Instructions for Anger
Whether we are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Agnostic, Atheist, or somewhere in-between any of the above, we all experience anger. I think anger can sometimes be a positive emotion. The patient who is angry that a disease like cancer seems to think it can beat them will get angry and often, fight harder to survive. But what about that deep anger that destroys us from the inside out?
Thich Nhat Hanh describes happiness as not suffering. This Buddhist teacher and spiritualist reminds us that true happiness comes from within ourselves and not from material things or social standing. Regardless of how it may seem, reality shows like “the Kardashians” are not about people who have it all but rather about people who struggle with an impossible race to reach happiness through impossible means. The one emotion that drives such programs and thinking is anger.
Nhat Hanh explains: “In our consciousness there are blocks of pain, anger and frustration called internal formations. They are also called knots because they tie us up and obstruct our freedom. When someone insults us or does something unkind to us, an internal formation is created in our consciousness. If you don’t know how to undo the internal knot and transform it, the knot will stay there for a long time. And the next time someone says something or does something to you of the same nature, that internal formation will grow stronger. As knots or blocks of pain in us, our internal formations have the power to push us, to dictate our behavior.
“After a while, it becomes very difficult for us to transform, to undo the knots, and we cannot ease the constriction of this crystallized formation. The Sanskrit word for internal formation is “samyojana”. It means “to crystallize.” Every one of us has internal formations that we need to take care of. With the practice of meditation we can undo these knots and experience transformation and healing.”
It has become popular to “vent” one’s anger. Sometimes people hit pillows but does this really release the anger? As a parent I taught my kids to do jumping jacks, that exercise where you spread your arms wide over your hard and spread your feet accordingly while you jump back to a standing position. For small children, this gives them a sense of being in control as they dictate what their body is doing and are no longer captive to their feelings of anger.
For adults, Nhat Hanh offers this advice. “Whenever you feel yourself becoming angry, start practicing mindfulness. Think of that one thing that makes you happy. Visualize yourself in your most favorite spot doing something you enjoy doing. Recall the feelings of happiness that that activity and that location bring to you and let yourself experience happiness. To be happy, to me, is to suffer less. If we were not capable of transforming the pain within ourselves, happiness would not be possible. Many people look for happiness outside themselves, but true happiness must come from inside of us.
“Mindfulness does not fight anger or despair. Mindfulness is there in order to recognize. To be mindful of something is to recognize that something is there in the present moment. Mindfulness is the capacity of being aware of what is going on in the present moment. “Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me; breathing out, I smile towards my anger.” This is not an act of suppression or of fighting. It is an act of recognizing. Once we recognize our anger, we embrace it with a lot of awareness, a lot of tenderness.”
We are going to feel anger. It is an inevitable part of life. It is up to us to decide whether to use it, embrace it, or to let it eat us up and destroy us. Nhat Hanh suggests this analogy: “When it is cold in your room, you turn on the heater, and the heater begins to send out waves of hot air. The cold air doesn’t have to leave the room for the room to become warm. The cold air is embraced by the hot air and becomes warm—there’s no fighting at all between them.
“Practitioners of meditation do not discriminate against or reject their internal formations. We do not transform ourselves into a battle field, good fighting evil. We treat our afflictions, our anger, our jealousy with a lot of tenderness. When anger comes up in us, we should begin to practice mindful breathing right away: “Breathing in, I know that anger is in me. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my anger.” We behave exactly like a mother: “Breathing in, I know that my child is crying. Breathing out, I will take good care of my child”, ourselves.
When we use our anger mindfully, we are showing compassion, not only to another but also to ourselves. We must learn to do this because without it, we will not truly show compassion to others. Nhat Hanh offers this very important piece of advice regarding life, its messiness and its inevitable feels of anger. “To grow the tree of enlightenment, we must make good use of our afflictions, our suffering. It is like growing lotus flowers; we cannot grow a lotus on marble. We cannot grow a lotus without mud.” Anger will be a part of our lives. We can either choose to let it be the medium through which we grow or something that drags us down like quick sand.