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Reluctant Arsonist and Compassionate Firefighter

Anger is like fire. Fire hurts if you touch it in the wrong way and the more you let it burn the more damage it does. If you suffer from anger, think of yourself as both a reluctant arsonist and a compassionate firefighter. The arsonist part of you keeps setting fires by accident. The firefighter part of you notices fires and puts them out.

Whether you get angry at some petty nonsense, or great injustice, you set a fire. To break the arson habit, to stop anger from arising, you have get good at putting out the fires. When you get good at putting out fires, eventually you will skip the step of starting them.

It is harder to put out fires when they have spread. Think of that first moment of anger as lighting a match. You can blow out a burning match or you can touch it to something to set the house on fire. The trick is to use your breath as soon as the match is struck. When you notice the first impulse of anger, breathe out all of the air in you lungs. Be careful what you do, say and think. If you indulge your anger, you set the house ablaze.

That happens. Once the house is on fire, then it takes time with focused attention and compassionate breathing to stand in the flames. Your thoughts feed the fire. Your long steady breaths protect the house by dousing it with water. Steady breathing in the face of anger brings your body back to a state of rest.

When you are angry, you experience narrow vision and can only see things from one perspective. When you become calmer, your mind opens up and you can see the problem from other perspectives. That is like bringing in help to fight the flames. When you bring in different thought perspectives, the thoughts that were feeding the fire diminish and the thoughts that extinguish the fire take over. Your steady breathing brings you back to calm as the anger passes.

The thoughts that extinguish the fire are not about the right and wrong of whatever made you angry, they are about working with anger and regaining your mind to better approach the right and wrong. They are the thoughts of the firefighter, compassionately observing the fire, isolating it, and putting it out.

The firefighter is filled with compassion. They do not blame the arsonist for starting the fire. They feel their pain as their own and use their available tools, their breath and their thoughts to stop the fire and soothe the pain.

As you learn to inhabit the firefighter you can also fight fires in other people’s anger. When you see anger anywhere, you respond with calm, compassionate breathing rather than by lighting more matches. You notice anger in others as pain and discomfort and you practice isolating and containing the anger rather than blaming the arsonist. The more time you spend inhabiting the firefighter, the better you get at it, and with enough practice, eventually, you can save the arsonist the trouble off all that fire setting.

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Mindful Driving

The most important thing in driving mindfully is to ignore your cellphone. When you are looking at your phone instead of the road you are in a dangerous situation.

Driving is a great time to practice mindfulness. It is a time where you are sitting down and have the most important task before you of getting safely to where you are going. When you get in the car, take a breath, make yourself aware that you are seated, and appreciate that you have the opportunity to practice mindfulness. As you drive, focus on the road. Try not to think about time, which is especially important if you are running late. Know that you will get there when you get there. If there are consequences to being late, you will face them when you arrive.

Pay attention to anger, which is common in driving situations. If another driver makes a wrong move, even a dangerous one, pay attention to your reaction. See how appropriate your level of anger is to what happened. Breathe and remind yourself to be present. Notice how others get angry in their car. If they are angry at you, realize that they are suffering from an anger problem that is bigger than whatever you did. Driving and observing road rage in yourself and others is a great time to study anger.

Driving is also a good time to practice patience. If you notice yourself getting impatient, breathe and check in with where you are and where you want to be.

Practice obeying traffic rules. Signal turns. Keep a safe distance behind the car in front of you. Be polite. Practice gratitude and wave when somebody is polite to you.

Like practicing mindfulness anywhere, when you are driving, check in with your breath,  notice your posture, thoughts, and feelings, remember to be kind and compassionate. Drive in harmony with everybody on the road.

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With Great Responsibility Comes Great Power

Zen philosophy is helpful for working with our mental health because it encourages us to embrace life’s paradoxes. One of the biggest paradoxes facing a person suffering from depression or anxiety it the question of choice. It is clear that nobody chooses to suffer from mental health, but we can choose to work with our minds to improve our mental health. It is a delicate mental maneuver to accept responsibility for our emotions without blaming ourselves for having them. The trick of that balancing act is to accept the predicament. When you accept responsibility for all of your mental experiences you give yourself tremendous power.

