It’s such a shame to think of how often we deride ourselves, and each other, for being “emotional.” It’s like jumping on someone for breathing. Emotion is a process that is a vital part of being alive. As the pioneering psychologist of emotions Paul Ekman has said, emotion is a kind of rapid, automatic appraisal of what’s going on. It’s influenced by our evolutionary past as well as our personal past, such that when “we sense that something important to our welfare is occurring…a set of physiological changes and emotional behaviors begins to deal with the situation.”
You’ve been endowed with a nervous system that has evolved over thousands of generations in a way that you didn’t choose. By the time you actually realize that you have a mind and a brain, the basic rules of how they work are already in place. The events that trigger our emotional responses are sometimes universal and sometimes personal. Almost anyone would feel fear at the sight of an oncoming car, but only some of us are afraid of hiking down steep trails while others happily scramble down them like a mountain goat. The triggers that each of us carries with us often come from early childhood and can continue quite unconsciously into adulthood.
And opportunities for emotion abound. Remembering, talking about, or imagining a past emotional scene or thinking of future scenarios can trigger emotions. Observing another person’s emotions (even on a TV screen) can elicit an emotional response. Role playing or theater can elicit emotion; and so can seeing an event that offends our sensibilities, like someone talking on a cell phone at the symphony or throwing trash into the street.
One of our most potent emotions—whose inward and outward effects can have disastrous consequences—is anger. In evolutionary terms, its main adaptive function is to remove obstacles that thwart us. When we feel anger, it’s because the primitive brain is trying to tell us something needs to change. We share this emotion with other mammals and even with reptiles. Baby humans come already well equipped with the capacity to get angry. If you hold a baby by her arms from behind, preventing her from grabbing a toy, she will get pretty angry, furrowing her brow, tightening her muscles, trying to move forcefully to get the toy, and perhaps shouting with a squeaky voice. When the baby grows up, she can have an analogous reaction when someone cuts her off on the road, especially if she’s already late for an important meeting! Anger also shows up when you—or others you feel connected to—are treated unjustly, or when someone or something prevents you from meeting your goals and needs.
Regardless of what triggers them, emotional responses can be either functional or dysfunctional. If we automatically swerve from an oncoming car, the fear response is extremely functional. If we’re afraid to leave the house for fear something terrible will happen, we are now in a disorder that is on the very dysfunctional side of fear, a disorder that no doubt is being triggered by an imported script from past trauma.
Until around the 1970s, it was commonly believed that the nervous system was essentially fixed throughout adulthood; that brain functions remained constant and that it was impossible for new neurons to develop after birth. If you were born with a “glass half-empty” attitude, it would be a life-sentence of unhappiness. Neuroscience has changed all that with the concept of neuroplasticity, which suggests that, in reality, human brains are flexible and change through experience. Although there are some fixed rules about what minds and brains can do, it’s also true that there is a space of freedom to respond rather than react that can be cultivated through mindful observation and practice. And in that space, we have an opportunity to work creatively with the dysfunctional aspects and enhance the more functional aspects of our emotional life.
Consciously or not, we’re constantly training our minds and brains to respond to circumstances. By virtue of repetition, our reactions crystallize into emotional patterns and neural pathways, which, in turn, influence the way we perceive reality. This is particularly true when we’re in the grips of a strong emotion, which is sometimes called the refractory period, a period of time when we’re only able to take in information and evoke memories that confirm, maintain, or justify the emotion we are feeling. This same mechanism that guides and focuses our attention can also distort our ability to deal with both new information and knowledge already stored that does not match the current emotion. We can all think of countless examples when we have missed obvious cues or forgotten historical data when we were “blinded” by a strong emotion. It’s not called “blind rage” for nothing.
Blind and Blaming
Although it’s quite possible to get mad at ourselves, the energy of anger is generally directed outward and it’s often linked with blame. This tendency to blame, strike out, punish, and retaliate makes anger especially challenging to sit with, and a big source of interpersonal suffering. When we feel anger toward someone, our sense of “self” and “other” gets very solid. In this state, we exaggerate all the negative qualities of the other person and become blind to positive attributes, which in turn feeds the aversion. The complexity and nuance of the other is reduced to a monolithic negative cartoon called “the enemy.”
We often wonder why we’re angriest at those we’re closest to. For one thing, people who know us intimately also know what can hurt us the most. Someone said, “Your family knows how to push your buttons because they actually installed them.” But a less glib reason is that it tends to be safer to show anger to an intimate than to a stranger. You can express aggression to your partner when you’re actually mad at your boss, probably because it’s less likely your partner will fire you. We can be frustrated about ourselves but direct our anger outside. It’s uncanny that we can even get quite angry at inanimate objects—a door, a table, a wall, or a shoe.
And that very fact reveals something that illuminates what’s really happening: although it feels as if the source of anger is out there, the anger comes from within. Other people are just pretending to be the real enemies. In fact, it’s possible to see them as our “patience coaches,” offering us opportunities to explore and tame the anger habit. If everyone was nice and considerate, how could we train in patience, how could we learn to tame our anger?
