Transforming hurt and anger through self-compassion

Baby sitting on a picnic blanket, looking unhappy

The practice of self-compassion is a powerful tool for transforming our lives, freeing us from emotional ruts and unleashing a more joyful and creative approach to life.

Anger can erupt at any time, especially in our crowded and fast-paced world. We’ve probably all had experiences like getting into a “flame war” on social media, or having a heated email exchange with a friend, or have found ourselves driving dangerously after being cut off, or becoming enraged while going round in circles in some company’s automated telephone menu.

When properly handled, anger can be a useful and even a necessary emotion. Anger can help us get through to other people when there’s a sense of urgency that they fail to appreciate. It gives us energy. It can help defend us. But anger can easily run out of control and turn into a raging fire that harms ourselves and others. And repeated anger can turn into long-term hatreds that poison our lives.

So how do we deal with anger? Sometimes, in our efforts to prevent anger from getting out of hand, we negate ourselves and repress our rage, becoming martyrs. While that may seem to prevent conflict with others, it’s deeply harmful to us. In effect our anger goes inwards. Instead of hurting others, we hurt ourselves. So denial and repression don’t seem to work.

So the question is, how can we honor ourselves and our feelings without letting anger take us over? In my work as a meditation coach, I teach an approach to lovingkindness that helps us to recognize where anger comes from, and that prevents it arising in the first place—or prevents it getting out of hand if it does. And it’s an approach that doesn’t involve suppression or “being nice.” It’s an approach based on the Buddhist understanding of psychology, which draws a distinction between feelings and emotions.


Feelings are, in this view, fairly basic responses, experienced in the body, that tell us whether a particular thing we perceive is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. As soon as we perceive anything, we have a feeling about it. Take a look around you at the moment and allow you eyes to roam around the room, allowing your gaze to rest on a succession of objects. As you do this, notice any feelings that arise. You might want to particularly pay attention to the area of the solar plexus, just below the breastbone. Some of the things I notice right now are accompanied by pleasant feelings: a colorful screensaver on a computer monitor on the other side of the room, a picture of some flowers, a woodcut print I picked up in Ethiopia, and a wooden statue of the Buddha. Some are accompanied by unpleasant sensations: a pile of paper by the shredder, a stack of mail, and a measuring tape that I forgot to put away, lying on the desk. In fact I almost have to force my gaze onto these objects, because I resist paying attention to them. A few of the things my eyes rest on are accompanied by neutral feelings: the wall, the beige curtains, some DVDs on a shelf. I just have no interest in them.

Feelings, in this specific sense of the word, are our personal responses and aren’t inherent in the objects we encounter. Another person, for example, might experience strongly unpleasant feelings looking at my Buddha statue, or feel a pleasant sense of anticipation to see what movies I have in my collection, or might find the stack of papers pleasant because they enjoy organizing!

And the feelings we experience can change, depending on the context. There are times when just seeing or thinking about a partner or family member brings a rush of joy, and other times that it’s quite the opposite. Feelings are not inherent in objects. They come from us.

And we’re always “projecting” these feelings onto the world around us. Atop of the world of simple perceptions, we overlay our feelings, which tell us what we value at any given time. Our feelings are filters that stand between us and the world, and which tell us what we value in any particular moment—what we value both positively (“this could benefit me”), or negatively (“this could be a threat”), or what we see as having no value to us because it’s not relevant to our needs for happiness and security.


So far we’ve only discussed feelings. What about emotions? Emotions are much more complex. They arise as responses to feelings, and suggest to us how we should act in response to those feelings. Emotions generally lead to action, and in fact the word “emotion” comes from a root meaning “to move.” Emotions are what move us to engage. For example, imagine you see a close friend passing on the other side of the street. You’ll probably experience a feeling of pleasure, which we’d call joy. On the basis of that joyful feeling arises an emotion—say a longing to connect with them. And that emotion translates into action—it moves us to act—so that you might give them a shout and a smile and a wave. Or we see someone who we don’t like being rewarded in some way, and that feels unpleasant. And we may experience the emotion of anger, or resentment. And that might cause us to speak in a derogatory way.

Feelings are often fleeting, and can easily be drowned out by the powerful emotions that spring from them. Here’s a common experience: we’re driving along the road, and someone cuts us off, coming way too close for comfort. Immediately a tight knot of fear (a feeling) appears, but then our emotions kick in and we’re suddenly angry. Really angry! And thoughts gush forth of all the things we’d like to do to that inconsiderate so-and-so. And we may stay angry for quite some time, because the fear and anger are unpleasant, and once they exist they find reasons to perpetuate themselves, by recalling, for example, other times we were scared and angry.

So before the surge of anger arises, there is a brief moment of painful fear, anxiety, or hurt that arises in response to events around us. Often we don’t acknowledge or notice those feelings. In some cases we don’t even want to notice them. Say we’re been taught that feeling hurt is a sign of weakness; we don’t want to acknowledge our vulnerability, and so we skip quickly on to the anger, because then we can have fantasies in which we reestablish our sense of power and control—for example we imagine we’re yelling at the person we’re angry with.

Whatever the situation, when anger arises there’s a great risk that we’ll do something we regret. We might say something that’s going to come back and bite us, or we might damage a relationship, or break something, or even hit someone. And anger in itself is on the whole a painful state to be in.

But what would happen if we got better at recognizing those often-fleeting feelings? What if we just stayed with our feelings, rather than letting them trigger the emotional response of anger?

