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Understanding Anger

“The world is drunk on anger.” HH Dalai Lama

One of the most compelling reasons to overcome anger is that it destroys our own peace of mind, while harming others as well. But if there’s one thing the ego hates, it’s having to sacrifice a good old rant to a noble ideal!

We all know that anger creates mental anguish, turmoil and frustration. Yes, yes, we know it makes our thinking unclear, causing us to make poor choices and say and do things we are likely to regret later! Of course it causes a lot of hurt and suffering to both the perpetrator and the object of the anger… but what can we do about our anger when it seems beyond our control?!

Many people try to justify clinging to their strong emotions by saying that they make them feel more alive, and they argue (ahem!) that not experiencing emotions would make life too dull and flat. This is a classic self-justifying ploy of the ego – beware! When the ego (our subconscious mind) senses any threat from the higher self (our conscious mind) to diminish its own importance, it will immediately whip out lots of enticing arguments to seduce the mind back into its habitual turmoil of strong emotions and erratic thoughts.

The truth is that we actually become addicted to strong emotions like anger, which cause a rush of adrenaline in the body and create an illusion of power and strength… but at what cost?

Feeling anger habitually, or for prolonged periods, is especially bad for health! It results in high blood pressure, mental and physical stress, muscular tension, stomach ulcers and other digestive problems. This stress is responsible for the vast majority of modern health disorders.

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So how can we handle this energy called anger?

Venting anger – punching walls, screaming into pillows – has always been seen by Eastern spiritual traditions as undesirable because it perpetuates the feelings of anger and aggression (what the Buddha described as watering the seeds of anger which are in all of us).

Diversion doesn’t work either, since the anger remains latent, and as with suppression, it will just burst out at some other (inappropriate) moment or keep getting stuffed deeper down, eventually causing illness.

Suppressing anger (or any emotion) simply avoids the root cause of the problem, and tends to build up resentment on top. It also contributes to a lack of authenticity, meaning we pretend to feel one (socially acceptable) way while the body’s entire energy field shows the world how we’re really feeling. This heavy energy field then becomes the elephant in the room that nobody dares to talk about – sometimes for years!

So what option is left?

In his primary teaching, known as the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha described suffering as an inherent but avoidable part of life. He identified three main causes of human suffering: ignorance (known in Sanskrit as moha or avidya, stemming from mental delusion or confusion), attachment (raaga, including desire, passion and greed) and aversion (dvesa, comprising anger, aggression and hatred).

So it’s our thoughts and emotions that create suffering in our lives, and this is good news! With practice and insight, we can learn to control both.

When we understand that anger, and similar emotions like jealousy and revenge, for example, result from our own ignorance, attachment and aversion, we see that the root of the problem lies within us, and it becomes possible – with practice -to release our habitual negative patterns of thought and emotion.

Recognise the elephant in the room!

The Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh likens a person suffering from anger to a house on fire. When your house is burning down, you don’t stand around trying to figure out who is responsible or how it all started – you simply put out the fire! Then, once the fire is extinguished, you have time to make a clear assessment of its causes.

We can work with our own strong emotions in much the same way. In the moment you are experiencing anger, the first thing to practice is silence. This is an important aspect of the concept of non-violence, or ahimsa. At least this way you can reduce the harmful effects of your anger caused by harsh and ill-considered speech, and you will have less of a mess to clean up later!

If possible, try to remove yourself from the situation so you can attend to your inner house on fire. With practice and emotional maturity, you can learn to say clearly what you are experiencing in the moment. It could be something like this: “I’m not in a good frame of mind to talk about this/deal with this/take action now. I need some time alone to reflect and I’ll come back later.”

Of course, we are aiming for the above scenario to happen in the absence of clenched jaws, accusing glances and slamming doors! Non-violent communication, or what the Buddha called Right Speech, is always self-referential and doesn’t blame or accuse another. Remember, if we have truly understood that all thoughts and emotions have their origins in our own mind, we must take full responsibility for how we think and feel. Any other take on that pulls you and those around you into the victim/martyr blame game.

I find it especially helpful to remind myself that life is impersonal, and that although the ego would like to consider itself the centre of the universe, our magnificent self simply doesn’t factor in to someone else’s assessment of a situation as much as we think it does! This is because nearly everybody takes an egocentric view of most situations, and their reaction is mostly a product of their own perceptions and biases, and is not about you. So the ego gets to be simultaneously dejected and elated about this insight!

The mind makes a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.

To get control over emotions, it’s best to examine them when nothing’s happening – for example, in a daily meditation practice. When we are emotionally calm and balanced, we can practice witnessing thoughts and emotions, realising that there’s nothing real about them, and that they come and go at random, unless we continue to feed them and encourage them to persist.

Remaining aware of the present moment as much as possible allows us to notice when our feelings and moods change – which is often – and equally realise that they come and go easily unless we start to attach thoughts to them, and start to weave a story around them. Practice dropping the story and realise that the thoughts and drama come from the ego, not from the truth of the situation.

When we operate from the habit mind – the subconscious – we are predictable and reactionary. Our buttons get pushed pretty easily because we respond the same way to similar impulses. But by remaining open to consciousness – our present moment awareness – we become responsive to life, and therefore quite unpredictable, as each new situation requires a unique response in the present moment – including no response at all!

With much love and light,
Susan

Download my recent Understanding Anger Workshop by clicking here!

The guided meditation used in the workshop comes from Thich Nhat Hanh’s his book “Anger”, and can be adapted and practiced as needed. You can also find some wonderful inspiration in Pema Chödron’s books like “Awakening Compassion”, and “Getting Unstuck”, and in Eckhart Tolle’s “New Earth”.