A Socratic Dialogue with Thor about Anger in Meditation

If you went to see Thor: Love and Thunder last month, you probably spent less time focused on Thor’s discussion of meditation with genius scientist and lost love, Jane Foster. As the two discuss their past, they confided that they each had tried meditation to heal from their losses. Rather hilariously, Thor proclaimed that it didn’t work for him because it “just made him angrier.” It was a relatable quip that most people in the audience may have heard, laughed about, and moved on from to the rest of the movie. 

When I heard it, though, the biggest “well actually” line of dialogue began streaming through my mind. Obviously, I had to restrain myself from announcing this in the theater, but that only made me think about it more later. Because Thor’s misconceptions about meditation and anger are likely shared by many of us mere mortals, I offer this imagined dialog with Thor. Not sure it’s truly a Socratic method but what we experienced in law school probably wasn’t either, so close enough. 

Camera pans out to reveal a strange light in the sky. The light grows into a bright white circle. From it, emerges a woman never before seen in the movie and who does not rightfully belong in it. Thor stands back from the light and reaches for his weapons in alarm. When he sees it is just a woman who clearly has no martial arts training beyond the occasional Peloton shadow boxing class, he stands confused but at ease. 

Thor: Who are you and what are you doing here? 

Claire: Hey, Thor, I am a human from earth. You and Jane are doing a great job showing vulnerability to address some unresolved issues. I don’t want to derail that but you said something about meditation that isn’t quite right. 

Thor: How did you get here? Did Gorr the God Butcher send you?

Claire: I have no idea but no, Gorr is clearly the bad guy here. If only he had learned how to hold his grief, we wouldn’t be in this mess. That’s why I am here to talk about meditation and anger. 

Thor: You don’t appear to be one of Gorr’s monsters, but I’d really like to get back to talking to Jane. 

Claire: We all want you to get back to talking with Jane, so I’ll get to the point. That thing you said about meditation just “making you angrier” it’s not really true. 

Thor: Now I am concerned that you are Loki trying to trick me. Are you trying to tell me you know my experience better than I do?

Claire: Not at all. I also don’t know what kind of meditation you were doing. But, I’m guessing you tried to sit and focus on your breath or something? Did you try Headspace or 10% Happier?

Thor: I have an app called ZenGod. It’s specifically for gods but similar. Yes, I tried to focus on my breath, but I couldn’t because I just became filled with rage. 

Claire: Got it. And yes, that is totally normal. It happens to the best of us. What did you do when the rage came up?

Thor: I immediately stopped meditating and went to kill monsters with my ax.  

Claire: Did that help you feel less angry?

Thor: It felt pretty good to kill those monsters, but the feeling didn’t last. 

Claire: That’s really good too. Not good that you felt that way, but that you noticed it. 

Thor: What do you mean? How could it possibly be good that I noticed this?

Claire: Well, the reason we meditate is to notice what’s there. When we notice what’s there, over time that becomes wisdom and we are in a better position to know what to do about what’s there. Sometimes the only thing we can do is to let things be, but the wisdom is seeing this. 

Thor: I am a god. I don’t “let things be.” I hit bad things with my ax and summon power from the universe to destroy them. 

Claire: Well, how did that approach work for your anger?

Thor: It didn’t work at all and I can tell because I am getting very angry right now. 

Claire: That’s okay. It’s perfect actually. There’s nothing wrong with anger. You have every right to be angry. You’ve lost a lot. You’ve taken on a lot for other people. Your anger has helped you to protect others several times. Can you just let it be there now?

Thor: It’s hard. I don’t like it. I am very powerful and it makes me nervous to feel like I can’t control it. 

Claire: Excellent. You are doing so great. Anger does scare a lot of us because it makes us feel out of control. The more powerful we are the harder it can be because we are responsible for a lot and we don’t want to do something bad. But, remember, you are holding it now. What exactly does your anger feel like now?