Catching our anger before it starts

Taking our awareness ‘beneath’ our anger and fully acknowledging our pain can be a potent way to transform our anger.

With our pain held in the compassionate embrace of mindfulness and lovingkindness, we are able to let the the hurt pass naturally, without it triggering a cycle of anger.

There are two primary skills needed in order to relate to our pain in this way.

First is mindfulness, which is the ability to notice our experience. With practice, we get better at recognizing fleeting and often very subtle feelings. This is an incredibly useful ability to have in life, because intuition, empathy, and creativity depend upon the ability to notice subtle feelings.

Second is lovingkindness, which is the ability to relate in a non-judgmental, caring way to ourselves and others. Lovingkindness allows us to experience pain and to simply allow it to be. It allows us to value pain as a normal part of being human, rather than as a sign of failure. It allows us to get close to our pain without being overwhelmed by it.

So let’s revisit an example we used earlier. This time we’re driving along, and someone cuts us off. A fleeting moment of fear appears in the solar plexus, and we notice this. Recognizing that we’re in pain, we acknowledge our hurt and embrace it with lovingkindness. We treat it just as we would a hurt child; we hold it in a loving embrace. And anger simply doesn’t appear. The pain that’s arisen will pass in a few moments or in a few minutes, because once the initial perception of danger has passed, there’s nothing to support the fear.

What’s happened in doing this is that we’ve created a degree of freedom from our usual mental habits. Our mindfulness has created a “gap” between feeling and emotion, so that anger simply doesn’t arise. And in the mental space we’ve created, lovingkindness and compassion for ourselves naturally manifest. We may even find that this compassion automatically extends to others, including the person who cut us off. We’ve created a whole different experience for ourselves simply by paying attention to our fleeting feelings.

Even if anger does arise, we can usually “backtrack.” We can look for the pain underneath the anger, and switch our focus to that, once again embracing our hurt in a field of lovingkindness. And often any anger that’s arisen will just evaporate.

By honoring our pain and by responding to it with compassion, we are able to let go of our anger and to extend our compassion to those around us – including those who prompted our pain. Not caught up in the flames of anger and hatred, we manifest a warm, loving, aware space from which to respond to others, and unleash our creativity, finding intuitive responses to situations that we previously found maddening, whether it is listening to others’ unskillful communication, being cut off in traffic, dealing with unruly children, or coping with things not going the way we want them. Anger becomes a choice and not a compulsion – just one strategy among others that we can employ in responding to our world.

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Addicts overcome holiday stress with meditation

It’s going to be a difficult holiday season for a man named Demitrius, who didn’t want to use his full name to protect his privacy.

Demitrius, now 28, won’t be able to open gifts or ring in the new year with his family. Instead, he’ll spend the holidays and the next several months serving out a court-mandated sentence at New York’s Phoenix House, a residential and outpatient drug rehabilitation center. After he was arrested for selling drugs this past spring, his punishment was set at 15 months in residential treatment.

He’s coping with his sadness in a way he never dreamed he would growing up in the tough neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn: through meditation.

“I was skeptical. I never thought I would do it. Where I’m from, people don’t do a lot of meditation classes,” said Demitrius.

Now, he can’t imagine making it…

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through rehab — and the stress of the holiday season — without it.

“I can cope better with the fact that I’ll be away from my family,” he said. “I kind of use the exercises, like the simple breathing exercises, and it relaxes me and makes me more peaceful, and things don’t bother me as much.”

Triggers Are Stress-Related

Mental health experts say meditation is a great tool for helping people overcome their addictions, and there’s a growing body of research that backs up that assertion. It’s quickly becoming another treatment tool clinicians can use to help people like Demitrius win their personal wars against addiction.

“Many of the triggers of addiction are somewhat stress-related, so in that sense, anything that’s going to reduce stress is going to improve the behavior associated with addiction,” said Dr. Vatsal Thakkar, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York.

The relaxed state brought on by meditation lowers the levels of stress hormones in the body.

“You learn to relax and learn to concentrate, which puts the brain in a state where it instinctively perceives the world as being less threatening,” said Dr. Charles Raison, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behaviorial Science at Emory University School of Medicine at Atlanta. “When the brain is in that state, it signals the body that it doesn’t have to release all those stress hormones.”

Meditation A Valuable Clinical Tool

“There’s more and more research being done on exercise, meditation and yoga as primary treatments for addiction,” said Thakkar. “That’s important, because the track record is bleak in terms of successful, universal treatments that work across the board.”

“The use of meditation in clinical studies is moving ahead,” said Raison. “It’s much more mainstream and very common now.”

Phoenix House holds meditation classes every Wednesday, and Demitrius has been in attendance for the past eight weeks. The experience has been life-changing, and he’s learned he doesn’t need to depend on marijuana, his drug of choice.

“It’s a natural way to balance yourself and go mentally without using the drug,” he said. “It helps me relax my nerves and feel at ease.”

Donna D’Cruz teaches the classes at Phoenix House. She’s a music producer and deejay who works with some of the world’s biggest stars, but volunteers Wednesdays to teach Demitrius and his fellow residents.

“I was asked to deejay at the Phoenix House charity event in the summer,” said D’Cruz. “Two clients got up and spoke, and I was astonished by their stories and the situations they were in.”

