“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” – Aristotle
Anger is a very challenging emotion most of the time for most people. Do you ever get angry? Do take a moment a notice when anger comes up for you (I would be very surprised and curious if it didn’t).
When I was trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, anger was regarded as one of those emotions that I should have aspired to be free from. It was unskillful to be angry, since it (supposedly) always led to bad outcomes. My instructions was to note it in my mind “angry, angry, angry” until it passed. Using meditative skills in this way certainly helped me to gain more control over the anger, and find other ways to be with it than just to completely inhibit myself around it (other people also act it out on other people, but I was never able to do so).
For a few years, this worked! I felt more at peace and thought I had resolved my anger issues. However, when I abandoned my vow of celibacy and got into a romantic relationship, anger came up again regularly, and that meditative trick did not work anymore. That’s when I started studying conflict resolution and came across research from Gottman’s lab in the USA. Gottman conducted decades of research to identify what help couples be happy, and I found one big surprise: expressing anger was often helpful! How does this work?
Anger as boundary
The psychologist Young-Eisendrath wrote that “anger, when used as a boundary setting expression of frustration, is weed prevention.” The rationale here is that when we feel angry about something, it shows that we have a boundary which has been crossed, a need which is not met. Anger therefore arises as a signal that something important is happening for us here: a heart-seed is in endangered by a weed. From a meditation point of view, there’s ways we can connect into our experience to (ii) reduce the intensity of the somatic and emotional reaction (like with the noting practice above), and also (ii) explore the cognitive aspects of the needs/seeds which are involved. This second part will most probably involve other emotions like fear, sadness and loneliness.
Anger & timing
Many of us tend to bypass difficult emotions, distract ourselves or repress them in some way – and I would argue even the Buddha did. This can be helpful since we need a great amount of resourcefulness and resilience in order to be able to cope with the emotions (which we often do not have), or there may be other priorities to attend to when anger arises (i.e. getting on a departing train rather than arguing!).
From a nervous system perspective we can learn to assess whether we are sufficiently:
- oriented: we are aware of ourselves in the physical environment in which we’re in
- social engaged: we can bring any of the heart qualities of the brahma viharas (see previous blog) such as love, compassion, joy and equanimity to our experience at any moment
If we ourselves lose our orientation and social engagement capacity for a certain period of time during our experience of anger, then we’re probably not able to follow Aristotle “at the right time” instruction. Then, since we’ll be expressing anger with another person, it’s also important to find out how our anger is landing with them: “how is it for you to hear me out as I am angry right now?” Do they have the orientation and social engagement capacity to listen and discuss this in this moment?
Anger is most often a difficult emotion, and the intensity with which we feel it signals a need to take seriously. Meditation training can help to regulate the somatic and emotional intensity often associated with anger, and inquiry practice can help to better understand the need behind it. Is it ever possible to get angry in the way Aristotle proposes? Come and join our next Dharma Gathering or Retreat to develop all these skills!
“Where do you go for wisdom?”– John Vervaeke
When you were a child, what did you want to grow up as? I remember that my big dream was to be so rich as to have a safe full of gold coins and swim in it everyday just as Uncle Scrooge would do. I was attracted to money, having lots of it, and the main aspiration behind that was to be free from worry and being content. As I finished my bachelor’s degree in business administration, studying finance, economics and management, I got disillusioned with the prospect of making money as an end in itself. I remember clearly one moment in a Human Resource Management class where I taught as a teaching assistant where treating humans merely as resources for an organizational goal felt so diminishing, putting aside essential life experiences like emotions and relational qualities. This contributed to my first depressive episode which later led me to go and ordain as a monk in Thailand to meditate and grow wisdom. That’s when things started to shift for me in a significant way to live more meaningfully.
What is wisdom?
I propose a broad definition of wisdom with Greek and Buddhist philosophical traditions in mind: wisdom is the embodied capacity to live a meaningful and joyful life. In Buddhism, there are 3 ways to develop wisdom:
- Information processing (suttamayapānna): information we can get from anywhere
- Reflection & deliberation (cintāmayapānna): forming one’s own perspectives by thinking about things and discussing them with others
- Intuition (bhāvanāmayapāñña): experiential understanding which involves a direct knowing
We can understand these three forms of wisdom as being more general and wide-ranging (information), to more specific and personal within ourselves and the people around us (Reflection and deliberation), to even more focused in terms of the immediate contact with experience and the present moment (intuition). Wisdom therefore involves all three of these perspective-seeking skills, and meditation focuses specifically on the 3rd form: intuition development. Experiencing within one’s own mind and body a certain quality
At NeuroSystemics, we encourage all 3 forms of wisdom: broadly we could say our trainings (such as the 3-year CARE Trainings) offer information/education with embodied experience, our Resiliency Circles (group process sessions) offer spaces for deep discussions and our Dharma activities offer opportunities to practice directly with our moment-to-moment experience in meditations and retreats.
