Creating Space Between Emotions and Response
My couchsurfing host in Borneo asked me, “How do we stay calm when things around us aren’t?” I want to use this space to reflect upon this question, by dissecting the differences between having anger, and acting angry.
Anger is an internal state. It can be physiologically felt and cognitively observed.
When anger arises, a sense of tension is present in our bodies. Our breathing may quicken and shallow, our temperature may elevate, we may even start to sweat. There are also notable mental effects. We may become impatient and negative, as displayed by the hastiness and cynicism of our accompanying thoughts.
This is anger. It’s internal.
Being angry is an an external expression of this internal feeling; it’s an action.
Acting angry is reacting in haste, it’s yelling from impulse, it’s having impatience with the minute, and irritation at the mundane. We may even make irrational and regretful decisions. Though this seems like a simple distinction, we often blur the two.
We all feel anger. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s a natural emotion in the human spectrum of life. But our internal state doesn’t have to dictate our external actions – just because you feel anger doesn’t mean you have to act angry. How?
Non-judgmental self- awareness.
In my practice, I first develop an awareness of the feeling itself. I take a step back before proceeding in any action and begin to welcome in whatever is present in my internal landscape. How do I feel? What physiological sensations are present? Where is my headspace? What thoughts are present? These are observations - objective recognitions of states of body, mind and mood.
This awareness is without judgment. There are no evaluations: they aren’t good or bad, right or wrong. There are no interpretations as to why I am feeling a certain way. And I am not trying to influence their presence – no effort is made to push them away or hold on to them. Rather I am with them exactly as they are - a neutral awareness of what is currently present.
At this point, I bring breath in. If the emotions are particularly strong, I inhale for 10 seconds, hold the inhalation for 10 seconds, and then exhale for 10 seconds. After, I return to a normal breathing pattern and begin to feel the breath. What physical sensations accompany the breath: how does the body move when air enters? How does the body moves when air leaves?
When we place our mind’s attention on what our body is currently doing, we connect our bodies with our minds. It gives us a well-needed rest from the stories the mind may be telling and instead allows us to return to present, external reality. Now, we have developed the awareness to make a choice: do we want to react from our emotions, and let them be the dictators of our actions and moods? Or do we want to come back to the simplicity of the present moment? By putting space between the stimulus and response, we develop discretion for conscious decision making.
The more we start to introspect and consciously respond, the more these actions become organically part of us. We become familiarized with the presence of our emotions and feelings, and their fleeting nature. We can even befriend our anger, developing a more prolonged acceptance of its presence. Where acceptance goes, control leaves. As when we accept something as is, we release our control and desire to influence. In the process, we allow for the emotions to pass more quickly. (It’s not to say that we no longer feel the emotions, rather they become less threatening to our existence.) And this of course isn’t only applied to anger. It’s the difference from feeling anxious and having anxiety, from feeling chaos and acting chaotically.
I implore you to experiment, and search for your own understanding. Feel when the seeds of anger may be growing. Invite it in. Investigate it. What does it feel like? What’s going on in your mental space? Notice, sans judgment. Observe, without interpreting, or evaluating.
After investigating, tune into your breath. If they are particularly strong emotions, start by taking long inhales and exhales. Then return to your normal breathing pattern, and feel the physical sensations of the breath.
With enough practice, it may become more innate to be calm. Things, which previously irritated you, may not bother you as much. You may feel similar emotions, but you also hone a capacity to respond from a more grounded footing. Instead of fueling anger, you create more peace in yourself and the world around you.