When I work with my clients, sometimes deep emotions surface and sometimes those emotions involve anger. Often, we don’t know what to do with anger; it can sit in our hearts or guts just burning. Or, for some of us, we bend our anger like a Gumby figurine and turn it into sadness or despair, never quite addressing the anger itself.
When it comes to holdings of anger in the body, what I have found most effective in understanding and transforming anger is acknowledgment. For many of us, acknowledging that we feel angry, frustrated, mad, or even full of rage can feel frightening to us. I have found that sometimes, just acknowledging the feeling allows the mind-body to be heard and a sort of awakening happens around the anger. It’s like shining a flashlight on the anger and not being scared to look right at it.
If I feel anger in my stomach, hot as bile, for example, and I am a witness to it and acknowledge it by saying things like, “Yes, stomach, you are holding anger,” or “Yes, I am having feelings laced with rage,” my body softens into the emotions a bit. My breathing deepens and opens my chest. My heart unclenches a bit. I am listening to myself and coming into alignment with my feelings.
Acknowledgement, in my experience, is the beginning of liberation.
From a Zen perspective, relief from anger comes in the form of understanding, as if Understanding where an antidote in a little glass bottle to take when anger is damaging to ourselves or to others. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, he writes the following:
When you are angry, you want to ease your suffering. That is a natural tendency. There are many ways to find relief, but the greatest relief comes from understanding. When understanding is there, anger will go away by itself, When you understand the situation of another person, when you understand the nature of suffering, anger has to vanish, because it will be transformed into compassion….Compassion is born in you and compassion is the antidote for anger.
So now imagine adding another little glass bottle or vile to your anger remedy kit; in addition to your acknowledgement tincture, you now have a compassion tincture, and I think one remedy leads to the other. When we hide from feelings of anger (or suppress them), we become ill-at-ease and out-of-balance, and the same can be true of over-venting our anger.
A body-based approach to making friends with your anger involves giving the anger a voice, finding its place in the body, allowing that part of the body to have a voice, and to nurture this anger with compassion. If anger resides at the back of your head, place your hands there and have a conversation with that place in your body. Ask it what it feels and what it needs. You might be surprised what your body has to tell you.
Find a comfortable place to lie down and relax. Breathe deeply a few times, making sure to take your time with the exhale. Conjure up the word ANGER and notice what thoughts surface. Do specific people or scenarios or issues emerge? Allow your thoughts to just be as you notice where you feel this anger (or irritation or annoyance) in your body. It lives somewhere; you’re most likely holding it somewhere in your physical being. Notice areas of physical tension — these areas might give you a clue to where you are holding anger. Allow yourself to acknowledge the feelings. If it’s frustration call it frustration; if it’s rage call it rage. Name it, acknowledge it, breathe it. Notice how your body responds as you acknowledge your feelings. Now ask this feeling and this area of your body what it needs. Don’t worry about the answer making sense at first. Just listen. Keep asking, “What do you need?” until you feel resonance with the answer, until you understand yourself just a bit more. You’ll know it when it happens because you’ll feel a shift in your body — with breath, with release of tension, with goosebumps, with tears. You’ll know. Trust it. Let your anger transform into what it wants to become: productivity, communication, love, compassion, creativity, peace, relationship, motivation, or whatever it is you need.