The Silver Thread: On Anger


In the past, I have discussed afflictive emotions. These are sadness, anxiety, compulsion, and anger. All of us suffer from all of these afflictive emotions, but, usually, one is most characteristic of our personality. Mine is anger.

Anger is an extremely destructive feeling. I got so upset one time that my daughter feared I was going to have a heart attack. I know that anger also naturally dwells — once my anger is unleashed I keep revisiting it; it dwells in revenge fantasies, muscle tightness, disruptive dreams, and exhaustion.

In the work I have done with couples, I have observed the destructive force of anger. Anger manifests itself as criticism, bullying, isolation, explosion, and, in the extreme, violence.

Psychiatrists use tranquilizers to calm the angry person. Psychologists provide insight to their client as to the sources and patterns of anger; understanding is the cure.

Buddhism teaches us that patience is the antidote to anger. Like Western Psychology, Buddhism recognizes the varieties of anger, such as criticism, resentment, bitterness, excessive complaints, to name a few.

Anger, from this perspective, is a form of suffering. In this sense, suffering, like all forms of afflictive emotions, causes us personal pain. Suffering as pain pushes us to try to get rid of it. Suffering sets a dynamic in motion, which seeks to rid us of this noxious state. Sometimes this leads to actions like aggression or brutality; sometimes it is repressed and then displaced. In any case, this does not alleviate anger. In fact when anger guides our thoughts or behavior, suffering may hide, but in the long run is aggravated.

Patience means stopping. It means getting out of the way of anger. It’s like walking close to a curb and getting splashed; the cure is to step back and let the cars go by, and avoid the water.

With couples, this means not talking about angry feelings when angry, although I realize that this is the conventional advice. I suggest each person learn to let go of angry feelings, reconnect in love, and then talk. Talking while angry just leads to fights. Re-centering yourself in equanimity leads to listening, empathy, and self-examination, which are the skills necessary to create a viable communication.

Patience and self-work prevent escalation. Like other afflictive emotions, anger is a reflex, likely unstoppable. But once we are aware of the experience of anger, we can identify with it, and it escalates. Or, we can utilize patience, engage in self-examination, show empathy toward the victim of our anger, and create a personal calm and good problem-solving skills.

Patience is not repression. People often try to repress or push away anger. When this is done it usually gets displaced to another person or situation. You are angry at your boss, cannot express it, so you come home and kick the dog. (That is displacement)

The meditative approach is to learn to sit with the anger. Sit and wait. When we do this we learn to examine our anger. You let go of the internal dialogue which usually centers on blaming another for one’s problems, and instead, practice self-examination of our internal states like guilt, grief or self-criticism. Stopping action and turning inward, letting go of dysfunctional anger, opens us up for internal peace. The root of our anger is internal, not caused by another or even a disappointing situation. Facing our internal dynamic softens anger; externalizing as blame or frustration anchors it.

As we practice, we convert anger into softness, generosity and kindness, feelings which are the root of our identity but lie behind the facade of anger.

Sitting with anger usurps it; it allows the goodness of our being to manifest and shine.


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