D’Cruz has been meditating since her teenage years, and it’s helped her deal with the pressures of the music business and constant travel. She offered to teach the residents at Phoenix House, and since she started, she said she believes it’s really been working.

Anger Management

“I know it’s working, because more people are coming and telling each other. They ask more and more detailed questions,” said D’Cruz. “A young man came to me and said he’s very angry, and wanted to learn how to meditate just for his anger.”

She said meditation is a wonderful tool whenever a person is feeling stressed, but it’s especially helpful this time of year.

“Holidays are very difficult. Some clients can’t leave and some have no family to go home to,” she said. “They have another tool they can use to deal with that.”

“Meditation teaches you not to take your thoughts so seriously,” said Raison. “If you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t be with my family’, you’ll learn that’s just a thought. See it, recognize it, and let it go.”

Thanks to meditation, Demitrius can do that. He’s going to help other residents and staff put on a holiday show and make the best of things. He’s looking forward to the summer when he can be back with his family.

He plans to make meditation a lasting part of his life.

“When I get out of here, it will definitely be helpful to continue on. I’ll be dealing with a lot of stress and trying to keep myself in line. Meditation will help keep me calm so I can make better decisions.”

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Can mindfulness help manage pain and mental illness?

In the German night sky, there were hundreds of parachutes falling in a routine army training exercise.

It was this jump that would cause former United States Army Ranger Monty Reed more than two decades of pain. Reed fell from about 100 feet after another parachute interfered with his descent. He broke his ankle and back and to this day has trouble walking and feels discomfort when he breathes.

“I felt like the physical pain that I deal with every day was an enemy I had to fight,” says Reed, 45, of Seattle, Washington.
But eventually, says Reed, a therapy technique that incorporates mindfulness helped him deal with this pain and the flashbacks he got from various army training situations. Mindfulness as a concept comes from Buddhism and is key to meditation in that tradition. It means being present and in the moment, and observing in a nonjudgmental way, says Susan Albers, psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Mindfulness encourages you to accept who you are, and trust yourself. Don’t judge yourself for having the feelings you have — just allow yourself to feel them.

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Can meditation stop me getting angry?

A few months ago, I tore up a copy of Grazia and spat on it because I had decided my byline was too small. So a friend, who witnessed the assault, suggested I try meditation. “It might help you with your anger,” she said, observing the drool dribbling over my chin and on to the magazine. “But I like living my life in homage to An American Werewolf in London,” I replied. “No, you don’t,” she said. “And I have seen you shouting at buses.”

It seems that meditation does have health benefits, particularly for neurotics with anger and anxiety issues such as myself. This week American academics published the results of their research into the joys of transcendental meditation (TM). Apparently guinea pigs (human ones) who practised TM showed a 48% decline in depressive symptoms. Last year another study indicated that there were 47% fewer heart attacks, strokes and premature deaths among transcendental meditation-heads, which tunes in with what my friend Yogi Cameron, the former male supermodel, has told me. “Yogis,” he once said, “choose when to die.” So – could meditation save my copy of Grazia? Could it save me?

There are many different types of meditation, I learn – it is a big aromatic buffet of love. It is popular with the great religions – praying or clutching a rosary can be considered a type of meditation – and, as a leisure activity, it is at least as old as war. There is mantra meditation, where you continually repeat a chosen word or phrase (transcendental meditation is a type of this) mindfulness, yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong. All promise serenity and healing and an end to assaults on blameless magazines. I choose to try out mindfulness because, according to my blurb, it will help me “experience myself” and learn to “live in the moment” through posture and breathing work. (For Tai Chi, on the other hand, you have to stand up.)

So I telephone and beg to be admitted to a Meditation for Beginners class (£8) at the West London Buddhist Centre. It is in Notting Hill, the evil yummy mummy/latte vortex, which is surely the last place in London in which I am likely to have a spiritual experience. A few days later, I walk past the building, quite unconsciously, twice. This, I believe, is called denial. The anger and anxiety wants to stay in power. It is like having Peter Mandelson in my brain.

So I walk in late, to a cream basement room with a small shrine. Buddha is there. For some reason, he reminds me of a very small football fan. The scene is like a Sunday afternoon at my late grandmother’s. A group of women and a man with a beard are comatose and covered in blue blankets on the floor. Only the EastEnders omnibus is missing.

A man called Duncan is leading the group. He is tall and pale – handsome but slightly ghostly. He has a sinewy yoga body and bright blue eyes. He smiles gently and tells me to sit on a chair and close my eyes. I obey, and Duncan begins to say calming things. I don’t remember them all, because I can’t use a notebook with my eyes shut, but I do remember him saying: “Feel your tongue.” He encourages us to feel and to be aware of every part of our bodies and, above all, to concentrate on our breathing: “Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.”

There is neither a television in the room, nor books, so I decide to go along with this madness. I take a long sigh, like a Mills & Boon heroine submitting to a racked company director, and I surrender to the Saturday-morning silence. I feel like I am plunging down a well to somewhere untouchable and terrifying. This, I suppose, is myself, without distractions. I muse on how much I love my nephew Blobby – not his real name – and how I am going to buy a stew pot in John Lewis later. “Breathe in, breathe out,” says Duncan, in a mesmeric voice, “Breathe in, breathe out.” I almost fall asleep.

At the end of the session, I feel happy and giggly. I lie on the floor in my blanket, laughing like an insane person, or a baby, or an insane baby. I think I must be very tired. I speak to a few of my fellow travellers. They all seem to be in recovery from a terrible personal crisis, although I do not know if they too shout at buses.

