Meditating on the Power of Anger

Practice skillfully connecting with and being curious about our anger, not to drive it away, but to see what’s really there, and then see how we want to respond.

I’m delighted to offer you a series of meditations on building emotional resilience. Over the next four classes we’ll explore how to mindfully practice with four really common emotions: anger, anxiety, longing, and joy. I’ll offer some practices you can use both while you meditate and also in your life, when these emotions arise.

Let’s first explore what an emotion is. This is a rich topic that has even inspired some heated debate. If you find you’re interested beyond the scope of what we talk here, I encourage you to explore the work of two psychologists: Paul Ekman, and Lisa Feldman Barrett, who wrote a recent book called How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. The work of these two author/scientists provides a good overview of the two differing viewpoints of the current discussion around human emotion. In the meantime, I’ll be sharing what I know with you here.

I don’t know about you, but I experience emotions as a combination of thoughts in my mind, plus physical or energetic sensations in my body, and the interaction between those two. When we’re meditating, we can see, via our moment-to-moment experience, that emotions are indeed made up of both mental content—such as visual and auditory thoughts—and physical sensations. And when we talk about physical sensations, let’s include all kinds: so, sensations we receive through our sense doors (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touch), but also all of the physical sensations within our bodies.

I don’t know about you, but I experience emotions as a combination of thoughts in my mind, plus physical or energetic sensations in my body, and the interaction between those two.

There’s a great deal of nuance when it comes to our emotions and our understanding of them, but physical sensations in our bodies tend to get divided into two categories: physiological (ie: digestion, breathing, temperature, the feeling of our body and the weight of gravity); and what I refer to as emotional sensations or the felt sense in our body. A couple of examples: when we talk about having butterflies in our stomach when we’re nervous or excited; or the feeling of listening to a heart-warming story, which can actually produce a physical feeling of warmth in our chest. (Try to notice that the next time it happens).

Essentially, emotions are energy moving in our body. And that energy calls us to certain kinds of actions. Our emotions also help us connect with other people, and they provide us insight into our lives and a better understanding of what we value, what we want in the world.

In my daily life, and in my meditation practice, I find it’s more helpful to attend to the physical sensations related to emotions rather than the thinking around those emotions. I say that because thoughts happen so quickly. It’s also so easy for us to get caught up and swept away in a story—to forget that thinking is happening and just be caught up inside of it. Physical sensations, on the other hand, are less subtle. That makes bringing our attention to them and holding them in our attention a lot easier. Physical sensations don’t move as quickly as thoughts, so we can notice them and notice how they shift and change. An added bonus: simply noticing the sensations in our body can provide us with a kind of grounding, an anchor. It’s a great starting point in both daily life and when we meditate, and we’ll explore that together here.

As we get to know our emotions, I really encourage developing an attitude of acceptance, respect and care for them—think of it as an honouring of our emotional world. Our emotions can offer so much rich information about our lives, about what we value, what we want; they also play a vital role in our relationships, providing the foundation of our connection in communication with others. In fact, some social scientists posit that the main role of emotions in our lives is really about social interaction and connection. It’s worth repeating: emotions deserve and are worthy of our attention, respect and care.

So together we’re going to practice skilfully connecting with and being curious about our emotions. And here’s our aim: not to act out with regards to the emotions we feel, but also not to suppress them. We’re going to practice just connecting with the emotion, holding it, being curious about it, with no expectation or drive to have to act it out, and not having to suppress or deny or ignore it either.

I really want to emphasize, too, that finding this middle way doesn’t mean we’re aiming to be indifferent or passive about our emotions. It just means that we’re going to take the time to actually be with the emotion long enough to figure out what the skillful response is—rather than get caught up in reacting to the surging energy of that emotion we’re feeling. Oftentimes we will still want to take action based on an emotion. In fact, that’s what they’re telling us: something has arisen that we need to act on. But what we’ll do in this practice is try to nudge ourselves into territory where we can act out of connection and care rather than a buzzing desire to get rid of the feeling we’re feeling—because that’s not acting, it’s reacting.

In this first class together we’ll explore anger. We’ll think about a recent situation where we may have been angry, or for the lucky ones joining this meditation, maybe you’re feeling a little anger right now? (Talk about excellent timing!)

Before we get started, let’s talk a little bit about anger. Like every emotion, anger is totally natural and actually an extremely life-affirming emotion. Anger’s fundamental role is to protect us and protect what we care about in the world. It lets us know when a limit of ours, or a boundary, has been crossed. It lets us know when our needs are not being met or when someone we care about is in danger. So anger both lets us know something about what’s happening around us, and it energizes us to act. It rouses us to the necessary energy level to be able to respond to a threat. It’s essentially about protecting life.

At the same time, we know that when anger is misdirected or when we act on it compulsively, it can be a truly destructive force—for our own physical health, our relationships, and in some instances, in the wider world. So we want to learn how to respect, honour, care for and be with our anger—and gain some insight into the most skilful response in any given situation, rather than go with the reactive response that could cause more harm. 

The first step, then, is to recognize and respect anger. This is what’s happening, and it’s part of the human experience. And we respect it by understanding that our anger is trying to take care of us in some way, even if it’s maladaptive for the situation. We’re aiming to learn how to be with the anger, see what’s really there, and then see how we want to respond. So let’s try this together.

