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Wise Anger

“Wise Anger”

“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?

Conclusion

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!

Compassion & Trauma

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.

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) 

Conclusion

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.

Footnotes
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.

NeuroSystemics Gatherings

NeuroSystemics Gatherings

I am because we are.

From the Ubuntu tradition

Too many approaches in meditation are overly self-serving and excessively navel-gazing, placing one’s individual self at the center of both one’s suffering and liberation. This solipsistic tendency is a rampant consequence of over 200 years of post-Euroamerican Enlightenment: “cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am” said Descartes. This needs to be adapted according to the latest social and affective neuroscience.

It has been empirically shown that our sense of self is not a fixed, reified and singular construct and experience. The Social Baseline Theory (SBT – Coan & Sbarra, 2011), for instance, shows that the way we conceive of our self is based on who we have around us. We are constantly evaluating the quality of our social environment and making judgments as to how much physiological resources (i.e. glucose) we need to use according to the task at hand. For example, if I have a few good friends around me, the bio-energetic cost of going up a hill will be less than if I am alone. In SBT they say our individual self then merges with others and forms a wider sense of a social sense, of which we become a part: “I am because we are” (Ubuntu saying). This shows that we evaluate threats and risks as being less dangerous with good friends (I know, it sounds so obvious now). However, most meditation circles in the West promote individual practice! In effect, they are encouraging us to go up that hill alone, which makes the difficulties we encounter in meditation be perceived as more difficult than if we were travelling with friends. Evolutionarily, we have become accustomed to be in the presence of others and therefore the baseline for feeling safe and well is to be a part of a larger pleasant social environment.

Individual and Social Environment

Figure 1. The individual and social environment overlap represent social baselines

(Gross, Medina-DeVilliers, 2020).

There is an overwhelming consensus in social and now clinical psychology showing that relationships are the most important factor, and by far, to build resilience and psychological health. Moreover, all of environmental safety and ease created by our peers frees us from having our hypervigilance neural networks online, and allows us to focus and ground ourselves deeper in our internal experience. This is why, at NeuroSystemics Dharma, we emphasize social meditation.

We make a lot of efforts to build a safe and compassionate community to support one another through the challenges of meditation. How difficult is it, for instance, to even take 15-20 minutes a day to sow down and practice? Very difficult for most of us. It’s challenging being with ourselves and develop these meditative skills of mindfulness, compassion, friendliness, joy and equanimity. Buddhist texts talk about “going against the stream” of our habitual patterns, and that takes effort. This effort is perceived as being less work if we do it together.

In our monthly 1.5h Dharma gatherings we teach meditation and practice in a community (like we used to before the modern industrial age). Our approach combines ancient Buddhist teachings with modern neuroscience and systemic analysis. To learn more and join us sign up here!

Many blessings and look forward to seeing you there.

Boaz

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