When we are angry a whole host of vulnerable feelings percolates into our hearts. These are so physically uncomfortable they feel as though they are choking us, and all we want to do is move away from them rather than sit with them until we feel something else. Our aversion to such feelings can be so strong that we believe we need brute force to push them down or purge them. In fact, I have come to realize that, if we can experience all the levels of what we are feeling, and then have the courage to acknowledge and sit with them, our uncomfortable and vulnerable feelings will not get a chance to fester in this way, and in time they disappear of their own accord. Instead, we often use anger as a distraction from what we are feeling deeper down. Then we end up holding on to those very feelings we fear and avoid—until they become poisonous in our hearts.
So what happens in our bodies when we experience anger? First there is the trigger or the event, then comes the moment when our bodies are invaded by painful, prickly, tense, tearful—even itchy—feelings. These can feel so uncomfortable that we instinctively try to push them away.
The body is a great teacher, so it is important to recognize what is happening in our bodies. Sometimes our bodies become so tense we don’t feel they are ours anymore. We can shake, get sweaty armpits, groin, and palms, feel stiff in the neck or shoulders, find our hands making fists, heart beating faster, and so on.
Alternatively, when we are angry we can become so disconnected as to be completely numb to ourselves, our feelings, and everything around us. We can’t hear ourselves think or breathe. Our feelings get lost, and we create a wall around us, not letting anybody in. Our anger keeps everything and everybody out. We can’t listen to anybody, or even consider another point of view, and some people have out-of-body experiences.
In response to these feelings, a critical voice often steps into our minds and tells us (in our own vernacular) that it’s ridiculous to be feeling so vulnerable; it tells us to grow up, or get a grip. Our bodies become tense during this process of trying to push down the feelings, and we feel tight—most commonly in the throat, jaw, shoulders, fists, stomach, and bowels. Our bodies tense up in order to choke back the feelings that make us feel vulnerable, shaky, and tearful. But instead of becoming lighter and calmer, our bodies feel heavier and pumped up with adrenaline.
What do you experience when you’re angry?
Watch yourself the next time you’re angry. Get to know what happens to your body. Try not to be afraid of your vulnerability; see if you can stay with it, without it overwhelming you. Watch the sensations in your body. How long do they last? Are there stages you go through? Feelings are energy, and they evaporate if we trust that they will arise and cease of their own accord. We maintain the lives of our feelings by attaching them to another person, to ourselves, or to objects. Watch yourself the next time feelings of anger arise; see what you do with them and see what you attach them to.
Practice: Exploring Physical Sensations
- Sit comfortably in a chair, or lie down on your bed with the soles of your feet on your mattress and your knees pointing to the ceiling.
- Let your breath just be; don’t force it. Breathe in and out, enjoying each breath no matter how shallow or deep.
- Become aware of your whole body, beginning with your toes. Clench them, then relax.
- Move up to your ankles; clench, and then relax. Then your calves.
- Move through your body, clenching and relaxing the different parts one at a time: knees, thighs, groin, and buttocks.
- Bring attention to your lower back, then your abdomen.
- Move up to your middle back.
- Now focus on your chest, your upper back, then your arms and hands.
- Breathe into your neck, then finally your face and head, clenching and relaxing the muscles.
- Then just remain sitting or lying and become aware of your whole body. Begin to explore physical sensations as you become aware of them. Become aware of where you hold tension in your body.
- Ask yourself what your body is feeling right now.
- Don’t make a judgment, just connect with the physical feelings, whatever they are—itching, tingling, aching, hot or cold, tight or relaxed.
- And remember to breathe. Breathe into the parts of your body where you feel the most physical sensations, and say, “Breathing in I feel physical sensations, breathing out I let go of physical sensations.”
Connecting with the physical sensations in our bodies in this way can be a strong practice. When we pay attention to our bodies, we are beginning to connect with our inner feelings. Anger is energy, and it becomes alive and toxic when we turn away from the unpleasantness of it in the body by projecting it internally or externally.
We give our feelings longer life by attaching them to ourselves, others, and inanimate objects. These feelings often turn into toxic stories and become emotions that poison our hearts. If we just sat with the thoughts of anger, paying little attention to them, they would not attach to anything, and the thoughts of anger would cease of their own accord. It is a practice of patience. When we get attached to our thoughts, stories like “She’s intimidating me” or “He’s disrespecting me,” they hook us and stir the wrath of anger.
In an ancient Buddhist text called the Dhammapada the following quote reminds us how harmful it is to attach and identify with our thoughts.
“He insulted me, she hit me, he beat me, she robbed me”— for those who brood on this, hostility isn’t stilled.
“He insulted me, she hit me, he beat me, she robbed me”— for those who don’t brood on this, hostility is stilled.
Hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility, regardless.
Hostilities are stilled through nonhostility: this, an unending truth.
I have found that learning to sit with our feelings and thoughts without holding on to them, without pushing them away, without chasing after them, and trusting that they will cease, is the best teaching of all.
By becoming alert early on to the fact that our body is tensing up, or becoming numb, we may be able to take preventative action. We can try to relax physically and see what effect that has on our emotions, take a few deep breaths, and slow down our thoughts. Taking deep breaths has delayed me from acting unskillfully and allowed me to pause, preventing me from saying something or sending a text or instant message that I might regret.
Another strong reason to take note of our bodies’ messages in this way is that our anger can manifest in more extreme forms. Most people who work in alternative therapies have found a link between anger and a number of physical illnesses and life-threatening diseases. I realize now that the back and shoulder ache I used to get was connected with my anger. I have no more pain, and when I feel my shoulders tense up I tell myself to let go. Engaging with our anger involves coming into relationship with our bodies.