anger

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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Eight steps to forgiveness

Forgiveness is a tricky topic.

First, it has two distinct meanings:

  • To give up resentment or anger
  • To pardon an offense; to stop seeking punishment or recompense

Here, I am going to focus on the first meaning, which is broad enough to include situations where you have not let someone off the hook morally or legally, but you still want to come to peace about whatever happened. Finding forgiveness can walk hand in hand with pursuing justice.

Second, there is sometimes the fear that if you forgive people, that means you approve of their behavior (like giving them a free pass for wrongdoing). Actually, you can both view an action as morally reprehensible and no longer be angry at the person who did it. You could continue to feel sad at the impacts on you and others – and to take action to make sure it never happens again – but you no longer feel aggrieved, reproachful, or vengeful.

Third, forgiveness can seem lofty, like it only applies to big things, like crimes or adultery. But most forgiving is for the small bruises of daily life, when others let you down, thwart or hassle you, or just rub you the wrong way.

Fourth, paradoxically, in my experience, the person who gains the most from forgiveness is usually the one who does the forgiving. One reason is that we often forgive people who never know we’ve forgiven them; much of the time they never knew we felt wronged in the first place! Further, consider two situations: in one, someone has a grudge against you but then forgives you; in the other situation, you have a grudge against someone but then let it go. Which situation takes more of a weight off of your heart? Generally it’s the second one, since you take your own heart wherever you go.

Fundamentally, forgiveness frees you from the tangles of anger and retribution, and from preoccupations with the past or with the running case in your mind about the person you’re mad at. It shifts your sense of self from a passive one in which bad things happen to you, to one in which you are active in changing your own attitudes: you’re a hammer now, no longer a nail. It widens your view to see the truth of the many, many things that make people act as they do, placing whatever happened in context, in a larger whole.

And most profoundly, as you forgive yourself – which can coincide with serious corrections in your own thoughts, words, and deeds – your own deep and natural goodness is increasingly revealed.

How?

  1. As best you can, take care of yourself and those you care for. Protect yourself against ongoing or potential harms. Do what you can to repair the damage done to you. Keep making your life a good one.
  2. Ask for support. We are intensely, viscerally social animals. It is much easier to forgive your trespassers after others bear witness to the ways you’ve been mistreated. (This point also speaks to the importance of bearing witness to harms done to others, whether it is the impact of a teenager’s coldness on your mate, or the impacts of religious prejudice on millions of people.)
  3. Honor the wound. Try not to be overwhelmed, but open to the shock, hurt, sense of injustice, anger, or other aspects of the experience. Allow the thoughts and feelings and related desires to have breathing room, and to ebb and flow over time with their own organic rhythms. Forgiveness is not about shutting down your feelings; opening to the experience in a big space of mindful awareness is an aid to forgiveness.
  4. Check your story. Watch out for exaggerating how awful, significant, or unforgivable the incident was. Be careful about assuming intent; with modern life, most of us are pretty stressed and scatterbrained much of the time; maybe you unfortunately just bumped into someone else’s bad day. Put the event in perspective: was it really that big a deal, given all the other good things about the person who upset you? Maybe it was, but maybe it wasn’t.
  5. Appreciate the value of forgiveness. Ask yourself: what does my grievance, my resentment, cost me? Cost others I care about? What would it be like to lay those burdens down?
  6. See the big picture. Consider the “10,000 causes” upstream from the person who hurt you, like his or her life and childhood, parents, finances, temperament, health, mental state just before whatever happened, etc.
  7. Try not to take wounds so personally. There’s an old saying: each day wounds, and the last one kills. We all get wounded. This doesn’t mean making yourself a target or letting wrongdoers off the hook, but it does mean recognizing that the price of being alive includes some inevitable pain – and the risk of serious injury in one form or another. It’s not personal. It’s life. We don’t need to feel offended by it.
  8. Help yourself come to peace. Accept that the past is fixed and will not change; the bad thing will never not have happened. Disengage your mind from your story, narrative, “case” about the events. Steer clear of people who fan the flames of outrage. Focus on the good things in your life, on gratitude. It’s bad enough that people have harmed you; don’t add insult to injury by getting caught up with them inside your own head; for example, they may have gotten away with some of your money, but don’t also give them your mind.
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We’re so stressed

wildmind meditation news

Keith Upchurch, Herald-Sun, NC: Stress is twisting many Americans in knots, and Durham is no exception.

