Anger is often a knee-jerk reaction. It arises so quickly that there’s little time to prevent it. It’s where we go from there that makes all the difference. Do we learn to control it or do we allow it to control us?
When anger is left unchecked it often turns to hatred, and from hatred comes violence. But anger can also be transformed by understanding.
Something I notice when I’m becoming angry are the sensations in the body. The body tenses, the heart rate increases, breathing becomes irregular and quickens. The body is preparing for a fight. But just as the body changes in relation to emotions, emotions can be influenced by regulating the body. I’m talking specifically of the breath. When I’m angry I bring my attention to my breath, and I begin to take deep, slow breaths. As I do this my mind begins to calm, and I’m able to think more clearly, more rationally. I’m able to to more easily observe my anger, to understand it, to explore what is beneath it, how it arises. Whatever the situation I am reacting to, if I allow my anger to overcome me, to go unchecked, there’s a greater tendency to react in such a way as to make the situation worse. But with a calm mind, I’m better able to find a resolution.
Sometimes we make excuses for our anger. There are reasons for it, but making excuses generally means that we’re trying to excuse ourselves from taking responsibility for our own emotional reactions, from understanding the situation, from transforming our anger into something productive.
The anger is there. We can acknowledge that. And there’s no shame in it. Often our anger is an expression of something much more positive, but unless we discover what that is, we only experience the anger. Anger is often frustration. Frustration means something is being blocked. Something wants to be expressed, but it’s not getting through. When I explore my own anger I often find that deep beneath it there is a desire for kindness, for love, for peace and understanding. For whatever reason those things are being oppressed, either by me or by someone else. And this is why I’m frustrated.
By understanding this, I can look for ways to allow those things to be expressed. I can try to address the reasons why they’re not being given space to bloom. But if I only focus on the anger I can actually cause those things to become more oppressed.
For example, if someone is being hateful, it is their hatred which I find troublesome because what I desire is for there to be love and understanding. But if my anger turns to hatred, now I’m expressing the very thing which I find offensive. So I need to understand what is behind my anger. What is being frustrated? If it is love and understanding that I desire, that is not being expressed, then how can I bring these things into the situation?
Often we will say that our anger is righteous anger. What does that mean? What is meant is that our anger is in reaction to some injustice. And what that means is that what we truly desire is just behavior, respect, compassion, kindness.
The word righteous means full of virtue, but anger is not a virtue, and therefore there can be no righteous anger. When we call our anger righteous we make all kinds of excuses for the hatred and violence that arises from it. We become self-righteous, which is to say, arrogant. And in our arrogance we become unwilling to listen to others, to understand the situation, to understand our own anger.
If we want to be virtuous, we need to acknowledge our anger and to examine it, not to make excuses for it. We need to find constructive ways to transform it into that which we most deeply desire. Again, if it is love and compassion that we most desire, then we need to find a way to express love and compassion. If it is peace and understanding, then we need to find that peace and understanding within ourselves, and to create a channel for it to flow out into the world.
So when anger arises, don’t repress it, but also don’t allow it to overcome you. Be a witness to it. Observe it. Understand it. Allow it to be processed. Take a moment to breath deeply. Take a moment to find clarity before speaking or taking action. And this is not to say that we should refrain from speech or action. This is only to suggest that we consider how best to respond, without our judgment being clouded. Let us understand what it is we truly desire and to respond in such a way as to cultivate that desire. If we seek love, let us express love. If we seek understanding, let us understand. If we seek compassion, let us be compassionate.