Thor: Feel like? It’s anger. Why do I need to explain it?

Claire: Great job again. You are so good at this. You don’t need to explain it to me or anyone else. What I’m saying is to feel it. Where in your body do you feel the anger? What sensations are there that tell your brain you are angry?

Thor: My jaw is clenched. My hands are gripping my ax. My shoulders are tight. I feel like I am holding my breath. My neck and cheeks feel hot. I want to hit something. 

Claire: Wonderful. You are doing great. All of those things are normal. That feeling of wanting to hit is energy. We may not like it, but the function of anger is to make it clear to us when something is wrong and motivate us to act. Because you are a superhero, your habit is to discharge angry energy by hitting things. That can be good sometimes, but it can also be good to just learn to hold it for the times when you aren’t fighting monsters. 

Thor: So what do I do when I need to hold it? I still feel angry now. 

Claire: The first thing is to do what you just did. Notice what’s there. Recognize it as anger. Allow yourself to feel how you feel. After that, the most common way to come back to neutral is to breathe. 

Thor: Breathe? That’s so basic. I’m a superhero. Can’t you do better than that?

Claire: You are a god but you have enough human in you such that the breath is the way you can calm down the body. Think of your breath as the ax you use to fight the monster of anger? Does that help? When you focus on your breath, specifically the exhale, it sends a signal to the body that things are okay, that you’re safe. Try it out. Take a deep breath in, feeling what sensations happen as your lungs expand. Hold it for a moment. Then exhale and sense what it feels like to let go. 

Thor: *Rolls eyes but tries breathing* 

Claire: Let’s try that one more time. This time see if you can make that exhale just a beat longer than the inhale. 

Thor: *Continues on and then opens eyes*

Claire: Great job. How was that?

Thor: It helped. I still feel a little angry but I no longer wish to hit anything. But, I’m confused. I thought I was supposed to be calm when I meditated. You told me to feel angry. 

Claire: Excellent question. Meditation isn’t about just feeling calm. Many people do it to learn how to get calm or get back to it. But the real object of meditation is to learn to be present with whatever comes up. If that’s anger, then it’s practicing presence with anger. The reason this helps you get calm is that eventually you learn that when you are angry, you can just be angry and you don’t always have to act based on it. 

Thor: But what if I screw it up when things are too much?

Claire: You are going to screw things up. Meditation doesn’t make you perfect. It just gives you a new tool to use. The next part is forgiving yourself but I think the rest of the movie is going to cover that, so I will let you and Jane be. 

Thor: Movie? What? 

Claire: Ummm, errr . . . I just mean that I know you will figure that one out. But, if not, feel free to DM me @BrilliantLegalMind and we can talk again. Good luck with Gorr! 

Thor: Goodbye, strange woman from Earth! 

A bright light emerges again in the sky and a white circle enshrouds Claire. Thor and Jane return to talking and Claire continues watching from her seat in the theater. 

Don’t get me wrong, this post is not intended to tell you to meditation-splain to random people out in the world, particularly not if they are large superheroes with magical axes. But, if you have ever struggled with anger in meditation, at least you know you are in good company. Best of luck in your practice, fighting whatever monsters in life you have to fight, and I hope you enjoy the summer blockbuster movies as much as I have.

If you struggle with anger in meditation or otherwise, you aren’t alone. Check out this article I wrote for Above the Law which shared my experience with it and what helped me. If you have any strategies or practices that have helped you, leave us a comment to share your wisdom with others.

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Why Cultivate Compassion? Because It’s Not the Weight You Carry but How You Carry It.

Founder’s Note: I found Laura where I found a lot of other wonderful people I have never met in person: LinkedIn. She posted great content about compassion and so I connected with her. When she offered a CCT course this spring, I signed up even though it ended the week after I finished Mindful Self-Compassion training. I was a bit afraid I would be sick of compassion by that point, but Laura’s style of teaching was so real, practical, and filled with heart that I ended up being even more enthusiastic about it. Please welcome Laura to the pages of Brilliant Legal Mind and check out her bio below for information about another CCT courses she offers.

