Anger as Spiritual Practice

Anger is one of the most volatile feelings in human experience. For those of us raised within institutional Christianity we have probably received a host of contradictory messages about anger ranging from “don’t be angry,” to “be angry but don’t sin,” to “don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” to Jesus cleansing the Temple and being (depending on the preacher) everything from angry to glee filled when he did so. I always found the idea of Jesus telling the money changers that they were turning God’s house into a den of robbers while grinning ear to ear a bit unlikely, but maybe that’s just me.

I invite you to pause for a moment and consider the messages you have internalized about anger. Is it okay for you to be angry, or is being angry automatically a failure in your mind? If you are in a relationship, what thoughts arise in you when your partner becomes angry with you? If you have a history of abandonment, you may become afraid they will leave you. If you have been abused, you may fear for your safely and capitulate quickly or run and hide. If you grew up in a family that was very competitive you may rise to the challenge and seek to win the argument at all costs. On the other hand, if you were the family peace keeper you will likely fall into that role with your partner. In my years of doing couple’s counseling I have learned that the single biggest predictor of whether couples will negotiate disagreement in a healthy manner can be found in the arguing styles of their families of origin. The good news is that we can learn to deal with our anger and our disagreements in a new way as adults. Our childhoods influence, but do not determine, our adult behavior.

When we find ourselves around anger everything seems to move faster with each passing moment. As events speed up we find our reactions speeding up as well, and soon we are responding without thinking and saying things we later regret. This is when relationships are damaged, sometimes irreparably. I have found meditation practice to be extremely helpful in dealing not only with anger but with all emotional situations because meditation teaches us to slow down our perception of events and gives us time in which we may consider our responses – including asking for a time out to allow passions to cool.

We should understand that feelings will arise. We will feel happy, sad, mad, glad, curious, confused, bored, joyful, horny, despondent, and a host of other feelings – all of which are morally neutral. Some of our feelings will be rooted in responses from an earlier stage of human evolution, such as flight or fight responses. We shouldn’t criticize ourselves for having these evolutionary responses, but also recognize that we are responsible for what we do with those responses. We need to remember that we are in complete control of our actions, no matter the underlying feeling. Even righteous anger doesn’t make hitting someone over the head with a baseball bat a good choice, though it may be immensely satisfying temporarily. On the other hand, holding our anger inside and trying to avoid or repress it only leads to depression. The spiritual practice of anger involves looking at our anger honestly, discovering both its source in the present and its roots in the past, coming to increased understanding and so responding from a more balanced place.

I have found it extremely helpful to move away from judging our actions and reactions as being either “good” or “bad,” because those labels tend to carry more than a little shame with them. Buddhism sees actions as either skillful or unskillful, and we would do well to adopt those terms and abandon any terms laden with value judgments. When respond in a way that is less skillful than we had hoped we can apologize and more forward, using the experience to inform us in the future. We can be kind to ourselves and acknowledge that though feelings will arise, we have choices in our responses. Rather than developing guilt, we develop competence and confidence – a much healthier place to be!

 

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