Meditating on the Power of Anger

Watch the video:

Listen to the practice:

Meditating on the Power of Anger

  • 20:00

Read the practice:

  1. When you’re ready, come into a comfortable seated position. If it feels comfortable to close your eyes, please do so. Let’s take a few deeper breaths. Just allow yourself to feel the points of contact with the cushion or chair beneath you; feel your feet on the ground. Feel a sense of grounding here. Take a few longer inhales and exhales just to settle.

  2. Now let’s bring to mind a recent situation when we felt angry. As with any practice around difficult emotions, for anger, let’s think about the angriest we’ve ever been as a level 10. What we’re seeking for the purposes of this exercise, then, is a situation that’s a three, or maybe a four. Consider something you experienced at the level of irritation or annoyance; don’t choose the last time you felt, say, enraged. When was the last time you felt irritated, annoyed or frustrated, perhaps about something someone did or said? Just bring to mind that situation.

  3. Draw an image of this past situation into your mind. Recall the words that were spoken. Remember your own thought process related to the experience. At this point, you may be feeling some sensations in your body. Let’s go deeper. Can you recall the story you told (or tell) yourself around this experience? For example: What this person did or shouldn’t have done? How you were wronged? How it should have been different. Whatever it is, let that story run its course for you right now. Let it run until you begin to feel a sense of irritation or annoyance in your body.

  4. Once you feel the irritation, we’re going to cut off the thoughts we’re having. Just cut off the storyline. This is vitally important with almost every difficult emotion. Step one: firmly direct your attention away from the story you’re telling. Next: bring your attention to your body. Really feel what’s going on inside your body. Where do you feel the anger in your body? Maybe in your chest? Your hands? Just notice that.

  5. Now, what else is happening in your body? Find something that feels neutral, spacious or maybe even pleasant in your body. Maybe you feel this in your feet, or your contact with the chair. Maybe you’re focused on your hands touching. We’re simply creating some space around the anger. Notice the tip of your nose; notice your breath. If you can’t find any sensations in your body that feel safe or free from anger, take a moment to listen to the sounds around you. You can even broaden your awareness to include the whole room; and even further to include sounds that are far away. Rest your attention with these sensations for a few minutes. Allow yourself to find some ease and a bit of calm.

  6. If you find your mind wanders back to the story, the thoughts about what’s making you angry, gently but firmly redirect your attention to the neutral sounds and neutral sensations you’ve identified. Just take a few breaths here.

  7. Once we feel a little calmer, we can explore the anger more directly again. Let’s come back to where we feel anger in our body. Explore that: Do you feel tightness in your throat? Are there any sensations in your shoulders? How about your arms? Do you detect any sensations in your belly? If you find a place, really explore the sensation: Is there a temperature to this felt sense of anger, is it hot or cold? Is it throbbing? What are the edges like? Is it shifting and changing? As you stay with the felt sense of irritation, frustration, anger, and the directly felt sensations of hot, cold, vibrating, sharp—hold all of this with a lot of care and curiosity.

  8. Now let’s notice what other emotions might be present. Is there anything else inside or beneath the anger? Can you detect any other emotions there? Fear? Sadness? Wanting? Just notice. Is there anything the anger might be masking? Be curious. Allow this to be very somatic. We’re not thinking about it, we’re not trying to understand it cognitively, we’re just letting the emotion reveal itself in a very direct, body-based way.

  9. Notice if any other information arises from this anger. You could even drop in a question, such as: What does this anger need? What does it want me to know? Again, we’re just dropping the question into the felt sense in our bodies, and then seeing what arises. Are there flashes, images, words that could help you understand what’s needed? Do you get a sense of what action you may need to take? Let’s take another few moments of holding and being with the felt sensation of the irritation. Be curious about what your anger wants you to know, perhaps about what is needed.

  10. As we bring this practice to a close, see if you have any insights into what you could do skilfully to respond to this irritation or anger. What would truly take care of this anger or frustration? Exploring our emotion in this way, we’re better prepared to respond in a rooted and grounded way; we’re better equipped to address what’s needed. As we finish, then, we can make a commitment to take whatever skillful action is needed. It might be something personal, such as some kind of self-care: maybe a walk, a nap, a meal. Or we might commit to having a direct and difficult conversation with someone, perhaps to ask for what you need or to set a limit. Just see if you can commit to taking one skillful action to address this situation.

  11. When you’re ready, open your eyes if they’ve been closed and take a deep breath. Look around the room and orient yourself to your space, wherever you are.

Try to practice these skills in your daily life. If at any point you encounter in yourself feelings of anger or frustration, first: notice how you’re feeling: “Oh, anger,” or “I’m irritated.” Next, find some ground: feel your feet on the ground, feel the back of your body. And then notice what is not feeling angry in that moment, too. Get some space around the anger, and really open your awareness wide to the sounds and the space around you.

I can’t recommend this enough. And it can take as little as five seconds simply to connect with your feet on the ground and broaden your awareness. Then, when you feel some space and calmness around the anger, you can direct your attention back to the difficult emotion and ask that question: What is needed? What is needed right now? And then proceed from that place.

Explore Session #2