If you are drowning, you don’t waste your energy blaming yourself for falling into the ocean. You look for air. Recognizing that your emotions are manageable, tolerable and within your control is like having a giant snorkel to help you breathe, even though you are underwater. That understanding helps to focus your mind on your experience of feeling, rather than lashing out at whatever made you feel that way. If you believe that you are actively creating your distress, you can develop your power to orchestrate a rescue.

Taking responsibility for what you are feeling will not automatically make the feeling go away, but it will give you a handle to work with it. You can examine the feeling to see what you have created. You can see what the feeling feels like. If you can breathe with the feeling, breathe with it and see how it responds to your breath. See the thoughts that are drawn to the feeling. If you think you have no control over the feeling, then you haven’t taken responsibility yet. Try again.

When you have trained your mind to work with feelings as they arise, without passing blame to those around you or to personal shortcomings, you will begin to exercise your power. When you are feeling well, you can powerfully swim to shore.

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Light Hearted

To make a balloon light, fill it with hot air. To make your heart light, fill it with joy. Your heart is naturally filled with joy, but the joy gets squeezed out as you pile stress and worry on top of it. In order to connect with the basic joy of your heart, you have to practice checking in with it. You can check in with your basic joy by filling your heart with hot air, like a baloon.  When you are feeling disconnected from your joy, take in a long breath for your heart. Breath out all the new air and the old air that was in your lungs. Whenever you remember to do that, you will feel a sense of relief. That feeling of relief is a touch of joy.

Creating joy is a serious business, but it cannot be done overly seriously. There has to be room for levity in your practice. If you are carrying the weight of an unchangeable past and the fear of an unknowable future, the present will seem very serious. That seriousness can justify almost any action. That seriousness can be an excuse for explosive anger. It can pin you down in depression. It can give you a trigger to relapse, or it can just chip away at you with steady stress. Just recognizing that feeling of seriousness and reminding yourself about how serious you are taking yourself creates a little joy and opens a channel to practice light heartedness.

By practicing light heartedness and breathing joy into your seriousness you gain a sense of control over your situation. When you recognize that you can handle your stress, depression, anger or addiction habits, an attitude of light heartedness becomes easier to maintain. When you maintain an attitude of light heartedness it becomes easier to manage your stress, depression, anger, or addiction habits.

When you take in a mindful breath to help you address the seriousness of your situation, remember that it is a completely ridiculous thing to do. How could you imagine that a few deep breaths could change your life. Then watch it work. It’s funny how that happens. Ha, ha, ha.

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Own Your Anger

You might as well own your anger because, if you don’t, it will own you. The minute you feel anger, you are in an own-or-be-owned situation. To own your anger, notice that you are angry and begin damage control. Recognize that the anger is yours and attempt to put it back into your pocket. If you choose to be owned by your anger, then you just let it rip and ride it. Assign blame on whatever or whoever has wronged you and pretend that anger is the only reasonable response available to you. As you give yourself over to anger, punish yourself for what you think is wrong with the world. The unpleasant experience of anger is punishment enough for you, but when unchecked anger tends to spill out and punish those around you as well.

When you make the choice to own your anger, you give up the ability to fool yourself into thinking that you are a victim of your emotions. You give up some ignorance. You give up your knee-jerk response to adversity. When you decide to own your anger, you gain control of your life. You gain perspective.

To own your anger all you have to do is watch for anger in your life. Whenever anything or anybody makes you angry, feel how it feels and don’t make any excuses. Recognize that you either invited or allowed anger into your home and then try to keep it away from the fine china. When you recognize that you are angry, imagine another response to the situation. Imagine how somebody else might respond to the situation. Imagine the situation from another perspective. Once you recognize your anger as your anger, you have opened a door for it to leave. You won’t let it hurt you or others any more.

