If you've read the Sunday Journal then you will know that five years ago I hit rock bottom. Feelings that I had tried to bury for many years came to me all at once and for a spell I became unable to function. At that time sorrow was familiar to me, but suddenly waves of anger started to rise.
Beyond what might be considered normal frustrations (rush hour, slow walkers), I had started to feel excessively angry in situations that were simply bizarre to me and so I brought this up with my therapist, Rachel.
I’m laughing as I write this now, but I was worried at the time. I had started to feel angry every time I saw a new hair trend. ‘The look’ comprised hair scraped back so tightly that you could see the scalp with a huge (I mean huge like a side plate) fake hair bun stuck on top that rarely matched the owners’ natural hair. Every time I saw it (it was literally everywhere) on the Tube/ in the street (even one of the 'Peru Two' had one on the BBC News), my jaw would tense and I wanted to scream at the wearer, 'Can't you see?? IT LOOKS FAKE!!!'
I also felt anger around couples that kissed in public – they seemed to be everywhere. I wanted to dive in and shout, 'THIS WILL END!'
The supermarket was another trigger for my newfound rage, usually kicked off by multipacks on offer – 'I don’t want SIX bread rolls. I need two because I LIVE ALONE!' Thankfully, I never acted out any of these urges, but my feelings were strong enough for me to want to find out what was going on.
I went to see Rachel and confessed, fearing for the safety of hair bun wearers and tongue-wielding couples around me. She told me that I was often angry in therapy. This left me reeling: 'Me? Angry? WHAT DO YOU MEAN?'
We arrived at the understanding that the hair buns were linked to the fact that I have a lot of thick hair, and that in this time of despair and self-loathing, it was the only thing I liked about myself, so I couldn't understand how others could go about proudly 'peacocking' what to me were 'crazy' styles 'begging' for ridicule. I also had a desire to 'set the record straight', having felt out of control about so many things, for a long time and this was also a part of this strange rage scenario – I cringed at the revelation, but it killed the issue there and then.
The kissing couples/shopping frustration were obvious to me, being unexpectedly single. The real shocker was that I had no awareness of the fact that whenever I went to see Rachel, although not sitting and screaming in her room (how I understood anger to look), I was still expressing anger. With the subject finally open in the room, we began to explore it.
Yes. I was angry for the way in which my relationship had ended, but I also learned that I was angry for all the times that I had never spoken up, and the times that I hadn’t protected myself from both assault and emotional abuse that had littered my younger years. I was angry for all the times I had said ‘yes’, when I meant ‘no’, so that I wouldn’t be rejected by people.
I was also angry about the multiple ways I had put myself in harm's way through self-destructive behaviour as I suppressed trauma and for the associated shame I carried – it was all one huge chain of anger, shame and suppression. Underneath it all, I was LIVID and I was tired.
After acknowledgement, came action, by way of boxing and running to express the feeling. The most powerful tool above all though, was honesty. When people upset me, or when I didn’t want to do something, I said so. It freed me from the feelings of resentment that later became anger.
Mindfulness also became a powerful tool in my healing, as I started to 'sit with' the feeling that I had once run miles to hide from and so I really resonate with the piece that Samantha has written here below.
Samantha is a yoga, Zen mindfulness and meditation teacher, whose teaching I love because she shares the wisdom of Zen Buddhism in a practical and accessible way.
Let me know what you think. Say email@example.com
There’s no getting away from it: pain is inevitable.
The very fact that there are so many types of emotional pain – fear, guilt, grief, anger, shame, envy, sorrow, regret, jealousy, yearning, worry, anxiety to name but a few – is a testament to the many ways we can torture ourselves by getting caught up in the narrative of the pain.
Experienced Zen Buddhist practitioners acknowledge difficult and painful situations as a way to recognise what is being triggered in ourselves – which of our buttons are being pressed – and how we can change to live more free and full lives. But for most of us, we just become accustomed to being a slave to our emotions. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way.
It isn’t easy to change. In fact, it can take some time and effort to develop the self-awareness to even notice that we are feeling afraid/angry/jealous/envious etc. And even more time and effort to realise that we don’t need to act out the pain.