The pressures of life — especially money concerns — rank high on the list of stressors. But many people are find-ing relief in exercise, music, support groups and prayer, while others are turning to drugs to help them escape reality — temporarily.

Angell Copper, for example, says he has been stressed out for most of his life. The 22-year-old Hillsborough resident has spent time in foster homes and prison, but he’s trying to find ways to deal with his anger and anxiety over having no money or job.

Copper said he was convicted of having marijuana on a high school campus and for a probation violation. Surprisingly, he said going to prison was one of the best things that happened to him, because he got counseling for his anger, which he said is under better control than in the past.

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Still, having an empty wallet and no job keeps his stress level high.

Before going to prison, he said, “I’d wake up mad every day, because you’re stressed out over bills and all that other stuff, you know. I think that’s why a lot of black people turn to drugs and weed and stuff like that, because it’s an everyday circle, and you can’t stop stress. And it’s just whacked. Stress is real whacked.”

Copper is taking medication for his anxiety, but he believes he could find more relief if he had someone to talk to.

“I’ve been from foster care to prison, and now I’m out,” he said. “Right now, I’m just trying to make it, and I have a lot of stress, because I have no money, and it’s hard. I just want to cry sometimes, but I try to stay strong, because I have a child, and I can’t let him see me stress out — you know what I mean?”

Copper said prayer helps.

“Just to know that a higher power is there to help you, and that he’s never going to leave you helps,” he said. “So I hold dear to that, because I do love God.”

Pamela Finney of Durham said she’s also stressed because she can’t find a job.

“I relocated from New Jersey about three years ago to be closer to my family,” she said. “But now I’ve been here trying to find a job, and they tell you to go online for jobs,” but that hasn’t worked.

To cope, she turns to cigarettes and a support group.

“That helps a lot,” she said.

For Kelly Morris of Durham, stress comes and goes, but paying bills is his biggest stressor. “I’ve still got a job,” he said. “It’s just hard to make ends meet even with a job.” To cope, he “takes one day at a time” and prays.

But for retired scientist Phil Lawless, 67, life isn’t that stressful, because he no longer has the pressure of work and has enough money for his golden years. He retired about 18 months ago.

“Being able to retire at the time I did means that I wasn’t affected so much by the recession,” he said. Now, he spends a lot of his free time reading and traveling.

“I get to sleep late,” he said. “And my wife is retired too, so we don’t have to get up early in the morning.”

Another retiree, Fred Clark of Durham, also said he doesn’t feel much stress, because the recession hasn’t affected him as much as others. To keep stress at bay, Clark goes to the Q Shack restaurant in Durham every Wednesday to hear blue grass music. He also works out at a health club three times a week.

For some, family is a stressor, but for others, it offers a safe haven from stress.

Maria Manson of Durham has a job and three children under 5, but she said she doesn’t feel unduly stressed, because “I have a good life.” She said her children keep her from becoming stressed, “because they’re so much fun.” But when life gets too tough, she finds relief by relaxing, watching a movie and “thinking about the positive things in life.”

The theme of finding relief through faith was a common thread though many of those who spoke with The Herald-Sun about stress in their lives.

Vietnam War veteran William Caine, 63, is disabled. He’s had open heart surgery, head surgery and now faces a hip replacement. “So stress reaches its peak quite often,” he said. “But I manage to deal with it, thank the Lord.”

“My faith is always there, boss man,” he said. “Faith is there every second of the day.”

Caine also gets a boost from his grandchildren.

“That’s the best thing in my life right now,” he said. “They’re the best thing in the world.”

