Freedom from anger

Anger suddenly arises when something happens to us that we didn’t want to happen. The root cause, as identified in Buddhist psychology, is attachment – our attachment to people, to outcomes of events, to products, to reputations and so on. A simple example is when a machine we purchase doesn’t work as we expected. We get angry because we spent our good money on something that didn’t work as we expected. More complex examples include – unjustified criticism, the withdrawal of love, or someone taking the credit for our work. As a result of these actions, anger quickly arises, followed by action and we feel justified because ‘these things shouldn’t happen to me’.

Outside our control

However, often the events which trigger anger are outside our control. Consider for the example the anger that suddenly arises when someone jumps in front of us in a queue. We don’t have control over this person’s actions, yet we typically respond with anger. In this situation, if we respond with a sarcastic comment, there is the risk of an argument that can quickly get out of control. Suddenly we find ourselves acting in a way that is not appropriate and we end up looking foolish. If we do nothing, our anger turns back on us. We feel weak and frustrated, and question our own confidence and abilities.

So becoming angry does not make us feel better or lead to a positive outcome. It is, in fact, a sign that we have lost control and are about to act in an irrational and most likely inappropriate way. We have allowed old habits to take control and predictable, unsatisfactory results will follow. Instead, we need to find a way to liberate ourselves from this harmful emotion.

 Breaking the chain

The way to break this chain of events leading to inappropriate behaviour, is to use some of the skills we have learned in our mindfulness training – to bring what we are practicing into the world away from the cushion.

In our practice we learn to recognise the subtle signs of the arising of this emotion. We learn to identify the tightening of the mind and the disturbance to a calm state. We also learn how to return to a relaxed body and calm mind so that emotions and other objects of the mind are allowed to pass by without sticking.

So now, when external circumstances cause a feeling of anger to begin to arise, our first step is to relax our body. Start by identifying and relaxing parts of our body that are holding most of the tension – usually our neck or shoulders. Move attention to these parts of the body, feel the tension and relax the muscles. Notice the tension start to soften and notice how our breathing begins to slow down.

Next, move the focus from the body to the breath. Just pay attention to the sensation of the breath as it touches our skin while passing through the nostrils. The anger now moves to the background and starts to dissolve. Anger is a strong emotion, so allow a few moments for the anger to dissipate fully.

Acting from a calm mind

Now, after establishing a calm mind, it is time to consider appropriate action.

Is it within our control

First, consider if we have any control over the situation. If we don’t, it’s simple – just accept and let go. Let the urge to act drop away in exactly the same way that in our practice we allow thoughts and other mind objects to move and not become attached. Trying to change situations where we have no control will ultimately only hurts us and achieve nothing positive.

Is it importance

Next, consider whether this action or event is important. Remember your list of things that matter and consider whether the action or result of the action that has caused anger to rise is important. If they’re not, then again it’s simple – accept and let it go.

Time for action

If however, we can see that the implications are important and that it is within our control to take action, then appropriate actions must be considered and then acted on, but only from a calm mind. When ready, in your own time, consider the options and take what you consider is the right action. To help you in this, it’s a good idea to recall your guiding principles .

Freedom from anger

So when we become aware of the rising of anger, let’s remember our practice and take action to establish a calm mind. From this calm place, we have the opportunity to choose a response that is appropriate to the situation, that is in keeping with our guiding principles and which advances the achievement of one or more of the things that are important.

 

Acting from a calm mind

The ability to act from a calm mind is one of the benefits of practicing mindfulness meditation. As the ability to objectively observe thoughts, feelings, and emotions develops, we are able to calm the urge to act.  Our mind is then able to settle into a quiet and calm place.

Through practice, we are able to access this place during our daily lives. This is because we know how it feels to have a calm mind and we also know how to get there.  This is through relaxing the body, calming the mind, focusing attention and allowing emotions to subside. We have now created the potential to take actions from a calm state.

Avoiding an emotional response

One benefit of this practice is that we are no longer at the mercy of our emotions. Our habitual emotional responses were developed over a long period of time. They are often formed during early childhood from observing parents or others that we respected and admired at that time. But who we are now, is not who we were in the past. The situation may appear to be similar, but we have changed. Therefore responses that may have worked in the past are no longer appropriate. Acting from a calm mind gives us the opportunity to clearly see the situation for what it really is. We can then choose a more appropriate action (or to choose not to act).

