As part of the 2011 theme at the Boston Martial Arts Center, I was doing some digging around in my brain today about anger, especially after a learning experience this morning at the dojo. (a learning experience, as my college political science teacher once quipped, is what you get when you don’t get what you want) This year’s theme is all about looking in the mirror, looking inside, and freeing ourselves from ourselves. As a result, I spent a lot of time rooting around in my head about my anger, how I value it, and some ways I make it useful. I hope it’s useful to you.
In Buddhism, all unhappiness begins when reality isn’t the way we want it to be. Your cake falls in the oven, your kid throws a tantrum, your department misses its numbers, your Twitter followers abandon you – whatever the case is, reality and what you want are not the same thing.
Fear is when you have an unwanted reality that you want to run away from. Fear of losing something, fear of heights, fear of a tiger trying to eat you, fear of rejection – all of these things we try to run away from. Fear’s a vital component of our survival and always will be. It’s a primordial emotion that keeps us alive in times of true danger, and when it serves its purpose, we are grateful.
So what does that make anger? Anger is an unwanted reality that you want to forcefully impose your will upon. Anger at a child’s temper tantrum, anger at an insult, anger at a spouse’s seemingly unreasonable point of view, anger at a company’s treatment of its employees – all of these things we want to impose our will on. If only they would do it our way, everything would be all right. If only they would stop doing what we don’t want and start doing what we want. If only they would submit and surrender, our anger would be sated.
Anger’s a vital component of our survival, too. Think about it for a second. If fear makes you flee from something, anger makes you rush in to conquer it. If you’re fighting for your life and retreating isn’t a possibility, anger keeps you in the fight. If you’re starving for a meal, anger lets you conquer the animal, kill it, win over it, and have something to eat. Acknowledging that anger is as much a part of us as fear and other survival instincts is vitally important. Far too many people try to demonize anger, theirs and others, to claim that it simply shouldn’t be there. To deny anger’s existence and usefulness in the right context is to deny something incredibly basic that’s wired into us, something that is there to help us in the right context.
If fear chills, anger boils. If fear is about avoiding a loss, anger is about winning a victory at any cost, and that’s the key right there to taming the beast. If you can have the presence of mind during an anger experience to ask yourself if there’s anything worth winning, you can very quickly short circuit it and pull the rug out from under its feet.
If a child is throwing a tantrum, ask yourself what’s left to win by expelling your anger on them. Not much to win, is there? Tears, a runny nose, and some parental guilt – some prize, huh? If a supervisor at your company is doing something callous and uncaring, ask yourself what’s left to win by getting fired up at her or him. Is getting on their bad actors list a worthy prize? Is losing your job a worthy prize? Not much left to win there.
Sometimes there is a very worthy prize, and when there is, anger is absolutely called for and appropriate. If someone is trying to harm your family, there is a very worthy prize at stake. With focus, direct your anger to win that prize. If someone is trying to rape you, there is a very worthy prize at stake. With skill, channel your anger into winning over them. If someone is malevolently destroying your company and your livelihood by extension, there is a worthy prize, especially if you have a family to feed. With cunning and cleverness, harness your anger to be effective in neutralizing them.
Try this perspective the next time you’re angry. Ask yourself the honest question: is there anything worth winning? If you have trouble maintaining presence of mind even during anger, write it down somewhere you can see it in situations that make you angry, or hold a contest with yourself to see how quickly you can distract yourself so that you can think again and ask yourself what’s left to win. If the prize isn’t worth it, you may find that the angry simply fades away as the rest of your body, mind, and spirit figure out that there’s no point fighting for a valueless prize and that there are better opportunities for victory ahead.
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