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Getting to know our feelings

Vimalasara Buddhist author Vimalasara discusses how we respond to unwanted feelings. Vimalasara will be teaching an online course based on her book, Detox Your Heart, starting November, 2007.

When we are angry a whole host of vulnerable feelings percolates into our hearts. These are so physically uncomfortable they feel as though they are choking us, and all we want to do is move away from them rather than sit with them until we feel something else.

Our aversion to such feelings can be so strong that we believe they need brute force to push them down or purge them. In fact, I have come to realize that, if we can experience all the levels of what we are feeling, and then have the courage to acknowledge and sit with them, our uncomfortable and vulnerable feelings will not get a chance to fester in this way, and in time they disappear of their own accord.

Instead, we often use anger as a distraction from what we are feeling deeper down. Then we end up holding on to those very feelings we fear and avoid — until they become poisonous in our hearts.

So what happens in our bodies when we experience anger? First there is the trigger or the event, then comes the moment when our bodies are invaded by painful, prickly, tense, tearful — even itchy — feelings. These can feel so uncomfortable that we instinctively try to push them away.

The body is a great teacher, so it is important to recognize what is happening in our bodies. Sometimes our bodies become so tense we don’t feel they are ours any more. We can shake, get sweaty armpits, groin, and palms, feel stiff in the neck or shoulders, our hands make fists, our heart beats faster, and so on.

Alternatively, when we are angry we can become so disconnected as to be completely numb to ourselves, our feelings, and everything around us. We can’t hear ourselves think or breathe. Our feelings get lost, and we create a wall around us, not letting anybody in. Our anger keeps everything and everybody out. We can’t listen to anybody, or even consider another point of view. Some people have out of body experiences.

In response to these feelings, a critical voice often steps into our minds and tells us (in our own vernacular) that it’s ridiculous to be feeling so vulnerable, it tells us to grow up, or get a grip. Our bodies become tense during this process of trying to push down the feelings, and we feel tight — most commonly in the throat, jaw, shoulders, fists, stomach, and bowels. Our bodies tense up in order to choke back the feelings that make us feel vulnerable, shaky, and tearful. But instead of becoming lighter, and calmer, our bodies feel heavier and pumped up with adrenaline.

Here is a check list of physical responses to anger. Which ones resonate for you?

  • I feel out of breath or choked
  • my heart beats faster
  • my voice becomes high or shaky
  • I have dangerous thoughts
  • I clench my fists
  • I raise my voice
  • I wave my hands about
  • I make myself bigger
  • I grind my teeth
  • I can’t hear or see anybody else
  • I lose control

Feelings are energy. They evaporate if we trust that they will arise and cease of their own accord. We maintain the lives of our feelings by attaching them to another person, to ourselves, or to objects. Watch yourself the next time feelings of anger arise. See what you do with them and see what you attach them to.

Connecting with the physical sensations in our bodies in this way can be a strong practice. When we pay attention to our bodies, we are beginning to connect with our inner feelings. Anger is energy, and it becomes alive and toxic when we project it internally or externally.

We give our feelings longer life by attaching them to something, including ourselves, and they often turn into toxic stories that poison our hearts. For example, when feelings of anger arise, the anger becomes toxic when we place it on another human being or ourselves in the form of judgmental thoughts and interpretations. If we just sat with the feelings of anger, paying little attention to our thoughts, they would not attach to anything, and the feelings of anger would cease of their own accord. It is a practice of patience.

Learning to sit with our feelings without holding on to them, without pushing them away, without chasing after them, and trusting that they will cease is, I believe, the best teaching of all. By becoming alert early on to the fact that our body is tensing up, or becoming numb, we may be able to take preventative action. We can try to relax physically and see what effect that has on our emotions, take a few deep breaths, and slow down our thoughts. Taking deep breaths has delayed me from acting unskillfully and allowed me to pause, preventing me from saying something I might regret.

Another strong reason to take note of our bodies’ messages in this way is that our anger can manifest in more extreme forms. Most people who work in alternative therapies have found a link between anger and a number of physical illnesses and life-threatening diseases. I realize now that the back and shoulder ache I used to get was connected with my anger. I have no more pain, and when I feel my shoulders tense up I tell myself to let go. Engaging with our anger involves coming into relationship with our bodies.


Valerie Mason-John is a member of the Western Buddhist Order. Her Buddhist name Vimalasara means “she whose essence is stainless and pure.” She brings the quality of her Buddhist name, and her expertise as a trainer in anger management and conflict resolution to help people transform their lives. She is the author of five books, most recently, Detox Your Heart, a book on working with anger, fear and hatred. Her online course, based on Detox Your Heart, starts Nov 5, 2007.

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Comment from Steve McArthur
Time: October 31, 2007, 9:59 pm

Wow! this one came at the right time. I have just returned from a wweekend silent retreat last Sunday and here it is Wednesday evening and the “ghosts aand gobblins” of my mind are for sure coming out to play! I found myself becoming angry and frustrated at the demands of the world on me and then read this post and it really helped me let go and see the feelings for what they are and allowing them to leave without my having to attach them to anyone or anythnig. thanks you for the meditation.

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Comment from aruna saini
Time: November 1, 2007, 6:29 am

I know, anger is a destructive emotion. I do correct this toxin carefully when ever it attacks.I do meditation and being a reiki channel I skillfully handle it. I feel more calm and more peaceful after it goes away. I feel myself as a great victorious fellow. I now enjoy it. When ever I find this attacking me I put myself in front of it only to crush it and to throw it away.After it, a sense of purity arises in me. It is a wonderful feeling.

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Comment from vimalasara
Time: November 2, 2007, 3:24 am

Awareness is revolutionary, said the Buddha – The more i ponder on this, I realise that acting on what we already know is radical.
Thank you so much for responding to my article it is wonderful to hear things from different points of view. What I am trying to work with are my triggers,.Those moments when something unexpectedly triggers me i can become self righteous or flare into sparks. I’m also working with the subtle levels of anger, those moments when i’m miserable, when i just don’t feel like making an effort, as this attitude has such an accumulative effect. So I remind myself that the art of healing is the art of pausing. i need to slow down, and have space around everything I do. Sending all you readers much loving kindness and compassion. MAY A SMILE OPEN UP YOUR HEART, ANOTHER PERSONS HEART.

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