Becky Tenaglia, a pre-school director, feels the stress in her back and neck. A main stressor for her is not getting enough sleep. She also feels the pressure of trying to balance the many demands of her work and family.

But like so many others, her faith makes a world of difference.

“I’m not sure how I would get through life with God, without prayer,” she said. “Faith is extremely important. When stress is so high, the only thing you can do is pray for help.”

Original article is no longer available

Bodhipaksa

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“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

I grew up in a family dominated by alcoholism, narcissism, illness and dysfunction. There were four of us, my mother, my father, my older brother and myself.

From a young age, I had a lot of responsibility. I was a parentified child, caring for my older brother who was epileptic and also caring for my parents whose main focus of concentration was on themselves.

Growing up I was filled with confusion, dissatisfaction, and suppressed anger.

As a child, I did not know other children were busy playing and being cared for. For me it was all about caring for others. I was left alone while my father worked, my mother shopped, and my brother was taken where he needed to be.

As a result of these dynamics, I grew up trying to please my distracted parents. I wanted nothing more than to win their approval and affection.

Expectations of me from my parents were many and grew in number as I did in age, until, as an adolescent I became rebellious as a response to a domineering father and a controlling mother.

My parents tried to enforce who were my friends, the young men I dated, my thoughts and my behavior. As a result, I married a man they disapproved of, who, (un)surprisingly was very much like them – narcissistic, unable to show love and affection and cut off from his feelings.

As I went out into the world, worked, married, became a mom, talked with others, read a few books and practiced Buddhism, I realized that my upbringing was filled with dysfunction and there were reasons that I had issues with trust, felt “different”, turned myself inside-out to win approval, had anxiety and suffered with depression. And as I worked with all of this in meditation and keeping a dream journal I realized I had lots of anger – even rage.

People work with anger in different ways. My way was to repress it. As I worked with my dreams, I realized I felt rage at the man I married and later I realized I also felt rage towards my parents. It was safer, when I was younger, to repress the rage as a way of “holding onto” my husband and my parents. Repressing anger, however, is not such a healthy thing to do – it takes a toll on the body, the mind and the spirit.

Marshall Rosenberg teaches nonviolent communication, and writes “You can feel it when it hits you. Your face flushes and your vision narrows. Your heartbeat increases as judgmental thoughts flood your mind. Your anger has been triggered, and you’re about to say or do something that will likely make it worse.  You have an alternative. The nonviolent communication process teaches that anger serves a specific, life-enriching purpose. It tells you that you’re disconnected from what you value…”

Rosenberg’s quote on anger helped me to realize that anger serves an important purpose. The quote helped me to understand my reactivity.   And, understanding my reactivity and that my parents were suffering, allowed me to transform the anger to compassion.

I realized that no matter how much I gave to my parents, it would never be enough. No matter how many times I flew across the country to visit, or stayed for weeks to help them recuperate from surgery, or help them move to an assisted living situation, they would always let me know that it wasn’t good enough.  This caused me suffering, and they suffered as well.  They suffered by being unable to accept the love and care I offered them.  They suffered by wanting more than is reasonable to expect.

As I started saying “no” to unreasonable parental expectations and abuse I felt a huge sense of loss. Because I understand unconditional love, the love I have for my children, I realized that I never had unconditional love as a child.

Finally I realized that the anger I felt was telling me that I valued kindness, fairness, respect, and unconditional love. I finally realized that I value myself as a human being worthy of respect, love, kindness and concern.

Along with the loss comes relief, clarity, positivity and strength. Realizing that I no longer need to put myself in situations of abuse has helped the anger subside and compassion arise.

I have found Thich Nhat Hanh’s quotation “when another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over” to be true and when I keep it in mind I can let go of anger and embrace compassion.

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Shortcuts to Inner Peace, by Ashley Davis Bush

Shortcuts to Inner Peace

In the interests of full disclosure I should say that Ashley Davis Bush, the author of Shortcuts to Inner Peace: 70 Simple Paths to Everyday Serenity, attends the same Buddhist center I teach at. I’ve bumped into her and her husband a literally a couple of times, but it’s a large center, we’re not by any stretch of the imagination friends, and I’m under no obligation, inner or outer, to say nice things about her book.

