Using Mindfulness To Temper A Quick Temper
I’m not sure if I’ve written about this subject before, but I got the following question, so if I did, I’ll do it again
Question was: ‘Hi Roger … I’ve recently been meditating because of my quick temper, but after a couple of weeks of doing it twice a day, I’m not noticing any difference. My friend referred me to your site and I brought your book, and it’s a good read, but I couldn’t find anything that specifically dealt with my problem so I thought I’d go to the source. What do you do when you suddenly get angry? Is there a meditation method will help me to keep from lashing out and hurting people?’
And my reply:
I think it’s a big ask to expect a difference after only two weeks of meditation. For a start, meditation is not a quick panacea. It’s not like a drug, or a surgical intervention, where you see instant results. A practice of meditation and mindfulness is like planting a garden in a weed filled mind – you’re planting the seeds of new habits, then nurturing them with practice every day. And even though you can’t see these new habits grow, one day further down the line, you suddenly realize they’re there. And you’ve changed.
Now, I notice you mentioned only meditation in your question.
Meditation is not enough.
For sure, one very important aspect of meditation is, as you meditate you’re giving your mind and body the space to do what they naturally do, which is to self-heal and re-balance themselves.
But more important than that, meditation is also a way to train the mind to develop mindfulness in daily life – that is, you’re developing the ability to be consciously aware of everything you do, as you are doing it – which gives you the opportunity to change what you’re about to do, if it’s going to cause problems or suffering of some kind.
Doesn’t sound like much, but this is a wonderful skill, because without mindfulness, we tend to not be aware of our learned habits living our life for us – we’re too busy being elsewhere, in our mind, thinking about other things. Because that is our habit. And that’s okay if we’ve been lucky enough to have developed good habits. But if we have developed bad habits, like addiction, or emotional volatility, they can seriously mess up our lives.
But as we practice meditation, and in particular, mindfulness, and slowly become aware of what we’re doing, as I said, it gives us the opportunity to change.
For sure, we develop a degree of mindfulness as we meditate – but it’s not enough – we also need to practice it during our daily life. You see, there is a reciprocal relationship between mindfulness and meditation – that is, meditation encourages mindfulness, and daily practice of mindfulness feeds our ability to meditate. Each strengthens the other.
So in your case in particular, meditation is not enough.
You must also practice mindfulness – as a daily life skill.
Because the way you’ve described your temper problem, it arises so quickly, it gets you acting or saying things you regret before you are aware of doing it. So you’re right to be concerned, because if this habit goes on, it will strengthen itself to the point where it could become a destructive force in your life. As such, you need to develop an ability to be aware of your temper, before it explodes into action.
And that needs you to build a new habit of mindfulness, as well as maintain meditation practice.
So here’s a quick rundown of how you might practice mindfulness.
Essentially, mindfulness is meditation in motion.
Consider what we’re doing when we meditate.
We sit down, close our eyes, and pay attention to the breath, following the movement of our belly as we breathe.
This anchors our attention to the present moment.
As such, with our attention fixed in each moment, we notice when it gets distracted by something else – which then gives us the opportunity to adjust the way our attention behaves – that is, to encourage it to let go and return to the breath.
Mindfulness practice is similar.
Difference being, the main object is whatever we’re doing as we’re doing it.
Rather than leave our actions to the robotic machinery of our habits, we practice being aware of what we’re paying attention to, and the habits that are in play, as if we’re learning the actions all over again. In this way we can adjust what we’re doing, and help change the habits behind them. With practice, this creates a new habit in the mind – we learn to be aware of what’s happening, and what we’re doing, so we can immediately modify how we’re doing it.
Now, practicing mindfulness doesn’t have to be onerous. Me personally, I treat it like a game which can be practised anywhere, anytime – while waiting for a train, walking to the shops, mowing the lawn, cooking, driving – anything done mindfully is good practice.
For example, let’s say you’re walking somewhere.
Instead of daydreaming as you walk, take the opportunity to practice mindfulness. I’ll list a few of the ways:
- Slow down a little – not to a snail’s pace, just enough to remove the ‘rush’ from what you’re doing, so you can walk at a leisurely pace.
- In this instance walking is the main object. Pay attention to the actual experience of walking. Try to follow each movement your body makes as you walk – of your legs, feet, shoulders, torso – focusing your attention on the sensations.
- Note any feelings that come up – whether of pleasure, boredom, happiness, anxiety or whatever.
- Note whatever distracts your attention and return to the contemplation of your body as it walks.
- Notice your posture as you walk. Adjust it if it’s not straight and relaxed.
- Re-examine each action you make – how you’re using your body, the shifting motion of your muscles.
- You’re still aware of where you’re headed and where you are, but you’re paying active attention to all the actions involved in the act of walking.
Here’s another example, in more detail this time.
You want to drink a glass of water. Usually this seems simple – grab a glass, turn on the tap, fill it and drink. Usually your habits automatically take care of all this. They deliver the water and drink it for you while your attention is elsewhere, thinking about other stuff.
But if you’re practising mindfulness, you’ll pay conscious attention to every one of the actions you make to drink the glass of water.
It sounds tedious, but it can be fun.
So let’s break it down and see how a seemingly simple thing as filling a glass with water and drinking is actually a highly complex set of actions (most of them habitual) and sensations.
So let’s begin:
- First there is noticing you’re thirsty.
- Then there is the intention to fill a glass with water and drink.
- Then there is the act of walking to the cupboard.
- Then there is your arm and hand slowly reaching out, opening the cupboard, and reaching for a glass.
- The sensation of touching the glass and the curling of the fingers around the glass.
- Lifting the glass.
- Turning away and going to the tap
- The sensation of reaching for the tap and twisting it to make the water flow.
- Lowering the glass to fill it with water.
- The sound of the flowing water in the ears.
- Turning off the tap when the glass is filled.
- Lifting the glass to drink.
- The sensation of it touching your lips.
- Tipping the glass to drink.
- The coolness of the water flowing into your mouth.
- The sensation of swallowing.
And so on.
So you see, any action can be broken into its parts and used as a way of practising mindfulness. In breaking habits apart in this way, it gives you a chance to re-examine them, and adjust the way you’re acting.
Another thing you can do throughout the day is checking in – I wrote a post about this a while ago, which you can find here. Essentially, it’s vey simple – throughout the day, try to remember to take your attention in to your inner environment, and check how you’re feeling. Check what tensions might have accumulated in parts of your body. Check how you’re breathing and adjust it. Check your posture, and so on.
Over time, if you practice every day, you’ll gradually realize you’re noticing more of what you do, and how you feel. And more particularly, when you feel anger, you’ll begin to feel your temper rising, and have the opportunity to deny yourself permission to act it out.
Of course, this will feel uncomfortable at first, because you’re pushing against a habit that is used to mindlessly enacting itself – but over time, f you keep denying it permission to do this, it will gradually lose power.
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
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