Anger is perhaps the oldest and most primitive emotion. Anger is easy to recognize in others, but not always in ourselves. Anger ultimately serves a purpose: that of self-preservation. When we sense a threat to our well-being, we become angry in an effort to “get even” with the situation. This is not to say that anger is bad or wrong.
Anger is often a useful and important emotion, however, left unchecked it can get the best of us and takes us out of the present moment. Anger can ruin relationships, resulting in unnecessary suffering. At its core, anger is about conflict: conflict with others, ourselves, or situations.
To quote Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh from his book Taming the Tiger Within
“When you say something unkind, when you do something in retaliation, your anger increases. You make the other person suffer, and they try hard to say or do something back to make you suffer, and get relief from their suffering. That is how conflict escalates.”
Not only does anger create conflict, but it takes us out of the present moment. We completely become the anger; it consumes us. We can use mindfulness exercises to help calm our anger and return to the present moment. If you are feeling angry, try the simple techniques below to help you stay calm.
- Recognize – The first step in dealing with our emotion compassionately is to simply recognize that anger is present inside of us. This is quite challenging to do in times of true anger, but has the effect of lessening its impact. If we resist or try to suppress anger because we don’t like the way we feel when we are angry, then our anxiety and negative feelings about the situation tend to increase.
- Realize – Realize that it is okay to be angry. Realize that you are a person deserving of your own love. When we let our anger get out of control we ultimately hurt ourselves. Even modern psychology is starting to realize the wisdom behind mindfulness exercises. Simply realizing that it is okay to be angry is a huge step.
- Breathe – When in doubt, return to your breath. This is the most powerful mindfulness technique. Again, when we are angry, we tend to become the anger. The breath becomes quick, shallow, and agitated. The mind and body become disconnected. From lionsroar.com:
“‘Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me; breathing out, I smile towards my anger’ (Thich Nhat Hanh). This is not an act of suppression or of fighting. It is an act of recognizing. Once we recognize our anger, we embrace it with a lot of awareness, a lot of tenderness.”
When I feel anger starting to stir up inside myself, I find it helpful to count my respirations up to ten and then back down to one. For example, I inhale and think “one” and continue thinking “one” for the exhale, all the way up to ten. If anger continues to stir, then I simply recognize it: “Hello, anger. I see you.”
The first step towards recognition is a deep, mindful breath in order to reconnect the mind and body.
Conflict is an inevitable part of the human experience. When you consider the complexity of the environment that we inhabit, it’s easy to see how conflict comes about. Many of us are under significant amounts of pressure to perform. Whether it’s at home, at work, at school, in our relationships, or in other areas of our lives, we feel compelled to achieve: we’re driven to reach certain goals, sometimes by forces that lie completely outside of ourselves. The stress that results from attempting to hold ourselves to such high (often unattainable) standards, combined with the other stresses of modern life (like those associated with modern technology, work/life balance, and so on), lead us into situations that often feature significant amounts of conflict.
When we experience conflict within ourselves or with others, that conflict is often accompanied by anger. Practicing mindfulness can be incredibly challenging when we’re in an anger-driven, clouded emotional state. Indeed, anger can be quite blinding. When we speak of someone going into a “blind rage,” this does a reasonably good job of capturing just how damaging anger can be for ourselves and for our relationships. When we’re angry, it’s easy to become fixated on the anger itself: it consumes us, and begins to take us over. We lose sight of ourselves. We lose sight of the present.
With this in mind, working to understand and overcome anger is an important part of a maintaining a mindfulness practice. While experiencing conflict and anger is completely normal, allowing ourselves to become completely consumed and overrun with angry feelings is deleterious to our wellbeing. With the free mindfulness exercises offered here, you can begin your journey down the path of mindfulness. Along the way, you’ll have the opportunity to work to overcome feelings of anger, with the goal of recognizing those feelings for what they are–rather than allowing them to control you.
Find more exercises related to mindfulness based stress reduction here.