I have a brief chat with Duncan. He is about 50 and he seems very posh, although he says he isn’t. He is concerned that I might tease Buddhists in my article. “Everyone teases Buddhists,” he says. Me? Tease Buddhists? I am supposed to be interviewing Duncan, but there is no point interviewing anyone after meditating. You just fall over. I ask: why am I so tired? “It’s the subject matter,” he says, “You are sleepy because it is a way of disengaging from being present.” We postpone.

Instead, I read the literature that Duncan has given me. “Mindfulness,” I read, “means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. There is nothing cold, analytical or unfeeling about mindfulness. The overall tenor of mindfulness is gentle, appreciative and nurturing. It is about being more aware in the present moment. This makes life more enjoyable, vivid and fulfilling.” To me, this is language beyond gobbledygook. Perhaps I will have an epiphany after lunch?

Later, I face the first challenge of my meditating life. I go to see my friend Raymond in Kentish Town. I am making him lamb stew. But when I put the stew pot on the hob, it explodes. “The pot has exploded,” I tell Raymond. “Oh, dear,” says Raymond, not moving from the sofa, where he is reading a book titled Town Planning in Britain Since 1900: The Rise and Fall of the Planning Ideal. “I’m sure it will be fine.”

“It has exploded,” I say.

“Oh dear,” he says, and turns a page. If I had not meditated, I believe I would have maimed Raymond. But I do not; I am calm. I feel a sense of serenity, which I have always associated with unconsciousness or Valium. And so I simply bin the stew and leave. When he calls later, to say he has removed the stew from the bin, cooked and eaten it – “It was horrible” – I emit a serene cackle.

A few days later, meditation calls me back. I actually want to do it. Could the anger be ready to fly away, like a bad love song? This time I go to City Lit in Holborn, which has a mindfulness class, again run by Duncan. Again, I am late – the power of denial! So, when I go in, 20 women are sitting on mats with their eyes closed, doing the practice session. One opens her eye and scowls at me. I scowl back. There is also, inevitably, a solitary man. In meditation class, there is always a solitary man. It seems to be a law.

When everyone has opened their eyes, Duncan checks if they have done their mindfulness homework. Everyone has been asked to practise meditating for 10 minutes each day and to record their pleasant thoughts, also noting what moods and feelings accompanied the precious pleasant thought. Not everyone has done it, which seems to make Duncan cross. He winces. The class is full of obsessives. Duncan asks us to write the word “flower” on a piece of paper, and meditate on it. At least three people ask for more paper because, says one, “I didn’t write ‘flower’ in the middle of the page.”

We practise again – I close my eyes, listening to Duncan talk about tongues and feet and the need to be aware of them and live in them; again I fall down the friendly well. It’s easier this time. I am possibly entering the realm of nothing matters. Everything. Will. Be. Fine.

I love this new sensation. Normally, when pouncing from anger to anger, I end the day gibbering and falling into a half-sleep from which I awake exhausted, usually with a BBC3 reality show still murmuring in the corner. (Once I awoke to watch a man in a wheelchair ballroom dancing.)

Then, we have an event. A woman in the street outside screams and I am pulled back into Holborn. She screams again and the kind thoughts melt, cinematically. I panic. I am a failure! A monster! I hate everyone and everyone hates me! I feel my body contorting, into a giant fist. I feel Hulk-ish. I have always identified with the Incredible Hulk, for obvious reasons; I can even play his theme tune on the piano. But this, I know, is familiar; this is why I am here – to be cured of my anxiety and its inevitable sequel, the desire to punch pot plants. I tune back to Duncan, my salvation. “Breathe in, breathe out,” he says. “Breathe in, breathe out.”

I take Duncan out to lunch to ask why meditation works; I am sure it is working, but I do not know why. “The refusal to acknowledge ourselves,” he says, “is the cause of most grief. Meditation will lead you to a relishing of being alive, but it can only be known through direct experience. Even pain,” he adds optimistically, “can feel quite rich.” But he thinks I should work on my posture. Apparently I sit there with my head lolling on one side, like a stroke victim.

I continue to meditate and as I do, I can feel the anger waving goodbye. I stay soothed. For example, a friend asks me to a dinner party. I fear dinner parties like I fear Nazis. But I go, and I am polite, even when someone asks me if I have cystitis. (I do not.) Meditation is effective, I fear. I am in danger of turning into a rug. I am in danger of being happy.

Tanya Gold, The Guardian

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The wisdom of surrender

Woman in front of a sunset lake, in a gesture of awe

Recently I was asked to answer some questions for a book on the topic of surrender. Here are the questions, and the first draft of my responses:

1. How would you define surrender? Who or what is one surrendering to, in your opinion? God, Universe, Self, Soul, What Is, present moment…?

Surrender is an important part of all spiritual practice. Ultimately it’s what we’re aiming to accomplish in practice.

What we’re surrendering to is the reality of impermanence and non-separateness. In reality, everything changes and nothing (including ourselves) is separate or self-contained. But we have deep-rooted assumptions that we exist separately from the rest of the world, that there is something in us (and others) that is permanent and static, and that happiness can be found outside of ourselves. We believe that happiness is to be found in external conditions, rather than in changing our relation to the external conditions in which we live — which is why two people can be in the same situation, with one of them happy and the other miserable. So our view of ourselves and of where happiness comes from is at odds with how things really are.

