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ANGER, RUMINATIONS AND MEDITATION

For the past couple of weeks on this blog, I published posts that discussed dealing with your anger that might arise when you are criticized (see BEING A WISE FRIEND TO YOUR ANGRY SELF, PART 1 and BEING A WISE FRIEND TO YOUR ANGRY SELF, PART 2).  The techniques that are recommended in those posts can be helpful for those who are upset about what was said.  But there are times when we are criticized and we get angry and we kind of think it’s about the criticism, but it really is about something else. Perhaps we realize that if someone else had criticized us in the same way using the same words, we would have been fine about it.  Nevertheless, we ended up getting furious because of who said it. We then went home and our anger about what happened just kept coming up again and again.  We wish it would just stop, but it doesn’t.

Such ruminations can be helpful.  Each time we think over the memory in light of what we have learned since the event first occurred, we might think of some better ways to deal with the conflict.  Then, if a similar event does occur, we may find that we are better prepared than if we hadn’t repeatedly mulled it over.

Despite their helpfulness, there are times when again and again an angry memory keeps creeping ever so annoyingly into our consciousness so that finally we conclude it doesn’t seem to be doing us any good.

Margaret was terribly abused by a man when she was a child. She now finds that even though twenty years have passed, each time she begins to develop a promising relationship with a guy, he ends up doing something that somehow reminds her of something that happened during the earlier abusive relationship. She then ends up recalling all that she had suffered. This leads her to act in a manner that is way out of proportion to what the new guy has done. The new guy runs for the hills and the woman, when she has calmed down, wishes she can become less sensitive.

Illustration by Eric Sailer

There are several approaches that we will be discussing in future posts to help deal with such disturbing ruminations. Today, we will focus on meditation.

Meditation

For thousands of years people have advocated that sitting comfortably while resting one’s thoughts on a mantra—that is, an object to attend to—can help to ease the burdens of life. Teachers of meditation usually mix in ancient wise counsel as the student learns this beautiful art.

Research has demonstrated that meditation can be helpful for improving empathy, working memory, the ability to focus, and relationship satisfaction, as well as reducing stress, anxiety, and ruminations.  Evidence also suggests that mindfulness meditation has numerous health benefits, including increased immune functioning (see http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.aspx for a review of the research.)

For those who want to give meditation a try before entering into a course or participating in many of the available wonderful retreats, I offer the following.

A SIMPLE, EFFECTIVE FORM OF MEDITATION

Illustration by Jack Star Rubin

Set aside about twenty minutes. Preferably, choose a time when you haven’t eaten for at least an hour.  This is because right after a meal your stomach begins to work hard to digest what you have just consumed.  It is better to wait until much of this is over.  This way your body can devote more of its energy for your journey into the deepest levels of your mind.

The only tool you need is a clock or watch so you can know when the twenty minutes are up.  Select the most quiet, comfortable place you can find for sitting. With this form of meditation there is no requirement to sit in any unique fashion.  If you desire to shift your position at any time, feel free to go right ahead.

Begin by checking the time and then figure out what time it will be when twenty minutes will have passed.  Then close your eyes, take a deep inward breath, and as you exhale, let your whole body deeply relax.  For approximately thirty seconds, enjoy letting your mind drift wherever it wishes to go.

After the half minute has passed, begin to observe your breathing.  This observation of your breath serves as your mantra.  Do not try to alter the flow of your breath as you observe it, just observe it.  At first you may find that just the act of observing your breathing in and out will result in altering your breathing pattern.  This is very natural and a common experience.  There is nothing wrong with what you are doing when this happens. As long as you gently seek to observe your breathing without influencing its flow you are doing wonderfully.

Now, as you gently seek to do this, not only will you see yourself at times influencing the flow of your breathing, but you will also find, from time to time, that your attention will drift away from your breath altogether. In fact, it is a common experience.  Many of us find that we spend almost no time whatsoever observing our breath as we meditate, our thoughts instead drifting here and there on other matters.  Such experiences are a natural part of meditating.  You are doing nothing wrong.  There is no need to feel guilty.

