Anger Management with Mindfulness: Cooling the Fires of Irritation

Anger Management with Mindfulness: Cooling the Fires of Irritation

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In this article, we’ll discuss some very effective anger management with mindfulness tips and tricks, that everyone can use to control their anger and cool the fires of irritation.

Anger is a complex human experience involving every feature of our being: our bodies, our minds, and our emotions. The mindfulness tradition regards anger as an unwholesome state of being that is both a cause and a manifestation of dukkha.

Despite its negative quality, however, the tradition also sees anger as a potential ally in the realization of freedom from suffering. If we know how to handle it skillfully, anger has much to teach us and can point the way to new insights and more wholesome ways of living.

(Also Read: Twenty Ways to Improve Your Mental Health)

I.      Anger Management with Mindfulness Tip #1: Anger and Suffering

Anger can be defined as the feeling of displeasure, usually accompanied by antagonism. It encompasses a wide range of experiences from simple irritation and annoyance to rage and fury.

Most of the time, we experience anger as unpleasant. Our heart rate and blood pressure can increase dramatically, and our muscles can become tense and spasmodic. Our emotions become raw, and our facial expressions may contort. We are unable to think clearly.

Anger can also be dangerous. Because it clouds our thoughts, it can incite us to act in ways we later regret. In a state of anger, we can easily say and do hurtful things and even take the life of another.

Anger is a cause of much of the world’s suffering. The mindfulness tradition reminds us, furthermore, that anger itself is a form of suffering. Those who inflict pain out of anger are also the sufferers of its torment.

Like other forms of suffering, anger is closely connected to attachment, the way we cling to the various items of our experiences if we can’t live without them. Anger often arises when something to which we’re attached is threatened or is taken away from us.

Although anger is considered an unwholesome state because it causes and manifests suffering, the experience of anger itself is not a problem—or, perhaps, it doesn’t have to be a problem.

Anger is nothing more than an unpleasant feeling coupled with negative thoughts and certain bodily responses. The real problem with anger is how we react to those unpleasant feelings, thoughts, and sensations.

II.   Anger Management with Mindfulness Tip #2: Anger and Mindlessness

In mindlessness, we’re liable to react to anger in one of two basic ways. The first is to suppress the anger—to deny it and pretend it’s not there. We can get so good at this technique that it becomes automatic, and we’re not even aware of it.

The other basic reaction is to express anger immediately. As the subjective experience of anger, the expression of anger can take a wide range of forms. The reflexive expression of anger can also become habitual.

Both ways of reacting to anger are usually conditioned by our upbringing and other circumstances, and both have potentially hazardous consequences. The suppression of anger may allow us to feel composed and to avoid conflict—for a while, but this strategy doesn’t work for long.

Anger that is not given attention does not go away. Eventually, unacknowledged anger may turn to rage or cynicism, erupt in violent acts, or cast us into a pit of depression and despair.

The reflexive expression of anger tends to be a more acceptable reaction in our culture, especially for men, and it’s even endorsed by some schools of psychotherapy.

III. Anger Management with Mindfulness Tip #3: Anger and Mindfulness

From the mindfulness point-of-view, the expression of anger— whether by word or deed—often ends up reinforcing negative states of mind, and it fails to address anger’s deeper causes. Just as suppressing anger may afford a temporary respite from its unpleasantness, so too may expressing it.

Neither suppression nor expression is genuinely effective at removing the potential perils of anger or its root causes. Hostility begets more hostility.

With practice, it’s possible to find a way beyond automatically suppressing anger or reflexively expressing it. The techniques for dealing with anger more appropriately are founded directly on the basic methods of meditation.

IV.   Anger Management with Mindfulness Tip #4: Responding to Anger Skilfully with Mindfulness

The first step in the process of responding skilfully to anger when it arises is being able to know when you’re angry. Many of us simply cannot identify anger as it occurs.

Meditation is an important instrument in learning to identify anger. Of key significance is the skill of non-judgmental observation, the basic technique of watching what happens as it happens.

In identifying anger, the skills we gain in the body scan meditation can help us monitor how our physical natures are responding in a difficult situation. Try to note the patterns of your physical responses that coordinate with the feelings of displeasure that suggest anger.

Identifying anger is the first step. The second is accepting it. Because it can be such an unpleasant state, we often treat anger as we do other unwanted experiences: We try to distance ourselves from it as rapidly as possible.

At this stage of aversion, our conditioned reflexes usually come into play. We immediately suppress or express our feelings as a way to get rid of them. Both reactions intend to accomplish the same thing: to bring relief to the unwelcome experience of displeasure.

Mindfulness practice encourages us to approach all our experiences—wanted and unwanted—with equanimity. We try neither to cling to nor run away from our experiences, regardless of their quality.

The aversion that results in the reflexive suppression or expression of anger, however, disturbs that equanimity. Rather than seeking to eliminate the unpleasantness of anger, the Equanimeous approach is to allow and accept it. We might even say we should welcome it.

However, we must also be careful here. Acceptance doesn’t mean that we necessarily want anger; that could be a form of desire that is just as dangerous as aversion. Anger can still be an unwanted experience—even when you accept it.

