Dear Dr. Rettger,
I’m filled with anger at myself and the people who I allowed to destroy my life and use me for what money I had and take it. I’m broke, no car, rotting teeth, and no life. How or can meditation help me?
Thank you for your question. You have brought to the table a number of powerful struggles that we all are forced to encounter at some point. The themes in your question as I see them are anger, betrayal, and perhaps a sense of helplessness and isolation. I appreciate your willingness and courage to unearth these deeply human questions and raise them here. Your submission will no doubt provide an opportunity for many readers to reflect on these themes in their own lives. I will do my best to offer you a few practical suggestions that will point you in the right direction. Since I do not know all of the specifics of your situation, I will keep my reflections somewhat general.
A big ticket item in the field of meditation is working with challenging emotions. For many, anger is at the top of the list. For others, I am sure betrayal is a close second. Anger is indeed a fascinating and fruitful emotion to work with in meditation. It is an emotion that is not always embraced and understood in our culture. All of the reasons for this may be complex, but it seems to me that often times anger is no so graceful in its expression, it has the potential to cause harm if not expressed with skill and care, and is therefore often thrown into the shadow and avoided.
Mindfulness encourages us to embrace the full range of our emotions and to invite them into our experience. It is a path of gaining intimate familiarity with our present moment experience. Psychologically, I think that anger is an incredible teacher and priceless emotion to work with and harness for the purpose of living a more complete and authentic life. Meditation is a tool that can help wrangle in the power that anger exerts over us. Also, let’s acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with being angry when life hands us situations that are unjust. Anger is the reasonable response. Trouble happens when anger is in the driver’s seat and various forms of “violence” result. By “violence” I mean the full range of behaviors we engage in that are not wholesome. This ranges from being self-critical to engaging in actual acts of physical violence and destruction. So how can we use mindfulness meditation as a way of working with anger?
It is important to realize that the best time to work on regulating anger is not when you are actually experiencing anger. It is too difficult to learn self-regulation skills in the midst of emotional turmoil or dysregulation. Therefore, I suggest you undertake this meditation when you are feeling neutral or more balanced.
A Meditation to Work with Anger
1. Take a few moments to settle into a comfortable seated posture and connect into your breathing.
2. Once connected to breath, I would like for you to think of a time when you felt a bite size amount of anger. I recommend choosing an event to focus on that feels manageable. It is best to work with a “touch” of anger, rather than a bucket full of it, at least until you get the hang of how to keep it in check. Also, I do not advise working on traumatic experiences without expert guidance from a qualified professional.
3. Once you have made contact with this anger, please then take your awareness into your body and notice how the emotion of anger is in contact with your body. Really notice the flow of sensations through your body. Spend a few moments of time here.
4. In this space of contacting your anger, observe clearly what thoughts or other emotions are bubbling up. Invite these emotions to come more fully into view, take a moment to note the thoughts that are playing through your mind in more detail. Spend a few moments of time here simply bearing witness to the ebb and flow of these thoughts and emotions. Do your best to just notice them, like scenes in a movie, and then let them pass by. Let go of them. If you notice that you are getting knocked off balance by what is coming up in the meditation, I encourage you to take care to specifically offer yourself love, kindness, and compassion and return back to the equilibrium of the breath. To gain balance back, adjust your breathing toward extending the length of your exhalation to two times the length of your inhalation. This kind of deepened breath will help to evoke the relaxation response. You can also focus on feeling your feet connected to the earth. This helps to move your awareness back to the environment and out of any inner-turmoil.
5. When you feel that you have made a positive contact with the experience of anger and have stayed with it for a healthy period time and you are ready to transition out of this meditation, take a moment to hold gratitude for the experience of the anger, recognize it as a teacher and a member of your community of emotions and release and let go of it. It is time to close out your meditation.
6. If it resonates for you, close with hands together in front of the heart, or hands on heart and end with a full and beautiful exhale.
After you complete the meditation, take time to journal about your experience. Were there any particular thoughts that came up for you that you would like to revisit? Did you notice any particular ways in which emotions showed up in your body? What memories or people showed up during your practice? What other emotions called for your attention? This are all things you can write down and return to.
The purpose in practicing meditation to work with anger, betrayal, or other challenging emotions is to get connected to these emotions and explore them as we think they are. Often times what we discover is that there are actually other emotions underneath them. It is not uncommon for anger to be experienced as a secondary emotion that serves as a kind of armoring from deeper sadness and hurt. Of course this is a generalization that may or may not be true for you in this situation. But it is a working hypothesis that is worth testing. The only way to test it is to run a meditation experiment and see what the results are. This is how we begin to embark on a life path that is more in alignment with the heart.
Dealing with Internal Conflicts
I want to turn our conversation toward the interpersonal conflicts you described. It sounds like you have had a really tough time with people taking advantage of you. I do not intend to or want to dismiss the pain and anger that you must be feeling about these betrayals. So I suggest really honoring these emotions and working with them through meditation before you jump toward this next bit of intellectualism. But, I want to give you a framework from which you can begin to build a healthier interpersonal network. Toward this goal, let’s look at what are called interpersonal effectiveness skills. Psychologists have written quite a bit on this subject and suggest that a foundational skill related to interpersonal effectiveness is assertiveness. According to McKay and colleagues, assertiveness involves 1) an ability to communicate and request what you want, 2) saying “no” when you want to, and 3) the capacity to work conflicts while minimizing relationship ruptures. Mindfulness and meditation provide you with a method to learn the interpersonal skills needed to form a solid foundation for healthy relationships. Here is how.
