- by Russ Shumaker
Healing Anger Through Meditation in Buddhism, Neuroscience, and Christianity
We often believe that it is things outside of us that make us angry, but anger is something that resides in each of us. Thich Nhat Hanh describes anger as a seed that is planted deep in our unconscious. When the seed is dormant, we are at peace. But when the seed is watered and grows, it manifests in our body and in our conscious mind. We have all experienced this; it is part of the human condition.
Where does anger come from?
But have you ever stopped to consider what anger is? When we take the time to examine ourselves in our anger, or to remember a time when we felt great anger, it is clear that anger is suffering, for anything that deprives us of peace and joy is suffering. Anger is also derived from our suffering. It is suffering that waters the seed of anger in us and makes it grow, keeping it in our body and mind, affecting the way we experience a moment. In Buddhism, anger is what is known as a “habit energy,” or vashana. When you marinate vegetables in olive oil, soy sauce, lemon and garlic before grilling, the flavors of the dressing permeate the vegetables. In the same way, a habit energy permeates what you see and do. You may think you are acting rationally and perceiving the world as it truly is, but in reality, your habit energy has flavored everything. What can we do about this anger? According to Thich Nhat Hahn, the first thing you must do is to notice it, to welcome it and care for it as if it is your child. Does this feel counterintuitive? Sometimes we may feel pressure to hide our anger or pretend it does not exist. But denying anger does not make it go away. Instead, it pushes our anger under the surface, where it continues to develop, like steam in a pressure cooker. Noticing your anger, you can have compassion and recognize that it is suffering. “I am experiencing anger, my blood pressure is elevated, my thoughts are negative, my joy and happiness have been pushed out by my anger.” When you treat your anger with compassion, it will start to go away, and you will be able to have compassion on others as well. Thich Nhat Hahn recommends mindful breathing, “’Breathing in, I know that anger is in me. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my anger.’ We behave exactly like a mother: ‘Breathing in, I know that my child is crying. Breathing out, I will take good care of my child.’”
Your anger may last for a long time, especially if it is something that has been building up in you for a while. But mindfulness—mindful breathing, mindful activity—can also provide a habit energy, one that lets you experience the world as it really is. When mindfulness is the source of your habit energy, you will be able to see that the anger in you is suffering, and that those who stir up anger in you are also suffering. It will cause you to have compassion on yourself, on your anger, and on others who are experiencing suffering. Here is where Buddhism departs from many religious traditions. What I have laid out does not involve an abstract or ethereal belief system. While you can certainly find Buddhist traditions that contain incredibly complex beliefs, in their purest forms, the teachings of the Buddha are rooted in the here and now. The teachings of the Buddha can be tried and tested for yourself. As Buddha himself states in Dhammapada verse (276), “You yourselves must strive; the Buddhas only point the way.” The mindfulness practice about anger that has been described above should be centered in your own experience: When you experience anger, you suffer. When you practice mindfulness, it relieves your suffering. You do not have to believe in it for it to work, you just have to try it. If, however, you were skeptical and wondered if meditation was nothing other than a placebo effect, rest assured: the Buddha’s teachings are backed by neuroscience.
Studies have shown that even a single meditation session can reduce anger in both novice and experienced meditators. Here’s how it works from a medical perspective: According to Rebecca Gladding, a psychiatrist at UCLA, when we do not meditate, our brains build strong neural connections between the “Me Center” of the brain (Medial prefrontal cortex) and the “Fear Center” of the brain (Amygdala). “This means that whenever you feel anxious, scared or have a sensation in your body (e.g. a tingling, pain, itching, whatever), you are far more likely to assume that there is a problem (related to you or your safety),” she writes. The result is a feedback loop of negative habit energy.
When you meditate or practice mindfulness, first the bond between the Me Center and the Fear Center becomes weaker, so that you are less likely to think that momentary bodily sensations or feelings mean something is wrong with you (less anxiety, fewer negative thoughts). That is to say, you will be able to notice sensations like anger rather than being caught up in them. Second, a healthier connection grows between these areas of the brain and the “Assessment Center” of the brain (Lateral prefrontal cortex). This allows you to respond more rationally to your sensations and thoughts, assessing them for what they are. Or as Thich Nhat Hahn puts it, you will be able to care for them as if they were your children rather than being swept away by them. Lastly, Gladding points out that a connection between the Me Center and the “Bodily Sensation Center” (Insula) is strengthened, which strengthens our sense of empathy and compassion for others. Integrating Buddhist teachings on anger and meditation with Christianity In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “’In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” By separating anger from sin, Paul, like the Buddha, acknowledges that anger is organic to humanity. Yet by recommending that we should not let anger burn for very long, he also admits that anger is not a good state to be in. Unfortunately, Paul does not go into detail about how we are to find release from our anger. There is a clue in the text, however. You may notice quotation marks in your Bible around the words, “In your anger do not sin.” Paul is quoting and then paraphrasing Psalm 4:4 which says, “In your anger, do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still” (NKJV). While Paul gives no further instructions about how to quench anger, the psalmist is a little more prescriptive: When you are angry, meditate on your bed and be still.
There is no evidence that Hebrews in the Ancient Near East practiced the type of formal meditation that may come to your mind when you hear the word today. So what did the psalmist mean with these words? When a child is angry and throws a fit of rage, good parents often say to them, “Why don’t you take a few minutes and lie down on your bed. It will help you feel better.” This seems to be what the psalmist had in mind. The physical act of lying down calms the child’s breathing and helps anger dissolve. By now you can see that this is the same instruction that Thich Nhat Hahn gives us. “Breathing in, I know that anger is in me. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my anger.”
“Meditate and be still” is followed in verse 5 by “offer the sacrifices of righteousness and put your trust in the LORD.” To offer the sacrifices of righteousness means to act rightly. To trust in the LORD means to abandon thoughts of revenge and fear and return to a state of peacefulness. Acting rightly often means having compassion on those who instigate us, or as Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” When you treat your anger with compassion, and it subsides, you will find your way to compassion on those whom your anger is directed at. We all have the seed of anger within us. But it is planted alongside seeds of joy, contentment, and compassion. If anger has become a habit energy in you, you are suffering. But you do not have to remain in this state. Practicing mindfulness, focusing on your breathing for just a few minutes every day or every week can help you create a new habit energy out of which you can practice compassion and love for your neighbour, and for yourself.
*Scholarly note: Some English Bibles translate Psalm 4:4 as “Tremble and do not sin.” This comes from the Hebrew word ragaz which can be translated as: tremble, quake, rage, quiver, be agitated, be excited, or be perturbed. However, Paul typically quoted from the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, not the Hebrew versions. The Greek word orgizo can be translated: to provoke, to arouse to anger, to be provoked to anger, be angry, be wroth.
Russ Shumaker is a creative consultant and business strategist living in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. He holds an MA in Theology and an MBA. You can find him online here.
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