I don’t recall ever seeing such an outpouring of rage on social media as I did after the vigil for Sarah Everard was dealt with heavy handedly, violently even, by the Metropolitan police.
Sarah died when walking home from her friend’s house at night – a serving Metropolitan police officer has been charged with her kidnap and murder. Images of how force was used on those grieving caused a collective, exasperated yell from so many women holding on to so much rage for so many years.
Offline there was some rapid mobilisation to express these sentiments. At the time of writing, there have been protests every day since the Saturday vigil. This is, in part, because the fury melting pot also contains a reaction to the government’s rushed attempt to pass a Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill which. Among other things, it will clamp down on protests. That’s putting it too mildly. MPs from all parties are speaking out about concerns the new legislation threatens human rights and civil liberties.
Those campaigning to end violence against women and girls are appalled by the missed chance to use this far-reaching bill to make the UK a safer place for women. Ironically, their options for protesting on this issue could soon be severely curtailed by that very same bill.
Hence the anger. It's an emotion which can be scary for those feeling it. In fact it can you take you by surprise if it's not something you feel often. I'm speaking from experience here but everyone’s relationship with their anger will be different. I know I risk burying it rather than feeling it while others may feel anger far more than they'd like.
What can mindfulness offer?
I’d say that if no one in the world felt anger, even when faced with abhorrent cruelty and injustice, that would be a bad outcome. I don’t believe meditation and mindfulness should, or even could, be pacifying like that.
But we do know from studies that a regular meditation and mindfulness practice alters brain chemistry, including causing the amygdala (the area of the brain that handles stress and strong emotions) to have decreased activity and to deactivate earlier after exposure to emotionally charged situations.
So the practice encourages more relaxation day to day. But what about those really gut-wrenching, awful things you don’t want to be less angry about? When you can feel in your bones that things just cannot stay as they are? That’s a powerful energy right there. A lot of great, positive changes have come about because people harnessed that emotion and channeled it.
Sharon Salzberg is a pioneer in the mindfulness and meditation space who recently published a book called Real Change which “offers practical advice to foster transformation in both ourselves and in society.” I love how she talks about anger in this episode of the Untangle podcast:
“A positive part of anger is the energy. We are not complacent, we’re not passive, we are not giving in. And it’s got a kind of integrity – it is drawing boundaries. It has this cutting through quality.”
She goes on to talk about how we all know what it’s like to be in a meeting with the angriest person there who, spitting mad, is trying to point out an uncomfortable truth that no one else wants to look at. My goodness, do we need those people.
“We count on those people and their energies to cut through social niceties and agreements about complacency,” she says.
She also talks about the downsides of anger and how we can avoid those by really feeling it, without being consumed by it. This isn’t the most scientific thing. How do you know if you are feeling anger or being consumed by it? Well it’s probably the latter if the experience seems to be all downsides:
Firstly, anger can be like a forest fire, according to Salzberg, in that it can burn up its own support. We fuel it and fuel it but eventually we have nothing left. Let’s call this burnout. Emotionally, physically, we just aren’t built for sustaining these kind of intense emotions, so being consumed by anger takes its toll.
Then there is what she calls the “deluded quality” of all-consuming anger:
“… Because it is so fixed – it’s not a mood or environment where you are also thinking ‘I did five great things that same day I said that stupid thing at the meeting.’ Those five great things are gone.
“We don’t have all the information, we lose options. We lose the chance for creativity.”
Salzberg says mindfulness can be the agent that allows us to capture the energy of anger without being consumed by it.
“It starts with allowing the reality and the dignity of every feeling that comes up strongly, because it is there.
“Once we are aware and interested in the anger and paying attention to it, we have that ability to take energy and not just ruminate endlessly on what’s wrong.”
We can “pivot” towards strong feelings, she suggests. Making a habit of not just feeling it but looking at what it feels like to feel it. For example, when you feel deep sadness, inquiring what that feels like in yourself, how the emotion feels in the physical body.
If you’d like to try some of this pivoting I can recommend a RAIN meditation by Tara Brach on Insight Timer. She is another veteran in the world of mindfulness. For a clue of what the meditation involves, RAIN stands for Recognize (what is happening), Allow (the experience to be there, just as it is), Investigate (with interest and care), Nurture (with self-compassion).
Right now certainly feels like a good time to get to know anger – allowing it when it arrives, bringing some of that mindful inquiry to it and, of course, harnessing the energy to drive much needed positive changes.