In late February 2020, I traveled to New York City for a compassion workshop. Having grown up in the New Jersey suburbs, it felt like coming home. The city’s sights, sounds, and smells were as familiar as my heartbeat and the first bite of a folded slice of pizza brought me right back to childhood. As people jostled on the subway and scrambled up the stairs that Saturday night, the coronavirus still seemed like news from the other side of the world. Thousands of bodies crowded around Times Square, oblivious to what was just around the corner. We could not have imagined how soon and suddenly our lives would change, and how much strength and courage we would need to summon in response.

We all have done brave, hard things over the past 18 months – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse – and we still have a ways to go before this journey is over. But we can do it. As humans, we are wired not only to be able to do hard things, but to do them with love and, when we do, we tap into a profound and renewing source of strength, courage, and connection. Wisdom traditions, art, and even science call this capacity compassion. It is our ability to both be aware of suffering and willing to relieve that suffering. Viktor Frankl described it this way:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Compassion looks different for each of us in the changing circumstances of our lives. Sometimes it is yielding. Other times, fierce. Sometimes it calls us to make difficult sacrifices for others. Other times, to make the bold choice to take care of ourselves. Whatever its expression in any given moment, compassion is how humans have survived and made meaning out of unimaginable tragedies across time – both individually and collectively.

As a species, we are born completely vulnerable and dependent on others for our safety and well-being. This dependence develops into interdependence as we give and receive care across the span of our lives. We need our loved ones, strangers, and even people we don’t like to survive and thrive, and they need us. Take a moment to reflect on your last meal, the clothes you’re wearing, or the technology that allows you to read this and imagine the countless other lives who make these things possible. Likewise, the positive impact of your life ripples out and benefits others that you will never know.

Whether or not we recognize it, we have all drawn on this compassion for ourselves and others to navigate the past turbulent months. And it is compassion, this awareness of suffering and willingness to relieve it, which will continue to resource us moving forward.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the poet Moya Cannon wrote:

Light is what days are made of –

it pulls the daffodils up out of dark earth,

prompts the eagle and the stub-tailed wren to nest

and draws the humpback whale north with its song.

Stones, warm on the morning sea-shore, know it.

Such tempests of grief our sun has scanned

yet light, the sun’s light and compassion’s light,

deep in every soul, eternally draws us on.

Recent discoveries in neurobiology and other sciences have begun to map out how “compassion’s light, deep in every soul” literally “draws us on” as it unfolds in our bodies. It is both an innate capacity which manifests as a specific physiological process and a skill that can be nurtured and strengthened through experience and deliberate practice and training. In addition, research shows that profound physical, mental, and social benefits result from offering and receiving compassion.

Compassion, however, is not the only way humans respond to suffering. We also react with anger, hatred, shame, blame, fear, overwhelm, anxiety, denial, violence – the list goes on. We burn out or become injured when we don’t have enough external support or we don’t know how to hold suffering when it comes too much, too fast like wildfire or lingers long like slow moving rain. These are natural responses which increase suffering within and around us, but which can in turn be met and alleviated with compassion.

So the invitation is to train our compassion muscles, so to speak, in order to become capable of holding the hard that life hands us. We can cultivate internal and external conditions that nurture compassion. We can develop our awareness and sense of care, our courage to act. We can get clear on what we love, what really matters to us, and what kind of world we want to live in, to be part of. We can ask for help and offer it when asked. We can have each other’s backs and discover our common humanity. We can pay attention to the moments that compassion flows freely and those in which it freezes rock solid or goes dry as a desert. We can learn to carry the weight of our lives in ways that make us stronger and more connected rather than hurt and broken apart.

