The Anger Meditation
When you think of meditation, you probably imagine someone sitting still -- serene and blissful -- far removed from the agitations of life. Now think of something you're angry about and well ... that image of meditation has probably fled in fear. So when you read the title of this article, "The Anger Meditation," I'll bet you had a moment of cognitive dissonance.
As anger is one of the "three poisons" in Buddhism, and meditation is the primary practice of Buddhism, it's reasonable to assume that meditation is designed to extract or to calm the poison of anger from our system. Indeed, many people take up meditation explicitly in order to become calmer and less angry. For example, meditation training is being offered in prisons-very successfully-specifically to lower the number of violent incidents.
Clearly meditation can be helpful if you have a problem with anger. First, it helps you find some difference between your angry thought and making an impulsive action based on that thought. It helps you step outside your anger, to get a handle on it, and then to consider what to do with it. And it seems that, long term, meditation may help you actually experience less anger. The Dalai Lama, for example, has said that he no longer experiences anger.
But the relationship between anger and meditation is more complicated than this would suggest.
It seems especially complicated for us Westerners, as we sure do seem to have a lot of anger in us. Perhaps this is because we live in a society that is greedier and more competitive than the traditional societies in which Buddhism developed. With our strong belief in "self" and our expectations to have a perfect life (compared to a more fatalistic outlook), and historically sensitive to injustice, we are perhaps more demanding about getting what we want, and we are that much more frustrated when we don't. On top of this, many of us are in recovery from families that were either chronically angry or chronically repressive of anger.
So, many Westerners try to use meditation, not just to get a handle on anger, or keep ourselves from acting unconsciously based on that anger, but to escape from feeling angry at all, or even acknowledging that we feel angry.
For those of us with anger issues, the idea of being a blissed-out on spirituality can be just so attractive. As we meditate vigorously, we expect to get into a "spiritual" state that will be completely free of anger. So instead of working out constructive ways to deal with anger, or talk about what we believe is making us angry, we tend to use meditation to side-step anger altogether.
In spiritual communities, there can even be a kind of social stigma against anger. Anger becomes "uncool." It goes something like this: if you're angry, you mustn't be enlightened, so therefore it's best to avoid, or downplay your anger. I have seen spiritual and therapeutic groups with such a strong social convention of careful speech and loving action that reality -- their acknowledgement of real human emotions, which can sometimes be messy -- has gone out the window.
At the core of this problem is the belief that anger is somehow bad, in and of itself, that it really is a poison. The poison metaphor suggests that anger is best not touched, and if experienced, it must be extracted. It denies the possibility that there is nothing inherently wrong with anger: it is just one of many states of mind that are part of the human consciousness, and like all states of mind, can be of benefit if handled wisely. So dealing with anger is a just a special case of a thornier problem: do we welcome all states of mind, or try to pick and choose only the "good" ones?
I have noticed this problem creeping into my teaching of One-Moment Meditation®, too. In my training sessions, I often say something like this: "Do a moment of meditation whenever you need to." The implication of this statement this is that meditation is very useful in times when you are feeling something -- like stress, anxiety, or anger -- that is getting in the way of the life you'd like to live. In other words, you feel something that isn't nice, and use meditation to get beyond it. And so it's a small step from there to the conclusion that you should do a moment of meditation, in order to not be so angry.
But I don't want One-Moment Meditation to be used as an escape from the truth of our lives, even if that truth is an angry one. An upsurge of anger can be a very important message -- even if delivered by a very challenging messenger. Anger contains energy and insight that can be extremely useful, and it often protects -- or represents -- an important aspect of our personality.
In my years working as a psychotherapist, for example, I observed that many people recovering from depression need, as a first step, to reclaim their ability to get angry. Long ago, they had put a lid on their anger, and in closing that lid, had shut out all their other feelings as well. Without the ability to experience anger, they had no ability to experience joy, enthusiasm, or passion. So, in the process of growth and healing, the ability to acknowledge, experience, and express anger can be essential.
