Anger – Dissolving Old Patterns
For many of us anger shows up as a result of established patterns of thinking and is less about the immediate situation at hand. Let’s take an example. A father and his teenage son have a record of conflict where the son typically rebels angrily against the father’s advice or requests. At some point the father sees that his own behaviour is triggering a typical negative reaction in his son and also leading to anger within himself . So one day, he decides to change the way he speaks to his son, avoids nagging or criticising but the son reacts angrily as usual. For the son, the fact that his father has spoken to him at all is enough of a trigger. He has formed a negative judgment about his interactions with his father and this judgment feeds a pattern of angrily reacting to his father’s comments or requests. The father too feels angry thinking, “It’s useless, no matter what I say, we end up having a row”.
At this point, if the father has learned some mindfulness, he will already recognise the signs of anger within himself. He may also wisely allow himself to really feel those feelings as they play out in the body and in the flow of the breath. In self-regulating in this way, he may be able to move on. However, it is likely that interactions with his son will continue to be fraught with anger. What can he do?
For many of us, anger arises like this as an almost automatic reaction based on previous experience which is made up of layers of negative thinking and judgments. As well as recognising and allowing our anger there are now two more steps that we can take to both support ourselves but also to avoid slipping into the same angry pattern repeatedly. These steps are known as investigation and the practice of non-attachment.
Investigation is best done when we stop what we might be doing and tune in to what is happening inside. We recognise that we are angry and we allow the feelings to be just as they are. We can then gently investigate what is going on. We deliberately us those qualities of curiosity and kindness mentioned in a previous blog to get up close to both body sensations but also emotions. In a spirit of open enquiry we can ask ourselves: “What is this?”. In asking this question we are not pushing for an immediate or definite answer. So as we stay with the sensations in the body and rest the awareness also on the breath to stabilise the attention and reduce the intensity of the emotion, we sit in a kind of creative ‘not knowing’. This kind of ‘not knowing’ allows for the possibility of something that we were not expecting to emerge in awareness. We may spend some time repeating the question “What is this?” before anything emerges. Or perhaps nothing specific emerges immediately. It might need more time and reflection before some insight reveals itself to us.
In the case of the father exploring the anger he feels when communicating with his son, he may get some insight into how it feels for his son. In doing so, greater understanding of his son might allow him to bring compassion to both his son and himself as he works through and beyond established patterns of interaction. However, there is one more mindful step that could allow him to move on and avoid adding to the narrative of “It’s useless …” mentioned above. This involves the practice of non-identification.
Non-Identification in this context basically means not getting hooked on the story of conflict that has been playing out in the past. This includes not feeding the narrative of “It’s useless …” with further negative thoughts about the difficulty of interacting with his son. For many of us, it is this almost unconscious feeding of the narrative, that negative interpretive framework, which causes the intensity of the anger to persist. It also creates the conditions for this anger to easily arise again when there is even the slightest friction between ourselves and the person we feel anger towards. So how is this kind of non-identification achieved?
As we practice mindfulness formally, choosing to explore this anger, we quietly observe the tendency of the mind to ruminate on the negative angry thoughts and feelings. We can achieve some distance between ourselves and these thoughts by labelling what we are noticing, saying for example: “This is anger” every time an angry thought pops up. We are not suppressing the thoughts but just unlocking from them giving ourselves some space. Allied to this technique we can ground the awareness in the sensations in the body and the movement of the breath. We might also offer ourselves some kindness by saying something like: “It’s okay for me to feel this”.
After we have stopped working with anger in this deliberately mindful way, we might have a clearer sense of what now needs to be done, if anything. Sometimes, not acting in the short-term can be a wise thing to do. Distracting ourselves with something that is easy or pleasant can also be appropriate. These long held patterns of angry reactivity can take some time to dissolve so it is best not to force an outcome. Anger can be a great teacher but we don’t need to be in the classroom all the time.