2022-06-21 Respecting Anger (2 of 5) Anger as a Signal
5:33PM Jun 21, 2022
Continuing this series on respecting anger, being wise to anger. I think there is a lot of wisdom to seeing anger as a signal or message, as a messenger. To see anger as a signal means that we would slow down in order to see what is it a message of? What is it a signal of? What is it a symptom of? Rather than giving free rein to anger, giving in to anger without a deeper reflection and looking. In mindfuness practice, you want to stop for anger. Like a bumper sticker would say, 'I stop for anger", in order to really attend to it and see what is going on.
There is a lot of energy in anger. That energy that we have, we want to be able to use in a healthy way, an appropriate way. It is not always appropriate or healthy for ourselves, to follow along, to give into the anger, express the anger as it wants to do it, without some deeper respect and attention to what is going on there.
I think it is a good policy to think of anger as an invitation to stop and take a deeper look, "What's really going on here?" There are two very interesting areas about anger, I feel. First, in terms of what else is going on here, anger can be a reaction to something we are feeling inside. In fact, it might be useful to assume it is always a reaction to something we're feeling inside, even though overtly, we might think we're being angry at something outside of us.
We might be angry at the technology. It's technology's fault that I'm angry. (I'm just making this up – it didn't happen this morning.) The technology is not working. That not working meets my desire for it to work, to have everything go smoothly. I have a certain desire and that desire then is frustrated. That frustration is uncomfortable. That discomfort is something I don't like to feel. Now, I'm reacting to the discomfort, to the frustration. I want to fix something in the world and that gives birth to the anger towards the technology.
Or it could be that the technology we have is very important for us. Without it working properly, what rises inside is fear. The fear is uncomfortable. It could be that the anger arises because we don't like to be uncomfortable. It isn't so much that we don't like to be afraid. We simply don't like to be uncomfortable. Or it could be that we don't like being afraid. So we are blaming something. We're attacking something. We're directing our anger in some direction. It could be externally. It could be internally.
There are all these different emotions – difficult, uncomfortable emotions we can feel inside – that are too uncomfortable for our system to feel, so we want to blame. The outrage of anger, the strength of anger can arise out of an inability to stay present for something that's internally uncomfortable. The message of anger, in that case, is just that. There's something happening here that I'm uncomfortable to feel. Don't be sidetracked by the so called technology, which is external. Whatever is happening externally is going through a few different steps inside of you to become anger.
I've noticed, over the years of being a Buddhist teacher, people are very quick to justify anger. Inevitably, if I give a talk on anger, it seems like someone always wants to justify, "Isn't it okay to be angry," in certain circumstances. "Yes", depending on how we define anger. It's never okay to be hostile. What it misses, when we justify, even justifiable anger, it misses an opportunity to understand ourselves better. That is what we want to do within this mindfulness practice.
As we understand better the steps internally that happen before anger occurs, then it's also possible to stop earlier. If there is fear, to stop and experience the fear, and discern if there is an other response to fear, another way of going forward that doesn't require anger. If there is frustrated desire, when we recognize that, is there a different way to go forward, rather than get angry at technology? Can we reassess the desire? Can we have a different relationship to frustration? Maybe one possibility is to just let ourselves be frustrated, and not have that expand or grow into what we would call anger.
Anger is a message sometimes of what is going on more deeply within us. Sometimes anger is a sign that we should look and see what's happening in the world – that the world does need our attention, that something is the source of the anger in the world. That also has to be taken into account. Maybe, it can be seen, understood, and responded to better, when we have relaxed around the anger, and looked at the fear, discomfort, loneliness, or despair – all the uncomfortable emotions that might be the trigger for anger.
If we can learn how to breathe with those and rest with them, then we can look out towards what is happening in the world. Not act unconsciously or unwisely from the anger. Study what's happening here? What's the situation like? One of the things I like to use anger for is as a reminder to study. Study the situation. Study what's happening in me. Study what's happening externally.
I want to say a few more words about this inner study of oneself. I said anger is often a result of difficult emotions that are preceding it in a sequence of steps. Sometimes anger is the preceding step for other emotions. For example, we might feel angry, and the reaction to that is to shut it down – to be ashamed, embarrassed, afraid, or angry towards the anger. There can be reactions to anger which are not so healthy.
Many years ago, I read someone who claimed that the most common cause for psychosomatic illnesses is repressed anger, or even just anger by itself. People get angry enough and they can have a heart attack. Sometimes depression is a symptom of repressed anger. For some people, giving a certain degree of freedom to anger, that has been repressed, is really important – discovering their anger is necessary.
I mentioned earlier, many years ago, someone taught me that we experience our strength in anger, and if we let go of anger too quickly, we might let go of our strength as well. The strength we want to keep, so if we are too quick to let go of anger, we might be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. That is why I find it apt and invaluable to do for myself one of two things if I'm really angry. One is to sit and meditate – really take it into account and be present for it. The other is go for a long walk. There is something about the long walk that allows the anger to have a different kind of freedom than when I'm meditating. It courses through me. I just keep in to my body, keep paying attention, being here for it, until something deeper about it is revealed. Until I understand some key part of it, that is the trigger or the key thing that's holding it in place.
Anger as a messenger, a signal to be respected as such. If we repress our anger and hide our anger, we just get bottled up. It can be very unhealthy psychologically and physically. Giving some expression (maybe not the right word), some allowance to feel anger and be angry, for some people, is very important – so they can study the anger, stop and look at it more deeply, and see what is going on here.
Anger as a signal, anger as a message. Anger is always a secondary phenomenon, a secondary response to something – often a secondary response to discomfort, some kind of discomfort that we're experiencing inside. The anger to things in the world, or even anger towards ourself, probably has gone through a number of steps before anger arises. Some other emotions, attitudes, or beliefs happen in sequence before it becomes anger.
If you have an opportunity of being angry today, you might take your time to really study it. Look at it – see what might be underneath it, or what might be the trigger for the anger internally, not a trigger that is happening in the world. See what other emotions are connected to it. If you end the day, without any anger whatsoever, but you're not feeling well – if you feel depressed, sad, or despairing in some way – you might want to take a little peek underneath that. See if there's some anger that might be there. You won't necessarily see it there. It is not necessarily there. But sometimes that can be a key that can unlock some of the forms of depression, despair when people are stuck in it.
There is so much to be said about anger. Hopefully these simple words give you something to look at and study. We will continue tomorrow. Thank you.