And anyway, trying to avoid anger tends to backfire. Trying to deny anger by just keeping a lid on it seems to create a toxic dump in your own backyard, and the poison in that dump eventually leaks out harms you and all your neighbors.
So what to do when anger arises?
Well, it depends on whom you ask. Some therapeutic traditions encourage you to express anger fully, in a safe and contained space, even to exaggerate it by punching and kicking big pillows, as a way to discover, explore, release, and move beyond the anger. Some anger management techniques, on the other hand, advise you to separate from anger, to step back from it, or to put it aside. And although the general sweep of meditation training seems to discourage full acknowledgement of anger and its value, some meditation teachers (and these are my favorite ones) will advise you to look into the anger and explore it carefully.
The Anger Meditation combines elements of all these approaches. Instead of venting your anger, or expressing it therapeutically, or dumping it on someone else, you work on it internally, as you might in meditation. But to make sure that you are not separating from it, or "trying to become peaceful," or running away from the anger, or rejecting it as "un-spiritual," you embrace it fully -- quite consciously -- as valuable.
Here's how to do it.
The Anger Meditation
You must first pledge not to express or act on your anger for the duration of this exercise, and for a little while afterward. The reason for this is that this technique might make you feel even angrier for a while. It helps you to become more conscious of your anger, and this means that the anger is coming a bit closer to the surface.
Here are the steps:
1. Forget about the content of the anger, i.e. what or who you think has 'caused' you to be angry. Just focus on the underlying feeling of anger.
2. Anger usually has a physical component or expression in your body. So now identify where, in your body, you feel the anger most. It usually feels hot, though sometimes it can be an absence of feeling, or a feeling of "going cold."
3. Now, as you inhale, try to bring your breath to meet that angry feeling. At first, you might just make the most tentative contact. But keep doing this, one breath at a time. Gradually there will be less and less separation between your anger and your breathing: your awareness will embrace them both.
4. Keep doing this until you feel a bit more stable with your anger -- that you can handle it better. You are befriending it and welcoming it as part of you. The Anger Meditation is a bit like learning how to drive in a skid. When your car starts to skid, although the natural impulse might be to turn away from the skid, this just makes the skidding worse. The better way to handle a skid is to turn into it, not out of it. In other words, working against what is happening seems to make things worse, but going with what is happening helps you regain appropriate control. So with the Anger Meditation, you turn toward your anger. You go with it, respectfully, rather than fighting against it. While doing the Anger Meditation, you might also suddenly gain clarity about what the trigger for the anger was, how you contributed to the situation, or how to express what you're feeling to the right person at the right time in the right way. Or you might just feel more accepting of being angry for the time being.
You might also find that the anger converts to pure energy. You might find that this energy begins to spread all over your body, and make you feel more alive and vibrant. For the Anger Meditation helps you see that anger is essentially energy. What may have caused the upsurge of energy-the trigger-may not be what you think, but maybe the energy itself has value. Maybe it is energy that, if consciously directed, could enhance your ability to start a business, finish an essay, lift weights, make love, or just clean your house.
With the Anger Meditation, the intention is not to become a saint, or to become your idealized image of a "peaceful person," but simply to be more at peace with whatever you're feeling, even if it doesn't always seem so peaceful. This, to me, is the real goal of meditation: a peacefulness that does not denigrate, banish, or deny anger, but a peacefulness that embraces it.
© Martin Boroson, 2011.
Evolver is having a party Thursday April 28th and Martin will be there having a dialog with Daniel Pinchbeck about the relationship between psychedelics and meditation. They will talk about the pros and cons of both, and how people can combine them to best effect. Lovin Cup 93 N 6th St (between Wythe Ave & Berry St) Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY 11211 8pm till late. Talk starts at 8 sharp $10. For more information http://www.realitysandwich.com/bacchanalia
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