How to Transform Anger

How to Transform Anger

When most of think about anger we have images of people yelling at each other, getting red in the face, tightening of the jaw and fists, nasty or insulting speech, actions that may involve some type of physical or psychological abuse, fear of being harmed, blaming, irritation, frustration, feeling annoyed just to name a few manifestations of this mind state.

Much of this type of anger when taken out on another person is actually a form of rage; a deep seated emotion that was likely triggered by some trauma or childhood abuse. It can be deeply destructive to oneself and to another. Often it is an ‘out of control’ reaction to suppressed wounds that have never been faced and healed. When the causes and conditions are ripe for these ‘angry behaviors” to manifest they emerge so quickly that they bypass our ability to even be aware of what is happening. They take over and we react.

Many people are of the belief that Buddhism disavows anger and think that it should not be expressed or acknowledged. They think that even having an ‘angry thought’ is bad and that you are not being a good Buddhist if you do so. This is really not the case at all. Anger like any mind state is something to be mindful of; to recognize, notice, and observe when it arises. This is the first step in working with anger.

The second step is to understand Buddhists Ethics, sila, which are based on harmlessness. Not to take any action that would do harm to oneself or another. This means that once we are aware of the emotion of anger we accept it, and inquire into it;  how does it feel, where is it located, is it hot or cold, tight or sharp; is my breath constricted, do I have head pain? Most importantly we pause and do not act it out.

First we slow down and feel this mind state of anger; this creates some inner space and separation. In this way we do not identify with it and believe it is who we are and make it bigger. When we look carefully we will find that anger is a passing state that comes and goes as conditions change. It is impermanent.

What is significant about this is that anger can be part of an early warning system that alerts us to some kind of danger so we can protect ourselves and another. This is not the anger of rage, it is a built in mobilizing force that arises when circumstances threaten to do harm. This form of anger is energizing when a need for help arises. When another person is being mistreated and we feel their pain, compassion arises with anger gives us the stamina and strength to protect or rescue them from harm. The power invested in our moral compass, our conscience, is naturally birthed and an invincible capacity for beneficial life affirming action is present.

We can call this Transformative or Justifiable Anger that is an expression of caring and love for life that is a skillful means. It is based on fairness, equality, and justice.

It is like the childhood story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. When the Emperor has gone through the stages of getting fit for a new royal suit, his tailors are undermining him by making his garment out of imaginary materials. They keep constantly telling him that he looks magnificent and will be greatly admired for his attire. When there is a public parade to show of the Emperor in his new regalia, all the crowds he passes shout out how wonderful he looks until one little boy said loudly “But he does not have on any clothes”. This is the centerpiece of or gist of the tale: be honest, not angry; speak the truth, do not blame; stand up for justice, talk with kindness; act from unconditional innocence and let your actions come from love of humanity.

Every act counts. Every thought and emotion counts too. This is the path we have. This is where we apply the teachings. This is where we come to understand why we meditate. We are only going to be here for a short while. Even if we live to be 108, our life will be too short for witnessing all its wonders. The dharma is each act, each thought, each word we speak. Are we at least willing to catch ourselves spinning off and to do that without embarrassment? Do we at least aspire to not consider ourselves a problem, but simply a pretty typical human being who could at that moment give him – or herself a break and stop being so predictable?

My experience is that this is how our thoughts begin to slow down. Magically, it seems that there’s a lot more space to breathe, a lot more room to dance, and a lot more happiness.

— Pema Chodron