Meditation is a tool to better understand yourself. It can help you recognize thoughts or beliefs that stress you out and to understand your emotions, to become more familiar with how they affect you and your relationships for better or worse.
And meditation practice can help you with one of the more difficult emotions: anger.
I’m not singling anger out because it’s bad or more negative than other emotions. Anger is just different because it can have a lot of energy to it and your temper can change in a flash.
Before you know it, you’ve snapped at someone you care about and said something you wish you could take back. Unmanaged, unconscious anger can harm your relationships, not to mention your self-esteem.
Anger or rage is the act of pushing back against something you see as threatening. As an evolutionary survival tool, it’s extremely effective.
It helped our ancestors to protect themselves and fuels our bodies with chemicals that literally make us stronger. So, if you sometimes feel you’ve been taken over by something that clouds your better judgment, you’re absolutely right!
You’re hardwired to feel anger and, not only that, for your anger to override other considerations, like maintaining connections with other people. After all, survival is more important than anything else!
Feeling angry? Meditation can help calm you
But, of course, in your life in the modern world, chances are you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where your physical survival is not threatened every day. So, the things that trigger anger probably threaten you in other ways. Maybe your thoughts about how the world should be or how people should treat you are threatened.
Of course, there are also things that should anger you, like racial injustice or child hunger.
For all these reasons, understanding anger, being able to see where it comes from, is part of coping with it more skillfully and with compassion.
Because anger can be triggered by different causes, it’s good to be able to distinguish between helpful and unhelpful anger. Anger at an injustice, that motivates you to act, to support others, is helpful. The kind of anger that causes you to act harshly or harm other people and yourself, is clearly not helpful.
Practising meditation on anger, you’ll learn to tell your helpful anger from the unhelpful kind. One of the most challenging aspects of rage is it feels righteous. Have you ever felt like you were absolutely in the right and the other person was absolutely in the wrong? It feels so good to be right, doesn’t it?
“As an evolutionary survival tool, anger is extremely effective. Practising meditation on anger, you’ll learn to tell your helpful anger from the unhelpful kind.”
The problem is, if it’s hard for you to see (or even to want to see) your own part in creating a situation that angers you, chances are you will continue to be triggered by that situation. The truth is none of us are perfect and none of us are without some blame, intentional or not, in conflicts and disagreements.
The good news is, if you can see your role, then you have some control. Because, if you have to depend on other people changing in order to be free of your anger, you have no control at all.
Like any emotion, anger has physical emotional and mental components to it. But, for many of us, rage can feel like a dense, impenetrable ball of feeling. It’s not always even clear what you’re thinking or feeling – it’s just a feeling of “No!,” of pushing away.
Anger can look something like this: a thought triggers physical tension, that is felt as an emotion, that triggers another angry thought and on and on, until all you’re aware of is the dense ball of feeling, with no way in.
The meditation practice I’ll describe next will help you to tease apart and understand the role that each plays when your anger erupts and then keeps feeding itself.
When you recognize these three components, you have an opportunity you didn’t have before to create some space around them, work with them and understand them, so you can bring some choice, perspective and compassion to what is troubling you.
I said earlier that a hallmark of anger is how fast it comes up. This meditation will help you slow those angry feelings down. For example, you might start to recognize your anger is a mix of a clenched stomach, the emotion of betrayal, and the thought that you’re never respected.
I’ll take you through this meditation on anger step by step with a brief description of what to do and how it will help.
Close your eyes for moment and picture a situation that angers you – a 2 or 3 on a scale of 1 to 5 in intensity. Let the usual thoughts and feelings you have about it happen.
You don’t have to do this for long! Just picture the circumstances for one minute to evoke your anger, so you can practice directly with it.
Take five deep, full breaths. As you do, focus on the area around your belly button. Feel how your belly rises and falls, expands and contracts as you breathe. Throughout the practice, do your best to hold your focus on your belly breath if you feel uncomfortable or are getting lost in the cycle of anger.
When you’re angry, your breath is agitated and fast. Conversely, if you use a practice like this one to calm your breath, it can help calm your body, and your thoughts and emotions follow.
Belly breathing calms angry and fast breathing shutterstock/kei907
As you do this meditation on anger and your body calms down, you’ll start to engage the decision-making and judgment part of your brain, your pre-frontal cortex. This is the area that can step in and say, “Wait a minute, I really care about this person. I don’t actually believe they’d disrespect me. I wonder what’s really going on.”
Remember, this part of your brain can be offline when your old brain thinks you’re under threat. A breathing meditation does much more than trigger a bit of relaxation. It will literally bring a part of your brain back online to give you more choice and perspective.
As you’re breathing, scan your body to see where anger lives in you. Is it in your jaw, or solar plexus or neck? Just notice where you feel the anger most strongly. Notice it as precisely as you can: where it is, if it is tight or hot, pushing out or pushing in. Focus your attention like a laser beam.
“When you’re angry, your breath is agitated and fast. Conversely, if you use a practice like this one to calm your breath, it can help calm your body, and your thoughts and emotions follow.”
Then let your attention expand to include your thoughts. What are they telling you about the situation – thoughts of blame or judgement or others’ intentions? Whatever they are, do your best to notice them, let them go and notice any other thoughts that show up. If you find yourself getting caught in the cycle of the thought and embellishing the story, that’s totally great you noticed! Pay attention to the breath in your belly again for two breaths. Then come back to noticing your thoughts.
Finally, pay attention to the emotion itself. Is it anger you’re feeling? How do you know it’s anger? Are there any other emotions within or under the anger, like grief or anxiety? Whatever emotion is present for you, use it in this practice: locate it in your body, notice and let go of your thoughts, come back to the emotion.
I’ve described this step in a particular order, but you can respond in any order to what’s happening. The practice is just to notice and include all three components of anger: physical sensations, emotions and thoughts.
Keep noticing the three components over the time you’re practicing. Be curious. Be kind. Keep breathing. Let your attention move as your awareness and experience move among the three. Watch for new insights or points of view, including others’ point of view. When you’re done with the time you have, finish with a few cleansing breaths and stretches.
Meditation on anger isn’t about repressing your anger or avoiding conflict or anything like that. It’s a tool to help you better understand your anger, slow it down and show you ways to respond to situations with more choice and good will.
Main image: shutterstock/leolintang
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Ann Vrlak is Founder of OneSelf Meditation and a meditation practitioner for over 25 years. She’s a Certified Meditation Teacher for adults and for children (the best job ever!). She loves to share how the perspective and practice of meditation can support people with their everyday stresses and on their journey of self-discovery.
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