Some spiritual teachings advise us to not get angry, but is that always the best approach? “Just for today, do not anger” can be a very useful mantra if we learn to work with it, but unless we look deeply into the subject of anger will we truly know what it is, how it arises, or what we can do to eliminate anger from our lives?
As we interact with others we can begin to see that they often appear to be reflecting back to us aspects of our own character, shining a light on our beliefs, strengths and weaknesses. In this way we can begin to see everyone as a potential teacher: they may not be consciously mirroring something back to us and they may have no awareness that they are helping us to see more deeply into ourselves, but nonetheless they can still help to teach us and guide us on our journey.
If we adopt this way of seeing, we begin to see that in many ways there is no real difference between ourselves and other people. If we get angry with another person, we get angry with ourselves. If we injure another, we injure ourselves.
Just for today, do not anger
As we see the world as a mirror, we can begin to get a new perspective on anger. Someone else may serve as a trigger to bring our anger to the surface, but what is he teaching us? Maybe he is reflecting back to us the need for us to cultivate tolerance or compassion. Maybe he appears to have a flaw in his character that we also need to work on.
What is anger?
Anger is an emotional reaction. It can be a reaction to an event, a thought or a feeling. Anger can be seen as an active form of defence – quite often we find that behind our anger lies fear. Something happens in the world or a thought or feeling arises, this gives rise to fear and we feel that our security becomes threatened, whether it is physical, emotional or mental security. As insecurity comes to the surface we follow our conditioned responses to seek to defend ourselves. We have learned that often the best form of defence is attack, and so we get angry and direct that anger towards the source of the perceived threat.
If we see the world as a mirror we can see that directing our anger towards another means we are getting angry with ourselves.
Equally, as others serve as mirrors for us, we too serve as mirrors for them. They have just as much to learn from these encounters as we do. Just because someone is mirroring something back to us and helping us to see more deeply into something doesn’t mean that he is perfect, or that he does not need to work on his own issues. But when we get angry, if we bring the focus back to our own development we stand to learn much more and make more progress. If all we see is others’ faults without seeing deeply into our own Self, then we run the risk of living in a state of judgement and denial.
What can we do instead of getting angry?
If we try to live by the precept “Just for today do not anger” we may find that we try to sweep our anger under the carpet, to suppress it or avoid it – to pretend that it doesn’t exist. But will this help us or will it simply serve to store up the problem for another day?
If we don’t want to get angry with another being, but also don’t want to suppress our anger, we need to allow our anger to surface and find out what it has to teach us. If another person has served as the trigger for our anger, or if we are interacting with another person when our anger arises, the first thing we need to do is detach ourselves from that person. If we continue to interact with people when anger arises we may either force ourselves to suppress that anger, directing it inwards, or direct it outwards towards others. When anger arises it is often best to excuse ourselves from the company of others and find a quiet space in which we can examine our anger. As we become more adept at working with our anger and with situations involving others, we may develop the ability to detach from our anger and effectively put it to one side while we continue to interact with others in a peaceful way. If we can do that we can then go back into our anger later on when we are alone and process the emotion. But until we can do this it is often safer to excuse ourselves physically from the presence of others so we can work on our anger.
By seeing anger as an energy that arises from within us, and seeing others merely as catalysts for that energy to surface, we can begin to own our emotional reactions and take responsibility for our own thoughts and feelings. In so doing we take a very big step towards Self-realisation.
What do we do with our anger in order to process it?
There are many ways we could work with our anger and learn to work through it. One method is to create a dialogue between us and our anger. If I feel angry I can see my anger as a part of myself which is trying to express something and have its voice heard. I could even see that part of me as a separate person. In this way I can begin to have a dialogue with it and ask “Why are you here? What do you need to tell me?”
Most of our emotional reactions are learned, conditioned responses. From our own experience we learn to treat some situations as safe and others as potentially threatening. As we learn what we can and can’t trust, we create pathways in our brain and in our bodies along which signals travel – when we later encounter similar situations, these pathways become activated and we experience the same physical, mental and emotional sensations as we did when the learning took place.
When we experience for the first time we are open, malleable and impressionable. If the experience leads to pain we might accept an imprint of pain meaning we will see similar situations with mistrust even if they occur decades later. Equally if our initial experiences lead to pleasure we are more likely to accept an imprint of trust and will gravitate towards similar situations in later life.
It is not always necessary to track the source of an imprint, but we need to hear its mantra, to hear what it is saying. Quite often a conditioned emotional response which seems to be holding us back can be traced to a belief which was set up in order to protect us from harm. These conditioned responses or programs can begin life trying to help us, only to hinder us in later life. The things we use to protect us hurt the most.
By establishing a dialogue with our anger we can ask it “What do you need to say?” Our anger might tell us that it thinks someone is trying to control us and that it is scared that we might lose our sense of Self.
Moving the energy of anger
Ultimately there is no “one size fits all” approach to working with anger – mostly we need to feel our way through it – but we can learn some tips from how other people deal with it. The approach I have mentioned above might be too psychological or too psychoanalytical for some people. Just as it is not necessary to find the source of an imprint, there is also no need to personalise anger in order to overcome it. So long as you take responsibility for the emotions which arise within you, there is no need to define those emotions in personal terms by calling them “my anger” or “my fear” and attempting to work on them from that standpoint. In fact over-personalising emotions can lead to the creation of false identifications and ultimately to indulgence.
One alternative approach is to see anger as energy. When anger arises we can help the process a great deal by removing ourselves from any kind of outer conflict, but when we are in our own space we can take the process further by helping that energy of anger to leave our mind and body. One way to do this is to engage in some kind of physical activity. I’m not advocating pillow bashing here or smashing something up, but rather some kind of subtle energy exercise which will help the anger energy to flow and ultimately be released rather than allowing it to create knots within the body and blockages within the mind. Some form of Chi Kung or Tai Chi exercise can be invaluable in these cases. If you are not familiar with any specific exercises you can do any kind of free form exercise which comes naturally. Walking and dancing can also be excellent methods for working with anger in this way. If you start smashing things up you will release the energy but this kind of destructive activity can lead to other complications. Instead of simply releasing the energy, if we can find a way to disarm it but harness it at the same time, we can channel it in a more positive direction. In this way anger can be turned from a foe into an ally.
*** This chapter is taken from my book The Light Within ***