As Mary Oliver observed:

“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it –

books, bricks, grief –

it’s all in the way

you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,

put it down.”

So I went practicing.

Have you noticed?

“Heavy” from Thirst

Want to learn more about Compassion Cultivation Training? Check out this interview our founder, Claire E. Parsons, did with Laura here.

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How Mindfulness Helped Me Learn to Love Networking

One of my pandemic projects was publishing a book about networking with 19 other women lawyers. It’s called #Networked and it was a bestseller on Amazon in a few categories. For natural networkers, this might just be a cool thing but for me it was a milestone. It was one of the things that helped me fully and finally put to rest the idea that I was not good at networking.

In case my incessant droning on about sitting quietly had not clued you in, I am a bit of a nerd. I am an introvert and love reading and writing and quiet things. I love deep conversations or presenting on subjects about which I am passionate, but I detest small talk. I hate trying to come up with things to say to people I don’t know, and I am terrible at acting like I am having a good time when I am not.

In law school, these tendencies combined to cause me to literally run away from a networking event during a failed big law summer clerkship experience. On a Saturday in 90+ degree weather in full sun, I stood in the posh backyard of a soon-to-be partner trying to “get to know” the firm’s attorneys and socialize with my fellow clerks. That was the cover story, at least. It was really an audition and I knew it and the only thing I could think about while pretending to drink my warm beer was trying to not sweat. After an hour, I made some excuse and left, knowing my fate was sealed.

Though I clerked the following summer in the firm where I am currently an equity partner and had a vastly different experience, that memory haunted me for years. It repeatedly told me that I was no good at networking and that I would never be able to develop business and make partner. As I just said, though, I made partner and I literally just published a book about networking. So, clearly something very drastic has changed. As with a lot of things in my life, my mindfulness practice is one of the things that helped me change my own mind about networking. Here’s how.

1. Body Awareness Helped Me Manage Energy

Before I started meditating, I was constantly in my head. Body scans and breath practice, however, constantly reminded me to focus on the sensations in my body instead. Eventually, that shift in focus started to permeate my life even out of seated practice and I was better aware when I felt nervous or tired or just not into it when I had to go to a social event. When I could, I learned to meditate for a few minutes before or just send myself some loving-kindness during those times. That really helped and I found I was better able to tolerate and monitor the energy drain that large social events often caused me so I could focus better on the people there.

2. Awareness of Thoughts = Awareness of Ideas

 I really like to write and do it all the time now. Years ago, though, I only did “extra” writing outside of my law practice occasionally. As a big overthinker, one of the main benefits of my meditation practice was that it gave my thoughts enough space so I could see them more clearly. I eventually found that my thoughts were ideas for written content, so slowly and surely I started writing. Now, most of us don’t think of writing as a networking activity, but when I started to do it consistently and on platforms like LinkedIn, I found that it absolutely was.

When you put written content out there, you are sending out a verbal handshake to whomsoever on the internet may find it. If, like me, you learn to be yourself, people will reach out and want to talk more. But, unlike networking at happy hours with total strangers, you don’t have to make small talk because you already have something specific that brought you together. In other words, mindfulness turned my introversion into networking gold.

3. Consistently Returning to the Breath Practices Persistence

This next one is basic, but its importance cannot be overstated. Even if you never get a single amazing insight or spiritual experience from meditation, you can be pretty sure that the practice will teach you at least one thing: persistence. Anyone who has done breath practice knows that it can drive you nuts to keep going back to the breath over and over and over again. But we do it and hope it will pay off. It paid off for me and still does today. It helped me practice persistence and persistence is absolutely critical to networking. Nobody builds an empire or a community overnight. It takes a bunch of teeny tiny acts done consistently and maybe with a little bit of skill and luck mixed in. There is nothing that teaches you better about the impact of a bunch of teeny tiny acts than a regular meditation practice.