Say we have an argument with a friend or someone we love. It will be painful. But what can prolong the pain is to identify with the pain, become absorbed by it and allow it to define us. We can act it out and behave in such ways that demonstrate we are ‘hurt’. We can start to attribute all sorts of meaning to the disagreement to justify our pain and anger – ‘S/he is doesn’t care/has never cared about me.’ ‘S/he is an uncaring person.’ ‘S/he is trying to deliberately hurt/manipulate/get at me.’ Sound familiar?
The burden of pain can be huge. We can use up huge amounts of energy reliving what was said, running through scenarios and ‘what ifs’ that could have led to a different outcome. Unchecked, if we allow ourselves to get dragged off on our thought trains, it can lead us even to wish the other person ill will or ‘punished’.
Practising mindfulness and meditation can help us to notice, interrupt and unlearn those thought processes, so that we can consciously detach ourselves from the thought trains, and bring ourselves back into the present moment, and the things that really matter. However, it takes time to build up that practice. And in the meantime, it is useful to have some ‘first aid’ techniques to alleviate anger.
Last year I went to my teacher, Zen master Daizan Roshi, with anger. It was anger about a situation I could do nothing about (we simply cannot control the actions of others and I could not ‘undo’ the sequence of events that led to the predicament in which I found myself). But I had become fixated on wishing the situation was different and even wishing harm to the person I believed to be the cause of the situation. It was all consuming and exhausting.
Daizan Roshi gave me two ‘emergency’ techniques for dealing with acute episodes of anger. The first was taught to him by his teacher, when he was a monk in a Zen monastery in the Scottish Borders. The students in the monastery inhabited a 6 ft by 3 ft space in the meditation hall. That was their space. And being in close confinement led to some pretty intense emotions.
Daizan Roshi told me that one person in particular pressed his buttons so hard and so deeply that he felt as though he might react in a harmful way. Being in the environment of the Scottish Borders meant that Daizan could escape to the hills, as his master advised him to, and scream and shout out his rage from the depths of his being until it left him.
Most of us don’t live in Zen monasteries and perhaps do not have easy access to remote countryside. But we do have other ways to let out our rage. Daizan advises that we get into the ‘metal boxes known as cars’, drive to some quiet or secluded place where people won’t be alarmed by ‘unusual behaviour’, and shout and scream our anger out, until it dissipates. It may sound strange but expelling the anger like this in a way that doesn’t harm ourselves or others can be very effective.
If you don’t have a car, a second technique he taught me is to physically connect by holding on to some very grounded object, such as a wall, feel the anger and then to expel it by saying, ‘Anger, GO!’ Hold on to as many grounded/heavy objects as is necessary and order the anger to go.
And this reminded me of a third technique I have for dealing with anger and unwanted emotions. I don’t know where it came from, but I learned it a long time ago (I haven’t used it for decades, and one of the benefits of meditation is that long-forgotten and buried stuff comes up).
You make a fist (if you feel like punching someone, it might be easier to direct your energy into a tight, strong fist). Focus your attention on that fist, and direct all the anger and negative emotions that might exist in your mind and your body into that fist. Feel the anger and rage coursing from your brain and every extremity in your body into that fist. Allow all your tension to manifest into that fist… tighter and tighter and tighter …
And then dump it. Open your fist and just let it all go. If it helps to walk past a dustbin and put it in there, then do that.
Harbouring anger (consciously or unconsciously) will almost invariably harm us and those around us. The burden will weigh on you more than anyone else. In the short term, you can lighten your load by using these emergency techniques.
And in the longer term, care for yourself by becoming aware of what presses your buttons, and disarming those destructive cycles. Meditation and mindfulness practices – which we’ll talk about in future Sunday Surgeries – are proven to help with this.
I hope you find this useful and if there are other topics you would like me or the other Sunday Surgery professionals to tackle, please get in touch. Say firstname.lastname@example.org.
And to find a Zenways meditation and mindfulness teacher near you, click here.