Sunday night we had a lively and thoughtful discussion about difficult emotions that grow so intense we "lose control." As a way to gradually see them coming in time to gain perspective and control, we worked with 5 questions we can ask ourselves after a passion has swept us away.
As Jack Kornfield says in The Wise Heart, "Wisdom knows what feelings are present without being lost in them." It's important to remember that there's nothing wrong with emotions -- if they're allowed to flow through us, neither suppressed nor allowed to fill up our consciousness until there's no space left for making reasonable decisions about how to speak or act.
Looking at a recent incident or a pattern of times when we've been swept away by anger, we used these questions as a guide for our exploration.
- How do you know you are angry?
This question focuses on your 'internal' experience. What sensations in your body let you know you are intensely angry? It could be your breathing or heart rate changes, or your muscles tense up. One friend feels his ears burn. Some people feel their stomachs tighten or feel queasy. Sometimes there are habitual thoughts that arise, or maybe your own conduct is the clue when you see yourself tearing up papers, slamming the table top or using harsh words. Spend some time investigating this aspect of the experience with a calm mind and without judging yourself or others. Becoming familiar with the physical feelings of an intense emotion equips us with an "early warning system," so gradually we learn to see it coming and keep our equanimity.
- How did you get there?
This doesn't ask about the actions of other people or events that you think "caused" you to become angry. Reviewing "the story" can get us stuck there, reinforcing our anger. Instead, this invites an exploration of your inner experience. In a sense, it's looking for the "set-up," the conditions in your mind that were waiting like tinder for the event(s) that sparked your reaction. It could be expectations that you were clinging to and suddenly felt thwarted or endangered, or an old hurt that felt wounded again. Maybe it was wounded pride. You may find that your sense of fairness was offended, but don't stop your investigation there. We can oppose injustice without becoming overwhelmed by anger – in fact we do so far more effectively with cooler heads. What made the difference between a moral objection, and the intense reaction you experienced?
- What happens when you're intensely angry?
See if you can identify behavior on your part that was triggered or influenced by your emotional state. Perhaps it reflects a pattern of past responses. Look at the effect your anger had on the immediate situation, and look for any long-range effects.
- How did you know when it had passed?
This is similar to the first inquiry, and looks for physical sensations, conduct or thought patterns that let you know the anger had passed. Try to remember what it was like at the time you were no longer so angry. Remembering how it feels to recover from anger will help us recover in the future.
- What brought about its passing?
Sometimes it just takes time – but reflect on how long that was. Maybe there were particular words spoken that soothed the anger, or thoughts that occurred to you. Just look and see what helped the anger pass.