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Respecting Anger :Diffusing Anger and its Expression

Anger is a sign. One way of understanding that is that it is a sign that something is wrong –. Some wisdom is needed to not assume automatically that what is wrong is out in the world. Or to assume automatically that what is wrong is within oneself. But it's a sign that something is off, that something needs attention.

One of the first things to do is to learn from it. Find out what it is. Stop and take a good look, "What's really going on here?" When we meditate especially, this is a great place because we don't have to, (hopefully, when meditating), say anything to anyone, or do anything in the world. You can just really be present and feel it. We want to learn from it.

One of the things to learn is how anger motivates us. That is part of the danger of anger. Sometimes anger comes with a very strong motivation to do something, to say something very forcefully to someone, or to act forcefully. The motivation sometimes has the upper hand. That is why for example, speaking angrily, people lose touch with themselves as they say it. The motivation is so strong, so powerful, that they don't really know what is happening in their body, hearts, and minds. Sometimes in extreme versions, they are kind of possessed by anger. They are not really in touch with what is happening here.

This losing touch with oneself, when we're angry, is a great hindrance, a great shortcoming. The wisdom, clarity, and ability to act and speak wisely in the world, happens a lot from being grounded in one's body, to be present here. That can happen even when we're angry. That way we won't lose ourselves in the anger. Training ourselves to be in the body, stay present.

It helps to think part of anger is the motivation in it. Ask yourself, "What is the motivation here? What is the desire?" What is the wish that you would see happen? Regardless of what the degree of anger might be – it could be irritation, even annoyance, relatively mild – "What is that?"

This becomes particularly important, when anger, annoyance, irritation, hostility has become low key and chronic. It has nothing to do with any particular incident that has happened. Rather it has become a way of living, an attitude that we have. The whole assessment of chronic anger, hostility, is very different from the analysis or the consideration of incident-specific anger, where there is something happening right in front of us.

The chronic, that goes on for a long time, is particularly debilitating. That tends to be a powerful force, to help people actually not be in touch with themselves. They might feel the opposite because the energy of anger is so strong, that they feel humming with it. Actually there is such a big cost – we lose something.

The Buddha gave this list of the downsides of anger, of being angry, especially maybe chronic anger. Maybe he gave it to people to motivate them to do something about their anger, not to live this way. He said that the ill effects of anger include looking ugly, being in pain, making mistakes, the loss of property, falling into disputes and disgrace, loss of friends, and then rebirth in hell. I don't know if that motivated some of you like, "Oh, wow, all those things can be there with anger?" I think of it as chronic anger, this persistent stream of it.

One of the ways to respect anger, I believe, is not to give into it as a motivational force to say or do something, but rather to take the time to feel it and know it in the body. The body can process this. The body knows how to unfold and relax, open up and reveal. Sometimes when we take the time to sit down and feel anger in the body, it gets stronger. There can be murderous rage that arises. When you're sitting still, whatever is happening is so powerful, that something is erupting inside of us. If we are not acting on it, or expressing it, meditation is about letting that eruption happen. Or meditation is about letting the whole thing dissipate and dissolve.

Sometimes what keeps it going is telling ourselves stories, repeating to ourselves the injury that has been done. It is the repetition of certain trains of thought, that keeps the anger, annoyance, or irritation going. To sit quietly, and feel it in the body, is an alternative to all those stories.

You can allow the body to do what it wants to do – the deeper process to do what it wants to do. It might be an eruption, or it might be a dissolving. It is not your job to choose which it is, but to really attune to see what needs to happen here. Hopefully, be quiet enough, still enough, go for a walk long enough, that you allow the whole process to come to some completion.

In ordinary life, especially with incident-specific anger and we have to act on things, it is very useful to learn how to diffuse the anger. How to be with the anger, so that it doesn't automatically trigger motivational actions – we say or do things. Here again, training ourselves, so it is second nature to be mindful of the body, so we feel what is happening.

The body can be a source of stability – to come back to the body – just sit or stand, feel your feet on the ground. The body can also be the means by which we diffuse some of the energy of anger, some of the tension and motivational force of anger that interferes with our ability to be attuned more deeply to what is happening. Attuned to the deeper emotions that might really be the bigger issue that is happening. More attuned to the situation we are in, and take a better look at what is happening. More attuned to ourselves – if the anger arises, because of a story we're telling ourselves, to question the story. Is that the right perspective that we have?

To tune into the body, and find ways to diffuse some of that energy of anger – by relaxing, breathing – breathing deeply and relaxing, breathing and relaxing on the exhale, breathing and feeling the expansion of the ribcage in the torso, as a way of grounding yourself in the body. Feeling something that is really primary – the primary experience of breathing.

Notice your posture when you're angry. Maybe the posture is one that doesn't lend itself to diffusion, to settling. If both hands are in a fist, it may be not that difficult to relax the fist, to relax the hand, open it. Doing that is part of the diffusion process, settling, and quieting down.

Diffusion is not the same thing as repression, denial, or escaping from it. Diffusion is to settle some of the ways in which we're getting disconnected from ourselves. To feel more deeply what's happening, to be more present. And to settle the motivational triggers that might come with anger, so that we are not speaking or acting from the anger. We can feel and sense what's going on.

Each of us probably has our own specialty of where in the body anger is most expressed. It might be tension, tightness in the belly. It might be in the chest. It might be in their face, or the jaws. Might be in the hands. Sometimes the eyes. I've seen angry people and their eyes feel so tense, fixed and locked in. It might be somehow in the forehead. Places where we get headaches, because of all the tension associated with maybe irritation and anger.

Wherever your way is, your place, get to know it. When you go about your life and there is an incident of anger, you know to go to that place, and maybe relax and settle. Learn skills of diffusion. Learn skills of being grounded in the present, so that anger doesn't get the upper hand. So that you can learn from the anger, rather than act on the anger.

The expression of anger is not something we want to do very often. I once asked one of my Buddhist teachers, if it was ever appropriate to express anger. I forget exactly the time frame, but the teacher said, "Yes, once in a blue moon." Once in a great while, like once every five years or something. I don't know if that guideline is the right one, but it was fascinating to me, this idea – there might be a time, but not that often.

To have the ability to step back. The advantage of that is if anger involves something that needs to be addressed in our life, it's often addressed much more usefully motivated by other emotions, feelings and ideas, than the motivations that come from anger itself. It is not denying the incident was anger producing. It is not denying the difficulty of the anger, but it's questioning the motivational value of anger. That is where it's very rare, that anger is useful as a motivational force.

Some people are quick to defend anger because a lot of good gets done in the world with anger. People are motivated for justice and fight for it. Maybe that is good, but it's not so healthy for the person who is angry. I feel a little sad when people justify anger for that reason. What I wish they would do instead is find an equal or even stronger motivation from compassion. Don't justify anger if there are better motivations to get the job done.

Diffusing anger. For this next day, you might, if you find yourself irritated, annoyed, angry, rageful, simmering, resentful, whatever you might feel, see what you can do by tuning into your body. Like we did in the guided meditation, tune into what is going on in the body really well, and see what the body wants to do. See if the body wants to relax. See if the body wants to be energized. If you do this during a walk, (as I've said before I process strong anger with walks), does the body want to walk faster, does it walk slower? What does the body want to do here? Also explore, where can you relax? What settles you with the emotion. This is a personal skill that each person needs to learn for themselves. How do you diffuse anger? Thank you.

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