“Don’t repress it. But don’t act on it either.”
I think about this quote quite often these days, as it applies to a whole host of the emotions, thoughts, and other detritus drifting around my brain. It succinctly summarizes one of the main tenets of Buddhism—that of letting go.
Chogyam Rinpoche is speaking about one emotion in particular—anger. I find the wisdom held within this one idea powerful enough to impact any aspect of daily life, however, so I want to take a moment to unpack it here.
*ed. note – What follows is a peek under the hood, a view of how my brain processes stuff. In other words, it’s a bit rambling, please stay with me until the end, I promise to pull it all together. Thanks
Anger is an emotion born in the same brain region as the fight-or-flight response, one of the most ancient parts of the brain. This means, among other things, that anger is often triggered by feelings of being under attack.
The brain can decide between fight and flight (there’s a third option that affects a tiny portion of the human race, I call it the Pass The F*CK Out Option, I’m going to leave that for the experts to explain) by choosing to lash out at the perceived danger:
- A physical threat
- A psychological threat
- A challenge to your belief system
- A symbolic threat to self-esteem or dignity
Something to keep in mind here is that venting anger has been shown to be an ineffective method of releasing these feelings. Once the limbic system (the ancient part of the brain in control of these reactions) is ‘pumped up’ by becoming angry, you need a cooling down period rather than to remain pumped by venting and letting your anger manifest itself outwardly.
That’s why road rage always ends badly. Among other things.
Let’s break this down. Anger is an emotion. Emotions can be seen, on a fundamental level, as choices. We make a choice about how to display a deeper feeling, or about how we allow a situation to affect us. And crucially, we choose how to let that feeling manifest itself internally and externally.
Since anger is a choice, you can also choose NOT to get angry.
Here’s where mindfulness comes in. By staying mindful of your rising anger, you can watch it come. You can invite it into your day, see how it interacts with your other emotions and feelings, then CHOOSE what to do with it.
You can let it take the controls and steer you into conflict.
You can let it hang out for a while and see where it wants to take things.
Or, you can show it the door.
I’ve seen the issue of uninvited thoughts during meditation explained like this:
Thoughts aren’t a problem during meditation. Watch them come to the door, invite them inside and show them through, then escort them out the back door. Just don’t ask them to stay for tea.
I love this explanation because it removes the stigma of “I’m a bad meditator,” or “I just can’t do this.” Nobody ever said you can’t think while you meditate.
Similarly, nobody said you have to react when you feel anger.
Nobody ever said anger was a bad thing to feel. It’s the outward expression of anger that causes grief and ill will.
Something I’ve found incredibly useful recently is to look at the cause of the anger, then turn it upside down by finding something to be grateful for in the same situation.
For example, say you find yourself at loggerheads with a coworker. You’ve been working on this project for weeks and it feels like all you do is argue about the numbers. As you feel anger rising, take a few deep breaths and watch the path the anger is taking. When you can see where it’s stemming from, see what else is there.
You may find that the anger is coming from what you see as your coworker’s stubbornness. They’re insisting on using figures they came up with rather than yours. Try being grateful this coworker did the legwork to run the numbers, then look at those numbers closely – maybe it turns out they make more sense after all. You may have been letting your anger blind you to that fact.
Now you can see your way out from under the anger by acknowledging the work your coworker did, offer to use their figures, and move the project along in a new direction.
See how this approach can alter your day, week, or heck, your outlook on life in general?
Seeing anger as the choice it is lets you choose how to let it impact your life.
And look at that, yet another way a perspective shift can help!
**ed. Note – The wonderful folks over at Mindful published this guide to diffusing anger. They did such a good job that I’m just going to leave that link right there for you rather than attempting my own version right now.