Students who take Wildmind’s online courses have the opportunity to talk about their practice and get personal feedback from the teacher. The following is a recent exchange from one of our meditation courses.
A student asks: I want to learn how to control my anger, but it’s really hard. Any advice?
Sunada replies:The thing about emotions, especially strong ones like anger, is that they seem to come up in an instant, leaving no room for us to do anything about them. So for example, we realize we snapped at someone only after we recognize that we’re angry. It seems impossible to do anything about them, doesn’t it?
But actually, emotions are habits we’ve taken on, and can be undone, believe it not. So there are ways we can learn to avoid those outbursts altogether. Buddhist sages who spent entire lifetimes studying the mind through meditation saw that our emotional responses come in two parts. The first is what’s called feelings – the initial sensation in our gut in reaction to something. Let’s say we hear a bird song. We immediately sense it as pleasant (e.g. we find it soothing to hear birds), unpleasant (e.g. we’re annoyed that it woke us up too early in the morning), or neutral (e.g. it just happens to be part of the sounds around us that we note, with no particular associations of pleasant or unpleasant). This is the part that comes up automatically and beyond our control.
What happens next, though, is the part that’s within the realm of our free will. In response to our pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feelings, we react with emotions, which are then quickly followed by thoughts and actions. For example, in response to the pleasant bird song, we feel happy and soothed, which them determines what we do next – like open the window wider and listen more closely. If the bird song is unpleasant, we might get annoyed and frustrated, and then maybe fantasize about getting out a shotgun and shooting the bird out of the tree! (I’ll skip the neutral example because it’s not very interesting in relation to what we’re talking about). Notice that the initial stimulus, the bird song, was the same in both cases, but our emotions, thoughts, and actions can go in very different directions based on our circumstances, associations, etc.
These emotions are actually conditioned, not automatic, responses. We’re like Pavlov’s dogs. We develop habits to respond in certain ways in reaction to those circumstances. There is a gap (often imperceptible I admit) between our initial feelings and our emotional responses. The trick is to become more aware of that gap, and notice our thoughts and choices while there. Then we can start to make changes that begin the process of undoing our longstanding habits, like a tendency toward anger.
Try this next time you meditate. Just sit and observe as you take in all the stimuli that comes in through your five senses. Note how you experience them as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral – but then also note how quickly your mind jumps to the next step. You don’t need to try to stop or change your reactions, just note them for now. It’s like making our thoughts go in slow motion. The more we practice in this way, the easier it will become to notice our reactions in the context of our everyday lives. We can ask ourselves – what happens, really, when we get angry? What was the triggering condition, assumption, thought, etc. that sent us in that direction? What choices did we make? Was there something we might have done differently? This is how we get to know our minds better and unravel the many strands of habits we’ve accumulated over our lives.
I know your question was about how to “let go” of anger. At first, you’ll probably find it really hard to do that, and that’s understandable. I have a hard time letting go when I get really angry, too. But we can start by using this process to let go of smaller annoyances – like maybe when someone cuts us off on the highway, for example. And work our way up gradually. Obviously it’s not as simple as “just letting go” to change a habit that we’ve had for years and years. Instead, I like to think of letting go as a lifelong learning process – where we gradually get to know ourselves better, and direct our minds to grow in more positive ways.
Editor’s note: The student with whom this exchange took place has granted permission to publish this journal entry, and will remain anonymous. Wildmind treats all student journals as strictly private, and never allows outside parties to read them without explicit permission from the student.