When my sleep was rudely interrupted at 5.33am I woke up angry. As I lay there I thought about the previous occasion on which the same thing had woken me at 5.03am, on a Sunday and a bank holiday week end!!! I lay in bed for about half an hour drafting various letters of complaint and imagining the responses that I might receive - none of them helpful. I thought about the tools I could use to fight back, social media, a friend in the noise department. By 6.00 am I was even more furious so got up to go for a walk.
As I walked down the quiet lane that runs near to the house and began to tune into the birds I began to settle, but then the noisy cars came interrupting my peace. As I stomped along the lane I thought to myself, “really, a mindfulness teacher, you should know better than this”. Followed by “wow, bring on the self critic – that’ll help” (queue sarcastic tone). I got down to the sea front and the tide was in, the calming waves drifting in and out; the sky was blue and the water looked amazing. At last ... peace I thought. So what happened next?
There were people talking to each other, at 6.30am in the morning! I’ve come across these people before on early morning commutes and my reaction was the same then. Talking should actually be banned until at least 7.30am. I walked for another 20 minutes or so and gradually the whole episode started to amuse me. When I’m angry it feels very personal, like something deliberate is being done to me. Imagine, a bunch of people meeting up yesterday and timetabling an entire scene to cause the maximum irritation for my first hour on Monday morning.
This is where mindfulness helps. When we are startled being woken up early or being cut up in traffic, our threat system is triggered so it’s very natural for anger to arise. It’s more than a thought pattern, it’s a physiological response that triggers a release of chemicals in the brain. However, when our thoughts interact with anger, we can stoke the flames of anger even higher. We might find, that after an hour we settle down, but we might re tell the story to the first few people we meet and each time we churn up the anger again. Our brains cannot tell the difference between the actual event and the story of the event, so if we tell the story five times, our brain has lived through it five times. The brain works in a similar way to the muscles of the body, so if we practice anger five times per day, we are strengthening that muscle. If the anger is strong with us... as Yoda might say....we might reach a stage where it bubbles gently under the surface. This means that we may get to a point where relatively inconsequential events can make us angry very quickly.
So mindfulness does not cure anger, it gives us the opportunity to train new muscles which are more helpful than anger. When we notice anger, we can choose whether we are going to interact with it or whether it is possible to just let it pass over us. You may wonder then, why a mindfulness teacher is angry at 5.30am on a Monday morning. I have discovered that some of these reactions we have are so powerful that they consume us before we realise, and that still happens to me. However, when we practice, we cultivate two skills. The first skill is the noticing that something is happening and the second skill is the ability to reset or reground ourselves. With these skills, overtime, the length of these episodes is shorter and the occurrence is lower.