Angry? How mindfulness can help you get out of your Groundhog Day
“anger is an energy” -John Lydon
“anger arises out of the egos fundamental fear-its insecurity about its existence”-Ponlop
“don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me if I got angry.” -Bruce Banner
Jamie was angry. He could feel it well up almost instantly inside him without warning. He had, four months ago, made the decision with the full support of his wife to switch jobs after a one year controlling relationship with a new manager. It was, he reflected, the right thing, the best thing to do. But he was angry. This, he thought made no sense at all: he had done the leaving and now had a better job and a better life. What, exactly was going on?
At times we can all find ourselves caught up, then engulfed, in anger. It’s as if our whole being is trembling with fire and we can’t find a way out. It’s Groundhog Day and we angrily go around and around living the same old. And we burn and we burn. In turn this creates a situation where we are well and truly caught up in reactivity; we “hulk out” so to speak and that fire burns those around us.
How can we move past this? How can we end our anger?
Before we explore anger, it might be worthwhile to pull back a little to consider the nature of thought-or mind-itself. This is the principle domain of exploration and learning in mindfulness; the nature of mind and hence thought or thinking. Psychotherapeutic approaches such as counselling with tend to privilege content of mind, and the problem with this is that content is endless, yet nature of mind is not.
In mindfulness we often suggest that there are three stages to thinking: self-arising, self-displaying, and self-liberating. Let’s look at these.
- Self-arising: much of our thought arises unbidden and quite involuntary. Essentially, it’s habitual, since the majority of our thinking is composed of stories, memories, reflections that we recycle, as if we have a stream or undercurrent of thinking that every now and then we automatically dip into and become immersed in.
- Self-display: when we get “hooked” on our stories we are at the stage of self-display. Fundamentally our thoughts become-in a nanosecond-thinking and in self-display we become hooked onto our habitual stories, which we either like, dislike or are neutral to. In the case of stories we dislike (e.g. the “anger story”) we actually tend to hook onto these with greater power and strength, more attachment, since bad is stronger than good in the brain’s domain. In self-display our whole narrative, story, or the movie (or at least a scene or two) of our lives is revealed, privileged and hooked into. This is where the cognitive and emotional action, the drama, plays out.
- Self-liberation: so, here’s the thing. Left alone, our thoughts will discharge and liberate. But we don’t do that, we cling and grasp onto our thoughts and thinking, endlessly recycling them. This works the same way for our emotions, too, and since our emotions highlight what is meaningful to us, we form an identity with this meaningful self in self-display. For better or for worse. Sometimes for worse.
How does this relate to anger? At the point of self-display, we attach, form a meaning and identify with anger: anger matters and we feed it with the kerosene of further thoughts, justifying the anger and making it solid, habitual, cutting off self-liberation. This way, anger being justified, anger becomes us. In time we might not just “hulk out” but become The Hulk.
It therefore behoves us to explore anger and we might bring one of most fundamental practices of mindfulness to bear here, that of leaning into our experience with acceptance. We might ask ourselves:
- What is the use of this anger? What will change as a result of me being angry?
- What fear does my anger reveal? What does my anger show me that I care about? (it’s hard to be angry about something you don’t care for)
- How does anger feel in the body? If I allow anger to work its way through my physical system, does it self-liberate?
So, this is a thought-emotions-feeling approach, an integral approach to mindfulness of anger.
But mindfulness might teach us more. Mindfulness brings the nature of mind into the forefront of any conversation, and what it might point out is that our whole range of afflicted emotions, (anger, aggression, jealously, ignorance, pride and more) these are all mind states that self-arise, self-display and can self-liberate; these are the waves, that if left alone will fall back into ocean of liberated consciousnesses or awareness.
The suggestion that we have to explore one drop of water or one wave after another is perhaps unnecessary when we can explore the nature of waves (or the nature of being wavey!) falling back into the ocean. Leaning into the experience, the nature of mind is penetrated and allows us to gain insight not just of the coarse (known) thoughts that arise such as anger, but the more subtle thoughts that might be underneath, such as care or sadness: anger is an energy and there is a drive that drives it which we often defend against, so to speak.
Thought experiment: tomorrow’s anger. Reflect on a time when you were angry tomorrow. Recall the event as if it was scene in a movie. See if you can achieve a sensory take on that scene, such as what will happen, the colours, the emotions. Feel into your angry thoughts. What will make you angry? What emotions are sure to be triggered? What will it feel like? How familiar will all of this be? Is this absurd? How can you get angry about something that does not exist? But you do get angry about something that does not exist: the past. The past does not exist yet the anger persists. How is that? Keep your attention on the present moment. Where is anger now? Anger keeps us locked into the past, in a dead land and takes us away from the life that’s here.
In Buddhist Madhyamaka it is suggested that “the emptiness of one is the emptiness of all”. Thus, if anger can be self-liberated, all toxic mind states can be. In this way anger is a great teacher, a guide to a deeper wisdom and we can both welcome and embrace the insight it brings to us; it is a gate to our unknown potential and our liberation. This could be the end of our Groundhog Day.
 Mind Beyond Death by Dzogchen Ponlop
 From Mindfulness to Insight by Choden, Nairn & Regan-Addis