The Anger Meditation – Part 1
March 5 2011, by Martin Boroson
When you think of meditation, you probably imagine someone sitting still—serene and blissful—far removed from the agitations of life. Now think of something you’re angry about and well … that image of meditation has probably fled in fear. So when you read the title of this article, “The Anger Meditation,” I’ll bet you had a moment of cognitive dissonance.
As anger is one of the “three poisons” in Buddhism, and meditation is the primary practice of Buddhism, it’s reasonable to assume that meditation is designed to extract or to calm the poison of anger from our system. Indeed, many people take up meditation explicitly in order to become calmer and less angry. For example, meditation training is being offered in prisons—very successfully—specifically to lower the number of violent incidents.
Clearly meditation can be helpful if you have a problem with anger. First, it helps you find some difference between your angry thought and making an impulsive action based on that thought. It helps you step outside your anger, to get a handle on it, and then to consider what to do with it. And it seems that, long term, meditation may help you actually experience less anger. The Dalai Lama, for example, has said that he no longer experiences anger.
But the relationship between anger and meditation is more complicated than this would suggest.
It seems especially complicated for us Westerners, as we sure do seem to have a lot of anger in us. Perhaps this is because we live in a society that is greedier and more competitive than the traditional societies in which Buddhism developed. With our strong belief in “self” and our expectations to have a perfect life (compared to a more fatalistic outlook), and historically sensitive to injustice, we are perhaps more demanding about getting what we want, and we are that much more frustrated when we don’t. On top of this, many of us are in recovery from families that were either chronically angry or chronically repressive of anger.
So, many Westerners try to use meditation, not just to get a handle on anger, or keep ourselves from acting unconsciously based on that anger, but to escape from feeling angry at all, or even acknowledging that we feel angry.
For those of us with anger issues, the idea of being a blissed-out on spirituality can be just so attractive. As we meditate vigorously, we expect to get into a “spiritual” state that will be completely free of anger. So instead of working out constructive ways to deal with anger, or talk about what we believe is making us angry, we tend to use meditation to side-step anger altogether.
In spiritual communities, there can even be a kind of social stigma against anger. Anger becomes “uncool.” It goes something like this: if you’re angry, you mustn’t be enlightened, so therefore it’s best to avoid, or downplay your anger. I have seen spiritual and therapeutic groups with such a strong social convention of careful speech and loving action that reality—their acknowledgement of real human emotions, which can sometimes be messy—has gone out the window.
At the core of this problem is the belief that anger is somehow bad, in and of itself, that it really is a poison. The poison metaphor suggests that anger is best not touched, and if experienced, it must be extracted. It denies the possibility that there is nothing inherently wrong with anger: it is just one of many states of mind that are part of the human consciousness, and like all states of mind, can be of benefit if handled wisely. So dealing with anger is a just a special case of a thornier problem: do we welcome all states of mind, or try to pick and choose only the “good” ones?
I have noticed this problem creeping into my teaching of One-Moment Meditation®, too. In my training sessions, I often say something like this: “Do a moment of meditation whenever you need to.” The implication of this statement this is that meditation is very useful in times when you are feeling something—like stress, anxiety, or anger—that is getting in the way of the life you’d like to live. In other words, you feel something that isn’t nice, and use meditation to get beyond it. And so it’s a small step from there to the conclusion that you should do a moment of meditation, in order to not be so angry.
But I don’t want One-Moment Meditation to be used as an escape from the truth of our lives, even if that truth is an angry one. An upsurge of anger can be a very important message—even if delivered by a very challenging messenger. Anger contains energy and insight that can be extremely useful, and it often protects—or represents—an important aspect of our personality.
In my years working as a psychotherapist, for example, I observed that many people recovering from depression need, as a first step, to reclaim their ability to get angry. Long ago, they had put a lid on their anger, and in closing that lid, had shut out all their other feelings as well. Without the ability to experience anger, they had no ability to experience joy, enthusiasm, or passion. So, in the process of growth and healing, the ability to acknowledge, experience, and express anger can be essential.
And anyway, trying to avoid anger tends to backfire. Trying to deny anger by just keeping a lid on it seems to create a toxic dump in your own backyard, and the poison in that dump eventually leaks out harms you and all your neighbors.
So what to do when anger arises?
Well, it depends on whom you ask. Some therapeutic traditions encourage you to express their anger fully, in a safe and contained space, even to exaggerate it by punching and kicking big pillows, as a way to discover, explore, release, and move beyond the anger. Some anger management techniques, on the other hand, advise you to separate from anger, to step back from it, or to put it aside. And although the general sweep of meditation training seems to discourage full acknowledgement of anger and its value, some meditation teachers (and these are my favorite ones) will advise you to look into the anger and explore it carefully.
The Anger Meditation combines elements of all these approaches. Instead of venting your anger, or expressing it therapeutically, or dumping it on someone else, you work on it internally, as you might in meditation. But to make sure that you are not separating from it, or “trying to become peaceful,” or running away from the anger, or rejecting it as “un-spiritual,” you embrace it fully —quite consciously—as valuable.
To try the Anger Meditation, click here.