There’s an old story about a man who was sailing his boat on clear and sunny day, when a dense fog rolled in. Just as he had decided to return to shore, he noticed the profile of another boat coming in his direction. “Keep your distance!” the boatman shouted, concerned about a possible collision. But the other boat just kept approaching. The boatman used all his skills to swiftly shift direction, so there was more room for the other boat. He got really upset when he saw that the other boat changed its own course, now coming directly to him. “Stay out of my way!” he shouted again, but the other boat just kept coming closer, until it finally crashed into his boat.
The man was enraged: “You idiot! What the hell are you doing?!” He got totally worked up and continued his rampage until the fog lifted enough so that he was able to see that the other boat was empty—it was just an old abandoned boat floating downstream. Now he was perplexed and frustrated: To whom could he express his anger? Could he project his anger onto an empty boat? Without a person to blame, it was impossible to keep the story of anger going.
Ask yourself: Do I ever get mad at “empty boats”? If so, where does this anger come from? Where does it go?
Becoming aware of the inner terrain of anger can be helpful in catching it sooner and sparing ourselves and others the hurt and regret that often ensue from acting out anger. To work with anger, we need to see the space between trigger and reaction in order to mindfully look within.
Door Number Four
Anger is tricky because there’s a cost both to showing anger and to suppressing it. Suppressing doesn’t actually solve anything. It only postpones having to deal with anger while it keeps quietly simmering under the surface, wreaking havoc with our bodies. But if we show it, almost invariably we either hurt others or provoke retaliation. Another common habit is unconsciously “feeding” the mind states of anger with our stories of blame and victimization, thereby reinforcing the anger habit.
It’s rare that therapists nowadays advise their clients to act out their anger with real or symbolic others (punching pillows, shouting loudly in an empty room, and so on), partially because brain science has demonstrated that each time anger is expressed it gets rehearsed and strengthened. The idea that if you let your anger out you will reach peace and calm is simply not true—the satisfaction of the discharge will invariably be transient relief. And the anger will be saying, “I’ll be back.”
Most of us know we can get a certain satisfaction or relief when we express aggression. There can be a seductive quality to the anger, and an adrenaline rush, and that’s why it can become a habit, even an addiction. Anger is like a fuel. When we get angry we can feel energized, stronger, bigger—picture an angry cat with a curved spine and raised hair, pretending to be bigger than it is to scare away what it’s actually scared of. However, anger isn’t a very efficient fuel, because it burns hot and costly. It can be quite polluting on the inside and outside, and it’s heavy and corrosive in the system.
Fortunately, there are other options besides the “three doors” of suppression, expression, and unconscious fueling. When insults or obstacles are perceived, it’s normal for an anger response to arise. It’s just our nature and evolutionary history at work. Though we may succeed in becoming angry less often, it will always be a part of our emotional lives and it is therefore critical to learn how to relate skillfully with this challenging energy. As soon as you remember that you’re not just a victim of your anger, that you can actually use it as a path of self-discovery, you can practice being present with the feeling of anger, connecting with it, and allowing its energy to arise and pass away without acting on it or suppressing it.
This is “door number four.”
Don’t underestimate the power of this simple method. As with mindfulness generally, it’s simple, but it’s not easy.
The capacity to work with anger mindfully is not a binary, either-you-have-it-or-you-don’t proposition. It’s a practice that builds gradually, strengthening the muscle of mindfulness in the face of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Instead of identifying with, rejecting, or being unaware of anger, we can learn to approach it with openness and curiosity, trusting that anger has something to teach us, and that this can be a very productive part of practice.
Anger is not a special problem getting in the way of mindfulness practice. It actually provides you with an exceptional opportunity to practice mindfulness, to open up when habit tells you to shut down, to connect with experience when habit makes you disconnect, and to question if the image you’ve constructed of yourself and others is as solid as it appears.
There’s a Cherokee story that captures the nature of anger beautifully. A boy tells his grandfather about his anger at a friend who had done him an injustice. His grandfather replies: “Let me tell you a story. I too, at times, have felt great hate for those who have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do. But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It’s like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times. My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One wolf brings happiness. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. But the other wolf…ah! The littlest thing will send him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all of the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. Sometimes it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”
The boy looked intently into his grandfather’s eyes and asked, “Which one wins, Grandfather?”
The grandfather smiled and quietly said, “The one I feed.”
Training in mindfulness is remembering that every moment is an opportunity to practice peace, no matter the circumstances. Our thoughts, words, and actions are food for the wolves we all have inside. There’s no need for guilt when you notice you’re feeding the angry wolf (we all do this, and guilt won’t help). Instead, know that you have the freedom to learn from your experience and keep practicing with patience. Trust that it’s the small—often invisible—steps that take you forward.
Margaret Cullen and Gonzalo Brito Pons, co-authored “The Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance Workbook. Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance is an empirically-supported 9-week psycho-educational group intervention that teaches mindfulness meditation and emotion training.