We’re left with the task of realigning our views with reality, and to do that we have to surrender those views, surrender the desires that those views give rise to, and surrender the actions to which those desires give birth. And we need to accept the reality of change, non-separateness, and that things “out there” can’t bring us lasting happiness.

2. Is there a practice/methodology to surrender that one can follow that does not cause suffering? Is there a joyful methodology?

Paradoxically, we have to put in a lot of effort in order to be able to surrender! The Buddha’s dying words were, “Strive diligently!”

To be able to let go we first need a mind that has enough focus, calm, and concentration to be able to notice the ways in which we presently don’t accept reality — the ways that we currently hold on.

A lot of the time we’re simply caught up in distracted thinking and feeling and not really paying attention to how we’re thinking and feeling. And a lot of the time we are caught up in the delusion that our unhappiness and happiness depend on things out there in the world. So we need to learn to slow down and pay attention. So, for example, when someone says something that pushes your buttons and an angry response arises, we need to become aware that it’s we who are becoming angry, and that the other person is not “making us” be angry. We need to “own” our anger and stop blaming the other person. We need to learn to notice the arising of an angry response at a very early stage — this comes with repeated practice — so that we can find a more creative way to respond to the words we’ve just heard. In this kind of way we can come to realize that there is no “self” to defend, and that defense is an unnecessary and counter-productive strategy for happiness. Instead we can simply acknowledge that we suffered when we heard the words spoken by the other person and communicate authentically with them, acknowledging both their point of view and what we ourselves think and feel.

I develop those qualities of paying attention and noticing what’s really going on by cultivating mindfulness in meditation — mainly by paying attention to the breath, and to investigating what’s going on when I’m not able to pay attention to the breath. The process of developing mindfulness can be challenging, but it’s also ultimately very satisfying. A concentrated mind is a joyful mind. But it does take a lot of work to develop mindfulness.

There are other practices that help us to develop the qualities necessary for surrender. If we have a basic attitude of distrust towards ourselves, others, or the world in general it’s going to be hard to surrender. We need to develop a sense of trust and confidence in ourselves, and in others, and in the wisdom of letting go. There are various meditation practices that can help here, such as the Development of Lovingkindness practice, which helps us to feel more at ease with ourselves, and to develop a sense of other people as beings who are fundamentally struggling to be happy. And there are various insight meditation practices that help us to observe impermanence and the non-separateness of the self. These practices, like mindfulness meditation, are both challenging and nourishing. There’s no escaping the pain of change, but also change brings its rewards.

Lastly, there are some meditation practices where the emphasis is less on doing and more on being receptive. These are practices of surrendering. There is sadhana, where we visualize a representation of reality in the form of a Buddha image, and where we let the compassion of the Buddha flow into us. And there are practices where we simply trust the mind’s basic goodness, letting the light of reality shine from within. In these kinds of practice we don’t do much but remain in a mindful state as best we can and let go into reality. But in order for these practices to be effective we have to have done a fair amount of work preparing the mind by developing mindfulness and lovingkindness, both in meditation and in daily life.

3. What happens when you surrender?

There can be long periods of wanting to surrender, but not being able to. There can be periods where we need to let go of some view or habit that’s holding us back, and when it feels like we’re just unable to change. But then then suddenly something shifts and the old way of being shatters. Sometimes this is temporary and we experience a shift of consciousness that may last for a few minutes or hours. Other times there’s a more long-term (possibly permanent) change in the way we see ourselves and the way we see the world.

In letting go there’s usually a sense of entering a much more profoundly satisfying way of being. We’ve laid down a burden that sometimes we didn’t even realize we were carrying. We’ve broken fetters that were holding us back in ways we couldn’t have known until we were free of them. And there’s a sense of joy and fascination with the new way of seeing things. Again, this can be short-lived or long-term.

4. What is the Ego or mind? What’s holding on?

The ego is a set of strategies for finding happiness. The ego attempts to find happiness by keeping at bay things that we think are sources of unhappiness and by clinging to things that we think are sources of happiness. But this strategy is mistaken. It doesn’t bring us happiness or keep unhappiness at bay because happiness and unhappiness aren’t inherent in the world around us. They are properties of our mind that are produced by our own actions. And the main sources of our own unhappiness are — ironically! — the very aversion and clinging that we think will bring us happiness.

It’s worth noting that our basic desire for happiness is fine. It’s not a problem and is actually a good and wholesome thing. It’s the strategies we adopt in order to find happiness that can be the problem. The question is, do those strategies work? And the ego strategy of clinging and aversion simply doesn’t work.

Clinging, or holding on, is simply the attempt to stay with those things that we think are sources of happiness. Ultimately this is fruitless because everything changes. If I see a new relationship or a material object as sources of happiness, I’ll suffer when that relationship or material object change — as they inevitably will. It’s not that I can’t enjoy these things: in fact I’ll enjoy them more if I don’t cling to them, because I won’t be surprised and disappointed when they change.

Where happiness comes from is accepting impermanence. The mind that lets go is a mind that is at ease. It’s a mind that’s no longer trying to “fight” reality by trying to grasp the ungraspable.

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On “righteous anger”


There’s a great piece in today’s New York Times by political cartoonist Tim Kreider on the seductiveness of hatred and indignation. He even mentions meditation. Here’s an extract, but I’d recommend reading the entire piece (which continues below the accompanying cartoon — I was briefly fooled).

