anger management

“When the Anger Ogre Visits,” by Andrée Salom

When the Anger Ogre Visits

Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Some weeks ago I read this book with my kids (a six-year-old boy and an almost-eight-year-old girl) several times now, and they enjoyed both the story and the images. But the book became especially relevant recently when my son developed the habit of kicking and punching his sister. That’s a phase a lot of kids go through, but it’s especially worrisome because he’s taking karate classes, and at some point he’s going to be able to do some serious harm.

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So last night, when my son was getting mad, we picked up the book again, and read through it. he wanted to read the book out loud himself, and he was able to do so with only a little help. Daddy was proud!

After he’d finished with the reading we talked about some of the things we can do to calm down our anger when it pays a visit.

  • We can breathe slowly and deeply.
  • We can use our imaginations to picture ourselves floating and relaxing on the sea.
  • We can relax the body.
  • We can listen to the sound of our breathing.

Salom reminds the child that “As you pay attention, the Ogre will change form,” and in fact we see the red, swollen ogre deflating like a balloon and his contorted face dissolving into a smile as he becomes “friendly, gentle, and warm.”

“Next time it comes a-knocking, you’ll know just what to do. Invite the Anger Ogre to relax and breathe with you.

By the time we’d finished reading the book, my son was calm again. Success!

Title: “When the Anger Ogre Visits”
Author: Andrée Salom
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 9781614291664
Publication date: April 2015
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

I’d highly recommend “When the Anger Ogre Visits.” The content is generally very practical, and the illustrations (by Ivette Salom) are colorful and entertaining. The one piece of advice for relating to the Anger Ogre that I think could have been clearer is this:

“If the Anger Ogre is still swollen, tense, and hot,
Offer it some honey of the sweetest kind you’ve got.”

This is a nice image, but we’re left guessing what it actually means. My own guess would be that the child thinks of something positive (perhaps a calm scene or a friendly face) but I’m sure other people will interpret this differently, that some will take the metaphor literally, and that yet others will be confused about what’s being suggested. The rest of the book, though, is crystal clear.

“When the Anger Ogre Visits” was pitched perfectly for my two kids. I’d imagine it would work with children from about three to eight or nine years old.

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Five steps to letting go of quarreling

angry cat

It’s one thing to stick up for yourself and others. But it’s a different matter to get caught up in wrangles, contentiousness, squabbles — in a word: quarrels.

Similarly, it’s one thing to disagree with someone, even to the point of arguing – but it’s a different matter to get so caught up in your position that you lose sight of the bigger picture, including your relationship with the other person. Then you’re quarreling.

You know you’re quarreling when you find yourself getting irritated, especially with that sticky feeling that you’re just not gonna quit until you’ve won.

Quarrels happen both out in the open, between people, and inside the mind, like when you make a case in your head about another person or keep revisiting an argument to make your point more forcefully. We quarrel most with family and friends – imagine that! – but also with people on TV, or politicians and groups we don’t like. We can even quarrel with conditions in life (such as an illness or tight money) or with physical objects, like a sticky drawer slammed shut in anger.

However they happen, quarrels are stressful, activating the ancient fight-or-flight machinery in your brain and body: a bit of this won’t harm you, but a regular diet of quarreling is not good for your long-term physical and mental health.

Plus it eats away like acid on a relationship. For example, I was in a serious relationship in my mid-twenties that was headed for marriage, but our regular quarrels finally so scorched the earth in our hearts that no love could grow there for each other.

This week, try not to quarrel with anyone or anything.

How?

  1. Be mindful of what quarreling feels like, in your body, emotions, and thoughts. For example, be aware of that sense of revving up, pushing against, being right, and driving your view home that is so characteristic of quarreling. Ask yourself: Does this feel good? Is this good for me?
  2. Observe the impact of quarreling in relationships, whether you’re doing it or others are (including on the world stage). Ask yourself: Are the results good? What would my relationships be like if I did not quarrel in them?
  3. If you sense yourself warming up to a quarrel, step back, slow down, don’t do it. Try a different approach: Say only what truly needs saying; stay calm and contained, without trying to persuade the other person; don’t take any bait. If it comes to this, let the other person, not you, look over-heated and argumentative.
  4. Much of the time, you’ll realize that nothing needs to be said at all: you just don’t have to resist the other person. His or her words can pass on by like a gust of air swirling some leaves along its way. You don’t have to be contentious. Your silence does not equal agreement. Nor does it mean that the other person has won the point – and even if he or she has, would that actually matter so much in a week – or year – or so?
  5. If you do get caught up in a quarrel, as soon as you realize that’s happened, back out of it. A good first step is to get quieter. Think about what really matters in the interaction – like saying what you are going to do in the future, or finding out some key fact – and then zero in on that thing, whatever it is. Maybe acknowledge to the other person that you’ve realized you’ve gotten into a kind of argument here, but that’s not what you really want to do. If that person tries to keep up the fight, you don’t have to. It takes two to quarrel, and only one to stop it. Then when the time is right, as you can, try to repair the damage of the quarrel.

Overall, explore the sense of being at peace with the world, without a quarrel with anyone.

(The feeling of this reminds me of a saying from my wife’s childhood, which should be adapted to one’s own situation: Be a friend to all, and a sister to every Girl Scout!)