When you notice that your attention has drifted away from your breathing, very gently see if you can effortlessly return to observing your breath.  If you can, do so.  If you find that your mind drifts back to something else, this is fine. The whole process is effortless.  This is one reason that it is so relaxing.  That is, you give your mind something so simple to do that it requires no real effort, and whenever you begin to drift from this no effort task, you accept this as just a natural part of the process without chastising yourself.

As you do this, from time to time check and when you notice that twenty minutes have gone by, take a deep in-breath, exhale, and then give yourself two minutes to let your breath and mind wander wherever they will go.  In this way, you ease out of meditation and return to your non-meditative state.

SOME QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Over the years, when I taught people to meditate, the following questions were often asked.
1. Question: How often should I meditate?
Answer: The research demonstrating the effectiveness of meditation has not yet adequately compared those who meditate twice a day to those who meditate more or less.  Instead of research, we are guided by tradition and our own experience.

From traditional sources, twice a day appears to be the most common practice.  Dr. Herbert Benson, the author of the popular book titled, The Relaxation Response, and a leader in carrying out research on meditation, reports that once or twice a day is sufficient.

I recommend that beginners practice twice a day (preferably before breakfast and before suppertime) for the following reasons.  This is what I was taught by a yoga teacher when I first began to practice forty years ago and it has become a comfortable, valued practice for over 40 years.  Moreover, I have taught many using this technique and have never seen anyone who expressed harm from this practice.  There have been many who have reported dramatic improvements in daily functioning.

2. Question: If I don’t have time to meditate for twenty minutes can I gain some benefits from practicing for less time?
Answer: Dr. Herbert Benson reports that some studies indicate that practicing daily as little as ten minutes per day can produce significant improvements lowering your stress levels.  If you find that you don’t have even ten minutes a day to meditate, you might consider that age old adage that the time to meditate is when you don’t have time to meditate.

A young woman once told me that she didn’t have time to meditate even for ten minutes a day. “How much TV do you watch?” I inquired.  She smiled sheepishly and after a few seconds of calculating in her mind, replied, “Five hours a night.”  She quickly added, “Well, I have to watch my shows!”  In my view, this woman would be wise to reset her priorities.

3. Question: How does meditation help to reduce problems involving recurring angry memories?
Answer: As you meditate, among the thoughts that float into your awareness are angry memories.  When this occurs, you tend to be in a more peaceful state than usual.  The pairing of the memory with this peaceful state allows for a more dispassionate look at the events that had surrounded the original angry episode.  This process often leads to a perspective that is experienced as less threatening.  And sometimes an insightful plan suddenly emerges with great promise should a similar problem cross your path.

The meditation process has been likened to dying a piece of material.  Suppose you have a white sweater and you would like to dye it a nice royal blue.  The first time you dip the sweater in the dye solution and let it sit for a while, when you lift it from the solution you might not notice any change at all.  Upon soaking the sweater again in the solution, letting it sit for awhile, and then lifting it out, this time you may think you notice a slight change, but you are not sure.  You repeat this process several more times and slowly but surely you begin to see the color of the sweater becoming a wonderful hue. In this way, each time you sit in meditation, your anger will ease into something more beautiful.
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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

BEING A WISE FRIEND TO YOUR ANGRY SELF, PART 2
PROVIDING NEGATIVE CRITICISM: FIVE LEVELS OF MATURITY

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

8 Comments

  1. PROVIDING NEGATIVE CRITICISM: FIVE LEVELS OF MATURITY « Name Calling, Insults and Teasing
    September 1, 2012 - 9:26 am

  2. Love your blog! Very informative & interesting.
    I’m forwarding to clients b/c it’s perfect for their high conflict custody issues.
    Thanks & keep writing.
    Karen

    • Karen,

      Thanks you for your kind words of support.

