Anger wells up within us pretty quickly. Is there anything we can do to quell its impending explosion? Yes, there is.
You can feel it start. The anger is about to explode. You don’t want to lash out, but something inside you seems to be pushing you on. And before you know it, you find yourself shouting at a total stranger.
The last year has been difficult for all of us. Even fairly even-tempered people find themselves touchy these days. After lockdowns and social distancing and masks, we have become wary of one another. And so many things have become political as well. We find ourselves expecting to be upset by other people, even before they say or do anything. We see reports in the news every day of people losing their tempers at restaurants, on planes, and on the road. And just when things seem to be opening up a little, many of us have been unable to adjust.
What happened? Can we do anything about it?
The answer is yes. As a fifth-degree black belt and certified martial arts instructor, I have spent years teaching people in meditative practices.
But you don’t need to be accomplished in meditation to help yourself when you feel that you are about to lose your temper. A few basic insights can help you at those difficult moments.
The key is preparation.
1. Pick a Visual Image
The first thing you need to do is take a moment right now to pick a visual image that you can remember and that you can focus on when you begin to feel angry. You can’t wait until you are already in a situation where you feel anger coming on. Pick the image now so that you can use it when you need it.
Women and their partners who had Lamaze training for childbirth will recognize this idea of having a visual image, but it is commonly the way that both men and women begin to learn meditation. Now that I have been meditating for many years, I don’t need a visual image, but when I first began, I chose a picture I once took near Mt. Rushmore. It wasn’t a picture of the actual monument. It was a picture of a boulder, surrounded by bushes on a path near the visitor center. I just found it beautiful for some reason I can’t explain. I felt peaceful looking at it. So I chose it as my visual image.
The image you pick has to be chosen just for you. No one else can pick it for you.
It can be anything that works for you — anything that gives you a feeling of peace. Once you have picked a visual image, try bringing it to mind at different times during the day. You will find that it helps you feel better. That’s step number one.
2. Learn to Breathe Deeply
The next step is to learn how to breathe in a way that helps you control your heartbeat. When we are in tense situations, our heartbeat increases, our muscles begin to tense up, and we begin to pump adrenaline into our system. This is sometimes known as the “fight or flight” response. It is an evolutionary effect to help us deal with danger, but it can also make it more difficult for us to handle tension or conflict.
We can manage this bodily response with breathing. It isn’t sufficient to “take a deep breath,” even though this is what is often recommended to people when they begin to feel angry. One deep breath is virtually useless.
In order to slow your heartbeat down, you need to begin breathing deeply as soon as you feel anxious and keep breathing deeply until you feel better. This breathing must be in regular intervals.
When you practice this, try breathing in through your nose and count until your lungs are full. Then exhale through your mouth, counting for the same amount of time to empty your lungs. So, if you counted to five for the inhale, count to five for the exhale. The rhythm of these deep breaths will slow down your heartbeat and cut off the sudden supply of adrenaline, making it much easier for you to calm down.
3. Think of Why You are Angry
Anger is rarely a helpful emotion. In the martial arts, we teach people to banish their anger, even if we have to fight, because anger clouds our minds and tricks us into acting in ways that do not help us. We learn from Book I of Plato’s Republic that anger is associated with a sense of aggrieved justice.
We get angry when we feel we have been treated unjustly. But the anger we feel keeps us from actually exploring the perceived injustice.
Think for a moment about these three questions. First, even if you feel you are suffering some injustice, are you getting angry with a person who is being knowingly unjust? Is the person actually trying to treat you unjustly, or is that person just acting ignorantly? Does it really make any sense to be angry with people who don’t even know what they are doing? They might be completely clueless about what they are doing and how it affects you.
A teacher of mine told a story about going to the zoo with his son. They were standing in front of the zebra cage when one of the zebras leaned over, took his son’s hat, and ate it. His son was very angry with the zebra, until his father explained that the zebra didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t know that hats belonged to people or that they were not food. He was just being a zebra. It makes no sense to get angry at a zebra for just being what it is. Once his son understood this, he felt much better. His hat was still gone, but he didn’t feel angry any more.
Second, is the person you are getting angry with actually responsible for the injustice? This is a common scenario. My father was a wonderful man, but he was guilty of this. If we were in a restaurant and he thought things cost too much, he would yell at the waitress. But she didn’t set the prices. And the owner of the restaurant didn’t set the prices in a vacuum. Costs go up for restaurants all the time, and these get passed on to customers. It feels wrong, but it really isn’t a particular person’s fault. There’s no reason to yell at the waitress or the owner. My father was really just angry at the situation, the reality, and he picked the person nearest to him to vent his anger. He always felt bad later on, but the damage had been done.
Finally, even if someone is knowingly being unjust to you, and even if it is clear that this person is responsible for the injustice, ask yourself if being angry will help the situation. Will anger solve the problem or make the problem bigger? Usually anger complicates a fairly simple situation and escalates a problem. Could you achieve more by simply explaining yourself and stating in a straightforward manner why you would like to see a different outcome? Try putting things into words that clarify what you are feeling. There is a much better chance that you will achieve the result you want in any situation if you are able to articulate what it is that you want and discuss how to get there.
Three simple steps: Focus on a peaceful visual image. Practice conscious breathing. And think of why you are angry. Then, try explaining why you feel the way you do, rather than exploding.
Together, these techniques can help you through difficult moments, and they can greatly enhance the quality of your life.
We could all use a little more calm these days.
You may also enjoy reading What Are You Really Crying About? by Alison Hammer