feelings

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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Listening to our children

Listening helps children feel important, appreciated, and respected. A conversation that could have just touched the surface, deepens dramatically when we really listen to our children.

Parents who listen to their children help them to know what that have to say matters.,

Active listening is a skill that goes beyond just hearing words. It takes energy and understanding what feelings are beneath the words — the emotions and context within which the words are framed.

Here are some tips for active listening:

1. Give your child your entire attention. Don’t be thinking of what you will say when it is your turn to speak.

2. Maintain eye contact and make sure your body language shows you are listening by leaning forward.

3. Don’t multitask when you are listening – just listen to what is being said.

4. Do not get distracted by noises, people or your own thoughts.

5. Keep open to what your child is saying. If you don’t agree, take in what your child says and wait until he or she is finished before responding.

6. Ask clarifying questions without interrupting your child.

You will know you have actively listened when your child seems more at ease after your conversation. Listening to our children validates their experience.

Each evening when you put your child to sleep, ask them what was the best or hardest part of their day and really listen. Your child will know that he or she is important to you.

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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/vedanas

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.

Emotions

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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Four life lessons that bring happiness

Four cups of coffee

We all want to be happy. Book stores have aisles and aisles of self-help books, many of which include chapters on how to be happy.

Here is a list of four lessons I have learned that bring happiness:

1. Assume the best.

Recently I had a difference of opinion with a friend and was concerned that she would tell mutual friends that she was wronged by me. I was feeling defensive, but the truth was I did not know whether she had said anything to anyone about the disagreement. When I assumed the best, that she kept our interaction confidential, I felt at ease and open-hearted to her and my other friends.

2. Seek first to understand others, then seek to be understood.

When two people see things differently, both people often feel compelled to tell the other person their side so that the person will agree with them. So, what you have, is a situation where both people want to get their point across first. This can often result in one person speaking and the other person not listening and not hearing. When we first seek to understand the other person, we are open to hearing their point of view, we may learn something, we may agree, or we may disagree, but at least we listened to another point of view.

3. When people are angry, they may also feel hurt.

Recently a friend of mine lashed out at me saying, “I am angry. I do not care about my harsh language, I am mad.” She was indeed angry, but as we talked about the situation, she softened and was open to hearing that I cared about her welfare. She felt hurt by a decision that was made and felt left out. When she was yelling at me I did not feel open to hearing what she had to say. When she talked about feeling hurt, I felt open-hearted and sorry she was hurt, and so we were able to resolve what happened.

4. When two people are angry, they may both have the same feelings about what transpired.

When I have talked with people after a disagreement, and we both share our feelings, it always amazes me that we both share the same feelings. When your children are arguing, ask them what they are feeling and you will most likely find they have the same feelings. When they realize this, they will feel better toward each other.

What are some of your life lessons?

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Fear is my ally

Eagle in flight

Fearlessness isn’t the absence of fear, but the ability stay with one’s fear and use its energy wisely. Sunada explains how working with (as opposed to fighting against) our fears can point us toward our own place of freedom.

We tend to think of fear as a bad thing. Something that gets in our way. After all, one of the enlightened qualities of a Buddha is fearlessness. Doesn’t that mean we should work toward eliminating fear from our experience?

Not so fast!

Let’s think about what fear is. On one level, it’s the instinct that propels us to run when we’re in danger. Think caveman running away from tigers and bears. Heart-pounding adrenaline.

if we tone down the intensity of fearful energy and strip away our idea that it’s “bad”, we find underneath it an intrinsic motivator for actively and intelligently engaging with our world.

Now let’s dial down the intensity to normal everyday levels and remove that dreaded bite. It might help to imagine that same caveman walking through the woods without being chased, but still needing to be vigilant. What are the basic qualities at play here? I imagine he’d be mentally alert, with all his senses open and fully receptive. He’s physically alert as well -– nimble and ready to respond immediately and appropriately to any new sights and sounds. His mind would be clear and engaged. He’s in the present, and ready to deploy any of the skills and knowledge in his mental quiver. It’s his instinct and intuition that’s engaged. He’s in a state of readiness –- not to the point of hyper-anxiety –- but a clear, focused alertness that can respond intelligently to whatever comes his way.

