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Anger and Incompatible States: Attending to the Body and Attending to the Spirit

July 17, 2013

In addition to the time-out, there are other beneficial anger management strategies that cognitive therapists recommend.  One such strategy concerns relaxation through a deep breathing exercise.  The authors of the Anger Management manual correctly note, “An interesting aspect of the nervous system is that everyone has a relaxation response that counteracts the stress response. It is physically impossible to be both agitated and relaxed at the same time. If you can relax successfully, you can counteract the stress or anger response.” The deep breathing technique offered by these therapists is a common one that focuses attention on the physiological operation of breathing.  Those prone to anger are taught to take a deep breath, to note their bodily sensations, and to continue doing so for several minutes focusing on their breathing.  This focused attention on breathing provides the added benefit of moving attention away from whatever it is that is causing the anger.  Breathing in such a manner tends to lower the heart rate, calm the racing thoughts, and return focus to the most basic, natural, and as Theodoret of Cyrus points out involuntary (The Counter Statements) of all human operations—the simple act of breathing.

The fathers would probably not reject this breathing technique, for Saint Basil the Great even let his thoughts rest on the nourishing nature of the air we breathe that is so delicate, soft, and fluid that “it yields and opens at the least movement of the body, opposing no resistance to our motions, while, in a moment, it streams back to its place, behind those who cleave it” (Homily 4 on the Hexameron). Notwithstanding, the fathers characteristically seek a firmer foundation for dealing with anger than the air we breathe or how we breathe it.  When discussing physical techniques such as breathing and posture, the fathers do so in the context of the Jesus Prayer.  One such father, Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov, summarizes the tradition in this fashion, “We advise our beloved brethren not to try to establish this technique within them, if it does not reveal itself of its own accord. Many, wishing to learn it by experience, have damaged their lungs and gained nothing. The essence of the matter consists in the union of the mind with the heart during prayer, and this is achieved by the grace of God in its own time, determined by God. The breathing technique is fully replaced by the unhurried enunciation of the Prayer, by a short rest or pause at the end, each time it is said, by gentle and unhurried breathing, and by the enclosure of the mind in the words of the Prayer. By means of these aids we can easily attain to a certain degree of attention.”

Although Saint Ignatius’ counsel may have some superficial commonalities with breathing techniques such as a short rest or pause and gentle, unhurried breathing, the heart of his advice reveals that cognitive therapy and the ascetic fathers orient the angry in radically different ways to equally differing aims. The cognitive therapists advise using breathing exercises in order to reach the goal of a state of relaxation that is incompatible with anger.  The fathers recommend the Jesus Prayer in order to cultivate the constant remembrance of God Who ultimately brings peace and harmony to the soul.  In the latter, anger is not managed but rooted out from the heart, so that God may dwell therein. Saint Theophan the Recluse underlines this point when he writes, “The various methods described by the Fathers (sitting down, making prostrations, and the other techniques used when performing this prayer) are not suitable for everyone:  indeed without a personal director they are actually dangerous.  It is better not to try them.  There is just one method which is obligatory for all:  to stand with the attention of the heart.  All other things are beside the point, and do not lead to the crux of the matter.”

There is another important difference between these two healing disciplines regarding this strategy.  Cognitive therapy strives to focus patients on a physiological phenomenon (breathing) and the self.  The Fathers stress that our focus should be on the words of the prayer and on God Himself.  Once again, Saint Theophan sums it up nicely, “Our whole object is to acquire the habit of keeping our attention always on the Lord, who is omnipresent and sees everything, who desires the salvation of all of us and is ready to help us towards it.  This habit will not allow you to grieve, whether your sorrow be within or without; for it fills the soul with a sense of perfect contentment, which leaves no room for any feeling of scarcity or need.  It makes us entrust ourselves and all we have into the Lord’s hands, and so gives birth to a sense of His permanent protection and help.”

Yes, relaxation and anger are incompatible states and inducing relaxation can alleviate anger, but how much more comforting, how much more strengthening it is to focus our attention on the meek and humble Lord than to focus on our breathing or our diaphragms. By all means, let us try to relax when anger flares, but let us relax in the Lord’s loving presence. Saint John Cassian once wrote, “As He loves us with a pure and unfeigned and indissoluble love, so we also may be joined to Him by a lasting and inseparable affection, since we are so united to Him that whatever we breathe or think, or speak is God” (The Conferences, 1.10.7). This is what the Jesus Prayer offers us. It is a gift that provides us with so much more than a way to root out destructive anger. It blesses us with the peace which passes all understanding, abiding in our souls and available to others, even to those that otherwise could aggravate us.

  1. I would like to understand more fully the relationship between “mental” and “spiritual” functions. Years ago , I was prescribed several courses of SSRIs and it resulted in PSSD . My attention is shot, my memory too, many cognitive functions have been impaired. How can I understand the relationship between the spiritual and the mental?

  2. Rymlianin,

    This is a very good question without an easy answer, for just as the mental and the physical are distinct, yet interrelated, so the spiritual and the mental as well as the spiritual and the physical are distinct, yet interrelated. What we do and what we think certainly have an affect on how we pray. Likewise, the quality of our prayer influences our actions and our thoughts. Still, just as impairment in the body does not necessarily entail impairment in the mind, so impairment in the mind does not necessarily entail impairment in the spirit. That we are to become as little children to enter the Kingdom of God involves a certain degree of mental subtraction, not addition. I have seen many cases of mental impairment revealing a child of God even more clearly, especially in elderly monks on the Holy Mountain of Athos. Humility, forgiveness, and love can be present even with memory difficulties and cognitive blunting as they can be present with paralysis and ailments of the body.

    I have written on the enduring nature of the spiritual aspect of human beings, the soul, in an earlier post that might be somewhat illumining, even though it also doesn’t fully answer your question:

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