      In your comment, you mention some clients involved in “high conflict custody issues.” By this, I presume you are referring to child custody issues. I myself have also worked with parents and children caught up in these types of conflicts and I know it gets pretty rough at times.

      Some of my future blog posts will give specific examples of these types of conflicts and how the skills learned on the blog can address such very challenging issues.

      My Best,
      Jeff

  3. Hey there. I’ve been meditating on a regular basis for the past 4 years now. When a conversation about meditation arises with someone, I very often hear them exclaiming. ‘Oh I can’t meditate…my mind just won’t turn off,” or something similar to this. This right here immediately is a sign to me that they are misinformed as to what the act of meditation really is. You describe it very well in your post but I really believe it essential to understand that every single person who tries to sit down and focus on their breath, within seconds, has their mind wander. And then as soon as they bring it back to the breath, within seconds it’s off again thinking about any number of things. This experience frustrates people to no end, to realize that they truly have no control over their minds, thoughts, and emotions. Most people, upon realizing this fact, give up meditation immediately and just assume that for some reason they are incapable of meditating. In essence though, the practice of meditation is indeed just that: setting your attention on the breath, realizing when your mind has wandered (which is absolutely inevitable), gently and compassionately bringing your attention back to the breath, and then starting the process all over again. That is what meditation on the breath is. Slowly but surely our minds will begin to calm down as we continue to meditate regularly and sometimes you will actually experience long periods of a quiet and calm mind. The experience of a calm mind though is not the essence of meditation. The process of repeatedly bringing your attention back to the breath is.

    Even with this understanding, frustration may still mount when your thoughts have wandered over and over again. I find the following thought rather helpful at overcoming frustration as far as meditation goes. The first time you ever played an instrument or tried to ride a bike or tried any new skill, were you any good at it? Of course not. So why do we assume that we should be perfect Buddhas the first time we ever sit down on the meditation mat? There’s a reason that it is called a meditation PRACTICE. Little by little we get better and better at at.

    Often people think of meditation as this mystical artform of the far East. It actually, however, is a very pragmatic practice. Think about it. In Pavlovian terms, we have conditioned ourselves since we started thinking, to just let our minds wander wherever they please. Obviously we’re going to be very adept at having our minds wander since we’ve been practicing it for years. On the other hand, we have very little practice keeping our minds focused for a long periods of time. Keeping the spirit of Pavlov and conditioning alive though, every time we bring our attention back to the breath when we’re meditating, we have just conditioned ourselves a little bit more towards focus. Instead of thinking of the the mind wandering as something bad we did or something to get frustrated about, we can look at it as another opportunity to condition our focus. This point I have found very helpful to me in my meditation practice.

    Meditation has been the single greatest tool in my entire life at dealing with anger, frustration, pain, fear, and sadness and I very very highly recommend to anyone and everyone giving a serious effort to the cultivation of a regular meditation practice. Thank you very much for your post Dr. Rubin

    • Hi JSR,

      You make an excellent point that many people become discouraged when they find that they can’t keep their focus on observing their breath. They therefore give up the practice of meditation. In your comment you share your experience about this and point out that although your mind does wander as you meditate, you still have been experiencing a wealth of benefits. This is true for me as well. I believe that sharing your experience about this will help others to give the practice some time for benefits to reveal themselves before they prematurely give it up. Much Thanks!

      Jeff

  4. ANGER, RUMINATIONS AND MEDITATION Name Calling, Insults and Teasing has been stored like a favorite :), I really like your blog!

    • Classie Dorl, thanks for the positive feedback.
      Jeff

  5. Of course.mr rubin has alaborately explained meditation and its outcomes.but recurring thoughts are difficult to dissipate as they have subconscious origin.although meditation can provide relief but overthinking can further lead to unhappiness and unrest.

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