Mindfulness of Anger

Photo by Heather M Edwards

There’s a lot to be angry about in the world and it feels like it’s coming to a head, yet again. Many of us have been feeling threatened, worried about meeting basic needs, or morally injured by the ongoing mistreatment of vulnerable beings. In response to the outrage that is being deeply felt within us and expressed all around us, some of us might be asking “Is this anger useful?”

Like any emotion, for those who practice mindfulness, anger can act as a signal to look inward. The willingness to explore painful emotions offers an opportunity to learn more about ourselves so that we can respond to experience in ways that are most beneficial. I like to think of anger as a motivating force, which helps me to see it as neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, in and of itself. When unexamined; however, this energy can act as a fuel for the flames of inner and outer destruction.

It is not the anger… that will destroy us but our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment. – Audre Lord

If you practice mindfulness of anger, you will likely notice a circumscribed set of internal experiences associated with this emotion. There will be a cluster of physical sensations, often centered in a particular part of the body. Many of us notice muscle tension, increased heart rate and respiration, and a feeling of being energized. These physical sensations are related to changes happening in the brain, largely due to the release of stress hormones. In addition to physical symptoms that we can experience viscerally, these brain changes can alter our behavior. Understanding the physiology behind anger is an important part of learning how to work with it. Research has shown that strong anger is associated with:

  • decreases in self-monitoring capacity, attention to detail, objectivity, and ability to exert cognitive control over behavior. Suppressed activity in the prefrontal cortex makes it harder to think rationally and plan a response.
  • a weakening of short term memory and ability to form new memories due to suppressed activity in the hippocampus.
  • increased sensitivity to pain and decreased sense of wellbeing due to decreases in availability of serotonin in the brain.
  • attentional bias toward anger provoking stimuli and memories.
  • minimization of risk and tendency to make riskier decisions. 
  • decreased trust in others
  • decreased likelihood to attribute good qualities to perceived “outsiders” and a tendency to blame others’ behavior on character rather than circumstances (correspondence or attribution bias).
  • increased reliance on stereotypes and tendency to blame others for personal distress.

We must understand that anger, which is an emotion, is different from aggression or violence, which are behaviors. The two don’t have to go together. Anger is also different from hatred. Audre Lord wrote in The Uses of Anger, “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.”

There is such a thing as righteous anger, because that is not about you and your personal ego; it really is the anger you’re feeling on the behalf of the vulnerable. – Dekila Chungyalpa, Loka Initiative

So how does anger slide into hatred, aggression, and even violence? Violence can be the explosive consequence of prolonged suppression, when efforts at pushing it down, distracting from it, or ignoring it no longer work. It can also arise out of mistaken beliefs we harbor that fuel our fire. The labels for these beliefs are drawn from Cognitive Behavior Therapy resources. While its possible for some of the beliefs listed below to reflect reality under certain circumstances, when they become a rigid and entrenched way of relating with the world, they can lead to much suffering:

  • Eternalism – a belief that things should always remain the same.
  • Catastrophizing – appraising situations in terms of worst case scenario.
  • Inflammatory Labeling – using offensive language or emotionally charged terms to describe people or events.
  • Overgeneralizing – categorizing broadly, using terms like always, never, everybody, nobody, totally, completely, all, none, etc.
  • Personalization – habitually self-referencing. For example always asking “What does this have to do with me?” “What does this mean about me?” “How will this affect me?”
  • Jumping to Conclusions – misattributing causes to negative interpretations about other people or the world to the exclusion of other possibilities or disconfirming evidence.
  • Unreasonable Demands – having unrealistic expectations for how others should behave or placing one’s needs or desires over others.

The only way we can know if we’re suppressing powerful emotions or operating from mistaken assumptions is by paying attention to our inner experience. Mindfulness and meditation teacher Lama Rod Owens said “anywhere we’re at is where we need to be and where we’re being taught something we need to learn.” He said true suffering arises out of the aversion or lack of willingness to be with pain.

