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March 10, 2016

Transforming difficult emotions: Meditations for healing anger and disappointment

The obstacle is the path. 
--Zen Proverb

“I spent most of my 6th-grade year locked in my bedroom,” my friend David states. He puts his cup of coffee down on the table and looks directly at me. “Can you imagine?” 

“No,” I reply. 

I can’t imagine. My 6th-grade year was a joyful one. I was Greenwood Elementary School’s first female student body president. I spent the year playing with my siblings, connecting with friends, and loving school. I can’t imagine having spent it locked up in my bedroom.

David is a Ph.D. candidate in developmental psychology and a long-time meditator. He brings a great deal of depth to any conversation about mindful living. I treasure our friendship. Over the years, we’ve spent hours making connections between meditation practice, brain science, spirituality, and parenting. Yet, this is the first time David shares this particular story with me. 

“Do you want to say more about this, David?” I gently inquire. 

“Yes,” he nods his head. “Samuel, my oldest, is now in 6th grade and this has triggered a lot of memories. I feel a great deal of anger rise up in my meditations lately.”

As a boy, David was often in trouble at school. He was too talkative, too energetic and far too distracting in class. Inspired by advice they received from a psychologist, David’s parents devised a plan to reign in their youngest son. They asked David’s teachers to fill out a simple form at the end of each school day. If a teacher noted a single infraction of school rules, they locked David in his room -- bringing his dinner on a tray. He would eat alone. In fact, David’s parents were encouraged to go out to dinner and bring their older son with them. Why? Surely, their boisterous boy would desperately long to join the family. Subsequently, his parents believed David would be motivated to transform his substandard behavior at school. Their plan failed. David spent months locked in his room, disheartened and terribly lonely, a prisoner in his own home at the tender age of 11. 

“That is such a painful story,” I say. Then, I reach out across the table for my friend’s hand. 

“You know, my parents punished me with their absence,” he states while shaking his head sadly. “And transforming this pattern of pain is really hard.”

Meditations for healing

In meditation, one sits quietly. With eyes either closed or gently focused on a single object, the body rests. Attention is brought to the breath. Sometimes a phrase is internally, calmly and rhythmically repeated. For example, with each inhale one repeats, “breathing in.” With each exhale, “breathing out” is silently said. 

Whether we are dealing with transforming the negative behavior of children or transforming our own difficult thoughts, connecting before redirecting is key. 

Usually, it doesn’t take long before thoughts and feelings spontaneously arise. This is normal. The mind and body carry stories after all. Everything we’ve lived through -- all that has touched our senses -- is remembered on some level, either implicitly or explicitly. Sometimes what arises is experienced as pleasant. Perhaps images of beloved ones fill a meditator’s consciousness and joyful emotions unfold. Sometimes, painful memories, and sensations take center stage. 

While it’s natural to want to move toward what brings pleasure and push away what brings pain, the task of meditation is to gently note the coming and going of changing phenomenon and redirect one’s attention to the present breath, the sacred ground of being unfolding. Cultivating the power to respond with equanimity to whatever does arise, be it joy or sorrow, takes time. Yet few activities bring more healing. Indeed meditation positively transforms the very structure of the brain itself.  

“My meditation practice is key,” David remarks. “Even after all of my studies, I can still default to punishing my children by disconnecting from them. Sometimes I really disappoint myself. Only after I actually practice sitting with non-judgmental awareness and acknowledging my own disappointment, my own anger, and my own sadness do I feel this default tendency transform.”

I can relate. 

The tears that I’ve shed in the quiet hours of meditation have done more to open my heart and transform my automatic response to stress than any intellectual insights gained through reading or conversation. Having grown up in a home haunted by the shadow of mental illness, I have a choice. I can believe the delusions presented to me as truth or realize that distorted thinking is just that -- distorted thinking. By embracing the difficult emotions relating to my childhood in meditation, I practice holding my past with gentleness. Then I can more clearly redirect my energies to the benefit of those around me, not the least of which is my son. 

Of course, it’s one thing to understand meditation theoretically, it’s quite another to experience it. For example, a person can spend hours watching documentaries about swimming but unless she actually gets into the water, swimming remains an abstraction. In the same way, it’s possible to understand how a parent’s capacity to hold space for a child’s difficult emotions is directly related to how a parent holds space for her or his own shadow. Yet, this understanding itself doesn’t transform knee-jerk physiological or neurological patterns. 

How to transform anger? How to transform disappointment? 

Tara Brach, Ph.D., one of America’s most well-known and beloved teachers of meditation offers up a moving reflection on transforming anger as well as helpful guided meditations that aid individuals in calming the mind. In “True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart,” she writes: “Breathing in, contacting the life that is right here, is our first step. Once we have held ourselves with kindness, we can touch others in a vital and healing way.” 

Holding our difficult emotions with kindness isn’t easy, but with practice we can more readily approach and transform the shadows of human life. This is a particularly potent enterprise for parents given the considerable influence we have in shaping the neuropsychology of future generations.  

In “No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture your Child’s Developing Mind,” Daniel J. Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. argue that parents best nurture their children by first connecting before redirecting. Contrary to popular opinion, Siegel and Bryson remind us that the word discipline means “to teach,” not to punish or “give a consequence.” Certainly, no one can learn well when in the throws of anger or frustration. The mind must be calm, neither under stimulated nor over stimulated, for redirection to be successful and wisdom to dawn. For children, the calm evoked by the consistent parental presence and love is foundational. “You don’t want to send the message that you’ll be in relationship with [your child] when she’s ‘good’ or happy, but you’ll withhold your love and affection when she’s not,” Siegel and Bryson write. 

David’s parents were misguided in their stalwart efforts to discipline through the punitively and consistently disconnecting from their son. Similarly, we are misguided when we cut off parts of ourselves in the hope that negative or difficult shadows will transform on their own. Whether we are dealing with transforming the negative behavior of children or transforming our own difficult thoughts, connecting before redirecting is key. 

“My 6th-grade year was a black hole,” David recalls. While my friend’s memories can’t be changed, David can transform the unfortunate pattern he learned from that painful time. He can transform his default tendency to withdraw his love and presence when angry or disappointed by the actions of loved ones. 

He does this first by staying connected to himself.


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