“I just got out of a 25 year sentence for killing the man who raped my sister. I got all this anger inside me, I don’t want to hurt people no more, but I can’t stop it.”
A statement like that tends to get my attention. Bob (name changed) made this declaration at the very end of a yoga/meditation class I guide for men recently released from prison. He seemed like he had an urgent need, so I sat with him for what I thought would be a minute or two. But when I looked in to his eyes, I saw a man who was searching for healing. He disclosed that he doesn’t know how to control his temper. It was clear to me that Bob was very concerned about his temper getting out of control again. I asked Bob if he was able to describe what he feels in his body when his temper begins to rise.
Bob: “I don’t know, no one has ever asked me what I am feeling. I guess I just feel it all over my body.”
Me: “I get it, I’m a little weird, just give it a chance. Give me some words to describe the sensations you feel when you begin to feel anger rise up in your body. There is no right or wrong answer, just go with what pops into your mind.”
Bob: “Everything gets tight, my muscles get hard, I feel it all over.”
Me: “Great, good work. When you lose your temper, do you black out and come to after it’s over or are you aware of what is going on in the moment?”
Bob: “Both. Sometimes I get so mad, I just start swinging. Sometimes, I am aware of what is happening and I want to stop it, I just can’t.”
Me: “Great, you have some awareness and that will make your work a bit easier. Being able to connect with the bodily sensations that you experience when the anger is building up is the beginning of self regulating. You have to consciously experience the feelings before you can heal them. This is not about “punishing” the anger out of you, this is about learning to bring awareness to it in order to learn to respond rather than react which is self regulation. You may not like this Bob, but we gotta lean into the anger so that we can learn to manage it. You wanna try it?”
Bob: “Let’s do it.”
I taught Bob the one minute breath that I have found useful in my own healing process. In this breathing exercise you sit quietly, and practice a breathing technique that connects finger movements with the breath. Learn more about this breathing exercise by clicking on this link. At the end of this breathing exercise, it is suggested to make your hands into fists, as you slowly inhale, contract every muscle in your body. As Bob did this, I could and feel the anger build up in him. He squeezed his eyes shut, veins began to swell on his forehead, his skin turned red, his neck seemed to expand, all of his muscles were visibly contracted. I invited him to go with it and pay attention to the experience. He was visibly agitated, but he seemed to trust not just me, but himself. As I counted for him to slowly exhale and slowly release his muscles, I asked him how he felt. He couldn’t find words to articulate his feelings, so gave him a moment to sit with this new sensation. Suddenly, he began to weep. At this same moment, we both realized another class was about to start and while we were doing this breathing exercise, eight participant’s entered the room with the next class teacher. I felt awkward for Bob and asked if he wanted to leave the room. He didn’t seem to notice the other men who were now watching our interaction. “No, I like it here, I’m good, I really needed this, I just don’t know what it is.” Bob seemed a little softer, more relaxed. We laughed kind of awkwardly for a second. I explained, “Bob, you just had the experience of leaning into your anger for the purpose of feeling it, processing it and letting it flow out of you.” What you are feeling is self compassion and probably a touch of empathy. Bob shared “I feel like I just lost a big weight off my shoulders.” He smiled a small, but very authentic smile.
I apologized to the group leader for the next class for holding up his class. He asked if I would stay and teach the next group the breathing exercise. One of the men said “Can you do that thing you did for him for us?” Yes, yes I can.
Photo Credit Robert Sturman I highly recommend checking out Robert’s work.