Those qualities, I would argue, are the gifts that fear gives us. If that caveman had nothing to fear, he’d feel no motivation to be so keenly engaged. He’d just blunder through the woods, self-absorbed and doing whatever. So if we tone down the intensity of fearful energy and strip away our idea that it’s “bad”, we find underneath it an intrinsic motivator for actively and intelligently engaging with our world. It also has the potential to draw out our inner resources that we may not even be aware of. It’s a force that can move us forward.

…what we’re really afraid of are our uncomfortable feelings about the fear, not the object of the fear itself.

In our present society, fear isn’t so much about physical danger. Most of us don’t encounter bodily threats regularly like that caveman did. For us, fears are mostly of the psychological kind –- like risking a leap into a new job or relationship, or a fear of loneliness or a lack of money. But fundamentally, all fear is the same.

I think we’ve so oversold ourselves on our collective belief that fear is “bad” that it’s become a hindrance. Sure, we all encounter fear from time to time, and yes, it’s very unpleasant. But I sense that what we’re really afraid of are our uncomfortable feelings about the fear, not the object of the fear itself. We hate that gnawing in our gut so much that we try to run away from it –- an instinctive reaction from our caveman days. But we can’t run away from ourselves. Not only is it futile, it’s also self-defeating.

If we have a particular fear that comes up repeatedly for us, I think it means we’re up against a self-created wall that we know is limiting us.

If we have a particular fear that comes up repeatedly for us, I think it means we’re up against a self-created wall that we know is limiting us. We’re at a boundary and know there’s freedom on the other side. That emotional charge wouldn’t be there if that thing on the other side weren’t so important to us. But it doesn’t feel safe to go there. And the more we try to fight our fear, the more it engulfs us. It fills our minds and dictates our thoughts. We’re left immobilized, and boxed in the same old limited place. There’s an adage that goes something like “what we put our attention to is what grows.” So this is another illustration of that principle.

Rather than fighting our fear, what if we used it intelligently, like that caveman walking through the woods? When we feel fear, we’re not in any real danger in that moment, are we? So stop, take a breath, and be with the fear. When we feel that emotional charge, recognize it for what it really is –- our wish for freedom. It’s something to be welcomed, nurtured, and cherished. Let’s use it wisely.

When I listen to [my fear], it points me in no uncertain terms toward where I need to go.

So when the fear temperature rises, stay with it. But don’t fight it or indulge it. Recognize any doomsday thoughts that come up for what they are — just thoughts. In that moment, with your heightened awareness, look for what’s really calling for your attention. What’s one step we can take to move forward? As we sit, mindfully listening to our fear, we gradually loosen its hold on us. And slowly, we build our confidence to really step through to the other side, in an intelligent and grounded way.

I’ve grown to see fear as my ally. When I listen to it, it points me in no uncertain terms toward where I need to go. It’s not just any helpful direction, but the exact place where I’m most in need of breaking through. The flip side of the same coin of fear is courage, or the fearlessness of the Buddha. Ironically the more I embrace my fear, the more strongly I connect with those little wisps of courage I can find within me.

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Elizabeth Appell: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”

Elizabeth Appell, who is not Anais Nin

I sometimes think that my life has proceeded by way of a series of breakdowns and reconstructions. Such episodes haven’t exactly been frequent in my life, but they have represented important turning points. There have been three times I can recall where I’ve hit emotional bottom, learned something important about myself, and found a release that led to significant growth taking place.

In each case there had been a long period of holding on to some pattern that had been causing me pain (usually unacknowledged). I’d been a tightly-closed bud. This was followed by a catalyzing event (in each case it involved being on retreat) in which I became fully aware of the pain I’d been causing myself. The pain of remaining closed became too much. Then there was a grand finale of emotional release and a spiritual awakening into greater wholeness and well-being. The bud opened, albeit painfully. Elizabeth Appell (aka Lassie Benton)’s quotation* — “…the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” — seems to perfectly encapsulate that process.

…to my surprise, I found myself overcome by emotion. I’d try to say something and the words would get stuck in my throat, turning into inarticulate sobs.

I realized how important friendship was to me a few years after taking up Buddhist practice. I was on a retreat which had the theme of spiritual friendship (coincidentally the theme of last month’s blog). As part of the retreat we studied a series of talks on the theory and practice of friendship, or kalyana mitrata, and we also spent time with each other, as we do in my tradition, getting to know one other and developing friendships. (It’s not like that in all Buddhist traditions — sometimes retreatants are not allowed to talk to each other or even to make eye contact). All of that was great — the part of the retreat I was anxious about was where we were going to talk in small groups about the spiritual friendships in our lives.