Kreider talks about how addictive anger can be, and how we can find ourselves in the position of seeking out things to be annoyed about.

A couple of years ago, while meditating, I learned something kind of embarrassing: anger feels good. Although we may consciously experience it as upsetting, somatically it feels a lot like the first rush of an opiate — a tingling warmth on the insides of your elbows and wrists, in the back of your knees. Realizing that anger was a physical pleasure explained some of the perverse obstinacy with which my mind kept returning to it despite the fact that, intellectually, I knew it was pointless self-torture.

Once I realized I enjoyed anger, I noticed how much time I spent experiencing it. If you’re anything like me, you spend about 87 percent of your mental life winning imaginary arguments that are never actually going to take place. It seems like most of the fragments of conversation you overhear in public consist of rehearsals for, or reenactments of, just such speeches: shrill litanies of injury and injustice, affronts to common sense and basic human decency too grotesque to be borne. You don’t even have to bother eavesdropping; just listen for that high, whining tone of incredulous aggrievement. It sounds like we’re all telling ourselves the same story over and over: How They Tried to Crush My Spirit (sometimes with the happy denouement: But I Showed Them!)

Outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but over time devour us from the inside out. And it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure. We prefer think of it as a disagreeable but fundamentally healthy involuntary reaction to negative stimuli thrust upon us by the world we live in, like pain or nausea, rather than admit that it’s a shameful kick we eagerly indulge again and again.

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Freedom on the inside

Sparrow sitting on prison bars

People behind bars are often open to change, as Suvarnaprabha discovers when teaching prisoners to meditate.

There is a series of rituals you learn when you start going into prisons. Of course they aren’t meant to be rituals –- they’re for security, but they end up feeling like rituals, in the same way that some of us automatically bow when we enter a meditation room. You walk up to the door, push the button, turn your back to the door, the door buzzes, and you turn around, open the door and go inside. Every time you go through a door, even on the inside, you do the same thing: you push the button, turn to face the camera, open the door, go inside.

In 1998 I spent four months co-teaching a creative writing class at a medium security prison. Once a week I drove my little Honda into the hot Central Valley (where pretty much all California’s prisons are), my chest achy and nervous every time. Walking in the first day: I passed through a series of remotely-controlled gates, each buzzing as we approached it, someone watching us on a screen somewhere, pressing a button to let us through to the next gate. Even as a visitor, you feel you have no control over what’s going on. At almost the last gate, the Director of Arts in Corrections mentioned that he was required by law to tell me that the prison policy is not to negotiate with terrorists. “We’re supposed to tell people before they come in,” he says.

And then came the thought, It’s too late to run now, all those locked gates behind me.

That confused me. On the one hand, it was sort of exciting to think that someone was legally required to warn me that if I were seized by the neck and dragged away, nothing was going to be done about it. And then came the thought, “It’s too late to run now, all those locked gates behind me.” I felt I was entering another world of wall-mounted cameras, hostages and violence; a place behind a wall of electric razor wire, with its own customs and language, that is looked upon with fear and hatred by those outside, perhaps including me.

In the US about two million people are incarcerated and the unfortunate news is that the experience tends to make them more violent . The current Sheriff of San Francisco was a prisoner’s rights attorney at our county jail in the 1970s, when it was described as a ‘monster factory’. He resolved to try to change it into a place that prepares inmates to rejoin the community, helps victims to heal and helps communities to play a role in rehabilitation. Such a system is referred to as a regime of restorative justice. This is one of the most progressive jails in the US.

So for one evening every week or two, thanks to the Prison Meditation Network, I go to the jail with a yoga teacher, do some yoga in a circle of about 15 muscle-bound, orange-clad guys, meditate, then have a discussion about meditation or whatever comes up. The class is voluntary and participants come from one of two restorative programs: one is for drug-related offences, and the other is for those in a violence-prevention program in which men confront the causes of male-role violence and work to observe, understand and modify their behavior. The programs, especially the one for violent men, are meant to provide tools to understand their conditioning, and to work more effectively with their own minds and anger. About half of these guys are in for things like violence against their wives or partners, or going against a Restraining Order.

My sister said to me: “I can’t really see what the appeal is. I would never go into a jail – it would scare me.” It was pretty scary for a while (but only when I thought about it, not when I was actually there). Part of the reason I started this was for a change from the mostly middle- class white people that show up at our Buddhist centre, even though we’re in a non-white, non-middle-class neighborhood. The most annoying thing about privileged people, at least Americans, is that we haven’t the slightest idea that we are privileged – we just expect things to be easy and to be happy, while so much of the world grinds on, often smiling, in the face of real hardship. So I like to get out of that sometimes, get a different point of view, and meditate with people whose level of engagement with meditation seems more like a necessity than just a trendy way to relax. Plus, in many ways, one’s life and one’s body are themselves a cage. I occasionally feel that, as Bo Lozoff’s book says, “We’re all doing time.”

Inmates may have done horrible things, but when they are with us they are receptive and kind, and I love them.

People who want to change, no matter where they are, are interesting. In a sense the degree to which they want to change is the degree to which they are interesting. People who realize they have made mistakes and are trying to learn are interesting. They may have done – probably did do – horrible things, but when they are with us they are receptive and kind, and I love them. It’s just that many of them are covered with tattoos and have unbelievably huge arms. And after a while I stopped noticing that.

