Monday, February 28, 2011

Meditating with anger

After practicing meditation regularly for several years in my twenties, I prided myself on being consistently calm and even-tempered and never getting angry. Then one day, my girlfriend at the time confessed that she’d had an affair with another man! Without hesitating, I picked up a cup from the table and threw it against the wall. I remember being startled by the sudden intensity of my emotions. One moment I seemed perfectly peaceful, and the next moment I was flying into a rage. My anger may have been appropriate to the circumstances, but I certainly hadn’t expressed it skillfully. Humbled, I headed back to the meditation cushion for some deeper investigation — after breaking up with my girlfriend, of course.
Many people, especially women, have a taboo against getting angry because they weren’t allowed to express their anger, even as children. So they expend enormous amounts of energy trying to skirt around the feeling. Other people seem as though they’re perpetually seething with current anger and old resentments, although they may not realize it themselves. When you meditate with your anger, you might begin by noticing where and how you experience it in your body. Where do you find yourself tensing and contracting? What happens to your breathing? Where do you notice a buildup of energy? How does it affect softer emotions? As you continue to be aware of your anger, do you notice it shifting or changing in any way? How long does it last? Does it have a beginning and an end?
Next, you can turn your attention to your mind. What kinds of thoughts and images accompany the angry feelings? Do you find yourself blaming other people and defending yourself? If you investigate further and peel back the initial layer of anger, what do you find underneath? In my experience, anger generally arises in response to one of two deeper emotions: hurt or fear. When you’re hurt, as I was by my girlfriend’s betrayal, you may lash out in anger against the one you believe hurt you. And when you’re afraid, you may protect yourself with the sword and armor of anger rather than acknowledge your fear, even to yourself. Beneath the hurt and fear, anger generally masks an even deeper layer of attachment to having things be a certain way. When circumstances change or don’t go according to plan, you feel hurt or afraid and then angry in response.
With anger, as with all emotions, set aside any judgment or resistance you might have and face the anger directly. You may find that it becomes more intense before it releases, but stay with it. Beneath the anger may lie deep wellsprings of power, which you may eventually discover how to evoke without getting angry.

How to Meditate with Challenging Emotions

As a psychotherapist, meditator, and meditation teacher, I’ve discovered a thing or two over the years about how people relate to the mysterious and sometimes formidable world of human emotions. For one thing, many people believe they have a Pandora’s box of ugly, disgusting emotions like rage, jealousy, hatred, and terror hidden inside them, and they’re afraid that if they open it up, these demonic energies will overwhelm them and those they love. For another thing, they tend to think that these “negative” feelings are bottomless and irresolvable, and they’re better off avoiding them, no matter how painful it may be to hold them in.
Unfortunately, you pay a steep price indeed if you spend your life resisting and denying your feelings. Unacknowledged negative feelings can impede the flow of more positive feelings like love and joy. As a result, you may end up feeling lonely because you lack close emotional contact with others, and you may be unable to give and receive love when you have an opportunity to do so. In addition, negative feelings that build up inside you tend to cause stress, suppress the immune system, and contribute to stress-related ailments like ulcers, cancer, and heart disease. They also hold valuable life energy that you might otherwise channel in constructive or creative ways. Besides, emotions that are persistently suppressed and denied have an annoying habit of bursting forth inappropriately, when you least expect them, prompting you to do and say things you may later regret.
Of course, some people go to another extreme and seem to be so completely awash in powerful emotional reactions that they can’t make simple decisions or carry on a rational conversation. But these people aren’t really experiencing their emotions, they’re indulging them and allowing them to run their lives. Meditation offers you an alternative way of relating with your emotions. Instead of suppressing, indulging, or exploding, you can directly experience your emotions as they are — as an interplay of thoughts, images, and sensations. When you’ve become skillful at following your breath and expanding your awareness to include the flow of thoughts and feelings — which may take months or even years — you can focus your attention on particular emotions that you find challenging or problematic and develop penetrating insight into the nature of the experience.
Instead of being bottomless or endless, as some people fear, you may find that even the most powerful emotions come in waves that have a limited duration when you experience them fully. As one of my teachers used to say, “What you resist persists” — and what you welcome has a tendency to let go and release. (See the sidebar “Facing your demons” later in this chapter.) Here are some guidelines for exploring a few of the most common emotions. Although feelings come in many shapes and sizes, I’ve found that they’re all more or less variants or combinations of a few basic ones: anger, fear, sadness, joy, excitement, and desire. (In my view, love is deeper than emotion; it’s a fundamental expression of being itself.) Just as an artist’s rich palette of colors can ultimately be broken down into cyan, magenta, and yellow, the difficult or challenging emotions like jealousy, guilt, boredom, and depression are combinations (or reactions) to four basic feelings: anger, fear, sadness, and desire.

Welcoming whatever arises

When you become accustomed to including sensations, thoughts, and feelings in your meditation, you can open your awareness gates wide and welcome whatever arises, without judgment or resistance. Imagine that your mind is like the sky, and inner and outer experiences come and go like clouds. At first, you may find your attention drawn here and there, exploring one object and then another. You don’t have to control your attention in any way; just allow it to wander where it will, from thoughts to sensations to feelings and back again.
Eventually, you may have periods in your meditation when your mind feels spacious and expanded and doesn’t seem to be disturbed by thoughts, feelings, or outside distractions. Whatever you experience, just keep opening your awareness and welcoming whatever comes. A note of caution, however: This practice, though supremely simple, is actually quite advanced and requires well-developed powers of concentration to sustain. It’s also difficult to teach — rather like riding a bicycle. First, you have to discover what it feels like to hold your balance; then you just keep returning to the balance point whenever you start to fall off.