Next time you feel angry, which may be right now considering the current social climate, I invite you to notice the body sensations, thoughts, and underlying emotions that accompany it. See if you can notice the good intentions underneath it so you can hold it with kindness. Ask yourself if there is anything you need to do to take care of yourself before reacting. Then inquire into whether the action you’d like to take is in alignment with your deepest values and likely to result in the outcome you desire.

In non-attachment the river-life of emotion continues, only our relationship to it alters. The response to the passions isn’t driven by the small self’s benefit, but turns instead toward all beings’ well-being. – Jane Hirshfield, San Francisco Zen Center (2018)

Working Skillfully With Anger

Mindfulness teacher Rhonda V Magee reminds us that anger is appropriate in the face of social injustice and teaches us to allow it rather than push it away or clinging to it. She teaches us that we can transform it by channeling it into a desire for personal awakening or motivation to take skillful action in the world.

Maybe the most difficult part of working skillfully with anger is recognizing it early enough that we can pause and make space for exploration. We may have to take action to care for ourselves first so that we are resourced enough to really connect with it. Next we can do our best to cultivate a willingness and openness to stay with painful feelings in a compassionate way, so we might know them more intimately. Once our window of presence is expansive enough to explore deeply, we might consider the intentions behind our anger. Understanding our intentions allows us to choose responses that are more likely to get our needs met. Are we:

  • trying to get basic needs met, such as food, shelter, medical care, safety and protection from physical harm, or living a life of dignity and meaning?
  • seeking short term gratification through punishment, retribution, revenge, shaming or condemning rather than repair, restoration or rehabilitation?
  • avoiding less preferred or more painful feelings?
  • defending our ego through self-righteousness or attempting to appear beyond reproach?
  • seeking affiliation and belonging or avoiding social rejection by making our allegiances clearly known and alienating those we perceive as “the other”?

Psychologist Russell Kolts in his TED talk titled Anger, Compassion, and What It Means To Be Strong writes in the comments section, “…once we’ve slowed things down a bit and have some space, we can ask some questions… like:

  • What does this situation feel like to the other people involved? How does it make sense to them? 
  • What would help me to feel safe and to be at my best as I work with this situation?
  • If I was at my very best: my kindest, my wisest, my most courageous, confident, and compassionate, how would I make sense of this situation? What would I understand? What would that compassionate version of me feel, think, and want to do? 

Then, we can try acting from that perspective – letting our actions be guided from that compassionate self.”

Christopher Germer, co-developer of the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program suggests three questions (paraphrased here) we can ask ourselves to check in with our intentions:

  1. Is hatred driving our speech and actions?
  2. Is a feeling of moral superiority arising?
  3. Do we merely want others to feel pain? Will our speech and actions cause further suffering, especially over the long term?

I would also add a fourth question, “Is there aversion here?” Are we avoiding the hard work of sorting through complex issues or the unpleasantness of facing painful realities? If we are answering in the affirmative to any of these questions, it’s worth taking a closer look at our intentions and our chosen course of action.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that skillfully working with anger requires a willingness to be with and understand it. Roshi Joan Halifax, the Abbot at Upaya Institute, says anger and outrage can “inspire us to take action; to be a force for good”, but we can’t let it overwhelm us. Anger can motivate us to principled social action and it can also be the cause of personal and social suffering- both “peril and possibility, suffering and freedom”. According to Roshi, “mental states are also ecosystems. These sometimes friendly and at times hazardous terrains are natural environments embedded in the greater system of our character. I believe it is important to study our inner ecology so that we can recognize when we are on the edge, in danger of slipping from health into pathology. And when we do fall into the less habitable regions of our minds, we can learn from these dangerous territories… excluding any part of the larger landscape of our lives reduces the territory of our understanding.”

May I be strong in the face of hate and may my resolve never falter.
May I seek justice with mercy and embrace righteousness and equity.
May I be a source of compassion and kindness and hope.
May I be a pursuer of peace.

Eva Sivan

Self-Study Resources

Anger, Compassion, and What It Means To Be Strong by Russell Kolts

Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger by Lama Rod Owens

The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness by Rhonda Magee

Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet by Roshi Joan Halifax

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