Denying anger or giving in to it only makes things worse. The middle way, says Josh Korda, is to live with your difficult emotions skillfully so you don’t harm yourself and others.
I’ve found it difficult to make any headway on the Buddhist path without encountering and working with difficult, agitating emotions—sadness, disgust, fear, and especially anger.
Anger is an agitated state of mind that can easily lead to hatred and violence if unchecked. Yet I don’t believe it’s possible to get rid of anger; it is a universal emotion deeply rooted in ingrained survival reactions. My goal is to live with anger—as well as other difficult emotions—in a skillful way so it doesn’t cause harm.
How do I practice with anger in order to achieve that?
There are many types of anger. For example, there’s the anger I feel after watching or reading about social injustice. The energy of this type of anger can be helpful. Taking action requires experiencing enough outrage that I’m compelled to volunteer, protest, or support the causes that address social injustice—without allowing my indignation to erupt into violence.
Another type of anger is made up of grudges that camouflage grief. I mentor many people who carry around unending resentments at those who’ve abandoned them, whether lovers, spouses, partners, parents, or family members. What I find is that harboring such resentment creates the illusion that we can protect ourselves from ever being abandoned again.
As the son of an alcoholic father, I lived with my share of bitterness, which only blocked me from processing the deeper emotions of grief and sadness that needed care and attention.
Our underlying belief is that if we replay the events often enough in our minds, we’ll be safe. But believe me, it’s very possible to be wounded by others while being filled with resentments—that was the gist of my twenty years of alcohol dependence. As the son of an alcoholic father, I lived with my share of bitterness, which only blocked me from processing the deeper emotions of grief and sadness that needed care and attention. Fortunately I learned to work past the “unfairness of it all” through Buddhist therapy and Insight Meditation practice, in which I practiced recognizing the deeper, more painful, emotions.
Then there is the type of anger that erupts when we experience small indignities in daily life. Here are two examples of situations like that in which I failed, at first, to process anger in a skillful way.
A little while ago, I was riding my bike over the Williamsburg Bridge. There was only one person ahead of me on the Brooklyn-bound bike lane, and he was a good distance ahead. At one point I looked away from the path, and in the time it took for me to do so, he had gotten off his bike and put it down in a way that completely blocked the path.
He was now less than ten feet away from me. I screeched to a stop and inadvertently yelled, “Damn!” (which in Brooklynese is like saying a friendly hello). Maybe I gave him a quizzical look as I pedaled past, but nothing more. A moment later he yelled out in my direction, in the most sarcastic voice you can imagine, “I’m sorry if I ruined your night… asshole!”
I continued over the bridge in an agitated state—my shoulders almost touching my ears, my jaw locked, my thoughts caught in a self-righteous spiral. You see, when I experience some form of poor treatment, my mind provides, free of charge, an inner lawyer who delivers long speeches about how horrible the world is today, everything’s only getting worse, blah blah blah.
Anger and other emotions like fear are core survival impulses, and they will never be displaced by logic or reason or being told to just ‘go away.’
Then the revenge fantasies started up, with the creation of a series of perfect retorts that I visualized myself riding back and yelling at my night-ruiner. Then I heard yet another inner lawyer—this time apparently a Buddhist—argue back: “You should be above all this. You just taught a meditation class! Clearly, you’re doing your practice all wrong….” So my mind ping-ponged back and forth between “I’m going to tell that guy what’s what” and “I shouldn’t be feeling this angry.”
Anger, though, doesn’t pay attention to any such shoulds. Anger and other emotions like fear are core survival impulses, and they will never be displaced by logic or reason or being told to just “go away.” Such inner speeches are decoys, false refuges that keep us from feeling the actual, physical sensations of our emotions.
The experience of anger is difficult to sit with, and it can feel easier and safer to retreat into our heads and listen as our thoughts prattle on about the unfairness of life. But as I can attest, our resentments don’t alleviate our anger. After spending my childhood with a drunk, violent father, I carried outraged victimization stories around for years. All they did was continually reactivate my rage rather than relieve it.
