Working With Anger

Working with his own emotions over AIDS and childhood abuse, Gavin Harrison has learned some practical ways to work with anger. Look at it. Feel it. Make friends with anger. Finally, find its wisdom.

Gavin Harrison
1 November 1994
Photo by Saurabh Vyas.

Working with his own emotions over AIDS and childhood abuse, Gavin Harrison has learned some practical ways to work with anger. Look at it. Feel it. Make friends with anger. Finally, find its wisdom.

Anger is one of the three root causes of suffering, the other two being greed and ignorance. These roots obscure the nature of reality, and, enmeshed in them, we are likely to manifest these qualities in our actions, speech and thoughts. True awareness has the power to neutralize these roots of suffering. It is possible to be completely freed from the grip of the three roots and all of the painful emotions that stem from them.

True awareness dispels anger, for awareness is an expression of love. Our wish to know the truth of things is a gesture of the deepest self-love and compassion. We may choose to generate loving kindness as an antidote to anger. If it feels appropriate, we may choose to direct loving qualities of heart toward people we are angry with, or people who bear us ill will. Loving kindness eases the mind and enables it to return to a state of balance and clarity.

The way of meditation requires that we come close to anger and see it directly. We accept anger with patience and respect. We come to know it fully, as if it were an old, cranky friend, with all its quirks, edges, idiosyncrasies, and its great power. We take tea with the anger again and again…and patiently again.

Getting to know anger, we see that it manifests in the body. We feel it perhaps in the face and neck, in the throat, in the chest, in the gut, in the bowel, or in the lower back. We become aware of how anger affects our breathing and body temperature.

How does the mind feel when anger is present? Rigid, stiff, tight, rough, tense, contracted? We feel our mental state with clarity and sensitivity. This is the way of meditation.

We may feel frustration as we try to meet anger with clarity and compassion. At such times, when we find our mental state unworkable, this is often a clue that we are feeling impatience with or aversion to the anger. Within ourselves, anger can seethe on and on behind an almost invisible screen of impatience and self-judgment.

This secondary anger—aversion to the aversion—often arises as a wish that our anger would go away. However, recognizing anger and bringing true awareness to the emotion does not mean it necessarily disappears. Patience is a great friend when grappling with anger. Patience allows people and situations to be just as they are, in every moment, including whatever anger may be involved. Far from being a passive and submissive attitude, true patience has a core of great strength and resolve.

In spite of our sincerity, patience and resoluteness, we may find that the anger itself is difficult to recognize. This is true for many of us, particularly if there has been a history of great suppression. Personally it took eleven years of “wild patience,” in the words of the poet Adrienne Rich, before I was able to engage anger directly.

For me, much of the anger relates to a deep pattern of conditioning, the legacy of sexual abuse in my infancy. When I touch the depth of the pain, it seems reasonable for this anger to have taken so long to emerge into the light of day. 1 believe my heart and mind needed to mature to some degree before opening to the powerful, strong and deeply buried patterns of anger that are there.
If we are feeling overwhelmed by anger, it is important to honor this. We do not always have to go right to the core of things. Sometimes it is skillful to back off. If we find ourselves in a situation where anger feels out of control, random or freewheeling, it can be advisable to step back. This is an expression of discriminating wisdom in a difficult situation. We might choose to return to the situation later, when we are clearer and more balanced. This is true of both inner and outer situations.

The practice of awareness calls us to be present with the truth of what is happening. When there is true awareness, the present moment is always sufficient. It is all there is! Can we trust this moment? Do we believe that everything that needs to arise will do so in its own time, like a flower blooming in its season?

For many of us, the befriending of anger is a long, slow, and gradual process. Perhaps the anger has been hidden for a long time, and for good reason. If our work is slow, ft will teach us great patience and tolerance for both ourselves and for others. We learn to love ourselves just as we are, in each moment.

We start by learning how to stop. There is one simple resolve I have found very useful over the years. I allow myself to stop and pay careful attention to what is happening anytime I begin to feel unbalanced, tight, or uncomfortable within myself.

We give ourselves permission to stop, any time of day, in any situation, and simply ask:

  • What is happening?
  • What is this feeling?
  • Where do I feel it?
  • In the mind?
  • In the body?
  • Is it anger?
  • Is it sadness?
  • Is it grief?

We explore, inquire and look at ourselves honestly. This is the essence of meditation practice. This attitude of openness and questioning is ripe with possibility.

It is most desirable to recognize anger right when it arises, before it evolves into a raging monster. When we notice that anger has arisen, we simply acknowledge it, name it, and feel it. We may say softly to ourselves: “Anger, anger.” The mental label keeps us in place so that we can feel the emotion clearly and steadily. As we do so, we observe the relationship of anger to other emotions, such as fear, desire, shame and boredom. The clouds of the mind are rarely simple! With resolution we open to the anger, again and again and again. Over time, slowly and gradually, the full energy of anger emerges into the open, to be befriended, respected, and made workable.