Devi and I walk to the door of one of the dorms. The deputy yells out to the crowd: “Yoga and meditation!” A few guys shuffle up to the front. Most are clustered together watching a movie on a set high on the wall. Two African-American guys lean against the wall, missing teeth. I ask if they’re coming to yoga and meditation.

The big guy says, “What, is that like acupuncture?”

“Huh, is it like what?”

“Acupuncture. Is it like acupuncture?”

“No buddy, we ain’t going to use needles on you.”

“I know, like you know when we’re sitting around in a circle, all quiet, but without the needles.”

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s like that.”

The skinny one says he’ll come. I doubt it.

We reach the classroom, sit in a circle and check in. One guy says he has toothache. Now they’re doing yoga and I decide to opt out and meditate for an hour. Will I do it or won’t I? There aren’t as many old-timers as usual …

I remember when I started to become acquainted with the violence of my own mind…

When they’re done, I look around and say, “We’re going to do an experiment today, and you don’t have to do it if you don’t want. First we’re going to do something like singing, then we’ll do a meditation on kindness. This kind of singing or chanting comes from a particular tradition, but I want to point out that I’m not trying to force anything on anyone, or convert anyone. I know some of you are Christians, and if you like you can think of this mantra as a prayer to God. So we’re going to chant this phrase om mahnee padmay hung, which means, simply, a jewel inside a flower. It is a symbol of compassion – a symbol of human development that sees people as flowers blooming.”

So here goes: om-mahnee-padmay-hung, om-mahnee-padmay-hung, om-mahnee-padmay-hung. The white guy to my right starts laughing in an odd stop-start kind of way. I cringe inside. What if he doesn’t stop? What if no-one will join in and I am a failure? Can’t turn back now. Another guy joins the laughing guy, who now sounds slightly hysterical. I am not looking but something is definitely going on to my right, seems very bad.

I continue: om mani padme hum, the magic mantra, deep. God help me, as it were. Five minutes, that’s all we’ll do, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It feels very Buddhist to me, too much for this secular place. The sound fills the cold hallways. What if the deputies protest? Many people here are Christians.

Waiting, chanting. After about three minutes, everything goes still. There is only the mantra, deep and clear. My own mental noise has stopped, the laughing guy has stopped, no keys jangling, no doors slamming. Everything has stopped but this group of people, this rippling, low-voiced beauty. Everything changed.

After five minutes I ring the bell and the chanting fades. We cultivate an attitude of kindness towards ourselves, and then towards all beings, including our enemies. The nervousness creeps back in. Is the meditation too long? I am worried about introducing the cultivation of love, awareness of emotion, here after they’ve known only the Zen-inspired approach of ‘letting go of thoughts’. There was some shifting around during the meditation but, during the last stage, in which we focus on all beings, everyone settled down. When people seem restless in the meditation, I have learnt to take it less seriously. I figure it’s better just to carry on. I ring the bell three times … the reverberations last a long, long time.

Some people take to loving-kindness meditation like fish to water. I understand these people. They look beautiful after they meditate, like they just got back from a retreat. The skinny new guy’s eyes when they open look like he is in love, sparkling. I wonder if that was like acupuncture. I am careful not to stare at him. The white guy next to me says, “I’m sorry I was laughing, I didn’t mean any disrespect. I’m sorry. I don’t know what was going on, I couldn’t stop, I didn’t mean any disrespect. I couldn’t stop.”

The guy on the other side of him says to him, “I’m sorry I got mad.”

“That’s OK, I didn’t like it myself, I was trying to stop but I couldn’t.”

I tell him he can be kind to himself about having had that experience. It’s fine with all of us. “Yeah, it’s fine,” they all say. Everyone looks so kind.

Devi explains the physiological benefits of chanting, according to the yoga tradition. I’m glad she can do that. It sounds sensible.

Someone said he found the meditation very difficult, which I took to mean that he couldn’t engage with it. He said that during the difficult person stage, so many people flooded into his mind that he would get really angry about it, then he would get angry that he was angry, and so on. In a later class he said that his interactions with people had changed after he’d done the practice only once. He had never actually seen people as people outside of what he wanted them to be, and that he had started doing that. The change seemed tremendously painful — suddenly to have that kind of awareness, to realize how it’s been before, and to see how much painful work one has to do.

I remember when I started, against my will it seemed, to become acquainted with the violence of my own mind. I was on my first week-long retreat, and in one of the meditation sessions, my whole experience, my whole being and sense of myself, sort of filled up with awareness of hatred, and I saw with an indescribable immediacy what was underneath so much of my experience. I saw how at some level I hated myself and other people. Of course I also loved people, but I didn’t love them how I love them now. That retreat was excruciating, as were many subsequent retreats. The path to happiness can sometimes be sad.

“I really want to change,” an African-American guy says, another one who looked blissed out after the meditation. “Thank you for coming here, thank you,” he says. People are very beautiful: I have to stop myself from looking at them. Some people end up getting out of jail and losing it – stalking their ex-wives, taking drugs again, both. Some of the yoga and meditation teachers get upset when this happens. Yet, I figure, doing some productive time isn’t going to be enough for some people, perhaps most people, to transform a lifetime of addiction and violence. But while we’re in the class, there is something else going on, about peace and acceptance, something that seems to be rare – anywhere in this world.

The new guy is still sparkling. Is he in love with me? Well, the anxiety seems misplaced in the face of this beauty. The other guy I had problems with doesn’t come anymore. This guy is different. He is a flower.