4. Compassion Helped Me Learn to Be Myself

The number one change I made to my networking game was to stop trying to “fit in.” I used to go to events and try to “look natural” and “seem upbeat” and “appear friendly.” In other words, I was trying to look like an extrovert and look like I was having fun doing it. Nobody bought this, including myself. My meditation practice taught me something that helped me stop this foolishness: there is nothing wrong with me. Specifically, loving-kindness practice helped me understand that I was loving, wanted to be of service to others, and was loved by many.

It also helped me appreciate that some particular social settings, small talk with strangers and loud group events, were painful for me, while others, deep conversation with a small group of friends, made me feel like I could conquer the world. When I learned this and accepted it as okay, I shifted my focus. I realized that my networking could include smaller events or activities with friends or even writing on LinkedIn. In other words, when I realized that my introvert tendencies were not bad character traits, I finally started to use them. And, when I started to network like me, instead of trying to mimic or go along with my extroverted friends, I made progress.

5. Giving Feels Good

Most of the best networkers tell you that their secret to success is giving. They will tell you to focus on proactively offering value to your network more than you focus on plucking benefits from it. This is good advice and my life experience tells me that we are more likely to do things when they feel good to do. My mindfulness practice helped me not only to pay more attention to how my body feels but also to more fully accept that I need to nourish myself to do my work.

Though I hated networking at first, everything changed when I started focusing on giving, rather than taking. I started small by taking on projects that I cared about, joining groups with a mission that I supported, or writing about topics that mattered to me. This soon put me in the position to help others by connecting friends, sharing tips that could help others, or doing good work for my community. When I noticed how good—how satisfied—that made me feel, I wanted to do more and had the energy to do it even with all my other obligations.    

If you hate networking, you aren’t alone but don’t discount the possibility that you may only dislike the version of networking you have experienced so far. I used to hate networking too when I tried to mimic the way that others did it. When I started focusing on what I liked and worked for me, I learned to enjoy and even love networking. Mindfulness practices could help you do the same thing. Sure, meditation in itself won’t turn you into a super connector, that will take many other steps and a whole lot of time. But it can help you do the preliminary work you might need in order to begin taking those steps. Meditation can help you turn inward to appreciate what is truly unique about you, so that you can turn outward with more confidence and skill. So, if you’ve had enough running away from crowded networking events in tears, try sitting quietly by yourself for a few minutes instead.  

If you need a meditation to get you started, check out this guided meditation we created that uses loving-kindness practice to help you shift your mindset about networking.

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Mindfulness Basics: Emotions Are Feelings in the Body

I have a love-hate relationship with the month of February. I love it because my birthday and Valentine’s Day fall right smack in the middle. Associating things with chocolate and pink cupcakes tends to help improve my view of them. But February is also right smack in the middle of winter. It’s almost always grey and super cold where I live and I am restless and ready for spring.

To try to make it a bit more fun, I am going to accentuate the positive and view February as a month of love. To that end, the basic tip for this month is this: emotions aren’t in your head; they are in your body.

“What?” You may be thinking. “I know when I am mad or sad or happy or whatever my mind if churning and churning and thinking away.” Of course it is. That’s because your mind and body work together and they do so almost instantly and usually without our knowledge.

But, if you slow down and actually watch, you will see that emotions play out in the body. If you can let them do just that, they don’t last nearly as long as they do when your mind gets involved to keep them churning. The most common places that you might see emotional reactions arise are in the area of your heart, belly, face, neck, shoulders, and hands, but with additional study you may see more subtle reactions elsewhere.

So, if like me, you have a range of emotional reactions to the month of February, you can learn a lot about yourself this month by trying to locate and just watch those reactions play out in your body. Once you learn to get in the habit of looking for emotions there, then you might get more comfortable sitting with those feelings, and that’s when the magic can happen. When you can just let the emotions be there in your body, you can learn to care for them and respond to them instead of reacting based on them. And, for lawyers and professionals, that’s huge.

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