“When someone does not know how to handle his own suffering, he allows it to spill all over the people around him. When you suffer, you make the people around you suffer. That’s very natural. This is why we have to learn how to handle our suffering, so we won’t spread it everywhere.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh, from Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames
“A person overwhelmed with anger destroys his wealth.
Maddened with anger, he destroys his status.
Relatives, friends, & colleagues avoid him.
Anger brings loss. Anger inflames the mind.
He doesn’t realize that his danger is born from within.” ~Excerpt from
“Kodhana Sutta: An Angry Person” (AN 7.60), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
“Anger is a zone of energy in us. It is part of us. It is a suffering baby we have to take care of. The best way to do this is to generate another zone of energy that can embrace and take care of our anger. The second zone of energy is the energy of mindfulness.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh, from Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames
Two weeks ago, I got mad. Not regular mad, but extra-mad, boiling. Getting mad is not extraordinary, nor is it worth mentioning except for the fact that I have been practicing with my anger for the past 14 years. I had enough experience with anger to believe I knew how to handle this strong emotion, but given the right conditions, anger can be like a riptide and drag us under.
Anger is a secondary emotion. This means that although we attribute the cause of our anger to external conditions—anger is a response to emotions that may be so fleeting or shadowed by the powerful quality of anger, we aren’t aware of them. The “Anger Iceberg” from the Gottman Institute shows some of the feelings below the surface of anger. As practitioners, we understand we are responsible for our creations of body, speech, and mind. This includes how we handle our anger.
Anger serves an important function for the biological survival of our species. Anger arises as a response to the signal of threat and lets us know something is wrong and lets us know when a situation is not ok for us. Anger, with its accompanying adrenalin and norepinephrine, moves us from passivity to action and can propel us to leave an abusive situation, to make changes, to stand up for injustice. We do not want to suppress, ignore, or get rid of anger. It is a crucial part of our ability to take care of ourselves.
Unfortunately, when we are in anger, our nervous system is flooded with stress hormones and the part of our brain that understands about consequence, kindness, and wisdom doesn’t get the oxygen and glucose it needs to function properly. We are operating from the emotional center, the limbic region of the brain. You may notice that in anger, we are very limited and focused—on what is going wrong. We lose the ability to see a bigger picture and to see we have choices. We become reactive and depending upon our conditioning we may yell, fight, both physically or verbally, or escape without understanding the consequences of our actions. In anger as the Dalai Lama says, “we lose the best part of our brain.”
Another aspect of anger I can speak to is the addictive quality of anger. The opioid receptors in the neuropeptide system link the behavior—the action of anger with the reward of pleasure and relief. We get a spike of dopamine when we act or speak in anger, the same high that accompanies narcotics, sugar, or sex. In anger, we are flooded with adrenalin which gives us purpose and provokes action. We can enjoy this feeling of importance and derive pleasure from the righteousness of being wronged. We can get swept out to sea by our anger and the resulting pleasure from the neurochemical cascade and wonder how our mindfulness evaporated so quickly.
I’ve learned over the past years that anger gives plenty of warnings, so I have the opportunity to stop and attend to the feelings that are present before it gets to boiling. As Tara Brach tells us, “everything belongs,” even our emotional responses. We don’t have to shame ourselves or get rid of our angry reactions but recognize that we are called to witness our anger with the same compassion and curiosity we bring to all other aspects of our experience. We can acknowledge that we are fully responsible for the creation of our emotions and what we choose to do with them. This is karma, the literal consequences that result from our actions.
So how do we engage with anger skillfully? When I was so angry, I found myself struggling with the energy of the anger itself—which brought me into the forever humbling experience of being a human being who is subject to stress and overwhelm. I have learned that despite years of practice, anger is one of the strongest biological and habitual snares I’ve encountered. Although I didn’t discharge my anger at anyone—it certainly made my life a hell realm for a while. I found myself shaking my head at how small I had let my world become. When I looked at the situation from a cooler perspective, I saw that my feelings of being trapped, overwhelmed, and helpless could have been resolved with two phone calls and the magic word, “no.”
Dharma teacher Joanne Friday asks us to consider if we are a victim or a student in this lifetime. When I acted from a place where I forgot I had a choice, I was a victim and my anger reflected the injustice and powerlessness of that perception. When I looked at my response as a student—I saw that old habits made me consider other’s needs and happiness above my own. When I agreed to do more than I could, I sacrificed my ease and physical wellbeing. My anger was the cry of my own body and mind that wanted to be considered and to matter.
What I forget and learn over and over, is that I need to matter to myself. When I matter to myself, I understand the limits of my abilities. I don’t overload my schedule. I get support for the heavy lifting—both physically and metaphorically in my life. This takes real mindfulness of the body and mind and recognition of our moment by moment experience. Mattering to myself isn’t narcissistic flattery or propping up my ego with importance. It means that I extend the same care and concern for myself as I do for the other people in my life.
This week I invite you to take some time out to see how you are mattering to yourself. Are you responding from habit and doing what you always do—feelings of irritation, frustration, and wanting things to be different are a hint that we are not considering our own wellbeing. What are some actions we can take to let ourselves know we matter? Time for play and relaxation, getting help, adequate sleep, time to eat without rushing, respecting ourselves enough to arrange travel time so we arrive refreshed and calm—all these strategies can help undo the conditioning that tells us to hurry and to abandon ourselves. When we value the quality of our own consciousness and we demonstrate it with our words, deeds, and thoughts, we are learning to entrust ourselves into our own care. Looking with wisdom at how we support our practice and our own capacity for peace and resilience creates the framework that strengthens our commitment to living in awareness with compassion for all beings—including ourselves.
May we all trust our light,