Now that that’s out of the way…

Shortcuts to Inner Peace grows out of the meeting of Bush’s practice as a psychotherapist, and her personal Buddhist practice. She knew that many of her clients would benefit from meditation, and yet it was also obvious that few, if any, of them would be able to set aside the time for a regular practice. And so began a project to “sneak” (my word) mindfulness into daily activities.

Title: Shortcuts to Inner Peace
Author: Ashley Davis Bush
Publisher: Berkley
ISBN: 978-0-425-24324-4
Available from: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, and Amazon.com and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

And here is where Bush reveals herself to be a master teacher. She is positively cunning at finding ways for people to practice more mindfulness.

Here are a few examples:

  • Go With the Flow: Whenever you’re at a sink and touch water, let the stream of warm liquid cue you to say, “Go with the flow” or “I trust the universe” or “Everything is as it should be.” This reminds you to let go and flow with the current of life. (p. 46)
  • Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: Look at your reflection and say simply, “I accept all of you.” For some people “I forgive you,” “I love you deeply and unconditionally,” or “You are doing the best you can and I admire you for that” also work well. If nothing else, give yourself a vote of encouragement with a “hang in there.” (p. 61)
  • Lend a Hand: When you’re feeling anxious or stressed. Place one hand on your upper chest and your other hand on your belly. Apply some light pressure, breathe deeply into your belly, and then as you exhale slowly, rub your hand in a circle on your upper chest. (p. 97)
  • Play It Again, Sam: When you find yourself grumbling over an unpleasant household chore … Sing a specific song or play special music when you’re engaged in that unwanted chore. Decide to let yourself have a positive experience and actually let it fill your body with good sensations. (p. 128)

There are almost 70 of these exercises in this quite substantial book. Most of the actual presentation is in short chapters or usually two page, with a brief précis of the exercise as I’ve given above, accompanied by a more expansive account of the background of the practice, with examples drawn from real life. Each practice chapter concludes with a summary of the deeper purpose of the exercise, so that it’s not just a “trick” you can pull in order to change your emotional state, but part of a total transformation of the way you relate to your life. There are also introductory chapters that “set the scene.”

See also:

The practice chapters are organized into different sections, covering ways to weave mindfulness into daily activities, into relationships, into our experience of the senses, as well as sections on ways to calm the body, quiet the mind, open the heart, and to connect with a sense of purpose. At the end of the book there is a cross-reference list of the exercises so that you can find techniques that address specific problems, such as being angry or tense. Shortcuts to Inner Peace is nothing if not thorough!

There have been several books out recently that have addressed how to bring greater mindfulness into daily life. I’ve recently reviewed How to Train a Wild Elephant, by Jan Chozen Bays, and One Minute Mindfulness, by Donald Altman. All three are excellent books. If I had to distinguish between them I’d say that:

  • How to Train a Wild Elephant is ideal for the experienced practitioner who wants to go deeper into mindfulness, or for the committed beginner who is already able to devote a reasonable amount of time and thought each week to mindfulness practice. The practices are deeply transformative, and come from two decades of monastic practice, although the lessons given are applicable to “normal” life.
  • One Minute Mindfulness is similar in presentation and content to Shortcuts. It’s a little less imaginative in approach, but still a very fine book.
  • Shortcuts to Inner Peace would be my highest recommendation to anyone beginning to explore mindfulness and meditation, and who is having problems “fitting practice in” to their lives. I would also highly recommend it for anyone who has problems with anger, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, or any of these manifold contemporary problems of finding emotional balance in life.
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Admit fault and move on

Have you ever watched two people quarrel, or otherwise be stuck in a conflict with each other? Usually, if either or both of them simply acknowledged one or more things, that would end the fight.

