Dec 12, 2011
How to deal with anger
I don’t know if anger, rage, and frustration are getting more common, but it certainly seems like they are.
As we find ourselves snarled in impossibly heavy traffic, overloaded with life’s complexities, dealing with technology that we think should work but sometimes doesn’t, and struggling to survive in a precarious and heartless economic system, it seems a lot of people live with hot coals of irritability burning inside them, and that these hot coals have more than ample opportunity to burst into the flames of anger, or to erupt as emotional explosions of rage.
Techniques from meditation can help us to damp down the flames of our ill will.
Stop, drop, and love
If you find yourself caught up in resentment and anger toward someone, the simple solution is just to stop whatever you’re doing and to start cultivating metta. This definitely works. In my own practice I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve gone from being irritated with someone to feeling appreciative of them — sometimes in the space of just a few minutes — when I’ve cultivated lovingkindness toward them. Many times, of course, the ill will is more entrenched, and the best I’ve been able to do is to soften the anger a little. But even that’s progress.
You can do this when you’re walking, talking, or driving. Just introduce a current of well-wishing: may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.
If anger arises in meditation, just switch over to cultivating metta. Sometimes people think they “shouldn’t” stop the practice they’re doing, based perhaps on a desire to avoid the restlessness that comes from chopping and changing practices. And while changing practices just because your mind is flighty isn’t a good idea, in the case of anger arising, just let go of any notion that you “should” continue with the meditation you’ve been doing. Anger can be a very destructive emotion, and it’s wise to treat is as an emergency situation. So switch to cultivating lovingkindness.
This doesn’t necessarily mean doing the full five-stage metta bhavana practice. If you’re annoyed with someone, you can just call them to mind and wish them well. You can keep doing this for as long as necessary. You may find that after a few minutes you can return to the practice you were doing, or you may end up working on developing lovingkindness for the rest of the sit.
Adjust your attitude
The way we’re looking at the world can set us up for experiences of ill will. For example, when we’re expecting perfection, we’ll get frustrated, because perfection doesn’t exist. Most people who are habitually angry have something like this going on. We often expect perfection from ourselves, from others, and from our technology, which, when you think about it, is both unreasonable and a recipe for misery.
So you can look at your attitudes, and see if you’re inadvertently creating the conditions for irritability to arise. It’s useful to think in terms of accessing qualities playfulness and humor, which you can do via imagery or a memory of having those qualities.
Accentuate the positive
Also along the lines of how our views condition our emotions, when we’re angry with someone we generally focus only on their faults. If you remind yourself of positive things about the person you’re angry with, this helps undercut your irritation with them.
It can also be helpful to remind yourself that you have faults as well.
Guard the gates
Exposing ourselves to unpleasant stimuli also sets us up for experiences of ill will. Hanging out in internet forums where there’s a lot of negativity, or watching a lot of outraged discussion on television may make you more prone to ill will.
The Buddha called this practice “guarding the gates of the senses.” He compared it to posting guards at the gates of a great city. If you want a peaceful city, then keep vagabonds and ruffians out.
This reminds me of the computer programmers’ saying, “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” which means that if you put in nonsensical data, then your computer will output nonsensical data. In this case, it’s our minds that are the computers. We need to be aware of the fact that certain forms of input lead to the output of angry emotions. If you want to reduce the output of anger, then cut back on the input of anger-generating stimuli.
Summon a Super Hero
Superman or Batman won’t swoop down to save you from your anger, but calling to mind a patient friend can help you to act with greater forbearance. One of the problems we face is with having a limited menu of behavioral options to choose from. When you’re prone to anger, it’s because anger is just so damned easy to use as a tool. You’re in a frustrating situation, you reach into your behavioral toolbox, and anger leaps into your hand. Thinking of how someone who is patient and kind might act actually enlarges the range of tools open to you, so that you don’t fly off the handle. A while back I read about an interesting study where some students were asked to think about a professor before taking an exam. Those students who thought about the professor actually performed better on the quiz!
This last technique is the one I find to be the most powerful of all. When you get angry, you’re actually reacting to a sensation of discomfort. There are stages involved in getting angry. First we see, hear, think, or otherwise perceive something. Then our mind categorizes the perception as wrong, bad, threatening, or otherwise unacceptable. This produces an unpleasant feeling, which is often centered in the solar plexus. And that unpleasant feeling acts as a signal, triggering a response of anger. The anger itself is designed to scare away the thing we identify as being the threat to our well-being. This works great if you’re a alpha wolf who’s facing a rival for pack supremacy. Snarl just the right way and your rival will slink off, chastened. It works less well in intimate family relationships or at work, where anger creates bad feelings and resentment, or when you’re frustrated with a slow website, where anger accomplishes nothing useful at all.
The “gut feeling” part of this process is something we often don’t pay attention to, although we should. Our anger, frustration, or rage arises so quickly that we’re immediately caught up in angry thoughts and emotions, and usually we don’t really acknowledge that we’re in pain.
But I’ve found that if I pay attention to the fact that I’m in experiencing discomfort, then the whole superstructure of angry thinking and angry emotions simply collapses. The whole point of anger is to defend you from feelings of pain by removing their source (the angry wolf snarls at its rival, and the rival backs down). But if you mindfully and compassionately pay attention to your discomfort, then there’s no need to get angry. The pain is being dealt with creatively.
Having paid attention mindfully and compassionately to my discomfort, I find not only that my anger subsides entirely, but that I often feel compassion to anyone who may have done something I felt annoyed by — like my children clamoring for my attention when I’m busy, or a driver who’s cut me off.
As I pay attention to them, the embers of hurt remind me that just as I suffer and want to find happiness, so others suffer and want to find happiness. I find that the slow burn of hurt, while it lasts, becomes fuel for kindness, rather than for anger.
Anger is nothing more than a strategy for finding happiness in the midst of a challenging world, but it’s not a very effective strategy. Mindfulness and compassion work much, much better.