Anger is natural, intelligent and necessary for surviving and flourishing. Yet when we are hooked by anger, it causes great personal and collective suffering. This talk explores how to transform patterns of reactivity by bringing a mindful and compassionate attention to the unmet needs that underlie angry reactivity. When we learn how to pause and connect honestly with our inner experience, we are then able to respond to others from our full intelligence and heart.
“Getting angry with another person is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.” Buddha
“… When we find ourselves in an aggressive relationship, we need to set clear boundaries. The kindest thing we can do for everyone concerned is to know when to say ‘enough.’ Many people use Buddhist ideals to justify self-debasement. In the name of not shutting our heart we let people walk all over us. It is said that in order not to break our vow of compassion we have to learn when to stop aggression and draw the line. There are times when the only way to bring down barriers is to set boundaries.”
Pema Chödron (from: The Places That Scare You)
One evening after my Wednesday night meditation class, Amy, a member of our D.C. meditation community, asked if we might talk for a few minutes about her mother, a woman she often referred to as “a manipulative, narcissistic human.” Amy’s mother had recently been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, and as the only local offspring, Amy had become her mother’s primary caretaker. So, there she was, spending hours a day with a person she’d been avoiding for decades. “I can’t stand myself for having such a hard heart,” Amy confessed.
Amy and I agreed to meet privately to explore how she might use her practice to find more freedom in relating to her mother. At our first session, she told me difficult early childhood memories had recently been emerging. In the most potent of these, Amy was three years old. Her mom yelled upstairs that she’d prepared a bath for her and that she should get in the tub. But when Amy went into the bathroom, what she found was a couple of inches of lukewarm water. What had flashed through her three-year-old mind then was: “This is all I’m going to get. No one is taking care of me.”
Amy’s mom had always been preoccupied with her own dramas, perpetually reacting to perceived slights from friends, struggling against weight gain, and berating her husband for his shortcomings. Little attention was paid to the physical or emotional needs of Amy or her siblings. “She doesn’t care about anyone except herself,” Amy told me. “She’s a self-centered bitch … it really pisses me off. I got gypped out of having a mother, and now I’m here catering to her.” As she was speaking I asked her to pause, and investigate what she was most aware of in the moment. After a long silence, Amy said “There’s so much rage, I can barely contain it.”
Part of the process of softening our hearts includes learning to recognize and allow whatever we’re feeling—even intense rage. But this isn’t always simple, or easy. When I asked Amy if she could allow the rage to be here, she shook her head. “I’m afraid if I really make space for this rage, it will destroy every relationship I have. I’ve already hurt people I love.”
When anger is buried, like Amy’s was, the energy gets converted and expressed in many different ways. Yet, anger is a natural survival energy that wants our attention, that needs to be allowed to be felt. However, “allowing” doesn’t mean we let ourselves be possessed by our anger. Rather, we allow when we acknowledge the stories of blame without believing them, and when we let the sensations of anger arise, without either acting them out or resisting them.
I encouraged Amy to check in with her fear. Was it willing to let this rage be here? Could the fear step aside enough so that she could be present with this rage? Amy nodded. Now, she could begin to investigate the emotional energy beneath the blame. I knew that for her to do this, she’d first need to step outside of the seductive sway of her resentful stories. We’d talked about the stories, respecting them as windows into her pain. But the anger also lived deeper in her body—in a place beyond thought. The next step was for Amy to widen and deepen her attention so she could fully contact these embodied energies.
I asked Amy to notice what she was feeling in her body, and she closed her eyes and paused. “It’s like a hot pressured cauldron in my chest,” she said. What would happen, I asked, if she said yes to this feeling, and allowed the heat and pressure to be as intense as it wanted. “It wants to explode,” Amy said. Again, I encouraged her to let be, to allow her experience just as it was.
Amy was absolutely still for some moments.“The rage feels like it is bursting flames, like a windstorm spreading in all directions,” she said. “It’s blasting through the windows of this office.” In a low voice, she went on: “It’s spreading through the East Coast. Now it’s destroying all life forms, ripping through the continent, oceans, earth.” She continued, telling me about the rage’s fury, how it was spreading through space. Then she became very quiet. Speaking in a soft voice, she finally said, “It’s losing steam,” before sitting back on the couch and letting out a tired sigh. “Now there’s just emptiness. No one is left in the world. I’m utterly alone, lonely.” In a barely audible whisper, she said, “There’s no one who loves me, no one that I love.”
Amy began weeping. Inside the rage, she’d found an empty place, a place that felt loveless. Now what was revealing itself was grief: grief for the loss of love in her life. When I asked what the grieving part of her most needed, she knew right away: “To know that I care about this pain, that I accept and love this grieving place.” I guided her to gently place her hand on her heart, and offer inwardly the message her wounded self most needed. She began repeating the phrase, “I’m sorry, I love you.” This wasn’t an apology. Rather, it was a simple expression of sorrow for her own hurt.
As Amy whispered the phrase over and over, she began rocking side to side. “I’m seeing the little girl in the bath,” she said, “and feeling how uncared for she feels, how alone. I’m holding her now, telling her ‘I’m sorry, I love you.’” Then, after a few minutes, Amy sat upright and looked at me with a fresh openness and brightness. “I think I understand,” she said. “I’ve been angry for so long that I abandoned her—the inner part of me—just like my mom abandoned that three-year-old.” She paused,then continued. “I just have to remember that this part of me needs love. I want to love her.”
Offering a compassionate and clear attention to her vulnerability had connected Amy with a vastness of being that could include her pain. This natural awareness is the fruition of an intimate attention. When we’re resting in this presence, we’re inhabiting the refuge of our own awakened heart and mind.
Some weeks later, Amy read me her morning’s journal entry: “There is more room in my heart.” The night before, after her mother had complained for the third time that her soup still wasn’t salty enough, Amy felt the familiar rising tide of irritation and resentment. She sent the message “I’m sorry, I love you” inwardly to herself, giving permission to the annoyance, to the edginess in her own heart. She felt a softening, a relaxing of tension. Looking up, she was struck by her mother’s grim, dissatisfied expression. Then, just as she’d learned to inquire about herself, the thought came:“What is my mom feeling right now?” Almost immediately, she could sense her mother’s insecurity and loneliness. Imagining her mother inside her heart, Amy again began offering caring messages. “I’m sorry,” she whispered silently, “I love you.”
She found herself feeling genuine warmth toward her mother, and the evening was surprisingly pleasant for both of them. They joked about her mom doing a “mono diet” of potato chips, went online and ordered a bathrobe, and had fun watching The Daily Show together.
At our last meeting Amy told me how, several days earlier, her mother had woken up in the morning hot and sweaty. Amy took a cool cloth to her mother’s forehead and cheeks, arms and feet. “Nobody’s ever washed me,” her mom had said with a wistful smile. Amy immediately remembered the little girl in the bathtub, and felt tears in her eyes. She and her mom had both gone through much of life feeling neglected, as if they didn’t matter. And right now, each in her own way was tasting the intimacy of care. They looked at each other and had a moment of uncomplicated love. It was the first such moment Amy could remember, one she knew she’d cherish long after her mom was gone.
The mindstates behind violence – anger and fear – are universal and natural. If they possess us and drive our actions, we suffer. If we learn to meet them with a mindful awareness – if we step out of judgment and angry reactivity – we serve our own freedom and the possibility of peace on earth as well.