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October 7, 2017

{Cutting Through}: Anger. When will Meditation Stop my Feelings of Anger? {Weekly Q & A}

{Cutting Through} is a new column on elephantjournal.com. Have a question about meditation, mindfulness, or Buddhism? Please send it to Travis at [email protected] or in a comment on this article. Travis is an authorized meditation instructor in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage and the Center Director of Shambhala St. Petersburg. He is a joyful student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.

 

Question for your column: I’ve been meditating for a couple years now, but still am experiencing anger and irritation often. I’m ready to be like one of the serene monks I see in the pictures. When will I stop getting angry?

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Never.

The idea that meditation is meant to put us in a state where we never feel emotions like anger and irritation is an illusion.

There is no bliss without pain, no joy without sadness, no light without dark, no up without down. Everything that “exists” does so only in relation to its opposite.

What if I told you that a person who has been processed by a meditation practice feels anger more acutely and fully than someone who has never meditated? Do you still want to do it? : )

It is true that, in my experience, I feel angry and irritated less often and for shorter periods of time than I did 10 years ago before I really started meditating regularly.

But, we’re still human, no matter how long we meditate for. We’ll still feel anger and perceived injustice and irritation when we’re triggered by something we’ve conditioned ourselves to react to in this way.

Before I began sitting regularly, my mind was much more discursive and angry. I often thought about my inadequacies and where I thought I “should” be in life, or what I should be doing to make myself happy. All of that ruminating and overthinking and doubt and judgment made me depressed. But, meditation is about cutting that habit of continuously going around and around with all mental chatter. It’s just not helpful…or necessary, and we can learn to stop doing it.

Shamatha meditation is a very simple technique, that when applied repeatedly and consistently over time, can change the way we experience our lives.

When we’re sitting in our meditation posture gently applying our attention to the feeling of our body breathing, we experience the inevitable distraction of being hooked by a thought, feeling, or sensory perception. When this happens, we notice it (as soon as we’re aware enough of what happened to do so), and then we gently return our attention to the feeling of our body breathing.

So we’re learning to break our habit and conditioning that leads us to ruminate on insignificant details to a point of being unhealthy and unhelpful. The more we practice, the more time we begin to spend in that space of non-grasping, and we learn to peacefully abide in the moment—with the life we’re actually living here and now. We also learn to catch ourselves more quickly when we are hooked, and then are able to let go and come back.

This activity is planting the seeds of contentment—realizing that, after our basic needs have been met, there’s really nothing else we need in this moment. There is nothing missing, and there is nothing wrong with who we are right now. We are complete, worthy, and innately perfect—this state of fundamental well-being is always there; it only gets obscured by these afflictive emotions and habitual tendencies we overlay on top of it.

We work these things on the meditation cushion, but, interestingly, it starts to seep out into the rest of our lives. When our child does that annoying thing for 18,000th time, we feel that impulse of our habitual reaction coming on. We may even snap out an unskillful comment or two. But, because we’ve grown accustomed to noticing our state of mind and seeing what it is up to, we learn to, more and more quickly, catch ourselves and then let the feeling pass.

As we do this, the people we interact with get used to it. My daughter might say something (whine something, rather) that annoys me, and maybe I’ll say something like, “Oh my Buddha, I said no 50 times already. Just drop it!” And maybe I say it with a little too much aggression and annoyance in my voice. Noticing that, it almost fades away on its own. Soon after, we’ll both have recognized that the moment has passed and quickly fall back into our normal, calm conversation.

Beloved American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön says that an emotion like anger really only lasts about 90 seconds—if we just feel it fully and let it go through. If we’re still experiencing it any longer than that, it is because we’re fueling it with our stories, guilt, pride, and so on. Then we feel bad about feeling bad, and on it goes. One of the biggest problems of anger seems to be seeing being angry as a problem.

So, we don’t really try to not ever get upset, particularly. There’s something disingenuous about that. We’re learning to feel more fully and to be more open to the totality of our human experience. However, I will say, that I, personally, get angry soooo much less than I did before. This is because I have replaced this sense of lack, of self-doubt, of not living up to a seriously flawed worldview with a general feeling of appreciation and compassion. A sense of stability and confidence in my basic nature. So, there isn’t as much room for debilitating anger.

But, until we’re fully awakened, free of all our eons of karma, we’ll still experience triggers and react from our prior conditioning. But, not having the expectation that getting angry should never happen helps too. Not making such a big deal about things that are really not that important is a good and healthy perspective to have. My study and practice over the past decade plus has helped make this more of a reality for me.

But, what about when we do experience that anger? What do we do in the moment?

We can start to work with the energy—or dance with it, if you prefer. When the flash of anger arises, we can just feel the energy, drop the story line, and then direct the energy into a helpful response. We don’t want to stop feeling this natural, informative human emotion. But, we can just feel it, learn what it’s about without reacting, and then move on.

This takes some practice, naturally. Perhaps a lot. Sometimes we will completely fail. But, like with anything, the more we replace one behavior with another, the more it becomes the new normal, the more the paradigm shifts.

The meditation cushion is a good, safe place to practice with this. The next time you feel anger, for example, while meditating, see if you can just notice what it feels like without doing anything about it. Where in your body do you feel it? What does it feel like? What happens if you just feel it without reacting? Can you drop the story behind the feeling and just be with the feeling?

It may turn out that all anger is, is a warm feeling in your chest. Mmm, anger.

A more skillful way to deal with that situation might be to just feel it in our bodies, wait, consider what would be the most helpful response in the situation, and then do it. When we witness or experience injustice, the energy surge we experience is justified. It’s information that we need to do something. The question is: are we going to react habitually and add fuel to the fire, or are we going to respond skillfully and be of benefit to ourselves and others?

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Relephant Reads:

{Cutting Through}: The Four Noble Truths. Isn’t suffering important for growth? {Weekly Q & A}

{Cutting Through}: Proselytizing Buddhism. How do we Help others Find the Path? {Weekly Q & A}

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Author: Travis May
Image: Wikicommons

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Claudia Volano Oct 9, 2017 2:00pm

Very helpful post. I recognized Pema earl in your words. I wish that all children, teens and young adults could all be taught things such as anger management, mindfulness, meditation, pausing and breathing early in life, maybe even...in school? Not all parents have the these tools themselves to impart to their kids. Maybe this could produce a generation of fewer unhinged, unhappy, angry adults [and fewer mass murderers?] Thank you.

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Travis May

Travis May is the Director of the St. Petersburg Shambhala Meditation Center and an Elephant Journal editor. He currently resides in St. Petersburg, Florida. You can connect with Travis on his blog, Twitter and Facebook. You can also follow his new writer’s page.