I have acted out of anger many times in my life. I’m embarrassed to admit that as a young girl, anger caused me to spray cleaning fluid at my sister, and as a young mother anger had me throwing an empty plate at my husband while cleaning up after a big dinner. I’m guessing everyone reading this has had angry moments when you felt taken over by your rage.
Through the years, my relationship with anger has changed. Back in the day, I did exactly what my anger told me — spray the fluid, throw the plate. After I discovered meditation, there was a time when I thought that anger was bad and that I should be “above” it. When I felt angry, I would breathe in and out and say, “I’m calming myself,” and then ignore the anger. These days, I have a healthy respect for my anger, but I try never to act out of it.
I taught mindfulness at the DC women’s jail for about a year. While there, one thing used to worry me a lot and it had nothing to do with all of the locked doors I had to get through, or being alone in the elevator with prisoners. My biggest worry was that the women in my class might think I was suggesting that they suppress their anger, because of the subtle difference between using mindfulness to take care of our anger, and using mindfulness to stuff it.
This, in Buddhism, is what we call a “near enemy” — a concept so similar to another concept that we can be practicing one way when we think we are practicing the other. It’s like when you aspire to listen patiently to people with extremely different political views, but you’re really biting your tongue and cursing them internally. It may look the same on the outside, but if you are actually patient, you would create more ease for yourself and more space in the situation. If you’re biting your tongue — well, you know what that’s like.
I didn’t want the women at the jail to think I was saying that anger wasn’t useful — because it is. Those women needed their anger. Heck, we all need our anger. We need to really hear the anger inside of us in order to understand what matters to us and to resist absorbing the unhealthy messages they we may be getting from our “friends,” families, and society. Without our anger, we don’t have access to our deepest knowing.
The two-handed saw
Yet there are Buddhist writings that say things like this: “Suppose some bandits catch one of you and sever his body limb from limb with a two-handed saw, and if he should feel angry thereby even at that moment, he is no follower of my teaching.” (WHAT?) (Kakacupama Sutta) Yep, this sounds like the Buddha is saying that we should never get angry or that we should suppress anger, but, IMHO, I don’t believe that’s what he meant.
There are two different parts of anger — the feeling of anger, and the acting out on our anger. These are very different. When we feel anger arising in us, we know that something is amiss. When someone is severing my limbs with a two-handed saw (I’m curious why the type of saw is relevant in this Buddhist verse), I need to have the wherewithal to stop it. If I’m caught up in my rage about the situation, I am not thinking clearly, probably swearing like a sailor, and unlikely to be very skillful in my attempt to escape. And if I suppress my rage and pretend it doesn’t bother me, I won’t be able to take care of myself. Recognizing my anger, without acting on it is the only way to stay present and aware so I have access to my cognitive mind. In a clear state of mind, I may be able to rescue myself and others from harmful situations.
Don’t do or say anything
The practice I have now, and what I teach, is to notice when anger has arisen (heart pounding, jaw clenching, heat rising) and I remind myself not to say or do anything. Then I do some walking meditation, take a time out, or a few conscious breaths. Once the storm of anger has passed, I check in with the anger to see what the problem is. I don’t get rid of it — I get to know it.
“If you’re not angry, you’re either a stone… or you’re too sick to be angry. You should be angry! Now mind you, there’s a difference. You must not be bitter, and let me show you why: Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host; it doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger, yes. You write it, you paint it, you dance it, you march it, you vote it, you do everything about it… you talk it, never stop talking it.” — Maya Angelou in conversation with Dave Chappelle
Illuminating power of anger
When we are able to hold our anger without venting, our anger can provide illumination, shining light on the problem at hand. This is very different from staying in a state of rage that continues to stir up unskillful behavior. As Zenju Earthlyn Manual asks in conversation with Katie Loncke of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship: “What is the anger that has no light, it’s something that is fueled with hatred. When we are in that state, are we in the state of hatred or illumination?”
So the next time you feel anger arising in you, don’t suppress or reject the light that your anger is shining on this moment. Something is happening that doesn’t feel right. What is it? Are you, or someone who needs your protection, being hurt? Could this be simply a reflection of something harmful that happened to us in the past or is something harmful happening right now?
In order to access these questions, you need to find a way to calm your reactive mind. Try mindful breathing or mindful walking. Don’t ignore your anger, pretend it isn’t there, or suppress it. But let it cool enough to get really clear on what it is illuminating and the most skillful way to respond. It’s unlikely to involve swearing, punching, or throwing a plate, but I suppose it could. Don’t rule out any action, as long as it is taken from a position of clarity and compassion. If someone is cutting your arm off with a saw, or a political or social system is creating suffering, it calls for your most skillful action. Let the light of your anger help you realize the next right step. And then take that step.