While I don’t consider myself an angry person, I have always had an open curiosity about anger. As a child, I remember experiencing deep fear in the chaotic moments of my mother’s angry spells. I felt helpless and anxious, but I suppressed these emotions because of my fear of adding more intensity to my mom’s outbursts, and the inevitable repercussions it would bring. As I grew older, I became acutely aware of the subtle ways we all harbor and express anger. The following is what I discovered in my exploration.
The energy of anger can feel empowering. When we feel extraordinarily vulnerable or diminished, the energy of anger sharpens our senses and brings our power back, serving as a wake-up call that shakes us out of our doldrums. Initially, this surge of anger-ridden energy feels good. The rush of adrenaline is seductive — we want to hold on to it and increase its energy. This feeling of anger can be beneficial at times, but unless we meet it with conscious awareness, it can make us lose perspective and can destroy relationships the longer we hold on to it.
Anger allows us to stand in our righteousness, in our sense of justice. We may even feel inspired because we regain our sense of self. Our ego, our sense of me, is so full, thinking of what we will be doing to right this wrong.
However, unconscious, mindless anger becomes personal, invariably leading to inappropriate and unreasonable behavior. It can become divisive, exclusionary, and even hateful at times, and it can also separate us from others because it can be condescending and arrogant. At its root, this type of anger says I am right, and you are wrong.
In this state of mind, our ability to listen carefully to what the other person has to say suddenly stops. This righteous anger blinds us and stops serving us as an empowering force. It is then that anger can become our worst enemy and an impediment to a peaceful outcome.
It didn’t take me long to realize that we all need to find relief from the torments of the heart, and it is there where we may find the root of anger. These roots can appear in feelings of fear, insecurity, shame, grief, disappointment, and many others.
When you understand that anger is a natural, but uncomfortable and defensive emotion, which mobilizes you to protect yourself from a perceived threat, then it makes sense that our immediate and normal inclination to this unpleasant emotion is resistance.
Rather than confronting the feeling, we tend to focus on a person or situation that serves as a false refuge, something to blame for what we’re unhappy about. Forming a false refuge externally robs us of the opportunity to reflect on our fears, our loneliness, and our wounds, and eliminates the path to heal the cause of our suffering.
Meeting anger without conscious awareness puts us at great risk. As Buddhist teacher Bhikkhu Bodhi has wisely said “It may simmer within as silent suspicion and resentment, or it may explode into violent rage and devastation.”
Diving Deeper into Anger
Anger may come with two opposite narratives depending on the type of conditioning we have. It may come with justifications like I need to be angry, because if I am not, I’m going to be hurt, which creates stories in our minds of what we truly believe and disconnects us from what we are really harboring in our hearts. Unaware of the trap we have fallen into, the only way out — the only way to save face — is anger.
Paradoxically, anger can also come with self-judgment: I should not be angry; a person with my values cannot be angry. Therefore, I’m a bad person if I show anger. We suppress anger by self-condemnation, and it never goes away. Without working on avoiding self-judgment, anger is not metabolized, and it may return to haunt us later in unexpected ways.
That being said, anger is not a bad emotion. Anger is an appropriate, and even reasonable emotion. It’s part of being human. Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, describes what to do when we are visited by uncomfortable emotions in his beautiful poem, “The Guest House.”
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
Every emotion brings with it wisdom that we need to attune to. Anger signals to us that something needs to change. We need to address a boundary that has been violated or observe that something we care about has been blocked or triggered.
When confronted with a scenario that causes an initial surge of anger, we first must understand how not to engage with it. Repressing our anger or acting on it are two unskillful ways to address this initial energy. They both rob us of self-leadership.
Skillful ways to start working with anger involve cultivating an openness towards curiosity and self-awareness. We must examine anger with the desire to learn from it, not in a cold and superficial analysis, but in a warm and intimate way that comes from caring about the nature of being human. We must feel the anger at a somatic level and explore what is underneath. We need to feel it to heal it.
We also need to become the observer of our irritation. Since we feel the restlessness of the urge in our body, we must bring our gaze inward and witness how we are being triggered. We might notice the sensations in our body: tension, a knot in the throat, heart palpitations, a lump in the stomach, heat rushing to our chest and face.
As you notice these feelings, let yourself feel them. Like Rumi says, “Stay with it. The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Feel the anger without judgment, but with self-compassion instead. Holding your suffering with tenderness, allowing any thoughts connected to your emotions to surface, and then let them go. In this way, your emotions will be able to move through you rather than becoming blocked in your body and potentially turning into illness or disease.
When I ask myself What is going on with me? I turn my gaze inward and look at my triggers. This eliminates the influence of external things that I cannot control. When I do this, I often realize it’s not about who did something to me or what was done to me. Instead, it’s about what’s going on inside. The anger is in me, and as soon as I shift the focus to the right area, the anger starts to dissolve.
The Practice of Remaining Like a Log
In The Way of the Bodhisattva one of the most influential texts in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the 8th-century Indian Buddhist monk Shantideva says:
When the urge arises in the mind
to feelings of desire or wrathful hate,
do not act! Be silent, do not speak!
And like a log you should remain.
When the mind is wild with mockery
and filled with pride and haughty arrogance,
and when you want to show the hidden faults of others,
to bring up old dissensions or to act deceitfully…
It is then that like a log you should remain.
This practice tells us to take a pause before reacting, which gives us the space to breathe in and out and start dissolving the tension. Through this action, our thoughts may calm down, and we may be able to see things more clearly.
This takes practice, and as such we must engage in it consistently. We can start with little triggers, like losing our keys, misplacing our wallets, experiencing laptop issues, or running late to a meeting. This way, we train our brains to respond mindfully and wisely when provoked by greater threats.
Taking responsibility for what we are experiencing rather than avoiding or repressing anger is empowering. Feeling the feeling is where the healing begins. Only then, we will be able to have clarity of mind to take a wise step forward.