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.
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.
relationship between anger and meditation is more complicated than this would
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.
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
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.
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
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
Here are the
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.
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.
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://realitysand1.wpengine.com/bacchanalia
Image by capskins, courtesy of Creative Commons license.