Most of us are familiar with the strange, addictive quality of anger — the rush of energy we seem to sometimes need to protest, to point out unpalatable truths, to draw a line — and also the chronic overlay that anger can become, as we fall into isolation and bitterness. A friend of mine who has worked for decades to fight violence against women has talked about the outrageous violence she bore witness to and the anger that arose as the necessary catapult to forging her life’s work. But, she adds,
“I don’t know how to turn the anger off. It is manifest in my organization, in my relationships. I need to be able to develop a different relationship to it.”
As the Buddha said, “Anger, with its poisoned source and fevered climax, is murderously sweet.”
When an interaction, person, or experience makes us angry, our bodies and minds are effectively having an emotional “immune” response. We are telling ourselves to self-protect, much in the same way blood rushes to the site of an insect bite.
One of the issues with chronic anger is the degree of tunnel vision it fosters. Can we find a resolution to a problem when our vision is so fixed and confused? Can we recognize ourselves in one another when we are so on fire?
When we dwell in a baseline feeling of separation, alienation, and isolation, it’s hard to think in a different way. Look at just these past weeks — deaths in Beirut, deaths in Paris, the disparity between coverage of Beirut and Paris, other outrages — could you see the ark of moving from fear to anger to fixedness to hopelessness? I could certainly see it in myself.
Though the energy of anger might propel us to action, it can be so interlaced with fear and tunnel vision that we just lash out — and it’s ultimately destructive. Even though it is on an entirely different level, I recall an incident of several years ago to try to remind myself of some of the problems of being overcome by anger.
Several years ago when I was sitting at my desk at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), checking emails and doing various computer errands, I received an email from a student asking me for my thoughts on the nature of anger. I explained to the student that anger, first and foremost, makes us put people in boxes; it makes us see the world strictly in terms of “me-versus-you,” “us-versus-them,” and a whole host of other limited perspectives.
Just after I sent my reply, my computer stopped working and my stress-hormones began pumping. I tried to calm myself down until I realized that the most computer-savvy person at IMS was on vacation. My panic quickly turned into anger — anger at the person who wasn’t available to help me, anger at myself that I couldn’t fix my own problem, anger at the computer, anger at the fact that I was even getting angry!
In many ways, feelings of anger like these seem automatic. But in the midst of this quick reaction, I sat with my feelings. I made an effort to notice what my mind was doing. Did “sitting with my feelings” mean that the anger suddenly went away? Definitely not! But by inviting myself to simply try and notice the feelings that came up, I gave myself space to see that I was developing tunnel vision. I then I remembered that I had actually urged this man to take a break away from work. Ironically, I even helped arrange his trip!
Despite getting angry at myself about the fact that I had an unreasonable, reaction, I finally managed to fix the computer myself. When I did, the person with whom I’d been corresponding about the topic of anger had followed up for more information, asking for more detail or a specific anecdote about the nature of anger. In response, I summarized the experience I just had!
If we can be with our anger, we can learn to use the energy of it without getting lost in the narrowness of fixation. We’re conditioned to turn away from anger or other feelings of aversion like guilt, blame, jealousy, and so on. Feeling angry — at ourselves, at others, at experiences that happen to us (such as a stubborn computer!) — is undoubtedly intense, and that intensity can be all-consuming. So to avoid the rabbit hole of anger, our culture teaches us to find safety in self-deception, in repression.
But there is a profound difference between recognizing anger for what it is, and becoming lost in it.
The great irony is that paying attention to feelings like anger through mindfulness actually dissolves its toxicity and overwhelming nature. Maybe we find the grieving within anger, and the helplessness, and can admit those too. This idea is so radically at odds with how we’re taught to think about engaging with feelings like anger; it can feel like a difficult pill to swallow. I’ve had students ask me if “paying attention to anger” involves trying to be cold, indifferent. Absolutely not.
We are working toward engaging with anger — and all feelings and thoughts that arise for us in life — with presence and compassion. Then we can recognize the anger, capture the energy of it, and not fall into the fixation, bitterness, and ultimately hopelessness it can foster. And so this week I remind myself to breathe.
It takes profound courage and openness to shift this dynamic, a strategy social psychologist Jonathan Haidt refers to as stepping outside our “moral matrix.” When we do this, we free ourselves from the notion that we must meet anger with a tight fist. We develop critical wisdom about our anger and realize our profound sense of choice. We don’t have to meet hatred with hatred, or surmise that unthinking revenge is our only option.
In Love Your Enemies, Robert Thurman writes:
“Critical wisdom is fierce… yet at the same time subtle and tender.”
When we relate to our anger with awareness, we can still recognize that we may feel a tendency to feel separate from ourselves and from other people. We may still feel an urge to try to control our lives, to keep things from changing, to keep it together. Of course, once we establish a desire to control, we create fear. And when we inevitably fail to control our lives and keep things from changing, we become angry.
What we can control, however, is our resistance to this whole process. Rather than resist and resist the anger, we can open ourselves up to the idea of practicing generosity with ourselves. We can simply allow ourselves to feel.
By creating an environment of permission for ourselves, we release the expectation that painful states of mind like anger or depression or desire will consume us. They can arise, and we can let them go — like the tides of the ocean or the waxing and waning of the moon. It’s a practice of not holding on, of choosing not to identify. When we realize that we create the conditions of clarity with the passing of these feelings, our energy to try to make a difference becomes cleaner and stronger.