable, or being a nifty anger management tool, and becomes a spiritual practice, becomes a doorway to profound insights into the nature of subjective experience.
And that’s when you become aware that the anger isn’t the problem and never was.
It’s the construction of a sense of identity from the sensations and mental activity associated with the anger that’s the real problem.
But, that’s the subject for another post!
There’s a lot more that I could say about this stuff, but that would take a very long blog post indeed!
If you’d like to learn more, then you may be interested in taking a look at the 30 Days of Mindfulness program.
A large part of this intense, interactive online program is devoted to showing you how to take the mindfulness skills you develop during meditation and apply them in a systematic, step by step way to common situations in your life. You can find out more about the 30 Days of Mindfulness by Clicking Here.