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Your Anger Is All in Your Head

Like any emotion, anger can come at you unexpectedly in response to arising circumstances. Anger does not come from circumstances, it is your reaction to circumstances. You can control your reaction. The first step in addressing anger is seeing how it arises. When you notice anger arise in you, or somebody else, it is important to focus on the anger as you deal with the circumstance. If the anger is in you, you will be under its spell for a period of time. It is important to watch what you do and say in that time. Once anger arises, your practice is to see how long it takes for it to subside. It will subside as your thoughts that feed it change. If you are angry at another person, looking at the situation from their perspective can help you change your thoughts and let your anger out. Simply thinking about your anger, rather that the circumstance will also change your thoughts enough to let the anger abate.

If you encounter anger in another person, it is also important to recognize the anger, as well as the circumstances which inspire it. A normal response to another person’s anger is more anger. If you are able to recognize another person’s anger you have a chance to influence your reaction and not bring more anger to the situation. If you do get angry, then your main practice is to deal with your anger.

When you see that your thoughts turn on and off your anger, you will stop believing that anger is something that just happens to you and you will see that you are a full participant in the process. When you practice recognizing  your anger as it arises, then watching it go, it will not cause you, or others, so much trouble. Where you once turned to anger, you can instead turn to understanding, compassion and peace.

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If You Can’t Think Something Nice, Don’t Think Anything at All

The practice of mindfulness helps people feel better because it interrupts thinking habits that make people feel worse. Thoughts and feelings are like water and waves. The waves of feeling are composed of the water of the thought. If you suffer from stress, anxiety, anger or depression then your thoughts are continually churning up painful waves of emotions. In order to change the quality of the waves, you need to change the content of the thoughts. If good thoughts are hard to come by, you can still calm your mind by thinking nothing at all. To think nothing, rest your attention on the present moment. There is a quality of peace available in that moment wherever you are, whatever your circumstances.

It is not easy to change the habits of your mind, but it can be done simply. The simple practice of mindfulness is taking a moment to see where you are. In that moment, don’t think about how you got there or where you are going, just check your surroundings. Breathe in deeply to see if there is any oxygen where you are. If you can breathe in some oxygen, then you have something nice in your life. You don’t need to hold on to that oxygen, because there is more, so you let it out. In that moment there is nothing but breathing in and breathing out. If you manage to take a mindful, thoughtless breath, with the intention of finding some peace in the moment, you will likely experience some peace in that moment.

If you are able to clear your thoughts for that moment, then, in the next moment, you can see what kind of thought comes to you. If it is a disturbing thought, you can take another breath and try again. The beauty of the present moment is it carries on forever. You are always experiencing something. There is always some place to rest your attention that can take you beyond your thoughts. As you practice finding some peace in the present moment again and again, you will gain enough strength to start thinking some nice thoughts. For every painful thought that occurs to you, you can counter it with a kind and compassionate thought until the painful thoughts give up. The present will carry on, offering opportunities to find peace in each moment.

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Other People’s Anger

Even if you do all you can do to manage your own anger, you still have to deal with other people’s anger. When you take a Zen approach to anger, you don’t get angry. Things happen. They hurt. They make you sad, scared, or frustrated, but as you focus on feeling those emotions as they happen, they don’t pile up and turn into anger. When you regularly practice observing and recognizing thoughts, moods, and emotions, anger comes around less frequently. When it does happen, you recognize it, observe it and let it pass before it does too much damage to you or those around you. Other people though, don’t practice this. They get mad, maybe even at you.

When somebody around you is mad, you can practice dealing with other people’s anger. When people get angry, they are sad, hurt, scared, and/or frustrated. They don’t know what to do with those emotions, so they get angry. They may say or do things that are hurtful to you even if they love you. They are wrong to hurt you. When you feel hurt, you get defensive and since anger is in the air, you may get angry too. If that happens, you’re back to practicing with your own anger. If you don’t get angry, then you can continue your practice with the other person’s anger.

