Anger is a powerful emotion that can cause untold damage in our close relationships, our communities and the world at large needs to learn new strategies for coping with this intense concentrated form of emotional energy.
At least 50 percent of the clients that I work with online through Skype Therapy sessions are struggling with anger in one form or another and come to me because of the destructive effects that anger is having in their marriage or in their family. Others recognize that unresolved anger is at the core of their depression and want to find better ways of working with this intense energy. As Sigmund Freud often stated, depression is anger turned inwards towards the self. Others recognize the immense stress associated with anger and want to manage their anger for health reasons. Whatever the motivation to change, all feel that their anger prevents them from living life to the full and prevents them from being happy.
There are many approaches to working on the resolution of anger, but the underlying principle is the same: We must learn to take responsibility for our own cognitive and emotional reactions and NOT externalize, blaming other people or situations for how we feel. This is the beginning of the journey to freedom from anger.
Most of us fall into the habit of thinking, “I am angry because he/she did/said this/that.” “I am angry because I lost my money due to the collapse of the stock market.” “I am angry because of the abuse I had to endure as a child, repeatedly subjected to the anger of my father.” These are real events that clearly produce pain, but our emotional reactions are actually created internally – they are subjective and vary from person to person and from day to day. It is often useful to separate out “pain” from “suffering”. Emotional or sexual trauma produces pain, but it is our reactions to the pain that creates suffering – as is the case with anger. It is perfectly understandable and accepted in our culture that one should become angry when certain things happen, but it is important to understand that the causal link is an illusion, a self-deception. There is no “because.” Understanding this at a deep conceptual level is vital if you want to break free from the habitual reactivity of anger, or any other conditioned emotional reactions for that matter. They all rely on this basic illusion in which we blindly identify with reactions and effectively “become” the reaction. An anger thought arises and we becomethe anger and all our actions of body, speech and mind are affected by the anger. This compulsive force of becoming was recognized by the Buddha 2600 years ago as the main cause of our suffering. Learning to take responsibility for our emotional reactions is essential – what the Buddha described as the First Noble Truth.
The 4 R’s of Mindfulness Therapy for Anger
I find Mindfulness Therapy to be a remarkably effective approach for working with patterns of habitual reactivity such as anger, because it moves beyond the important, but still abstract level of thoughts and beliefs, such as described above to the mechanics of the process of reactivity itself. Mindfulness is a process of deep investigation into exactly what is happening at the sensory and experiential level.
The first phase of Mindfulness Therapy is RECOGNITION. We train ourselves to recognize the impulse to react with anger. Most of the time we don’t see this impulse and instantly becomethe angry thoughts, speech and body. Our face muscles tighten, our voice becomes louder and our thoughts contracts down into black & white thinking. The reaction can occur in under a minute, and then we become mechanical, losing all our freedom and choice and are compelled to act out the argument with our partner or to become frustrated and angry at the world. The trick is to catch the reaction beforeto takes on form, and this means tuning in to the impulse to react. That is the critical point that will determine the outcome of suffering or not.
Mindfulness teaches us howto become exquisitely sensitive to reactive impulses and trains us in the art of recognizing their arising in real-time. Seeing them in this immediate way is a turning point for many people; instead of being helpless victims of their anger reactions they now experience a brief but real moment of choice. Freedom is returning and with freedom, intelligence returns also and we find we are able to make better decisions that lead to better outcomes.
The next phase of Mindfulness Therapy that I describe in my book, The Path of Mindfulness Meditation, is RELATIONSHIP. Catching the impulses as they arise is the first step, but what we do next is much more important. Mindfulness is compassion, caring and friendliness; it is not different from these qualities. When I work with clients, I teach them to turn towards the impulse, and the underlying hurt; to greet it, welcome it and invite it into the space of mindful awareness. This is the relationship phase of learning to be fully present with the feeling behind the impulse. Most of us run a mile in the opposite direction! We resist, avoid, suppress – all perfectly understandable, but also completely ineffective in helping anger to transform and change. We need to learn how to respond to the impulse to react with mindful acceptance and caring – love. Not easy, but if we drop below the level of thinking into the realm of experiencing, it is not that difficult to cultivate presence with our pain, our anger and our aversion to our pain and anger. Mindfulness Therapy teaches how to recognize and relate to all these movements of the reactive mind.
The RECOGNITION-RELATIONSHIP response of mindfulness can occur in under a minute in the same time frame as an anger reaction, but the outcome will be totally different. Often for most people, this translates into “taking time out.” Removing yourself from the situation and then spending 5-10 minutes “sitting” with the anger emotion and giving it lots of space in which to express itself – internally, not externally. Creating a mindful space around suffering allows the suffering to transform and resolve itself in many different ways. This is the third of the 4 R’s: RESOLUTION. When you respond to your anger with kindness, patience and love instead of reacting to it with more anger, more thinking, more identification in the story, the anger will resolve itself. That pent-up energy wants an outlet, a way to release itself at the experiential level, which is not the same as getting angry at the external level. External venting actually inhibits the resolution process more often than not. Inner resolution is a much more subtle process involving shifts in feeling and inner imagery.
Learning to free ourselves from habitual patterns of anger and other reactivity involves learning to turn towards these compulsions and then building a very intimate and caring relationship with the trapped emotional energy inside. This opens up a pathway that leads to the dissolution of anger and frees your mind to discover more creative ways of responding, the fourth of the 4 R’s: RESPONSE. This is action based on freedom and inner intuitive intelligence, not blind reactivity based on habitual conditioning. Learning to RESPOND and not REACT is the name of the game.