Basically I thought that it just hadn’t happened for me — that spiritual friendship just wasn’t a significant part of my life. I mentioned the word anxiety in relation to this part of the retreat, but it wasn’t the terror of public speaking or the nervousness one experiences about revealing oneself to relative strangers that I was experiencing, it was more a kind of embarrassment at not having anything to say, while everyone else (I imagined) would.

The evening arrived when it was my turn to share and I started off by apologizing that I wasn’t going to be able to say much. But there were a few people who had helped me or attempted to befriend me, to various degrees of success, and I thought that I should at least say something about them. And to my surprise, I found myself overcome by emotion. I’d try to say something and the words would get stuck in my throat, turning into inarticulate sobs. I’d collect myself, let the emotion subside to the point where I could speak once again, and the same thing would happen again. And again.

Loneliness became my defense against loneliness.

I realized a number of things. I’d remained tight in a bud. I’d come to Buddhist practice because of painful experiences in which I’d lost friends and experienced loneliness and suffering. Those experiences revealed the world to be an unreliable place, and I was looking for a spiritual tradition that emphasized looking within for happiness. I thought that with Buddhism I’d found a way to close myself off from the world. A famous Buddhist saying was “Fare lonely as a rhinoceros horn.” And inspired by this kind of thinking I’d been resistant to opening up to friends. I was guarded and wary, and suspicious of looking outside of myself for happiness and well-being.

The isolation I was imposing upon myself created a deep sense of loneliness, but I managed to avoid acknowledging those feelings. After all I didn’t want to take the risk of developing and losing friends again. Loneliness became my defense against loneliness. So remaining tight in a bud was painful. But not painful enough to make me change.

It was in the very act of communicating with others that I came into a more intimate contact with myself.

It took two weeks spent on retreat, reflecting upon friendship — and more importantly experiencing friendship in the form of the small group in which we were sharing our stories — before I could really start to experience the pain of the closed bud. I always think it’s very significant that it was in the very act of communicating with others that I came into a more intimate contact with myself, that the moment in which I started to open up to others was the moment in which I opened up to myself and acknowledged my pain.

But the bud was now opening.

Difficult though it was to experience the pain that I’d managed up to that point to avoid, there was also a sense of the light finally making its way into the heart of the bud. I experienced gratitude towards those who had been kind to me in the past and who had tried to be a friend to me. And I could see how I’d limited myself, and how I could no longer keep doing that. I’d seen the risk of remaining tightly closed, and it wasn’t a risk I was prepared to take. I’d been stuck, but now (for a time at least) I was unstuck, free, an open and opening bud.

And in that moment, as I sat in a circle, I realized that I was being fully accepted. No one was judging me. No one was thinking less of me for having been a closed bud, or for having shown my vulnerability. Instead they were quietly and compassionately being there for me. We were a circle of opening buds, all of us having decided that the risk of remaining closed to each other was greater than the risk of opening up. We were open to each other, blossoming. And the reward of that was more than worth the pain of having opened up.


* This quote was originally attributed to Anais Nin, but it appear that these words are not found among her works and that the quote was actually composed by Elizabeth Appell (aka Lassie Benton). You can read the story here.

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Anne Morrow Lindbergh: “If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others…”

anne morrow lindbergh

Lindbergh’s comment reminds me that being fully aware of others involves awareness of oneself. There’s nothing particularly mystical about this — it’s just a question of psychology and neurophysiology. And without this awareness of oneself, friendship is simply impossible.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh said, “If one is estranged from oneself, then one is estranged from others too. If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others…”

On a psychological level, next time you’re interacting with someone, pay attention to what’s happening on a gut level. You’ll notice that there are sensations in the body, mostly focused on the abdomen, that arise in response to the other person. In Buddhist terminology these are vedanas, which are often translated as “feelings.” Vedanas are not emotions, but are a basic response to perceptions. These responses are traditionally categorized as pleasurable, uncomfortable, or neutral.

Have you ever had an intuition about another person? Perhaps you’ve suspected they’re not telling the truth, although you can’t quite say why. Or perhaps you’ve had a sense that there’s something wrong, even though the other person hasn’t said anything overtly to indicate that. What’s happening is that you’re noticing, although perhaps not very consciously, vedanas that are arising in response to your contact with that other person.

