Why Does Meditation Make Me Angry
A meditation audio course participant asks:
“Hi Roger, I’m finding when I meditate I get really angry. I remember things that have happened and I get angry and I don’t know what to do. Can you help me.”
This is a very interesting question, and very common to a lot of people when they first come to meditation.
When I began to meditate I had a similar problem, made worse by my misapprehension that the meditation experience was suppose to be tranquil – blissful. After all, that was what I’d heard. It was what I’d read about. So I meditated with these expectations in mind.
But meditation for me wasn’t calm or tranquil … not at all.
The opposite in fact. My meditation was usually an exercise in extreme suffering – my breath would shorten and become painfully tight, my body would go stiff as a board and my mind would become a swirling mess of uncontrollable thinking. Either that or I’d fall into weird unconscious states, waking with the alarm feeling disoriented and sluggish.
And when I meditated with a group I’d look around at other people sitting calmly around me as I tied myself in knots, struggling to stay awake, and I thought it was only me who was so apparently hopeless at meditation. But later I found my experience was common – the only difference being other people were better at sitting still than I was.
But every so often, me or some other person would arise from meditation with a big smile, having had a rare pleasant experience loosely resembling tranquility, and we’d think we were ‘getting there’.
“Now that was meditation,” we’d think, and we’d tell each other about our ‘incredible’ experience.
But next time, as we began a new meditation and the old suffering began again, we’d be bitterly disappointed.
Problem was, the expectations most of us had in our heads were supported by all the bad meditation teachers, who spoke loftily about ‘calm’ an ‘being at one with oneself’ – so the search for bliss went on. And the more anxious and frazzled I felt, the harder I tried to create calm, and bliss, applying the meditation method like a strait jacket, or a hammer, trying to bludgeon myself into this mysterious tranquility I was supposed to be experiencing.
And so it went – a ridiculous chasing of an illusion in my head, in which I created suffering out of the simple act of sitting still.
It wasn’t until I traveled to Thailand and practiced under my first teacher, Acharn Thawee, that I realized what the problem was. I’d come to practice for a month, expecting this length of time and intensity would finally break the wall of suffering that stood between me and what I thought meditation was supposed to be.
Acharn Thawee left the teaching of first timers to his assistant, Phra Manfred, a stern German monk who, in the first interview, told me ‘you must work hard! This is not a holiday camp!” He took me to a tiny little concrete hut at the back of the monastery by a mosquito ridden pond, handed me the key and told me not to come out for the first week.
“I don’t want to see you walking around or talking!” he said, “Try to meditate for at least ten hours a day, so stay in your hut!”
So I did. With the daily meal left at the door, I stayed in that hot little concrete box, sitting on a wooden bench, trying desperately to apply meditation to my sweating, aching, anxious self. With the expectation of the bliss and tranquility I would get, I worked hard.
I thought,’Now, finally, everything I’ve read about will happen!’.
But the harder I worked at meditation, the more my mind and body resisted. And with the hours of meditation I was doing, and the intensity, the suffering was worse! After a week I felt like a twisted ball of tortured muscle and anxiety.
And then I cracked. I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt like I was going mad. So I decided I had to give up and leave, so left the hut and made my way to Phra Manfred’s hut, where I found him sitting on his veranda reading a paper. Looking up, he invited me to sit with him.
I told him I wanted to leave and he shrugged.
“Yes, most people want to leave at this point,” he said.
He nodded. “Yes, this first stage is the hardest. All the unresolved mess of the mind come up in the silence of meditation and makes you a little mad for a while.”
“You mean what I’m experiencing is normal?”
He laughed and said, “Of course it is normal.”
Then he gave me a quizzical look, saying, “What did you think would happen?”
“I don’t know” I said, then thought about it. “Well, I thought I might have advanced a little … become a little more calm at least …”
“You thought you would be filled with light!” he said jokingly.
“No … just more calm, that’s all.”
“You came here wanting bliss and now you are disappointed?”
“Well, yes,” I said abashedly. “Isn’t that what meditation is about?”
“No!” he said. “That is what people think it is about! And they are wrong.”
“But that’s what I’ve read …”
“Know yourself!” he exclaimed. “That is what meditation is about. All the things you want, calm, tranquility, peace … these things can only come when your mind is clear and pure. And this kind of freedom can only come from knowing.”
Then he explained it to me, all the things I so desperately needed to hear – about how true calm and tranquility can only come when all the mess of acquired garbage we have collected in our lives has been known, accepted and let go of.
“This is Vipassana,” he said. “To know the truth of mind and body and what you have become … to accept it, and let it go. So, if pain arises, know it as it is … accept it and let it go. If anxiety arises, or anger arises, or anything … know it, accept it and let it go.”
“But how do I let it go?” I said. “Most of the time the thinking and pain is so strong I get lost and even forget I’m meditating.”
“So just keep going as best you can,” he said. “Sit still and use the methods to be as still as you can while the storm is there and nature will do the rest. Things that are out of balance in your mind and body will naturally pass away if you be still.”
