Cool your jets my Mom would say. Interesting as calming anger has often been spoken of in Buddhist literature as coolng the fires within. Recently the topic of anger came up and it got me thinking. I have been talking a whole lot about happiness; possibly to the point of overdose on the subject. But if we have any hope of being happy, what do we do with our anger? It would seem that we have an overdose of anger causing the deficiency in happiness these days. Is it healthy to just “get it out” as we are often told? For men it has always seemed socially accept to vent anger. Not so much for women. This pattern shows up in psychotherapy as men struggling with physical and verbal aggression and women struggling with depression, eating disorders, cutting, etc. The tables however, have turned and more women have become outwardly physically and verbally aggressive. This could be in response to decades of repression. It could also be from the social norm in the US of ventilating emotion. In psychotherapy we think that “getting out” your anger is what will somehow get you to a place where you have peace with it. But the scientific facts would tell us something different. “Getting out” your anger stimulates your sympathetic nervous system which activates the fight/flight stress response. This will happen whether you are yelling and ventilating or you are talking about your anger. If you are actively trying to get angry you are definitely not triggering the relaxation response in the body that is for sure. The stress response in the body contributes to a whole host of health problems including high blood pressure, increasing risk for heart attacks through the constriction of the blood vessels, increase in blood sugar which can lead to Type II diabetes, issues with infertility, digestive disorders and the list goes on and on. Our pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for organization and making rational decisions shuts down when the stress response is activated. Not only does this response contribute to disease but it also effective makes us dumb. This is why we sometimes act like irrational idiots when we are angry! On the most superficial level, anger is not very pretty and will cause premature aging and who the hell wants that?? So if repression is not healthy and ventilating is not healthy then what the heck does one do with their anger?
A handful of years ago I read the book “Anger” by Thich Nhat Han and learned about the Buddhist teachings on managing anger. At first I was a disbeliever. As I stated previously in my post Forgiveness…a Gift of Your Choosing my response to learning that anger was considered an afflicted emotion and not healthy was “that’s bullshit.” Yup that’s me… the feisty one. I have never been one to turn away from a fight. No shrinking violet that’s for sure. I actually created a career that was all about being in the middle of anger. First working with domestic violence, then on to correctional facilities and court houses and then outpatient addictions clinics. I was tough as nails until finally I wasn’t. The breakdown of the bullet vest I wore my whole life was THE turning point for me. Yoga began to melt it layer by layer. It was the teachings of the Buddha on loving kindness that actually made the shield fall to the floor in a puddle around me. I did lots of work about “being with” my anger. This intellectualized my anger helping me to understand it but not doing much about it. My anger kept me safe for a good many years but it was also the enemy I couldn’t shake. It wasn’t until I dropped below the surface to realize that my anger was actually where I was hurting. Thich Nhat Han suggests that we see our anger as a crying baby and that the practice of mindfulness is like the mother tending to her baby in distress. In this kind and gentle approach we get to see our anger, witness our anger but not react to our anger. The traditional western approach would have us ventilating our anger which really doesn’t do much, right? We have all had moments where we have gotten pissed off at this or that. It may have not much to do with a core issue but none the less we are pissed. I have never had this occur when that energy didn’t find a way of planting itself in my mind and body (often my gut) and take up residence for a good while. I don’t know about you, but I can say that being angry often serves no positive or healthy service for me. So instead I turn to cooling my jets. To some this may sound like repressing but as Thich Nhat Han explains in this videohttp://tjbeitelman.com/2011/08/07/sacred-texts-anger-wisdom-for-cooling-the-flames-by-thich-nhat-hanh/ that it is has nothing to do with repression but with compassion.
The teachings on compassion show us how to use our heart when opening up to our anger towards ourselves or others. Thich Nhat Han shares this meditation “Breathing in I know that anger is here, Breathing out I know that anger is me, Breathing in I know that anger is unpleasant, Breathing out I know this feeling will pass, Breathing in I am calm, Breathing out I am strong enough to take care of this anger.” When we are mindfully aware of our anger rather than ventilating it we can see the roots of our anger along with misunderstandings and habitual conditions. In this process we have the capability to transform our anger into compassion and wisdom. So as you can see the practice of mindful compassion is active and has nothing to do with repression. It comes back to taking personal responsibility for your feelings and actions. He states “holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone but you are the one that gets burned.” Hurt people hurt people but until we slow down and stop the fire ball from spinning do we realize that this actually means that we are ALL hurting inside. The person harmed and the person doing the harm are suffering. Compassion and mindfulness has the potential to turn this suffering into love and compassion. These practices are not made for people who have superficial or irrational anger. Thich Nhat Han has written extensively about how he has used compassion and mindfulness to help him with the anger about the Vietnam War. He has shared his deep connection to the suffering to both his people and to the American soldiers who were sent to kill his people. No matter what the source is of the anger you struggle with, the only way through it is to practice compassion and love.
I leave you with these beautiful words from Thich Nhat Han in his poem “Please Call Me by My True Names”
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow-
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply; every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and the death
of all that is alive.
I am a mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am a frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve year old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blod” to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open,
the door of compassion.
Thank you all for tea today. I am blessed to have had the practice in my life and am thankful to all of you for being a part of my process.