I dreamed that I went to visit him in hospital, and as I got close to his bedside he turned into a demon…

At one time I was running a retreat center which was short-staffed. While I was on retreat elsewhere, I had a conversation with a very charming man who not only had all the qualifications and experience we needed, but who really wanted to move to a retreat center. I was really thrilled to have had such a chance encounter. That night, though, I dreamed that I went to visit him in hospital, and as I got close to his bedside he turned into a demon who grabbed hold of me and started twisting my limbs in all directions — much further than they could move in real life. I was completely helpless and worried that I was going to be severely injured. Needless to say, I woke up in a panic.

Unfortunately I ignored my instincts and we hired him. And my dream turned out to be remarkably prescient. He turned out to be a former drug addict with something of a split personality. Some days he was charming, kind, and thoughtful. Other days he was brooding, unreasonable, and cynical. You never knew whether you were going to meet Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. And life with him (or them) felt just like being grabbed by a demon who was twisting me around.

I’d ignored my intuition. Looking back I realize that I’d had a sense of unease right from the start. He’d been too charming. Something was a bit unreal about the way he interacted. I’d known that, but I’d ignored it. I’d ignored it because we we so desperate for staff. My subconscious had decided to step things up a gear and to make the message very clear in the form of a dream image — but then on retreat you can often have odd dreams, and a lot of my dream life featured demons at that time in my life.

Being out of touch with myself was a big mistake. Had I paid attention to my initial unacknowledged vedanas, which were whispering “there’s something wrong here — look deeper” I’d have saved myself, and others, from a lot of suffering.

In any given situation the mind is busy evaluating, on an unconscious level, what’s going on.

In any given situation the mind is busy evaluating, on an unconscious level, what’s going on. When you’re with another person you’re picking up on cues such as their tone of voice, the things they say (and don’t say), their posture, and even their breathing rate and the bloodflow to their facial skin. Research by Paul Ekman has also shown that we can pick up on what he calls “micro-expressions” — brief movements in the muscles on the face that reveal what’s going on inside, even if the other person is trying to disguise their true emotional state, and possibly even if they’re unaware of some of their emotions.

We can train ourselves to notice such things on a conscious level (and therapists and law-enforcement officers often do), but mostly we process all of this below the level of consciousness. While we’re busy concentrating on the actual content of a conversation there’s a whole world of activity going on below. It’s as if the conscious mind is the office of the CEO, up on the 20th floor, while down below there are another 19 floors of workers, busy collecting and processing information, having meetings to decide what’s important, and — where necessary — sending memos to the boss. Those memos are our vedanas, which might manifest as a feeling of unease, or discomfort, or frustration, or anxiety, or a feeling of pleasure, or a warm glow, or boredom.

And we may or may not pay attention to those feelings. Sometimes we’re so caught up in rational thought that we don’t pay attention to the messages from below. Sometimes we’ve even developed a habit of ignoring the body and its feelings.

Being in touch with our feelings can be a way of connecting more deeply with others, however, and not just a way of avoiding getting into painful situations! Sometimes when talking with others there will be a pang at a gut level — something akin to a feeling of pain. And if we pay attention to this we may be impelled to ask the other person if there’s something wrong. An opportunity for compassion has arisen. It’s this sensitivity to our responsiveness to others that makes friendship possible. Awareness of self — at least in a certain way — is awareness of the other. Awareness of the other is awareness of oneself.

Sometimes we’re so caught up in rational thought that we don’t pay attention to the messages from below.

On a neurophysiological level, what’s happening is that our mirror neurons are providing us with information about the other person. Mirror neurons are what allow us to connect with others — without them we’d effectively be autistic. I watch with amazement as my 19-month-old daughter sees and hears me saying a word and is able to reproduce it for the first time. How does she do this? How is she able to have a visual and auditory impression of me speaking and translate that into a physical pattern of movements in the diaphragm, larynx, tongue, lips, etc — all beautifully coordinated. It’s her mirror neurons that allow her to do this. And it’s my mirror neurons that allow me to share her joy at mastering a new word, or to empathize with her when she’s scared. Mirror neurons, it seems, are what allow us to connect with each other. I have no doubt whatsoever that they are involved in generating vedanas.