“Just sit still?”
“Yes.” he said. “The beginning stage is the hardest, because the most coarse impurities arise first. So the beginning is the most intense. Think of yourself like a glass water. When it was first poured the water was clear. But life added mud and impurities and the glass was shaken and stirred by things that happened. So now the water has become dirty. And you forget how clear you were in the beginning. So now you meditate. You sit still. And what happens?”
“It rises to the top?”
“Yes, without the stirring and shaking of living the water goes still. The mud and impurities rise to the top. This is what is happening now. So go back to you kute (hut) and just keep going … keep working.”
The relief I felt was profound because finally someone had explained what was happening when I meditate – the process. The bubble of expectations was finally popped and I could finally accept the pain and anxiety, and work with it because it made sense.
So I went back to my hut and began meditating anew. And the more I sat with the mess that arise, the more I began to understand the true nature of what I was feeling.
It wasn’t just vague physical pain and mental anxiety I felt – it was rage.
What I felt, which was creating the storms of thinking and pain was an incandescent and incredibly violent rage that seemed so deep it sometimes felt as if that was all there was of me. I WAS rage and I had no idea why.
It seemed existential – with no one story to it. It could have been derived from anything: my father, my mother, all the stuff of my life, even life itself. The rage seemed to scoop up every misdeed and perceived slight I’d ever experienced into itself, blowing everything into a murderous and barely containable energy that manifested in the mind and body as profound anxiety and pain.
But I kept meditating – feeling the rage in my body and watching it magnify whatever memory or story that came to mind – spinning the most benign events into trauma and tragedy. As each gust of rage arose I did my best to accept it as sensations in my body, and discard the disguise of whatever story it told. And I began to notice letting go would happen naturally – I would see the sensations and feelings arise and pass away more quickly, only to arise again with new stories when the process would start again.
And Phra Manred kept reminding me, “It’s just energy, and it’s always strongest at the beginning. And the longer you meditate, the more subtle it gets. Like a banana palm, the outer layers that were hard and rough pass away, and the layers going to the center get softer and softer, until you get to the center and realize there is nothing there – just the layers. So it is with us. We retain layers and layers of the waste products of life … some pleasant, some not so pleasant. And when we meditate, these layers arise and pass away until eventually, we are clean.”
For a week or two I sat with this huge sunburst of rage spinning and pulsing inside me, until finally it began to abate. And I began to experience, for the first time in my life, the delicate and unruffled awareness of tranquility.
So what is the point of this story?
Well, the point is, every day of our life leaves its residue of unresolved tension, whether mental or physical. It’s inevitable. Most of the time we don’t notice this residue, it’s so small – a twinge of regret, anger at somebody, envy or sadness. We live past all this stuff because we just don’t have the time to process it. Life is too furious, too fast.
So the tensions that have been created in the body and the stories of those moments of anger are forgotten. Only the metabolic energy; the anxiety of those moments; are retained – particularly if the causal events are repeated.
Over time this residue of living builds up because, as I said, we never take time to know what is building up in us, and we’re too wel behaved to allow its catharsis. All we know is, as we age, we become more anxious and our body begins to stiffen and our mind becomes less flexible – we notice we’re becoming more restless, bored, jaded, tired or depressed.
We figure it’s just old age but it’s not. It’s the accumulation of un-expressed energy we have retained from the friction of our life. And the energy expresses itself as profound rage or sadness, which we expend a lot of energy to keep at bay. To keep it contained. We use muscular energy to contain it in the body, and we block it out in the mind with work or drugs, or with positive thinking – or we simply forget it.
Studies have shown that this kind of unresolved energy increases the risk of coronary artery disease and heart attack, lead to hardened arteries, cause liver and kidney damage as well as chronic anxiety and depression.
And, like a hydra, it has many heads – it uses our life history to try to express itself – any story that comes to hand, of self righteousness or fear, or hurt. Because it’s always covertly trying to act itself out, to be known.
But it is not rage at all – neither is it sadness. It’s simply energy. Old, orphaned energy left over from the friction of a life. With the story our mind gives to it, apparent rage exists as excitement in the body – pure and simple.
And it’s this energy which arises in meditation – as rage or sadness. So it is very important to allow it to happen – accept it, while at the same time, ignoring the story it is using to express itself as best as you can.
If you can ignore the story, while acknowledging, accepting and feeling the sensations as simply uncomfortable energy in the body, it will pass away, and you’ll be free of it.
Feel the energy in the body because that is the ONLY truth of this phenomenon.
Any story it uses, however convincing, is only an illusion.
Without a story to keep it going, the rage evaporates – because after all, it was only a hormonal reaction in the body. As the hormones are processed by the liver and kidneys, the sensations pass away. And what remains?
Until existential rage arises again.
So we deal with it again, using mindfulness and care – and we see that each time it arises it is a fraction less intense. And gradually, we see the periods of calm and relief becoming more. And we see our body loosen, and our mind become less reactive.
And life begins to open up as our perceptions change. The story of our life changes and freedom slowly appears.