Recall a time someone mistreated you, let you down, dropped the ball, made an error, spoke harshly, was unskillful, got a fact wrong, or affected you negatively even if that was not their intention. (This is what I mean, very broadly, under the umbrella heading of “fault.”) If the person refuses to admit fault, how do you feel? Probably dismayed, frustrated, uneasy, distanced, less willing to trust, and more defensive yourself. The interaction – and even the relationship – gets stuck on the unadmitted fault and is shadowed, dragged down, and constrained as a result.

On the other hand, if this person had admitted the fault, how would you have reacted? Probably pretty well! When someone admits fault (always broadly defined, in my usage here) to me, I feel safer, on more solid ground, more at ease, warmer toward them – and more willing to admit faults myself.

Turn this around, and you can see the benefits in admitting faults to others. It cuts to the heart of the matter, reduces a cause of their anxiety or anger, let you move on to other topics (including your own needs), takes the wind out of their sails if they’re lambasting you, and puts you in a stronger position to ask them to admit fault themselves. And as part of admitting fault, it’s natural and important to sincerely commit to avoiding this fault as best you can in the future.

Then you can get beyond the hassle and bad feelings of the unadmitted fault, and move on to something more positive.

For example, recently our adult son called me on a certain – ah – intense positionality I sometimes expressed when he was growing up. I sputtered and deflected awhile in response, but then had to admit the truth of what he was saying (and acknowledge him for his courage in saying it), and told him I wouldn’t do this any more. When I said this, he felt better and I felt better. And then we could move on to good things – like more sushi!

How do we admit fault?

Start by reminding yourself how it is in your own best interests to admit fault and move on. We might think that admitting fault is weak or that it lets the other person off the hook for his or her faults. But actually, it takes a strong person to admit fault, and it puts us in a stronger position with others.

Sort out your fault(s) – mistake, unskillfulness, misdeed, error, etc. – from the other pieces of the puzzle of the interaction or relationship. Don’t overstate your fault out of guilt or appeasement. Be clear and specific in your own mind as to what the fault is – and what is not a fault. You, not anyone else, are the judge of what your fault is.

Admit the fault directly. Be simple and direct. It’s alright to express or explain the context of the fault – like you were tired or upset about something else – but avoid justifying the fault, or getting lawyerly about it; and sometimes, especially in charged situations, it’s best to simply acknowledge your fault without any explanation wrapped around it.

Try to be empathic and compassionate about the consequences of your fault for the other person. Remind yourself why this is good for you to do! Stay on the topic of your fault for a reasonable amount of time; don’t jump quickly to the faults of the other person, but don’t let the other person repetitively pound you for your fault after you’ve admitted it.

Make a commitment inside your mind, and perhaps to the other person, not to do this fault again.

When it feels right, disengage from discussing your fault. Then it could be appropriate to bring up ways the other person could help you in not doing the fault in the future (e.g., getting home in time to help with dinner will help you not yell at the kids). Or bring up a fault of the other person.

And then – sheesh! – it’s time to move on. To more positive topics, or to stepping back in the relationship, or to more productive ways of relating with the person.

Last, to plant a seed I’ll explore in a future JOT, it’s also good to admit a personal fault to yourself . . . and then to let go of guilt, self-criticism, and inadequacy, and to move on to self-compassion, self-care, self-worth, happiness, and inner peace.

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Six ways to deal with anger

man standing in front of a bonfire, his silhouette surrounded by flames

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.

1. 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, 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.

2. 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.

2. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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!

6. Practice self-compassion

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.

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In case of resentment, drop the “case”

Lately I’ve been thinking about a kind of “case” that’s been running in my mind about someone in my extended family. The case is a combination of feeling hurt and mistreated, critique of the other person, irritation with others who haven’t supported me, views about what should happen that hasn’t, and implicit taking-things-personally.

In other words, the usual mess.