To practice with the other person’s anger you connect with the difficult emotions that they are dealing with. You don’t have to look for the hurt or fear, anger is enough. Anger is painful. When you connect with the pain of the other person’s anger you can feel compassion. When you feel compassion, you want to help them. At that point, you are not feeling small, guilty and afraid. You are helping a person in distress.

Dealing with other people’s anger is similar do dealing with your own. You try to see the anger as anger and not get sucked into it. When you see anger as a painful imbalance, rather than a reasonable response to the circumstance, then you won’t fall for accepting blame for the other person’s emotions. If you can remain calm and respond with compassion, you are in a good position to ease their suffering. That creates harmony.

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Autopilot

We are creatures of habit. Our habits are our homes. Much our our life is spent on autopilot. We have our morning routines and our bedtime routines. We are morning people or night owls. For babies and children, creating regular routines gives life a sense of predictability and comfort. Their bodies learn that when they put on pyjamas, brush their teeth, hear a story and get a kiss, it’s time to fall asleep. They slide down a predictable ramp into their dreams.

As we get older we create habits for ourselves to help us make the millions of transitions we make everyday. We transition from asleep to awake, from upstairs to downstairs, from home to work, from hungry to full, from happy to sad, from alone to with others, from one thought to the next, from morning to night. Our habits carry us through all these transitions, reminding us how we deal with each situation so we don’t have to think about it each time. Our habits that brought us comfort as babies sometimes fail to bring us comfort as we age. Our autopilots need to be readjusted constantly.

When our habitual thoughts and feelings take a wrong turn and we fall into a pit of habitual depression, anxiety or anger, we need to turn off our autopilots for a while and steer our own ships. This is not always so easy, because our autopilots kick in constantly bringing up habitual feelings in response to constantly changing circumstances. The feelings come along with habitual thoughts to justify their existence.

If you habitually worry, you have to ride your autopilot like a bull. Each time you feel the worry respond to your circumstance, acknowledge and examine the worry. Try not to get thrown by it. Compare your immediate concern to the great suffering of humanity and throw it on the pile. Take a breath, and see where the autopilot tries to take you next.

If your 3 am habit is to wake up with a fear of the day ahead, your body is in the habit of producing fear at that time. Check your autopilot and observe the thoughts that rush in to explain the fear. Its just a little more suffering for the pile. Breathe and watch the thoughts and feelings. Then rebuild that comforting ramp back into your dreams.

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Getting Angry

No matter how zen you may be, you will also get angry. Anger is a difficult emotion. It does not always feel as awful as sadness, but it can be just as destructive. Anger has a dangerous aspect of demanding immediate action. You can sit with other emotions and wait for them to pass. With anger, you feel compelled to do something about it. It is important to recognize when you are angry, so that your angry actions do not cause unnecessary suffering for yourself or those around you.

Anger necessarily causes suffering in you. It is generally a combination of hurt and sadness that brings about anger. That is two kinds of suffering rolled into one. Acting in anger is how we try to relieve our suffering. Often, in attempting to alleviate our suffering, we inflict it on others. When you are angry, you may feel that the others deserve to experience the suffering you choose to inflict. That is not true. Nobody should suffer. When you are angry, it may be difficult to remember that and especially difficult to imagine that it could be true. That is why it is important to reserve a special form of mindfulness for when you are angry. You can use that mindfulness to help reduce your own suffering and prevent passing it on to others.

Getting angry produces a lot of energy and sometimes that energy can feel good. When you are mindful, you are aware of the good and bad feelings of anger. It is important to notice both so that you don’t fall into the trap of getting angry as a means of accessing that good feeling. More suffering than good comes out of anger and the person that suffers most consistently is the angry person.

Like any suffering, anger is a good teacher. It comes and goes. It can carry you away and it can burn down your kingdom. If you pay close attention to your anger, you can prevent the fires from burning. With enough focused attention you can find peace from your anger. When you learn to master anger, then you can start working on desire. Desire can drive you mad.

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