Anger and the hold it has on us.
I have a friend holding onto discontentment and anger. It’s hard to watch, as he won’t let anyone in and is slowly, through treating others poorly, disintegrating the love and respect others had for him. This has been his attitude of choice for so many months now that he may not even know why he feels this resistance to his current life or is stuck in this thinking cycle of irritation, anger, resistance, and discontent. It’s become a habit he holds onto.
Any state of mind can become a habit and the more we let our mind dwell in these places, the more the mind spins stories that support our feelings. Our mind loves to take things that happen every day and tell us why “it’s not fair” or why "that person isn't treating us right”. The mind creates whole stories that haven’t even happened yet and probably won’t happen, "what if's". We listen to these stories, as truths; we begin to think of everything that happens in terms of ‘us versus them’; and we begin to have an aversion to everything. We push anything that happens away. We don’t see the good and just see everything as unpleasant. Since we don’t want the unpleasant stuff, it continues to support our mistaken belief that we are being robbed of the good life. Because of this mindset, we miss the pleasant moments, as we are too busy mulling over the unpleasant moments. We forget that life comes with unpleasant, pleasant, and neutral moments but the real gift that we are given is impermanence. Each moment will eventually pass and another moment will come up. This is awesome! We are guaranteed to have more pleasant moments, just like we are guaranteed to have more unpleasant and neutral moments. If we can begin to accept all the moments and learn from them, we can move through life with less highs and lows and more joy and ease.
The other thing about a state of mind like anger is it’s only hurting us. In the long run, the people close to us get tired of it and just leave, or stop hanging out with the angry person. When we get mired in a state of mind like anger, holding onto that anger is like slowly drinking poison that we have poured for our self. We sink into suffering that nobody has forced us into; we've created that pool of suffering our self. To try to put this in perspective, imagine there is a hot stove. We would never put our hand on the hot stove and then hold it there or keep putting it there. We would say “Oh! That stove is hot and that hurts, so to avoid the pain, I will not do that again.” But yet, we let our mind ruminate about thoughts and create stories around events, that cause us pain and we sink into that pain. Going over and over in our head about how unhappy we are and how it is somebody else’s fault because they wronged us. These thoughts cause us deep mental pain and often result in physical pain due to the stress and internalization of the anger.
This mental state of resistance, aversion, and anger is one of the five mental states that most hinder our ability to let go of suffering. These five mental states cause us suffering and prevent us from dealing with situations in a wise and skillful manner. They hinder our ability to concentrate, make decisions, and act thoughtfully toward others. The aversion we experience specifically from this mind state of anger, resistance, and discontentment causes our mind to become cloudy and this fog prevents us from seeing clearly.
But, what’s the best thing about a state of mind like anger? We can change it. It’s much easier if we change it before we become mired in it, but no matter where someone is stuck in the depths of unhappiness, stress, distress, or anger, that person, with practice and over time, can become happier, calmer, and more joyful. This is one of the most joyful things we've learned through neuroscience research in recent years. Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds has been one of the key researchers in this field. In addition, the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley also does a great job reporting on this research. At the bottom of this post you can find some links to research on the topic.
An important note, sometimes we have chemical disruptions causing these mind states. When someone is experiencing depression, or some other altered state that they can't see beyond, this should be dealt with through a professional. After that person has recovered from the depression, that is the time to learn mindfulness. By practicing mindfulness meditation they may be able to assure they don't relapse. But, if our attitude is just a habit, meaning we've allowed our self to become mired in the hindrance of anger or resentment and because of this we are stuck in that pattern of thought, of speech, and of action, or perhaps we believe that is our nature – then, through conscious, skillful thought we can make a change.
This is where mindfulness comes into the process. When you recognize that you are working with a hindrance like anger and you've let it suck all positive interaction from your life following are the initial steps to take. To follow these steps, you must create a new habit of the mind, but it will be worth it! Using anger as our example:
- Recognize when anger, resistance, discontentment are present. Take the time to recognize what that mind state is doing to our body, mind, and feelings? Is your forehead scrunched? Is your stomach in knots? Is your breathing shallow? Do you feel put upon? Do you feel self-righteous?
- Recognize when that state of mind is absent and how that feels in your body, mind, and sensations? Perhaps in the beginning there are only small periods like this but recognize the feeling of light and ease? Perhaps you notice that your throat isn't tight or you notice the beauty of the trees and birds around you?
- Recognize what conditions surround the presence or absence of the anger. What triggered it? By noticing this you can begin to recognize when a trigger is happening and choose to react in another way.
These three steps won’t be easy and the angry person has to be tired of that mind state and the feeling of doom they are bringing on themselves. But it is possible to change that feeling of doom to a feeling of enjoying life again just by recognizing the damage being done from these stories our mind is telling. It doesn't happen overnight, but it can happen with practice.
This is the beginning of a 5 part segment on these hindrances that we use to cause self-suffering. Have you ever had an experience when you recognized you were holding onto anger and you realized that mind state wasn't serving you? Feel free to share below, if you are willing. And don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions!
Paulson, S., Davidson, R. J., Jha, A., and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Becoming Conscious: the science of mindfulness. http://www.investigatinghealthyminds.org/ScientificPublications/2013/PaulsonBecomingAotNYAoS.pdf
Schaefer, S. M., Morozink Boylan, J., van Reedum, C. M., Lapate, R. C., Norris, C. J., Ryff, C. D., Davidson, R. J. (2013). Purpose in Life Predicts Better Emotional Recovery from Negative Stimuli http://www.investigatinghealthyminds.org/ScientificPublications/2013/SchaeferPurposePLoSONE.pdf
Nauman. E. (2014). Three Ways Mindfulness Reduces Depression. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/three_ways_mindfulness_reduces_depression The Greater Good Science Center from the University of California, Berkeley.