It’s not that I have not been mistreated – actually, I have been – nor that my analysis of things is inaccurate (others agree that what I see does in fact exist). The problem is that my case is saturated with negative emotions like anger, biased toward my own viewpoint, and full of me-me-me. Every time I think of it I start getting worked up, adding to the bad effects of chronic stress. It creates awkwardness with others, since even though they support me, they’re naturally leery of getting sucked into my strong feelings or into my conflict with the other person. It makes me look bad, too cranked up about things in the past. And it primes me for overreactions when I see the person in question. Yes, I practice with this stuff arising in my mind and generally don’t act it out, but it’s still a burden.

I think my own experience of case-making – and its costs – are true in general. In couples in trouble, one or both people usually have a detailed Bill of Particulars against the other person. At larger scales, different social or political groups have scathing indictments of the other side.

How about you? Think of someone you feel wronged by: can you find case against that person in your mind? What’s it feel like to go into that case? What does it cost you? And others?

The key – often not easy – is to be open to your feelings (e.g., hurt, anger), to see the truth of things, and to take appropriate action . . . while not getting caught up in your case about it all.

How do we drop “the case”?

  • Bring to awareness a case about someone – probably related to a grievance, resentment, or conflict. It could be from your present or your past, resolved or still grinding. Explore this case, including: the version of events in it, other beliefs and opinions, emotions, body sensations, and wants; notice how you see the other person, and yourself; notice what you want from others (sometimes their seeming failings are a related case). For a moment or two, in your mind or out loud, get into the case: really make it! Then notice what that’s like, to get revved up into your case.
  • Mentally or on paper, list some of the costs to you and others of making this particular case. Next, list the payoffs to you; on other words, what do you get out of making this case? For example, making a case typically makes us feel in the right, is energizing, and helps cover over softer vulnerable emotions like hurt or disappointment. Then ask yourself: are the payoffs worth the costs?
  • With this understanding, see if you can stay with the difficult feelings involved in the situation (the basis for the case) without slipping into a reproachful or righteous case about them. To do this, it could help to start by resourcing yourself by bringing to mind the felt sense of being cared about by others, and by opening to self-compassion. And try to hold those difficult feelings in a big space of awareness.
  • Open to a wider, more impersonal, big picture view of the situation – so it’s less about you and more about lots of swirling causes coming together in unfortunate ways. See if any kind of deeper insight about the other person, yourself, or the situation altogether comes to you.
  • Listen to your heart: are there any skillful actions to take? Including naming the truth of things, disengaging from tunnels with no cheese, or the action of there-is-nothing-that-can-be-done.
  • Watch how a case starts forming in your mind, trying to get its hooks into you. Then see if you can interrupt the process. Literally set down the case, like plopping down a heavy suitcase when you finally get home after a long trip. What a relief!
  • Enjoy the good feelings, the spaciousness of mind, the openness of heart, the inner freedom, and other rewards of dropping your case.
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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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Feeling angry? Say a prayer and the wrath fades away

Saying a prayer may help many people feel less angry and behave less aggressively after someone has left them fuming, new research suggests.

A series of studies showed that people who were provoked by insulting comments from a stranger showed less anger and aggression soon afterwards if they prayed for another person in the meantime.

The benefits of prayer identified in this study don’t rely on divine intervention: they probably occur because the act of praying changed the way people think about a negative situation, said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University.

“People often turn to prayer when they’re feeling negative emotions, including anger,” he said.

“We found that prayer really can help people cope with their anger, probably by helping them change how they view the events that angered them and helping them take it less personally.”

The power of prayer also didn’t rely on people being particularly religious, or attending church regularly, Bushman emphasized. Results showed prayer helped calm people regardless of their religious affiliation, or how often they attended church services or prayed in daily life.

Bushman noted that the studies didn’t examine whether prayer had any effect on the people who were prayed for. The research focused entirely on those who do the praying.

Bushman said these are the first experimental studies to examine the effects of prayer on anger and aggression. He conducted the research with Ryan Bremner of the University of Michigan and Sander Koole of VU University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. It appears online in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and will be published in a future print edition.

The project involved three separate studies.

