From Anger to Transformation
When I was about ten years old, my father had a rare moment of lucidity and told me the story of how anger had ruined his life. This was far from a perfect transmission of wisdom, he couldn't name the life serving purpose of anger and I was a bit young for the horrifying details he shared. At the same time, I could see how anger was starting to affect my own life and in that moment I made a vow to be free from the damaging effects of anger. I began the first mindfulness practice of my life. With every sign of irritation or impatience, I paused and relaxed. Over the years anger storms faded and bursts of anger became rare. Today anger, irritation, and impatience are still rare states. When they do arise, they get my full attention, because I know it means something important must be happening.
Alerting you to something important is the purpose of anger. Anger is meant to get you focused so that you can handle a possible life threatening situation. This acute and occasional instance of anger shows that you are engaged and you care. Naturally, with support from this anger cue, you turn your attention to the event that triggered you. Hopefully, you attempt to get clear about what's happening. That is, you make sure you haven't misinterpreted someone's actions. Once you are clear about the difference between the facts and your interpretations, you focus on the universal needs or values that are at stake in the situation.
In situations in which you are clear about the facts and you are still angry, a certain level of anger may stay present until you take action to meet the need or attend to the value. This is especially true in situations where someone has crossed your boundary. In other words, the anger alarm keeps sounding until you take action to change the situation, like a fire alarm that sounds as long as there is still smoke.
Unfortunately, anger isn't always this simple. Sometimes anger isn't just a response to the present situation. Rather, it fires up a whole network of related past pain, memories, mental habits, and physical habits. At age ten I was on my way to creating some strong angry habits of mind and body. Fortunately, with a wake up call from my dad, I was able to interrupt that particular line of habits. Without that I would likely be struggling with frequent anger today.
If you struggle with anger that comes up often or comes up infrequently but when it does, it hangs out for long periods, then you might be working with well worn habits. Even though you may work through the NVC process with anger*, you might find that it still takes days or even months to dissolve it. What's likely happening is that you are triggering a cascade of angry habits over and over again through the repetition of angry thoughts, a tense posture, a clenched jaw, a violent image, a memory, and/or a sharp energy. As long as this is happening unconsciously, you have no choice about it, you just still feel angry and don't know why. When you bring these habits into conscious awareness, you can bring compassion to these habits and begin to interrupt them through simple practices like breathing, chanting, visualization, receiving empathy from another, progressive muscle relaxation, etc. The important thing to remember is that this is a practice that will take time and consistent attention for the habits to change.
The first piece is choosing to perceive the signs and symptoms of anger as your cue to practice mindfulness. Each time you bring compassion and your full attention to these signs and symptoms more and more of the unconscious habits will become conscious. A sharp tone with your partner, an outburst at a glitch in technology, a moment of tensing up with impatience, all lead to your practice. Maybe a practice sounds something like this: "Getting angry. That's okay. Let me just feel my body and notice where I am tensing up. Breathing, focusing completely one full inhale and one full exhale. What was I thinking just now? Was I replaying an old memory or rehearsing how I want to tell someone off? That's okay. Whatever I notice is okay. Now I am going to take just a few seconds relax my jaw and listen to the wind in the trees."
Whatever practice you choose, it needs to be clear and do-able enough to replace the angry habit. Telling yourself to calm down is not a clear and do-able practice. In fact it often triggers a clamping down rather than creating calm. If you can't describe exactly what you are doing in your practice then you are likely holding an aspiration to change, but not actually practicing a behavior that replaces the angry behavior.
Habits are often associated with suffering, but actually it is one of the most powerful tools for relief from suffering that you have. Because of the power of habits every moment that you engage your mindfulness practice, the next moment is conditioned with just a little more mindfulness, the next with more and so on eventually creating a consistent sense of freedom and peaceful presence.
Take a moment now and reflect on a habit you might like to change, whether it be about anger or something else. Choose a specific do-able mindfulness practice for the coming week or if you are currently engaged in one, reflect on it and see if you would like to make changes or simply recommit.
*You can find a NVC process with anger here: http://www.wiseheartpdx.org/post/206