Let’s look at another example of poor emotion regulation. A few years back, I got a call from my bank: “Hello, Mr. Korda. We recently had a teller who revealed customers’ PIN numbers to a known felon. Funds were subsequently emptied out of some accounts, and yours was involved. We’re going to send you a form that you should fill out, and then wait to get your money back. And, we recommend that you purchase our identity-fraud protection plan.”
I became furious and laid into this poor bank employee. But in addition to being unpleasant, my reaction was a complete waste of time and energy. All I needed to do was ask to speak to a supervisor. I eventually did and got everything sorted. My temper tantrum hadn’t relieved any stress. Instead, I’d walked around furious for days afterward, feeling mistreated. And the decision to call and offer the identify-fraud program hadn’t been the bank employee’s choice—she was simply following protocol. All my venting provided was an illusion that I could externalize and thereby relieve my anger.
But it doesn’t work that way. As the psychologist Jeffrey Lohr recently concluded after a meta-analysis of a wide variety of clinical studies, “Expressing anger does not reduce aggressive tendencies and likely makes it worse.” In other words, when I’m venting I’m trying to externalize—to push outside of myself and onto someone else—feelings that are meant to be felt in my body.
Over the last decade of mentoring, not to mention my years in Buddhist therapy, I’ve learned that emotions are alleviated in only a couple of ways:
By being felt. Emotions seek our attention by creating physical sensations—the tight abdomen or chest, the pounding heartbeat, the contraction of throat muscles, facial expressions, shaking limbs, etc.—for us to feel. Emotions speak via the body, while thoughts speak in words.
Emotions are impulses from the unconscious, telling us that an event that affects our survival, or reminds us of an earlier threat or interpersonal disappointment, has occurred. These emotions/impulses also let us know that our subconscious minds have decided that something important has happened, and that we should pay attention to it.
And by being communicated. Human beings are social beings. Knowing that others understand what we’re experiencing makes us feel less vulnerable.
You’re feeling really hurt, wounded, lonely, sad, depressed. I get it. I’m here.
It’s possible to achieve some relief by expressing strong emotions in art, music, dance, writing, and so on, but nothing replaces direct communication: You’re feeling really hurt, wounded, lonely, sad, depressed. I get it. I’m here. When someone mirrors our emotional state back to us—through words, a knowing smile, or other nonverbal indication—we feel relief. Connection soothes our unconscious survival regions, telling us You’re okay, you’re safe, others care about you. (For more on this, see psychologist Matthew Lieberman’s wonderful book, Social.)
For many years I relied on alcohol to freeze or get rid of my anger and other feelings. Drinking inhibits awareness of the emotional body, where the feelings of anger reside. Others seek out food, shopping, pornography, or other behaviors to distract themselves from the feeling of anger in the body.
Eventually, though, the unacknowledged emotions build and force their way to the surface, and we vent them with even greater force. Have you ever met romantic partners who say they never argue, but then suddenly split apart? When we fail to acknowledge our disappointments and continually bury conflict, eventually huge battles and breakups ensue over minutia like whose turn it was to purchase toilet paper or clean the dishes. Unexpressed and unfelt emotions don’t go away; they erupt or eat away at us.
In many of the Buddha’s core teachings, he instructed practitioners to do anything they could to replace anger that leads to harmful behavior with skillful alternatives. “Hatred is never allayed by hatred; but only through non-hatred, which is the everlasting way,” it says in the Dhammapada. Or, “Overcome your anger with the opposite of anger, as you overcome evil with goodness.”
This is excellent advice when you might explosively discharge rage or aggression on another being. I find it helps relieve aggressive impulses if I extend my exhalations until they’re twice as long as my in-breaths, while also mentally repeating a metta phrase to calm my mind, such as “May I feel loved, safe, and at ease.” I may also visualize a place where I feel safe, such as a favorite park by the East River.
