What can you do when things are about to blow? Here’s some advance on working with anger – or any other strong emotion – with mindfulness
The 1997 movie The Peacemaker is mostly a routine and forgettable thriller. In fact, it is really pretty bad, but there are two things I remember about it. The first is the pairing of George Clooney and Nicole Kidman; and second there’s a scene right at the end that has stuck in my mind as an image for how mindfulness can help in a crisis.
There’s a bomb in the UN building that’s going to blow in a few seconds. Nicole Kidman knows how to defuse these things, but she’s panicking. George Clooney – a suave 007-type – takes hold of her shoulders, tells her to take a breath and asks her what she sees. She blinks, describes the type of bomb she’s looking at, and all of a sudden she knows what to do. The expertise and experience which the panic had obscured are available again. Snip, snip, snip … the clock is ticking. There are seconds left. Snip again … and we’re safe.
I’ve never had to defuse a real bomb but I’ve had my moments with metaphorical ones: the times when you feel you are about to blow. That’s when we need emotional bomb disposal skills, and find we can’t access them. We all know the theory: it’s good to keep your head in a crisis; yelling at people pisses them off and doesn’t achieve what we want; patience and tolerance are important qualities … But when it comes to the heat of the moment we are like Nicole Kidman in a panic and our good intentions vanish. The gall rises, the clock ticks … kaboom!
The key is remembering, or rather, remembering to remember. Usually, our focus is on the unacceptable thing that has just happened that has provoked our anger and things go wrong when we just act on that without pausing to notice what’s really happening or consider our response. Paying attention to our responses can eventually become a habit, but to start with we need simple things we can do in the moment. Firstly, it helps to place your attention on something that has a calming effect. That’s where the breath comes in. The generations of mums who told their children to take a breath and count to ten knew what they were doing. For most people, the breath – especially the out breath – tends to be calming and reassuring (though maybe not if you suffer from asthma, for example). Paying attention to the breath in this way also takes our attention away from the thoughts that are screaming in our heads, giving us the all-important distance we need.
In that space it’s possible to remember mindfulness. Like someone defusing a real bomb, you need to stop rather than just acting out the emotion that’s in you. The difference is that you don’t need to snap the leads to inner explosives. We aren’t very good at doing two things at the same time, so it’s hard to both feel angry and at the same time to stand back from our anger, observing and exploring it. Just paying attention to feelings of anger tends to diffuse them.
But mindfulness isn’t just a calming device: it means exploring what’s happening in all its dimensions. So, take a breath to create some space and then ask yourself: what am I looking at? You will probably notice that a whole array of sensations come together to comprise the experience we call ‘anger. There are feelings: irritation, distress, the urgent need to defend oneself. There are thoughts: ‘This isn’t acceptable’, ‘I’m not standing for this!’ ‘Just who do they think I am?’ There are feelings of anger and perhaps frustration and upset just beneath them. And if you stop for a moment you may notice that there are also intense bodily sensations: tightness in the stomach that keeps bubbling up into an impulse to move and act. Pay some attention and there’s a whole volcano down there! Then there’s the situation itself. What has just happened and what it means to me. There’s what the other person said, and what I bring to it myself.
It is helpful to distinguish feelings, thoughts and sensations because they express different needs. The thoughts about the situation may be true and they may be untrue – they probably need some reflection. But even when they are accurate, it helps to separate them from the feelings underlying them. When you need to make a point to someone, it can undermine you if you are feeling upset and haven’t fully acknowledged that. So acknowledge to yourself the painfulness of what has happened, breathe with them and give them some space.
Whatever we are feeling, our emotions often manifest in the body, which is why our stomachs churn when we are upset, our shoulders tighten when we are stressed and our jaws clench when we feel determined. Those are typical responses, at any rate, and each of us experiences emotions in our own ways. Not everyone experiences emotions in this way, but if you do you have a remarkable ally in bringing awareness to what you feel. Our emotions express the impact of things that are important to us, and it isn’t enough to decide consciously to push them down. Noticing the bodily manifestation of those feelings is an excellent way of paying them attention without identifying with them or being bowled along by them.
These are essential bomb-disposal skills that we all need. Mindfulness doesn’t mean that you don’t speak out, but it might help you say the important thing that will really get through to the other person. It also doesn’t mean that you don’t get upset, though it might mean that you develop a wider perspective on those feelings. Above all, it means that when difficult things happen we have access to all the wisdom and understanding we have developed in our lives and the skills to apply it, whatever is happening.