Anger contains a great potential for transformation. It is said that the high and direct energy of anger can be like a sword that slices through delusion to a place of complete freedom. The powerful energy of anger can motivate us to say no to all the ways we are defined by others, and yes to the dictates of our hearts. In our commitment to true awareness, anger can be a signal for us to turn inward. Rather than staying involved in outer distractions such as blame and mental analysis, we turn inward to understand what is true for us. Here we grapple with the issues of reality, freedom and release, rather than being trapped in a cycle of reaction and retribution.

The task of fully opening to ourselves requires courage and conviction. It is not easy. Genuine effort is involved. Painful emotions are often tenacious. They can rapidly overwhelm a situation before we realize all that is happening.

The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi refers to painful emotions as “the weeds of the mind.” He says, “We pull the weeds and bury them near the plant to give it nourishment. So even though you have some difficulty in your practice…you should not be bothered by your mind. You should rather be grateful for the weeds, because eventually they will enrich your practice. If you have some experience of how the weeds in your mind change into mental nourishment, your practice will make remarkable progress.”

What do we see when we engage anger? In my practice over the years, I have found a number of characteristics that seem important. First, the experience of anger is unpleasant. This seems to be its most outstanding and obvious characteristic. The popular description of “burning up” with anger can be painfully accurate. Raging anger is a real hell, especially if fueled with lots of blaming and judgmental thoughts. The fire burns on and on as long as it is fed. I have spent days with a forest fire of anger raging through my mind!

Second, anger also has a way of being icy-cold. It concentrates the mind coldly on whatever object is precipitating the anger. Perhaps you have noticed that when angry with someone, we usually fixate very sharply on their clothes, facial expressions, and tiny mannerisms. We are probably not very generous in our evaluation either! We are certainly very focused, though. This concentration can intensify the experience of anger.

This sharp focus can be useful in meditation. Though we sometimes believe that meditative concentration is available only at elevated levels of peace and saintliness, this is not necessarily so. When anger erupts in the mind, we can react as if a burglar were breaking into the house. The mind jumps to attention instantaneously, totally focused and clear, watching the movements of the intruder. This intense attention can shine to the roots of anger.

Third, as we observe anger, we see that it arises in association with causes. It does not randomly flare up on its own. Neither does it burst forth from some internal reservoir. If we don’t get what we want, anger arises. If we get what we don’t want, anger comes up. Whenever anger arises, we can be sure that we are at an edge, a place where the opportunity for freedom and understanding is enormous. Anger arises when there is attachment. Where there is attachment, there is also the opportunity to let go.

Fourth, we see that even if we don’t let go of anger, it will go away eventually anyhow. Anger, like everything else, is impermanent. As soon as we are distracted, or the conditions that precipitated the anger change, the anger itself falls away too. This insight into the impermanence of anger is important. When anger arises, it appears fixed and interminable, as if it were going to last forever. We may feel that we are going to be angry for the rest of our days. Having seen anger arise and pass away many times, we tell ourselves, “This anger will pass; this too shall pass.” This may seem a small shift, but in reality it is an enormous transformation. Acknowledging the impermanence of anger changes the fundamental tone of our relationship with it.

Most important, we come to see that not only is anger impermanent, it is also devoid of any owner or abiding essence. This subtle but vital truth loosens the grip of anger. Recognizing the interaction of cause and effect also helps us to see that anger has no owner. It is impersonal. It arises out of causes and passes away when circumstances change.

Finally, we see the role of thoughts in fueling anger. When we are aware and present, we see a familiar sequence: we have a thought, we get angry. The anger then tends to generate further thoughts. “He did this. She said that. I felt bad. They retaliated. They are always like that!” Before we know it, the mind is spinning out of control, blaming, analyzing, and plotting revenge. It is almost laughable at times. We create imaginary situations and then get angry about them. Through all of this fiery thinking, who in the end is hurting? Who is the one in pain?

Being truly aware of the fundamental emptiness of thoughts is a soothing balm when dealing with anger. Thoughts are no more personal than the clouds in the sky. Like clouds, thoughts float through the mind. Angry thoughts. Loving thoughts. Not me, not mine—just thoughts. Just anger.

When anger arises, I often recall the poetic words of the Buddha:

Anger, with its poisoned source and fevered climax murderously sweet, that must you slay to weep no more.

From In the Lap of the Buddha by Gavin Harrison. ©1994 by the Dharma Foundation. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Boston.

Gavin Harrison

Gavin Harrison

Born in South Africa, Gavin Harrison is a vipashyana teacher who lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. He is gay, HIV+, and has a long involvement in anti-apartheid politics, as well as gay and AIDS civil rights work. His teaching focuses on dealing with life-threatening and chronic health problems.