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December 17, 2014

How to Tuck Our Anger into Bed at Night.

bed anger

“Take care of your anger. Take care of it as you would your younger sibling.” ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

I remember that first night alone in the house after my father left. I was the older brother—not yet a teenager and with a sister four years my junior—scrambling to reclaim the richness of safety his presence provided.

For many months (possibly years) I sought to be the blanket. I’d prowl the house at night—double and triple-checking the locks—to make sure mom and sis were safe and sound.

Sixteen years later, in Ayutthaya, Thailand, as Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh said to take care of anger “…as you would your younger sibling,” I remembered how I’d also tuck them into bed at night. I’d start at their feet and work up to the shoulders before gently kissing the tops of their heads.

How can we treat our anger, especially anger before bed, with this kind of love?

I’ve been kicking this idea around for over a year now. Ignoring the anger certainly doesn’t help. But then neither does applying a Band-Aid to the problem. Channeling the anger into something else typically only masks it, especially when that “something else” isn’t immediately accessible. To treat our anger with love would be to understand it, to not look down upon it or up to it but simply at it for what it is.

When we’re in bed and anger is swirling within us, try the three O’s:

1. Observe.

Few things were more precious to me than those times when I’d slowly open the door to check in on my sister and I’d see her deep in sleep, shoulders gently rising and falling, safe.

If you’re feeling angry about something before bed, close your eyes and give yourself the gift of perspective. Use your relaxed posture as a chance for meditation. Come home to your breath for a few seconds and then think about the source of the anger; try to find the root cause and see what insights arise.

If you’re too tired to go there, apply this:

I’m sorry, Anger. I’m not able to give you the attention and energy you deserve tonight. I’ll check back in with you tomorrow morning.

If you can’t find a way to resolve the issue, go with this:

I know you are there, Anger. But I don’t see a way to resolve the situation. In the here and now I can, however, handle my response to the situation. Breathing in, I am going to sleep. Breathing out, I deserve to sleep.

If you caught an insight, write it down.

2. Offer.

Zen Master Bernie Glassman, co-founder of the Zen Peacemakers, refers to the Four Noble Truths as the “Four Noble Opinions.” He does this to remind himself and his students that even sage advice should be questioned and applied only insofar as it best relates to you and/or the situation. It’s a transaction; we must also offer ourselves to it.

The old marriage cliché states: “Never go to bed angry.” And neuroscientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst confirmed that sleeping directly after a negative emotional response serves “to protect” the emotion, causing us to maintain the strength of those negative feelings upon waking—whereas a period of wakefulness after the event caused more of a softening.

But there may be times when it’s more appropriate to do as Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil told Women’s Health in an article titled, “Why Sometimes You Should Go To Bed Angry”:

“I really love you, I’m sorry that we have this misunderstanding, and in the morning we’ll discuss it when we have some more time.”

3. Open.

When anger arises within us, it tends to coincide with a narrowing of vision, a type of tunnel-vision. Becoming mindful of our narrow vision, we can practice returning to our breath and with each breath we can imagine the book of our complex selves opening a bit wider to include the goodness we have all around us.

This imagery practice can be particularly effective before bed. Thích Nhất Hạnh uses the metaphor of seeds as a way to remind us of our beauty when it’s allowed to be fully open:

“Dear friends, there is a seed of anger in every one of us. In Buddhist psychology, this bit of consciousness is in terms of seeds, like a seed of corn. There are many kinds of seeds that lie deep in our consciousness, a seed of anger, a seed of violence, a seed of fear, a seed of jealousy, a seed of full despair, a seed of miscommunication, a seed of hate. They’re all there and, when they sleep, we are okay. But if someone come and water these seeds, they will manifest into energy and they will make us suffer. We also have wholesome seeds in us, namely the seeds of understanding, of awakening, of compassion, of nonviolence, of nondiscrimination, a seed of joy and forgiveness. They are also there.

If you don’t practice, if you do not live in a good environment, then these wholesome seeds will have no chance to be watered. That is why it is very important to select a right environment to where the wholesome seeds in us could be watered every day, a kind of environment where the negative seeds will not be watered every day.”

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Author: Cameron Conaway

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Nathan Congleton/Flickr

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