Seeing what’s important

Also, when our mind is calm, we are able to see the bigger picture and to question our motivation for the urge to act in a particular way. We have the time to remember what is important  – what really matters. We are then able to let go of what is not important and formulate actions that will help us to achieve appropriate goals.

Coming from a calm mind also allows us to empathise with others caught up in the present situation. We have the opportunity to practice forgiveness.

Where to from here

Marcus Aurelius, a philosopher and the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180AD wrote that “The nearer one comes to a calm mind, the closer one is to strength”.  So remember – body relaxed, mind calm, attention focused on what is in front of us. We are now able to make wise choices from a position of strength.

 

Reflecting on negative habits

We have identified what habits are and how they are formed. We have also identified what is important to us. Now it’s time to look at the habitual actions that are stopping us from getting where we want to be.

Rational behaviours

We know that we are rational people. We know that we are capable of making good decisions. Sometimes though, we make decisions that  aren’t in keeping with our goals.

We also know that we are friendly,  social and caring. But sometimes we just can’t seem to help ourselves from behaving in the opposite way.

This is a sign that there are bad habits, relics from our past, getting in the way.

We now need to identify what these habits are so that we can keep moving in the right direction.

A reflection on  past actions

Past actions influence future plans and actions. Reviewing past actions is a way to ensure we are heading in the right direction. It also allows us to identify our negative behaviours.

Activity 1

Find a quiet place either first thing in the morning or at night. Look back over the day and ask yourself these questions:

  • What actions have I taken that have steered me away from my chosen course?
  • What did I fail to do?
  • What habits are stopping me from achieving my goals?
  • What did I do that was unfriendly or unsocial or uncaring?

These are difficult and confronting questions. Just allow your mind to reflect on these, and when examples arise, write them down. Then look at these examples of behaviours and try to identify the habit that is behind them.

The act of writing these down will prompt your mind to remind you the next time you are in the same or a similar situation.  This will create an opportunity to follow a different course of action.

The prompt will be strengthened by regular update and review.

As an example, here are some of my recent reflections. Maybe you recognise some:

My bad habits

  • I got angry with one of my co-workers again. I have the habit of getting angry when things don’t go as I want them to.
  • I bought some junk food again. I’ve developed the habit of rewarding myself  for doing things that are boring and routine.
  • I lost my temper at home again. I’ve inherited this habit rom my father.

A reflection on progress

Here is a valuable follow-up activity

Activity 2

After you have identified the habits that are hindering you, begin to chart your progress. Regularly ask yourself:

  • What positive actions did I take today?
  • What bad habits was I able to curb today?
  • What examples of compassion did I display today?

What’s next

Don’t expect habits to change quickly. It’s taken a lifetime to develop them and it will take time to change. Don’t get into the habit (like me) of getting angry with yourself when you are not making quick progress. This is another unproductive and hindering habit. Show yourself some compassion.

Identify what we can control

During our daily lives, there are many situations which, on the surface seem to be requiring us to make decisions and take some kind of action. Many of us have a tendency to act first and ask questions later, but there is a question we need to ask before making any commitment to act. This is “is this within my control?”.

A question of control

Before rushing in and getting involved, we need to pause for a moment and ask ourselves whether we actually have any control over the situation or any power to actually make a change.

Ask the question: Is this within my control?

Another way of asking this is: Am I able to make a change in this area? or Do I have any influence over this situation?

If the answer is ‘No’, then just accept it as it is,  let it go and then move on to situations that are within our control.

Make two lists

As a guide, it might be helpful to develop a list of some things that we don’t have any control over. For example:

  • the past
  • other peoples thoughts and actions
  • other peoples bad driving
  • the weather
  • sickness and aging

and then to make a list of some things we do have control over. For example:

  • my opinions
  • the choices I make and the actions I take
  • setting my own goals
  • making decisions to achieve my goals
  • ignoring distractions that are keeping me from focusing on what I have chosen as being  important

Accept and let go

If we can develop the habit of accepting and letting go of what is outside our control and focusing our effort on what we do have control over, we will be significantly less stressed and also more productive.

Remember – we may not control a situation but we can control what we think about it and through this, we can choose how to act

What’s next

Now it’s your turn to begin writing your lists. Start with what you don’t have control over and then move to what you do.

Feel free to leave a comment or share your list below.