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Defusing the anger bomb

Scene from The Peacemaker in which George Clooney and Nicole Kidman run from an explosion.

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.

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Henri Matisse: “When we speak of nature it is wrong to forget that we are ourselves a part of nature.”

Matisse, La dance, 1909

If science is about the study of cause and effect in the physical world, meditation is, Bodhipaksa argues, a form of inner science that helps us to understand how to avoid creating pain for ourselves and others.

Matisse said: “When we speak of nature it is wrong to forget that we are ourselves a part of nature. We ought to view ourselves with the same curiosity and openness with which we study a tree, the sky or a thought, because we too are linked to the entire universe.”

Although Matisse was an artist rather than a scientist, he has a lot to say to those of us who are interested in the inner science of meditation and of living mindfully.

I can’t hear the suggestion to “view ourselves with … curiosity and openness” without thinking of mindfulness, in fact. Mindfulness involves not just seeing our experience, but activity investigating it. When we’re not open to our experience — where we assume for example that we already know what’s going on — we’re unable to learn much about ourselves. Openness implies suspending judgment. Openness implies that we don’t accept or reject our experience prematurely, that we’re prepared to look below the surface. Curiosity is where we actually dive in to our experience, trying without fixed preconceptions to see how our experience actually ticks.

Hana, woman I don’t really know except online, recently wrote to me to say that she been helped by my response to a critical comment that someone had left on Wildmind.

Openness implies that we don’t accept or reject our experience prematurely, that we’re prepared to look below the surface.

Here’s the story. A man, “Matt,” whose grandfather had been murdered took great exception to some of the work I do teaching meditation and Buddhism to inmates in the New Hampshire State Prison. As it happened, his grandfather’s murderer was incarcerated in the same prison I visit each week. Matt accused me of “bullshit,” of not being a real Buddhist, said that the only people who would put up with my company are prisoners, and accused me of a lack of empathy of the victims of crime. Hana had recently been on the receiving end of some hate mail as well, and she said that the way I’d responded to Matt’s criticisms had helped her to see a way out of the pain and anger she was experiencing. She now had an idea how to respond to her own attacker.

I was pleased to hear that. In case it was helpful I wrote to Hana and explained the process I’d gone through to arrive and what I hoped was a compassionate response to Matt.

First, I was hurt and angry. I wanted revenge. I don’t like being accused of BS-ing, not being a real Buddhist, of lacking empathy, etc. Lots of defenses and counter-attacks readily leaped to mind — I’m actually quite good at being defensive! I’ve had a lot of practice at it, in fact. My mental picture of Matt was of someone who was out to be hurtful, who was emotionally volatile, and who may even have been drunk.

But rather than blasting off a withering response I decided to try practicing openness and curiosity. The kind of over-the-top attack that Matt had made was either the result of someone “trolling” for a response (some people online get their kicks from trying to find people’s emotional weak-spots), or it came out of a great deal of pain. Ah, now pain! There’s something I’ve experienced, and in my past I’ve sometimes made outrageous attacks on other people because I’ve felt hurt. So I now felt a bit more curious and open to Matt’s experience, although the anger and defensiveness were still there.

I say to my pain, I know you’re there. I know you’re hurting. I’m here and I understand.

So what next? It wasn’t enough to try to be empathetic with Matt’s pain, I had to be empathetic towards my own pain. That’s not always easy to do. I’ve noticed that sometimes I move so quickly from feeling hurt to feeling angry that I don’t even really take on board that I’ve felt hurt. And not having taken that on board I’m not able to empathize with myself.

Also I’ve noticed that I can sometimes see feelings of hurt as being a sign of “weakness” (Real Buddhists are above feeling hurt) and therefore don’t want to acknowledge them. But an attitude of curiosity and openness revealed that my hurt was in fact fully present and functional.

So I embraced my feelings of hurt in an attitude of compassion, using techniques I’ve learned in the development of lovingkindness meditation. This is quite different from wallowing in pain: this is simply saying to my pain, I know you’re there. I know you’re hurting. I’m here and I understand. And what happens then is quite amazing: the pain doesn’t go away, but it ceases to give rise to anger, resentment, and defensiveness. Wallowing in pain involves being immersed in it, giving ourselves up to it, and feeling self-pity. And that doesn’t help anyone.

Suddenly, I no longer needed to defend myself. I could now sense Matt’s pain and respond to it without needing to feel that I had to justify myself, or to make him feel bad, or to punish him. I could simple acknowledge the pain he was experience, know that it was natural for such pain to lead to anger (well, hadn’t I just seen that for myself?) and respond in what I hoped was a kindly and factually-based way to Matt’s pain and anger.

I’m not boasting about being terribly compassionate or having been helpful. In fact I don’t have a great deal of confidence in my ability to be able to handle my hurt and anger, which are things that have troubled me a great deal in my life. But I do know that I’ve made progress over the years in my ability to empathize with myself and others, and so I was pleased that Hana (and a few others) wrote to say they appreciated my response.

The point I’m making is quite simple: without mindfulness and its attendant qualities of openness and curiosity, I wouldn’t have been able to respond positively to Matt’s comment. I might have just deleted the comment. Or I might have responded by attacking. Or by defending myself. And I wouldn’t have learned anything about the dynamics of hurt and anger, and how we can avoid causing ourselves unnecessary pain. And maybe (I hope) help others in the process.

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