One last word of caution, however. Vedanas may be messages from the intel agents, analysts, number crunchers and committees that inhabit floors 1 to 19. But the memos they send up to the executive suit on the 20th floor are often cryptic: “sadness,” or “hurt,” or “this is fun!” Our executive levels have first of all to notice those messages and then to interpret them. Why do I feel uncomfortable at a given moment in a situation? If it because the other person has said something I have doubts about? Perhaps they’re making an assumption I disagree with? Or perhaps they’ve hit on an uncomfortable truth, something I’d rather not hear? The inarticulate speech from the lower floors needs careful interpretation. And this is something best done in dialog: “There’s something I feel a bit uncomfortable with here — can you say a bit more about what you mean?”

This too brings us closer to others. In noticing our vedanas and expressing them skillfully, we learn to look deeper, and come to know others more deeply. Awareness of self is awareness of the other. Awareness of the other is awareness of oneself.

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Getting to know our feelings

Vimalasara

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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Lyman Abbott: Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry.

Lyman Abbott

Once when I was listening to the Dalai Lama talk in Edinburgh, he was asked a question that went something like this: “You keep talking about changing the world through meditation and compassion, but isn’t anger faster?” His Holiness answered to the effect that it’s precisely because anger acts so swiftly that we have to be wary of it.

His Holiness’s reply reveals Buddhism’s ambivalent attitude to the emotion of anger. Anger’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it can accomplish a lot of good in the world. Anger can simply be a passionate response to something that we know in our hearts is wrong. His Holiness has himself admitted that he frequently feels angry when he thinks about injustice, and particularly the way that the Communist Chinese have treated his homeland and his people. It’s natural — and even right — for us to feel anger in such circumstances. We’d scarcely be human if we didn’t.

At the same time, anger can be such a powerful force that we lose our mindfulness and find that the heart has become filled with ill will or hatred, which is a desire to hurt others. We move from being angry to wanting to punish or wanting revenge. Just as the Dalai Lama says he experiences anger towards the Chinese, he also says he holds no hatred for them in his heart.

The difference between hatred and anger

Hatred, with its inherent desire to hurt and damage others is never seen in Buddhist practice as being an appropriate response. Anger may be passionate and fiery, but it simply wants to remove an obstacle or to change things for the better, not to hurt.

Yet although anger and hatred are different emotions — one potentially skillful, the other very definitely unskillful — many people fail to see the distinction. The experience of being angry — the sense of physical arousal, the quickened pulse, the tingling in the hands as we prepare for action — is in many ways very similar to the experience of hatred. And anger, once aroused, can easily lead to the less healthy emotion of hatred, just as a campfire can lead to a forest conflagration.

Seven steps to a healthier relationship with anger

So how can we teach children — and ourselves — to experience anger in a healthy way? Here are seven steps to a healthier relationship with anger.

1. Accept your anger

First, we can learn to accept that anger is a normal, healthy, and potentially creative form of energy. Too often we’ve been taught, as Abbott suggests, that anger is something to be avoided and believe that we’ve failed when anger has stirred. When we try to confine our anger it’s inclined to burst out uncontrollably, or to gnaw us away from the inside, as resentment. When we accept our anger we can relate to it in a more healthy way.

2. Breathe

Second, breathe! Create a sense of space between you and your emotions by breathing deeply into the belly. Connecting with the body helps stop our emotions spiraling out of control, keeps them in perspective, and helps us to calm down so that we don’t do or say anything rash. If you’re angry when you receive an email, don’t reply at once but wait until you’ve had time to quiet your mind and reflect more calmly.

3. Take responsibility for your anger

Third, we can appreciate that our anger is our anger. Other people don’t make us angry. Our anger is not their fault. Our anger, rather, is our response to our interpretation of our experience. We need to own our anger and to see that it’s something we’ve given rise to, ourselves.

4. Distinguish anger and hatred

Fourth, we can learn to recognize the difference between anger and hatred. To do this requires a great deal of introspective practice, especially since it’s harder to be mindful when our energy is aroused in anger. We have to examine our motivations, our thoughts, and our words: Do we have a desire to hurt? Do we use belittling, condescending, or insulting language? Are we fixated on winning at any cost? Do we distort the truth? Do we still feel a basic sense of sympathy, friendliness, and compassion towards our opponent?

5. Acknowledge your hurt

Fifth, we can acknowledge our hurt. Often anger arises in response to a sense of hurt. Even when someone else has suffered an injustice, this can lead to a sense of hurt arising in our own experience. And that in turn can lead to anger. When we mindfully acknowledge the sense of hurt that we ourselves are experiencing we find that we’re less inclined to lash out.

