First published on Huffington Post on May 3, 2012
The other day I was driving down the road feeling peaceful and happy. Life was good. All was right with the world. As I signaled to change lanes, the driver next to me wouldn’t let me in, and impulsively, I reacted. I yelled sarcastically, “Thanks a lot!” Then I called her a name. I proceeded to get angrier because I missed my turn. Then I paused and observed how ridiculous I was — in two seconds I had gone from joyful and content to angry and yelling at a stranger.
Have you had a similar experience? Have you ever snapped at someone because the perfect order of your world unexpectedly went awry? We all have our strategies for dealing with anger — some healthier than others. When we unconsciously lash out at people, it can be hurtful to both them and us — or just plain embarrassing.
Recently His Holiness the Dalai Lama had this to say about anger: “The first drawback of anger is that it destroys your inner peace; the second is that it distorts your view of reality. If you think about this and come to understand that anger is really unhelpful, that it is only destructive, you can begin to distance yourself from anger.”
Of all the wonderful emotions we have available to us as humans, anger is my least favorite. Yet I disagree with the Dalai Lama in one small respect, because I believe anger can be a useful tool in our search for self-awareness.
Anger is our built-in alarm system alerting us that something is wrong, out of harmony, off balance. Some event has clashed with our expectations, our beliefs or our spirit. We can gain vital information about ourselves and what we believe about the world when we look honestly at our anger. But when we react unconsciously, repress our anger or get caught up in it, it becomes counterproductive and negatively affects our health and relationships.
What if we practiced being mindful of our anger?
What if, as soon as we noticed our anger, we stopped for a moment to feel the emotion fully? What happens to the body when we’re angry? Maybe we feel a tightness or pressure in our chest; our body tenses and heats up; our breathing gets shallow. Just observing the sensations in the body is a mindful practice.
When we acknowledge and become fully aware of our emotions, we gain a certain amount of spaciousness in the experience. Just the act of accepting and acknowledging the feeling loosens its grip on us. And as soon as the grip is loosened, we can open to loving kindness towards others and ourselves. The sooner we move from anger to love, the sooner our inner peace is restored.
We can also bring awareness to our thoughts. In our anger, did we draw conclusions about a situation or the people involved? The moment I got angry with the driver who wasn’t budging in the next lane, I started to draw conclusions about her. She was an idiot… She was rude… She was in my way… She made me miss my turn. Well, none of that was true, but it’s the story my mind instantly created.
On a daily basis, any number of things can trigger anger and frustration — a friend does something that hurts our feelings, our company makes a decision that negatively impacts our work or we do something stupid or thoughtless and have trouble letting ourselves off the hook. We can easily get caught up in all sorts of stories about why something should or shouldn’t have happened, or worry about all the trouble it’s going to cause in our lives. Our minds will take us down a winding road while our frustration, anger and resentment intensify. We have attached meaning to an event. However, when we become aware of the story we’ve created, when we mindfully observe our thoughts, we can apply the brakes, stop the story and gently bring ourselves back to the present moment. And in the present moment, we realize the story we’ve created is causing more pain than the event that triggered it.
In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle writes, “Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.”
As long as we resist what IS, our anger will build and we will carry that anger with us. When we accept what IS, we can begin to move forward. By acknowledging our feelings and simply observing our thoughts, we are better able to make a conscious choice of how best to respond to life’s occasional frustrations.