Where do you go for wisdom?
We can meet friends at work, parties and activities; we can receive education at school and university; we can earn money by working hard and being committed to our goal; but where do we go to develop wisdom? In our western societies, it is not easy to identify popular wise people. A look at magazines, newspapers and social media will mostly point to stars linked with the entertainment industry or politics. But are they wise people?
Here are a few spaces for wisdom:
- A community of practice where you can feel safe enough to be yourself freely
- Your heart, which means taking times to gently connect inside and feel what is alive and feels meaningful
- Nature and the environment which holds tremendous evolutionary wisdom
- Animals, who’s nervous systems are often quite regulated since they have maintained their mechanisms for trauma release (often unlike humans)
- Where else will you go for wisdom?
Compassion & Trauma
“Compassion is an essential evolutionary skill.”
– Prof. Stephen Porges
As humans, we are a social species. This means we are socially skilled to cohere and harmonize with others. One of the most essential skills we’ve developed is compassion. Compassion is defined scientifically as an other-centered “motivation state, characterized by feelings of warmth, love, and concern for the other as well as the desire to help and promote the other’s welfare.” (see footnote 1) Over the course of evolution, we have grown not just to express compassion to others in our tribes, but also to ourselves, psychologically. In the Buddhist tradition, compassion is understood as an infinite and divine abiding in one’s mind and heart to alleviate suffering. More recently in the West, compassion for oneself has emerged both in laboratory research and as mainstream practices. In this blog we will briefly explore the role and benefit of compassion practice in relation to trauma.
Our metabolism has natural capacities to regulate itself: think of the homeostatic function of temperature which is constantly keeping our bodies at a range of about 36-37 degrees centigrade. A traumatic event or phase in our life would impact our system’s natural regulatory abilities to restore, regenerate and heal itself. Therefore, trauma can be understood as an experience that results in severely dysregulating the autonomic nervous system.
To describe this metabolic frequency Prof. Dan Siegel uses the term of a window of tolerance (where we feel “grounded flexible & exploring”, see figure 1). When we face a challenge, depending on our resources (both inner and outer), our system will respond resiliently (and remain within the window of tolerance), or by being overly pressured (“can’t calm down”), thus going into fight-or-flight. When our system is completely overwhelmed and gives up (“shutting down”), which is when trauma occurs, it goes into a freeze-fawn response.
Figure 1. From tolerance to trauma. Source: NeuroSystemics Dharma.
Compassion for Trauma
Compassion is a mental-emotional ability to help ourselves and others in the face of suffering. Fight-Flight are states which hold great measures of affect, and compassion will very often be helpful then. Freeze-fawn states, however, are characterized as having very little affect, a limited sense of the body and more neutrality. This means responding with a very compassionate attitude to a state of freeze-fawn (whether our own of another person) may be misattuned. It will more often be of greater help to invite a sense of equanimity (equality of mind, peaceful neutrality, see figure 2) to these traumatic states, and keep compassion when affect comes back online (which it will, as the freeze-fawn states becomes less intense). (see footnote 2)
Figure 2. Compassion & equanimity for trauma healing. Source: NeuroSystemics Dharma.
Compassion is therefore a powerful buffer before and after traumatic responses to difficult life events. By developing equanimity, which is a peaceful neutral presence, one can open up to one’s own or others’ freeze-fawn states and allow them to be more regulated and integrated. (see footnote 3)
The bottom line here is that as we navigate our internal landscape of our body, our heart and our mind, we will come across a whole range of states, both joyful and more difficult, and even traumatic. This is perfectly natural. And it is therefore essential to equip ourselves with a range of attitude and practices (i.e. equanimity and compassion) to best integrate the different states we come to experience. Come and join our next Dharma Gathering or Retreat to develop all these skills at www.neurosystemics.org/dharma.
1 – Leiberg, S., Klimecki, O., & Singer, T. (2011). Short-term compassion training increases prosocial behavior in a newly developed prosocial game. PloS one, 6(3), e17798.
2 – Weber, J. (2017). Mindfulness is not enough: Why equanimity holds the key to compassion. Mindfulness & Compassion. Mindfulness & Compassion 2(2), 149-158.
3 – For a review of compassion for traumatic treatment, see Winders, S. J., Murphy, O., Looney, K., & O’Reilly, G. (2020). Self‐compassion, trauma, and posttraumatic stress disorder: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 27(3), 300-329.