In the first study, 53 U.S. college students were told they would be participating in a series of experiments. First, they completed a questionnaire that measured their levels of anger, fatigue, depression, vigor, and tension.

They then wrote an essay about an event that made them feel very angry. Afterwards, they were told the essay would be given to a partner, whom they would never meet, for evaluation.

But, in reality, there was no partner and all the participants received the same negative, anger-inducing evaluation that included the statement: “This is one of the worst essays I have ever read!”

After angering the participants, the researchers had the students participate in another “study” in which they read a newspaper story about a student named Maureen with a rare form of cancer. Participants were asked to imagine how Maureen feels about what happened and how it affected her life.

Then, the participants were randomly assigned to either pray for Maureen for five minutes, or to simply think about her.

Afterwards, the researchers again measured the students’ levels of anger, fatigue, depression, vigor and tension. As expected, self-reported levels of anger were higher among the participants after they were provoked. But those who prayed for Maureen reported being significantly less angry than those who simply thought about her.

Prayer had no effect on the other emotions measured in the study.

Bushman said that in this study, and in the second one, there was no prior requirement that the participants be Christian or even religious. However, nearly all the participants said they were Christian. Only one participant refused to pray and he was not included in the study.

The researchers didn’t ask participants about the content of their prayers or thoughts because they didn’t want them to become suspicious about what the study was about, which might have contaminated the findings, Bushman said.

But the researchers did run several similar pilot studies in which they did ask participants about what they prayed or thought about. In those pilot studies, participants who prayed tended to plead for the target’s well-being. Those who were asked to think about the target of prayers tended to express empathetic thoughts, saying they felt sad about the situation and felt compassion for those who were suffering.

The second study had a similar setup to the first. All the students wrote an essay, but half wrote about a topic that angered them and then received anger-inducing negative feedback, supposedly from their partner. The other half wrote about a neutral subject and received positive feedback, which they thought was from their partner.

Participants were then asked to either pray or think about their partner for five minutes. (They were told this was for a study about how people form impressions about others, and that praying for or thinking about their partner would help them organize the information that they had already received about their partner in order to form a more valid impression.)

Finally, the participants completed a reaction-time task in which they competed with their unseen “partner.”

Afterwards, if participants won, they could blast their partner with noise through headphones, choosing how long and loud the blast would be.

Results showed that students who were provoked acted more aggressively than those who were not provoked – but only if they had been asked to simply think about their partner. Students who prayed for their partner did not act more aggressively than others, even after they had been provoked.

The third study took advantage of previous research that found that angry people tend to attribute events in their lives to the actions of other people, while those who aren’t angry more often attribute events to situations out of their control.

This study was done at a Dutch university, and all participants were required to be Christian because the Netherlands has a large proportion of atheists.

Half the participants were angered (similar to the methods in the first two studies), while the other half were not.

They then spent five minutes praying for or thinking about a person they personally knew who could use some extra help or support.

Finally, they were asked to judge the likelihood of each of 10 life events. Half the events were described as caused by a person (You miss an important flight because of a careless cab driver). Angry people would be expected to think these kinds of events would be more likely.

The other events were described as the result of situational factors (You miss an important flight because of a flat tire).

Results showed that those who simply thought of another person were more likely to hold the anger-related appraisals of situations if they were provoked, compared to those who were not provoked.

But those who prayed were not more likely to hold the anger-related views, regardless of whether they were provoked or not.

“Praying undid the effects of provocation on how people viewed the likelihood of these situations,” Koole said.

While the three studies approached the issue in different ways, they all pointed to the personal benefits of prayer, Bushman said.

“The effects we found in these experiments were quite large, which suggests that prayer may really be an effective way to calm anger and aggression,” he said.

These results would only apply to the typical benevolent prayers that are advocated by most religions, Bushman said. Vengeful or hateful prayers, rather than changing how people view a negative situation, may actually fuel anger and aggression.

“When people are confronting their own anger, they may want to consider the old advice of praying for one’s enemies,” Bremner said.

“It may not benefit their enemies, but it may help them deal with the negative emotions.”

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