6. Let go

Sixth, we have to be prepared to let go of our anger. Healthy anger arises quickly and departs quickly. It doesn’t hang around and fester.

7. Cultivate lovingkindness

Seventh, and lastly, we can cultivate lovingkindness in our meditation practice and in daily life. As we go about our daily activities we can repeat phrases such as “May you be well; may you be happy; may you live in peace.” The basic sense of sympathy that this practice helps cultivate makes it easier to avoid anger in the first place and makes it possible for us to experience anger “cleanly,” without it slipping into hatred.

These seven steps can help us to experience anger less frequently, less intensely, and more cleanly. Rather than experiencing anger as a destructive force we can use it creatively. Rather than our anger hurting people it can become a powerful tool for putting our compassion into action.

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Albert Einstein: “The leader is one who, out of the clutter, brings simplicity .. out of discord, harmony … and out of difficulty, opportunity”

Einstein

Let me acknowledge, 14 years after writing this article, that this quote is almost certainly not by Einstein, but is more likely to be John Archibald Wheeler’s assessment of how Einstein worked. Back in those days I hadn’t realized that many of the quotes we encounter on the web, including on quotation sites, are misattributed or fabricated. Having offered that mea culpa, here’s the original article.

Out of Clutter Find Simplicity

Work life is messy – not just the untidiness of papers stacked in an in-tray or equipment that hasn’t been put back in its place – the whole thing is incredibly messy because life itself is complex. There’s so much choice, so many decisions to make. There are so many things you could be doing, so much information you could be paying attention to, so many people who you could be networking with.

In our working lives we have to make a conscious effort to stay on track. This job is fun but neither urgent nor important. That job is a chore but it’s crucial. And this other thing isn’t even work!

And this sifting through the myriad possibilities and choosing which to engage with is – potentially – a spiritual practice. When we have a sense of who we want to become, what we want to achieve, what legacy we want to leave behind, and when we consider what we need to be doing right now to make our goals a reality, making decisions becomes much easier. This kind of mental clarity, this constant bearing in mind of our goals, is a vital aspect of spiritual practice. Mindfulness practice can give us the mental space to create order out of the clutter or our lives.

See also:

From Discord Find Harmony

More than anything else the emotional tone of our relations with others is what determines whether we are thrilled to be at work or whether we drag ourselves to the workplace each day with a sinking heart.

It takes a lot to get on with other people. It’s not easy. More than anything we have to actually want harmony, and that in itself is tough. It’s so easy to blame others when relationships go sour. So developing harmony involves first of all recognizing that we have to take responsibility for the quality of our relationships. Sure, there are at least two parties involved but you can never demand that someone else change. You’re the only person that you have control over.

It takes integrity – deciding not to engage in backbiting, deciding to refrain from exaggerating, deciding to focus on what’s most admirable in others.

It takes wisdom – learning to recognize which battles you can win and what you should let slide.

It takes empathy and compassion – realizing that the behavior we find difficult in others is their own response to suffering, their own reaching out for happiness.

Lovingkindness and compassion meditation can help us to find the empathy and generosity of spirit to create harmony in our relationships.

In the Middle of Difficulty Lies Opportunity

It’s a cliché to say that difficulties are opportunities in disguise. But one reason that sayings become clichés is simply because they’re so true that people keep repeating them. Another one reason we call saying “clichés” is that we often don’t quite want to believe them. It’s easier to roll our eyes: “Yeah, yeah, that old cliché.”

So let’s just set aside our protective cynicism for a moment. Think of the one thing that you know would make most difference in your life or work – the thing that you never quite get around to doing. Maybe it’s finding more time to reflect, maybe it’s delegating a responsibility, maybe it’s fixing your filing system and getting your desk cleared; you know it would help but you never quite get around to doing it.

Let’s avoid the avoidance game of analyzing in exhausting detail exactly why we never get around to doing this discomfort-generating task. Let’s just say that we’re going to accept that discomfort is okay – that we’re going to be prepared to learn the art of being comfortable with discomfort. Think about that task, and feel the discomfort, acknowledging that it’s there and that it’s okay for it to be there. And then start doing that task.

This is what we call mindfulness – the ability to non-judgmentally notice what’s going on in our experience: the ability to stand back from our experience so that we have freedom of choice, feeling the discomfort but not being controlled by it.

OK, it’s time for me to go clear that desk!

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