Acceptance is simply the willingness to be attentive to our anger to see what it wants. Just observe and treat it compassionately. This allows you to experience anger as fully as possible. The more completely you can feel anger, the less you will fear it. When we become familiar with anger, we’re less apt to try to eliminate it when it arises.

It is crucial to realize, however, that feeling anger is not the same as acting on it. Recognizing this distinction creates the mental spaciousness that allows us to be more conscious about how we choose to respond.

In the mindless state, we react to anger reflexively, without conscious choice, but mindfulness allows us to make a deliberate decision about the course of action we should take in the face of anger.

As we noted when discussing skillful speech, just because our anger may urge us to respond to an insult with another insult does not mean we have to do it. We’re not obliged to follow this impulsive prompting.

Instead, we can allow angry thoughts and sensations to arise and fall away, giving us the time to consider a more appropriate response. We may need to take time away from the heat of the moment to reflect on a wise response.

It may be that after fully experiencing your anger and assessing your options, you choose to speak sharply. You might even return insult for insult. The difference is that you have made a choice and have not reacted by impulse.

When you create space for reflection, you will be far less likely to act in a hostile way. Over time, the insights you gain through meditation and compassion exercises will reveal that antagonistic responses are never the most suitable ones.

In rare instances, we might decide that the appropriate response to anger is to cause bodily harm to another person. What can make such a response appropriate is when it does not arise from self-centered desires and is not carried out with hostility.

Note: If you have difficulty knowing if you’re angry, giving attention to your body is a good place to start.

V.      Anger Management with Mindfulness Tip #5: Anger and Meditation

Meditation not only helps us deal with our anger as it arises; it can also help us cultivate a mind that is slow to anger, thus preparing us for anger before it arises.

After practicing meditation for a significant period, you may begin to discover that you’re less prone to getting angry, even though you’ve made no particular efforts to manage your anger. This occurs because our state of mind is an essential factor in determining whether or not we become angry.

A properly cared for the mind is less apt to respond to certain situations with anger—or, if it does, the degree of anger can be greatly lessened. Caring for the mind means giving it moment-to-moment attention, making an effort to keep thoughts wholesome, creating a mind of non-attachment, practicing moral integrity, and keeping the body as healthy as possible.

Thus, one of the best ways for dealing with anger is to prevent it from arising in the first place by cultivating a mental field where it is difficult for the seeds of anger to germinate.

VI.   Anger Management with Mindfulness Tip #6: Studying Individual Patterns of Anger

The process of caring for the mind is greatly enhanced by studying individual patterns of anger. Different things make different people angry.

As you practice sitting meditation, you can study your anger experience. Make note of the things that contribute to your anger. Think about not only the things that make you mad but also the less obvious conditioning factors that might contribute to the provocation of anger.

Anger has a lot to tell us about ourselves. Try to look beneath the anger and see what’s there; it’s often some kind of fear. Like pain, anger is a signal that something is wrong and needs to change.

If we know how to experience it skilfully, anger can help us to make wholesome changes in ourselves and the society in which we live. The key is to not allow anger to develop into hostility or hatred; when that happens, anger becomes dangerous.

VII. Anger Management with Mindfulness Tip #7: Working with Deep-Seated Anger

Although we usually try to distance ourselves from anger as quickly as possible, sometimes we may find ourselves holding onto it. We can be averse to anger, but we can also get attached to it.

Attachments to anger often manifest as grudges that we can carry for a long, long time. Life hurts us all, but some of us choose to dwell on those hurts and periodically renew their pain. As the Buddha recognized, nursing a grudge only serves to injure the one who bears it.

The mindfulness approach to these old, festering forms of anger is forgiveness. Think of forgiveness as a form of relinquishment. To relinquish, in this sense, is to release whatever power anger holds over us.

Forgiveness, in this sense, is rarely easy or quick. Because of its difficulty, forgiveness has to be practiced; it’s less an act than a way of living. True forgiveness often comes only at the end of an inner struggle, and sometimes, it’s a long one. Be wary of forgiving too quickly.

We forgive others not so much to make them feel better, although it might. Rather, we forgive to be free—to liberate ourselves from the destructive power of anger and hatred. Holding a grudge rarely causes harm to the object of our anger, but it causes us a great deal.

As the thoughts and feelings of anger arise, we observe them, acknowledge them, and allow them to pass away. We practice loving-kindness meditation, exercise empathy, and recognize the futility of seeking revenge. We also remember our propensity to make mistakes. And we also repeat these techniques until our anger has been freed and we have been freed from its bondage.

VIII.        Things to Remember:

Anger: The feeling of displeasure, usually accompanied by antagonism; encompasses a wide range of experiences from simple irritation and annoyance to rage and fury.

Attachment: How people cling to the various items of their experiences as if they can’t live without them.

IX.   Things to Consider:

  1. What patterns do you discern in your experiences of anger? What sorts of things evoke your anger? Do your reactions to anger follow specifiable habits? What do these patterns suggest about your beliefs about yourself?
  2. In what ways does mindfulness offer more wholesome ways to respond to anger?

(Related: Working with Mind and Thoughts with Mindfulness)

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