Being able to effectively communicate what your needs are to others requires one to have knowledge and insight into what your own needs actually are. Meditation opens up the window into your true self. It provides a lens through which you can see what is important to you and what your values are. It takes this one step further by giving you the self-care, love, energy, strength, and muster that you will need to live in accordance with your values. There is so much everyday pressure that pulls us away from what we value at the heart level. You can gain these insights into your interpersonal life by setting an intention in your meditation practice to identify the qualities or characteristics of a good friend. You can connect into this process in a similar way that I described above. The difference can be to set the focus of the practice on asking of your heart what matters most to you in a friend, in companionship, and in relationships. See what your heart reveals to you in meditation and again take time to write down the wisdom you receive so you can continue to work on it over time.
I recommend using the insights you harvest in your meditation to establish “ground rules” for your friendships and relationships. It sounds like you have had unfortunate challenges in the past with people taking advantage of you financially and perhaps emotionally. So one ground rule for you might be to limit your support of others to offering only a listening ear and a supportive presence. Be a mirror for them to discover their own way to resolve whatever financial challenges they may have. You must also recognize that we all have limits to how far we can go in supporting others and this is okay. You will have to enter into the challenging feelings that may come with not being able to please everyone and feeling as if we have come up short in their eyes. You must remain solid and exist within your own healthy boundaries. Know that this may be a bit of a clunky process with bumps in the road, but you will have to learn along the way.
I must admit that I am not able to directly address your situation of having no money, life, or rotting teeth, but I can talk about the practice of self-acceptance and how to start to create a life that is true. I believe that these are the starting points from which these other issues may begin to transform.
The first thing I want to say about acceptance is that it exists in relationship to change. True change, or self-transformation is made possible first by an authentic and unconditional self-acceptance. The reason why I believe, and I think many other psychologists and meditation teachers would agree, this to be so is because if we are not accepting of ourselves exactly as we are most of our psychological energy will be caught up in an epic struggle against what already is. There is no energy left for change. Change then begins with a full acknowledgement and embrace of the current state of affairs. This is not a condoning of things that are unhealthy or unjust, but it is a recognition of the reality that injustice is occurring and wise action needs to be taken. This action must stem from compassion, not reaction. From this place of compassion and acceptance, the change process begins.
For you the first step may be to truly feel into how much pain, hurt, anger, and loss you feel. It is to enter into the feeling of not having anything positive to grab onto. If this feels like it is too much for you on your own, then I absolutely recommend enlisting the help of a licensed therapist that can guide you in this process. This work is heavy lifting and it will likely be useful to enlist the help of someone you trust. There are many wise and compassionate human beings that struggle in a similar way as you and have successfully lifted themselves up and they can provide support and guidance. The key is to intentionally seek them out as teachers.
The meditation instructions I provided here are a starting point toward clarity. You will likely want and need to take all of this further. It will be essential to have the support of a healthy meditation community around you. This leads me to my next and closing talking points; they center on creating a life that is yours.
Beginning life anew can take time and dedication. Since I can’t offer long-term and ongoing suggestions here, I will point you in a direction that can get you started. The first step towards creating a new start for you will be to take stock of what you currently have. This connects into that acceptance process above. Here are a few questions you may ask yourself. What are the things and people in my life that I want to keep and stay connected to and what are those that I wish to let go of? What are a few activities in life that bring me joy? If joy feels to distant, then what is something you can do that at least feels like a move in a positive direction? Even if that activity is something that will only move you a fraction of a percent in a better direction, that is something! Once you have your list, then it is time to get out a calendar and start scheduling these activities in. I know that money is limited, so focusing your attention on activities that do not cost anything would be a great way to start. If you are having trouble thinking of some activities, here are some ideas.
By focusing on participating in enjoyable activities you will be jump starting your mood to begin shifting towards the positive and your energy is more likely to increase. These are critical ways in which you will start to care for yourself. As you build in this sense of self-care, over time mountains will begin to move. By filling your time and life with positive activities, such as meditation and yoga, it will crowd out the negative behaviors, activities, and people. It is more likely that as you are engaging in activities you enjoy you will meet others who appreciate similarly. It is incredibly important for all of us to have people around us we feel safe with and connected to. As human beings we are all “hardwired” to be social and in community. These communities take some seeking to find and create.
Again, please remember that everything we discussed here can take time and ongoing effort. The practice of patience and self-kindness and compassion will be crucial. We must also realize and remember that our human lives are never a finished product. Life is never about the destiny, it is actually more about being fully alive, awake, conscious, and aware as we are living every single second in the immediacy of the present moment. We have to embrace the life that is here, not the imagined life that is off somewhere else. Living this life is indeed a lifelong process with the only finish line being crossed at the completion of the last breath. There is a powerful lyric from the legendary songwriter Bob Dylan that goes, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” I think we all need this reminder to busy ourselves with continually being born unto this present moment, for it is the only moment that is within our reach.
I truly honor you and the wisdom in your question. I wish you the best on undertaking this renewed focus on living a more complete and authentic life.
Dr. John Rettger