“Holding on to anger,” said the Buddha, “is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
I don’t know about you, but I feel the venom coursing through my veins when I’m ticked off, tightening all my muscles, activating the sympathetic nervous system to prepare for the gorilla that is not about to attack me, and tagging my amygdala (fear center), saying, “You’re it!”
For me, anger can be a good thing, a sign that I’m alive and I’m invested in this world. I guess I’m feeling well enough lately that unkind remarks bother me more, things that I would have never cared about back when I was doing death math all the time, not paying attention to what came out of people’s mouths because my sole focus was on getting to the grave.
But holding on to resentment is no good either, the broken record that keeps on playing the same tune over and over, and it’s not “Let It Go” from Frozen.
My good friend and writing mentor, Mike Leach, called me up yesterday and said, “I have never seen you use so many capitalized letters and exclamation points in a piece. Are you okay?”
I knew it was time for the Angry Octopus.
Angry Octopus is a 15-minute meditation for children, one of four stories on a CD called Indigo Ocean Dreams, by Lori Lite. My daughter and I would listen to it almost every night two years ago when she was having major sleep issues.
The first time I heard it I laughed hysterically. But when I realized it could do my brain some good I paid more attention. Unlike Homer’s Odyssey, this was a story in which I could actually follow the plot.
This octopus wakes up to find his seashell rock garden is a mess. The lobsters traveling across the ocean floor have bumped into it and destroyed it. He is furious. He feels all of his muscles getting tighter and is so irate that he thinks he is going to explode. And then he does! He releases a purplish-black ink into the water.
The poor ocean creature is frustrated and doesn’t like that he is not in control of his body or feelings.
A sea child (mermaid? Still haven’t figured that out) swims by and asks him why he is so angry and why he is sitting in a dark cloud on such a beautiful day. After his five-minute psychiatric intake, which I have no doubt was not covered by insurance, she says to him, “I will show you how to be the boss of your body and your anger.”
Focus On the Breath
First they work on his breathing. She tells him to breathe in through his nose and out through his mouth, taking deep, slow breaths.
This is good advice, because of all the automatic functions of the body — cardiovascular, digestive, hormonal, glandular, immune — only the breath can be controlled voluntarily. The sea child doesn’t quite explain it that way to the octopus, or quote Richard P. Brown, MD, and Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD, but I am going to inject this part because what they write in their book, The Healing Power of the Breath, is quite interesting:
By voluntarily changing the rate, depth, and pattern of breathing, we can change the messages being sent from the body’s respiratory system to the brain. In this way, breathing techniques provide a portal to the autonomic communication network through which we can, by changing our breathing patterns, send specific messages to the brain using the language of the body, a language the brain understands and to which it responds. Messages from the respiratory system have rapid, powerful effects on major brain centers involved in thought, emotion, and behavior.
Tense One Muscle At a Time
Next the sea child tells the octopus to tense and squeeze his toes and feet as hard as he can, to hold the tension as he inhales, and then to release the muscles as he exhales through his mouth.
Next he tightens his legs, then his hips, stomach, and back — always tensing with the inhale and releasing with the exhale.
He tightens his shoulders and neck, then his arms and hands, and finally his jaw, lips, nose, and the rest of his face.
The sea child then helps the octopus to repair the seashell garden. This makes him very happy. You are left with a few minutes to just breathe deeply with the octopus and the sea child, and it is very peaceful. You wish you had fins.
Progressive muscle relaxation techniques and deep breathing do have the power to change our thought process. However, if we still keep getting stuck, it can be helpful to do some prodding at what lies beneath the anger. For example, ever since I’ve had to fundraise for my foundation, I have become an angrier person. Yesterday I realized what it is. I’m going beyond my comfort zone, which is not a good thing.
It’s hard enough to post articles about my struggle with depression on my blog and on Facebook where people other than my depression community can read them. But by getting in people’s faces and asking for money, I am left way too vulnerable. The rejection or lack of response hurts too much. So what I need to do is scale back the vision for the foundation to fit within what I can do without having to write to friends and family for money.
Return to the Second Agreement
Yesterday, as I was spouting off to my mentor about the hurtful remark that triggered all this rage, he said very calmly, “But who he thinks you are has nothing to do with who you really are.” It was a reminder of the second agreement of Don Miguel Ruiz’s classic, The Four Agreements, which is, Don’t Take Anything Personally.
Ruiz writes: “Whatever happens around you, don’t take it personally … Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.”
Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds.
And if all of that fails, just think to yourself how lucky you are not to be an octopus who inks outside his seashell garden.
Join Project Beyond Blue, the new depression community.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.
Young woman photo available from Shutterstock