A brass chandelier looms over my kitchen table.
It waits for me to finish my work, stand up, and meet it with my cranium. It’s a jarring blow.
First comes pain. Then comes anger.
That’s right. I get angry at a lamp.
I’ve had plenty of contact with that fixture over the years, so when I bashed my head for the third time one day, I thought little of it. Upon later reflection, however, I realized there was something special about that particular incident. Let me explain.
You see, my head-bashing routine is like a controlled experiment for my temper. My reaction is more or less the only variable. And my reaction is not typically one I’m proud of.
In my defense, I never hit back. Instead I clench and stew with my blood boiling until I realize that I am, in fact, angry at a light fixture. But this realization doesn’t come until anger successfully infests my mind and leaves my composure in tatters. Not ideal.
“The other vices drive the mind on,” wrote the Stoic philosopher Seneca. “Anger hurls it headlong. […] Other vices revolt from good sense, this one from sanity. […] And it makes no difference how great the source is from which [anger] springs; for from the most trivial origins it reaches massive proportions.”(1)
Anger hurls the mind headlong. Under its spell, we become senseless beasts.
And it doesn’t take much to set us off. A stubbed toe. A barking dog. A paper jam. In the movie “Office Space,” Peter and the gang steal the company copier—infamous for getting jammed—and demolish it with baseball bats. When angry, this is our level of mental maturity.
Can anger be willed away? Seneca thought so. He wrote that anger should be “driven” and advised us to “do battle” with this destructive emotion.
But here’s where I part ways with the great Stoic. This struggle to suppress emotion—though it could avert some embarrassing displays—only creates more internal strife. We get angry and then feel guilty about getting angry.
But the truth is, we all get angry—even the Dalai Lama.
When asked if he ever gets angry, the Dalai Lama responded in typical fashion: “Oh, yes, of course,” he said, “I’m a human being. Generally speaking, if a human being never shows anger, then I think something’s wrong. He’s not right in the brain.”(2)
If that doesn’t give you permission to accept your anger, I’m not sure what will. But that doesn’t mean anger should be ignored. There’s a world of difference between noticed anger and unnoticed anger. The first can spoil a few moments. The second, a few days.
There’s an art to noticing anger. Everyone has their own warning signs: a flushed face, a contracted abdomen, a clenched jaw. These physical symptoms carry the implicit message, “Ah, I’m getting angry.” Try it out. It’s actually hard to stay angry when you’re fully aware of this process.
“The best way of dealing with these hindrances is to be aware of them, to be mindful,” recommends the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein. “Sit back and notice ‘anger, anger.’ Not identifying with it, not condemning oneself for being angry. Simply watch.” (3)
The method described by Goldstein is mindfulness in a nutshell: a non-judgmental watching of phenomena arising in the mind. When this attitude is cultivated, we are less likely to be swirled away by a torrent of thoughts and emotions. The chain is broken, and we can settle back to a relaxed state.
Yet this goes beyond mere theory. Neuroscientists have, in fact, examined this phenomenon.
According to their research, a regular mindfulness practice rewires the brain for increased emotional stability. In brain regions that govern emotional regulation—the hippocampus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex—experienced meditators had more gray matter than controls. And the amygdala, the stress center of our brains, actually shrinks through meditation. (4)
So through mindfulness practice, the brain gets rewired for less emotional reactivity. Very cool.
This leads back to my last encounter with the chandelier. As I suggested, this encounter was different than the others. When I blundered into the lamp, I felt the blunt sensation of pressure radiating through my skull. I watched it closely. The pain, of course, didn’t last for long.
And that was that. No destructive impulse arose. Not even one fantasy of tearing it out, Hulk style, from the ceiling.
The results of this experiment have left me convinced. I’m not a long-term meditator, yet it seems I’ve already rewired my brain. And thankfully, some of my temper has gone extinct.
1) Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and John Davie. Dialogues and Essays. 2008. Print.
2) 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama – Time Magazine Interview. <https://www.dalailama.com/messages/transcripts-and-interviews/10-questions-time-magazine>
3) Goldstein, Joseph. The Experience of Insight: A Simple and Direct Guide to Buddhist Meditation. Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 1983. Print.
4) Hölzel BK, Lazar SW, Gard T, Schuman-Olivier Z, Vago DR & Ott U. “How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective.” Perspectives on Psychological Science. 6:6 (2011). DOI: 10.1177/1745691611419671.
Author: Brian Stanton
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman