“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” – Aristotle
Anger is a very challenging emotion most of the time for most people. Do you ever get angry? Do take a moment a notice when anger comes up for you (I would be very surprised and curious if it didn’t).
When I was trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, anger was regarded as one of those emotions that I should have aspired to be free from. It was unskillful to be angry, since it (supposedly) always led to bad outcomes. My instructions was to note it in my mind “angry, angry, angry” until it passed. Using meditative skills in this way certainly helped me to gain more control over the anger, and find other ways to be with it than just to completely inhibit myself around it (other people also act it out on other people, but I was never able to do so).
For a few years, this worked! I felt more at peace and thought I had resolved my anger issues. However, when I abandoned my vow of celibacy and got into a romantic relationship, anger came up again regularly, and that meditative trick did not work anymore. That’s when I started studying conflict resolution and came across research from Gottman’s lab in the USA. Gottman conducted decades of research to identify what help couples be happy, and I found one big surprise: expressing anger was often helpful! How does this work?
Anger as boundary
The psychologist Young-Eisendrath wrote that “anger, when used as a boundary setting expression of frustration, is weed prevention.” The rationale here is that when we feel angry about something, it shows that we have a boundary which has been crossed, a need which is not met. Anger therefore arises as a signal that something important is happening for us here: a heart-seed is in endangered by a weed. From a meditation point of view, there’s ways we can connect into our experience to (ii) reduce the intensity of the somatic and emotional reaction (like with the noting practice above), and also (ii) explore the cognitive aspects of the needs/seeds which are involved. This second part will most probably involve other emotions like fear, sadness and loneliness.
Anger & timing
Many of us tend to bypass difficult emotions, distract ourselves or repress them in some way – and I would argue even the Buddha did. This can be helpful since we need a great amount of resourcefulness and resilience in order to be able to cope with the emotions (which we often do not have), or there may be other priorities to attend to when anger arises (i.e. getting on a departing train rather than arguing!).
From a nervous system perspective we can learn to assess whether we are sufficiently:
- oriented: we are aware of ourselves in the physical environment in which we’re in
- social engaged: we can bring any of the heart qualities of the brahma viharas (see previous blog) such as love, compassion, joy and equanimity to our experience at any moment
If we ourselves lose our orientation and social engagement capacity for a certain period of time during our experience of anger, then we’re probably not able to follow Aristotle “at the right time” instruction. Then, since we’ll be expressing anger with another person, it’s also important to find out how our anger is landing with them: “how is it for you to hear me out as I am angry right now?” Do they have the orientation and social engagement capacity to listen and discuss this in this moment?
Anger is most often a difficult emotion, and the intensity with which we feel it signals a need to take seriously. Meditation training can help to regulate the somatic and emotional intensity often associated with anger, and inquiry practice can help to better understand the need behind it. Is it ever possible to get angry in the way Aristotle proposes? Come and join our next Dharma Gathering or Retreat to develop all these skills!