To properly process anger, we have to really face it.
But if I rely on self-soothing techniques for too long, they can turn into what psychologist John Welwood called a “spiritual bypass.” That’s when I’m using my spiritual practice to suppress my emotions like anger and avoid really addressing them. So I only employ breath, metta, or forgiveness practices to subdue immediate impulses that could lead to harm.
To properly process anger, we have to really face it. It’s essential to feel and constructively express the feelings that come with difficult emotions. Look at the Buddha’s story of “King Sakka’s Demon.” This demon fed on people’s resistance and anger. One day the demon climbed onto the king’s throne while he was away. Sakka’s guards saw the little demon and yelled at it, “How dare you sit on the throne? This is an outrage!” As they yelled, the demon became a ferocious beast, breathing fire and terrifying the guards, who fled.
When King Sakka returned, he tried a different approach. He greeted the demon with kindness. “How can I make you feel comfortable?” he asked. “Can I offer you something to eat? Do you want to put your claws up on the table?” With each nicety, the demon shrank in size. It became smaller and smaller until eventually the king could easily remove it from the throne.
This story is, of course, a metaphor for the way to relate to our anger and other challenging emotions. If we try to get rid, repress, or should them, they only get stronger. The real practice is to do what Sakka did: turn toward the anger, make it comfortable, and create a safe place in the body where it can be felt.
When the time comes for communicating anger—which we do in the group practices I lead—I find there’s no real virtue in a blow-by-blow recollection of past grievances. Little soothing or alleviation occurs when we simply repeat the stories of our woundings, rather than express how we feel about them.
So the most I might say is something like, “A teller called me up; she informed me that thousands of dollars disappeared from my bank account; I yelled at her and now I don’t feel too good about that. I still feel angry.” Usually, the others will listen with empathy, compassion, and tolerance.
Finally, I’d like to add that all the emotion regulation in the world won’t help if we don’t develop and stick to adult boundaries or are in situations wherein harm is continually happening. We should never use spiritual practice as a way to avoid establishing and sticking to rules of conduct in our interpersonal lives.
My father and I spent a decade in family therapy working to develop a new relationship. He managed to change a great deal, but he never became capable of helping create a safe environment in which I could discuss certain topics, such as my work, without becoming harsh and judgmental. So I had to establish clear boundaries, not only with him, but also with myself: I’m not going to discuss what I’m doing for a living with him, because it’s not safe.
Meditation Practice: Insight into Anger
1. Bring to mind a frustrating interpersonal event. It can be anything that you found irritating, such as a small interaction or hearing unpleasant news. It should be something that, when you think about it, fills your mind with thoughts of how unfair or difficult life can be or how unhelpful others can be.
2. Instead of retelling the entire story in your mind, just hold a single image that best evokes the irritating nature of this experience. What you are doing here is inviting the emotion of frustration or disappointment to arise. At the same time, keep yourself comfortable, with your arms and legs relaxed.
3. Hold the provocative image in your mind and patiently activate your feelings of irritation, frustration, or disappointment until you can feel them stirring somewhere in the front of your body—in the belly, chest, throat, or face.
Try to create a welcoming environment for these feelings. Resistance only makes the anger stronger and more painful, and it will stimulate the “unfairness of it all” thought that get us nowhere. Create a space where the emotion can play out, without trying to get rid of anything.
4. Every time your mind tries to intervene and retell the story, or launches into criticisms or ideas about the way the world should be, bring it back again to the body. If you can locate feelings of frustration or disappointment in the body, you can send soothing, nurturing messages from the mind to the feeling itself: “It’s okay. You’re allowed to feel that way. You’re safe now.” Connect with the anger the way you would talk to a child you love and who is upset. It’s not the words that matter here. It’s the caring voice and calming awareness with which you greet your feeling that matters.