Anger is like fire. Its powerful capacity to destroy is clear: one has only to turn on the news, or notice how harsh words hurt both the listener, and speaker. As a result, anger is approached as a potentially annihilating foe that must be contained. We may read self help books, attend yoga classes, or seek out healers and therapists in an effortto control anger. Yet, all it takes is someone cutting us off in traffic, or our beloved saying something that we experience as insensitive for anger to rupture our peace bubble. Feeling defeated, ashamed, or even angry at ourselves for irrupting, we may double up efforts to manage this emotion. However, just like fire, if worked with consciously, anger provides light by which to better see ourselves, and may be transformed to provide our souls with qualities of authentic vibrancy, and warmth. If welearn to relate to it as an ally in our human and spiritual unfoldment, we may discover that anger, like all natural things, is inherently purposeful, and potentially constructive.
When we start to feel anger rise our knee jerk response is typically to react. We raise our voices, fists fly, faces scowl; we become pushy and attached to having things our way; we indulge in negative thoughts. We may fan the flames to build up our position, or sense of righteousness around an issue. Possibly we avoid anger by beating ourselves up over it, and falling into depression; or act it out self destructively through addictions. We may resist the heat of this emotion by seeking refuge in cool intellectualisms, or by insulating ourselves with positive affirmations. If you have tried any of the above, you may have noticed that while you enjoy a sense of temporary relief, the anger hasnʼt really gone away. This is because anger will linger, as long as we try to separate it from our own humanity, and refuse to attend to what it may be calling for in our lives.
Anger is like inflammation. In order to tap its particular, natural wisdom, it is necessary first to soothe it. The first step in calming down anger is pausing. As soon as you feel your emotional thermometer rise, respond to it as a bell that is calling you to stop, and pay attention. Notice the urge to do something with the anger, and use this as an invitation to sit with it instead. You can do this on a meditation cushion, a place in the sand, or even in the seat of your car. Some people find that they are best able to “sit” with their anger by getting anchored in their bodies through conscious breathing, or taking a walk. If a particular situation is triggering you, you may want to take a time out. ! Once you soothe the inflammation of anger by pausing instead of acting it out, you can begin to cultivate insight. Just as inflammation alerts us to the presence of awound in the body, anger points to the wounds within our souls. With a generous heart, and open mind you can begin to find out what your anger is reflecting (no, not the person who just cut in front of you), and what it is calling for in your life (no, not to flip this person off), so that you can apply the appropriate tincture of spiritual healing (yes, a way to get to know and appreciate yourself more, and turn anger into positive action).
Marshaling tools of deep listening, and creativity anger shifts from a destructive experience to a constructive one. Sitting with anger, we hone our skills of observation: noticing how we either cling to, or reject this challenging emotion. For example, a seasoned spiritual teacher shared that sitting in meditation with anger, he became aware of his tendency to judge it as “not spiritual.” Consequently, I invited him to draw an image of anger, and place it on his home altar to contemplate. He realized that by judging his anger as “un-spiritual,” he was criticizing his own humanity. Ironically, judging anger negatively, turned out to be a subtle form of aggression. As this man began to appreciate anger as a shard within the kaleidoscope of his own humanity, he developed qualities of humility, and compassion towards himself and others – – which he ultimately was able to draw upon to soften the edges of anger when it came up in hislife.
Using anger as an opportunity to turn within and self reflect, people often find that the wound at the heart of anger is fear. One woman found herself perpetually going off about environmental politics – and was frankly turning people off (remember, no one can hear you when youʼre shouting). I encouraged her to begin journaling from the perspective of her anger, rather than ranting publicly. Her journal became a mirror in which she could see her psychological process reflected. She discovered that her anger actually masked a tremendous love for the natural world, and underlying feelings of helplessness to save it from increasing degradation. As a result of this insight, she was able to transmute the destructive fire of anger into raw energy for galvanizing positive action. She stopped ranting, and started an environmental charity.
Working with anger, we realize that while we may be powerless over others, we do have the power to change our own lives. In times marked by ecological and economic challenges, and global uncertainty, nerves are raw, and we are called upon more than ever to take responsibility for our own anger. Through meditation, deep listening, and creativity we will likely see that anger covers feelings of fear, and vulnerability. As a result of this awareness, fiery anger shifts into the warmth of compassion towards ourselves, and others.