Shin, the monk from the Pure Land tradition with the big Sanskrit ah tattooed on the back of his head – whose master told him he couldn’t give Dhamma talks in jail -– tells me I was chanting it too slowly. He says the resonance is right when there’s no pause. He looks extremely happy.

The guy with toothache says his pain’s gone. Another guy says his headache has gone. Another guy throws his crutches across the room, stands up and walks. Just kidding – about that last thing.

The laughing guy says, “You know, when he got mad at me, I just thought, ‘This is how people are, he can get mad, it’s OK.’ ” There but for the grace of God go I … I’ve never thought anything like that before. He looked happy, and also shocked.

Everyone looks so kind. There is love in the room. Transracial, transpenal, trans-sectarian love – the kind you can’t actually define. Devi and I are leaving now, both very happy, walking to the door, towards the big outside. And I say, “Well, that mantra was great, but I won’t do it again, or I’ll wait a year or so. There’s something not right about it here.”

I press the button and a man looking at me on a screen in a booth presses a button. The door buzzes and we are outside again. When I get home I am so happy I can’t sleep.

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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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A student asks: I want to learn how to control my anger, but it’s really hard. Any advice?

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.

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Getting to know our feelings


Buddhist author Vimalasara discusses how we respond to unwanted feelings.

When we are angry a whole host of vulnerable feelings percolates into our hearts. These are so physically uncomfortable they feel as though they are choking us, and all we want to do is move away from them rather than sit with them until we feel something else.

Our aversion to such feelings can be so strong that we believe they need brute force to push them down or purge them. In fact, I have come to realize that, if we can experience all the levels of what we are feeling, and then have the courage to acknowledge and sit with them, our uncomfortable and vulnerable feelings will not get a chance to fester in this way, and in time they disappear of their own accord.

Instead, we often use anger as a distraction from what we are feeling deeper down. Then we end up holding on to those very feelings we fear and avoid — until they become poisonous in our hearts.

So what happens in our bodies when we experience anger? First there is the trigger or the event, then comes the moment when our bodies are invaded by painful, prickly, tense, tearful — even itchy — feelings. These can feel so uncomfortable that we instinctively try to push them away.

The body is a great teacher, so it is important to recognize what is happening in our bodies. Sometimes our bodies become so tense we don’t feel they are ours any more. We can shake, get sweaty armpits, groin, and palms, feel stiff in the neck or shoulders, our hands make fists, our heart beats faster, and so on.

Alternatively, when we are angry we can become so disconnected as to be completely numb to ourselves, our feelings, and everything around us. We can’t hear ourselves think or breathe. Our feelings get lost, and we create a wall around us, not letting anybody in. Our anger keeps everything and everybody out. We can’t listen to anybody, or even consider another point of view. Some people have out of body experiences.

In response to these feelings, a critical voice often steps into our minds and tells us (in our own vernacular) that it’s ridiculous to be feeling so vulnerable, it tells us to grow up, or get a grip. Our bodies become tense during this process of trying to push down the feelings, and we feel tight — most commonly in the throat, jaw, shoulders, fists, stomach, and bowels. Our bodies tense up in order to choke back the feelings that make us feel vulnerable, shaky, and tearful. But instead of becoming lighter, and calmer, our bodies feel heavier and pumped up with adrenaline.

Here is a check list of physical responses to anger. Which ones resonate for you?

  • I feel out of breath or choked
  • my heart beats faster
  • my voice becomes high or shaky
  • I have dangerous thoughts
  • I clench my fists
  • I raise my voice
  • I wave my hands about
  • I make myself bigger
  • I grind my teeth
  • I can’t hear or see anybody else
  • I lose control

Feelings are energy. They evaporate if we trust that they will arise and cease of their own accord. We maintain the lives of our feelings by attaching them to another person, to ourselves, or to objects. Watch yourself the next time feelings of anger arise. See what you do with them and see what you attach them to.

Connecting with the physical sensations in our bodies in this way can be a strong practice. When we pay attention to our bodies, we are beginning to connect with our inner feelings. Anger is energy, and it becomes alive and toxic when we project it internally or externally.

We give our feelings longer life by attaching them to something, including ourselves, and they often turn into toxic stories that poison our hearts. For example, when feelings of anger arise, the anger becomes toxic when we place it on another human being or ourselves in the form of judgmental thoughts and interpretations. If we just sat with the feelings of anger, paying little attention to our thoughts, they would not attach to anything, and the feelings of anger would cease of their own accord. It is a practice of patience.

Learning to sit with our feelings without holding on to them, without pushing them away, without chasing after them, and trusting that they will cease is, I believe, the best teaching of all. By becoming alert early on to the fact that our body is tensing up, or becoming numb, we may be able to take preventative action. We can try to relax physically and see what effect that has on our emotions, take a few deep breaths, and slow down our thoughts. Taking deep breaths has delayed me from acting unskillfully and allowed me to pause, preventing me from saying something I might regret.

Another strong reason to take note of our bodies’ messages in this way is that our anger can manifest in more extreme forms. Most people who work in alternative therapies have found a link between anger and a number of physical illnesses and life-threatening diseases. I realize now that the back and shoulder ache I used to get was connected with my anger. I have no more pain, and when I feel my shoulders tense up I tell myself to let go. Engaging with our anger involves coming into relationship with our bodies.

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