When we are caught in anger, we are always cutting ourselves off from the bigger picture and from a sense of our basic connectedness. If we could see our angry emotional reactions clearly, it would become obvious that they deplete us and narrow our life. We would see how they are aversions to life, how they separate us and keep us closed.
Yet, in spite of the fact that we hurt ourselves and others with our anger, we hold on to this restricting emotion with a puzzling tenacity. Even as we continue to inflict pain by leaking our energy through angry emotional reactions, even as we narrow our life to one of petty self-centeredness, we continue to indulge in angry thoughts and behaviors with a stubbornness that defies common sense.
What is anger really about? When life is not the way we want it, we react. If we have expectations, we expect them to be met. If we have requirements, we require them to be met. If we have strong desires, we will not be satisfied unless they are fulfilled. Though life is neutral, with no bias toward fitting our pictures of how it should be, we continue to believe that life should go the way we want. And when it doesn't, the result is often anger, in one form or another.
I'm not talking only about big explosions of anger. Even on mellow days, we leak energy through anger, in subtle ways, from morning to night. We can be angry in the form of impatience if we have to wait in traffic at a red light. We can be angry in the form of irritability if our television remote stops working. We can be angry in the form of self-righteousness if someone arrives late. We can be angry in the form of frustration if our team loses. We can be angry in the form of indignation if we feel we are ignored or not appreciated.
Most of the time we don't even see how we leak away energy through anger, how we narrow our life, or how we perpetuate our suffering through our attachment to life's going a particular way. Most of the time we simply follow one of the two characteristic ways we have been taught to deal with anger when it arises.
First, if our conditioning tells us that it's not OK to be angry, we will suppress our feelings. Even when we know this approach is not good for our physical or emotional health, if the conditioning is strong, we will still tend to stuff our anger. Interestingly we continue to do this even in spiritual practice. It is not uncommon for meditators to unskillfully suppress their anger in an attempt to fulfill some ideal picture of how they're supposed to be. But whether we use meditative bypass or other diversions such as food or television, pushing our anger out of awareness does not free us from it. It continues to imprint on us, festering inside as unhealed pain. Whether it visits us as disease, depression, passive aggression, or an explosion of rage, sooner or later it will arise.
The second, more common, way of dealing with anger is to express it. We express it internally through ruminating or wallowing; we express it externally through blame. The point is that our expression always entails believing in our reaction, with all the consequent self-justification. We have a forceful determination to be right and to prevail, even if only in our own mind.
Whether we suppress or express our anger, in neither case do we ever clarify it, nor do we really experience it. Even when we're caught up in expressing anger, we're rarely in touch with its energy. We're so lost in the juiciness of believing our thoughts and in blaming that we don't experience the anger. In fact, one of anger's functions seems to be that it allows us to avoid facing what's really happening. What are we avoiding? We could be avoiding the more painful emotions of hurt or grief. We could be avoiding facing the core fears that almost always underlie our anger. It's so much easier to be angry -- especially when the juices are flowing -- than it is to experience hurt or grief or fear. No wonder we spend so much time indulging our anger! But even when we feel the power and juiciness of being angry, of being right, we are still shutting life out and closing our hearts.
It's necessary to acknowledge that we often love our anger, even when it makes our life miserable. We often mistake the feeling of power that accompanies our anger as being somehow authentic and self-validating. This is the so-called ego at its work of perpetuating the self-centered dream.
One of the main difficulties in working with anger is that often it arises suddenly or right in the middle of messy and complex circumstances that aren't conducive to a focused attention on the emotion itself. Perhaps the best we can do is to just watch ourselves go through our familiar angry response. Or perhaps we have experienced the same old pain enough to know at least to keep our mouth shut, to refrain from causing further harm. This in itself could be a big step forward.
We have to understand that it's not bad to feel anger; anger is simply our conditioned response to life when it doesn't match our pictures. We only make matters worse by adding to the anger self-judgment and self-hatred, both of which are rooted in more pictures of how we, or life, should be. Instead, we can bring loving-kindness -- the essence of which is nonjudgment to our practice, lightening the heaviness and self-importance of our own drama.
To practice with anger, we have to be willing to work with it, not as the enemy, not as the ancient burden of "my suffering," but as just the stuff of our conditioned life. When we see this clearly, we also see that not visiting our anger on others is a very big step in learning to clarify it. Learning to keep our mouth shut when we would otherwise vent is no small task. This is not to suppress, but to put our potentially harmful behavior on hold for the time being.
Then, as time allows, we can revisit what actually happened. When we next sit down to meditate, we can re-create the upset in our mind. We all do this anyway when we wallow and self-justify, but I'm talking about doing it as practice, intentionally and with awareness. When we deliberately re-create an upset, we remember what actually happened -- where we were, what was said, how we felt. If it's difficult to access the same emotional punch, we can exaggerate the circumstances simply to reconnect with the original feelings. The point is to experience the anger (or any emotion) within a practice environment. Even if we can't re-create the exact emotional reaction, we can still work with it in a way that would not have been possible in the confusion and speed of the original episode.
One helpful tool that I learned from Joko [Charlotte Joko Beck, author of Everyday Zen, Ordinary Mind and the earlier Nothing Special: Living Zen] is to break down the re-created emotional experience into three Components: the objective situation, the emotion itself, and the behavioral strategy that followed the emotional reaction. This helps bring clarity to the process.
For example, your mate or coworker criticizes you, and before you know it, you're in an angry exchange. Later, when you re-create this experience, you first ask yourself, "What was the objective situation? What actually happened?" Often all that happened is that words were spoken, or even more objectively, sounds connected with the tympanic membrane in your ear. The words themselves had no emotional load. You grafted the emotional reaction onto the objective events. Once you see this, you can then look at the second component: the emotional reaction itself. What specific emotion or emotions did you feel? Be as precise and honest as you can in identifying your feelings; often we don't even know what they are. Then move to the third component, the behavioral strategy. What was your strategy -- to comply, to attack, to withdraw? Though the strategy is not the same as the reaction, they are often connected in the same predictable pattern.
When we're caught in the behavioral strategy, we have little hope of clarifying our anger. This is especially true if our strategy entails blaming and self-justifying, with that accompanying sense of power in being right. If we can refrain from blaming, we can focus on the initial reaction itself. We first ask, "What are the believed thoughts?" Sometimes the believed thoughts are right on the surface; other times they may not be accessible. Either way, the next and most crucial step is to enter the physical experience of the emotion. Truly residing in our anger has the potential to take us down to the core fears that are often driving our surface reactions. Practicing this way repeatedly will enlarge the sense of spaciousness around our angry reactions. As we regard them less as "me", we become less likely to get caught up in them.
When we see clearly how anger arises simply because life is not fitting our little pictures, dropping the anger is not so difficult. What is difficult is that we want to be angry. We can see how our anger comes from our unfulfilled pictures and from our wanting to justify the anger. We can also see that when anger arises, we don't have to express it, nor do we have to justify it by defending the believed thoughts.
Sometimes we might have the thought that we must be angry to engage in life. We might think that certain situations require action and that unless we are angry, we won't act. When we see what we think is clearly an injustice, isn't our anger the catalyst for our actions to remedy the situation? If we weren't angry, what would motivate us to create positive change?
From a practice point of view, anger is never justified, no matter how righteous we may feel. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't act when the situation requires action. It means we can act without the negative aspect of our anger. As long as we fuel this negativity by believing in our thoughts, we impede ourselves from acting with clarity. As long as we are being run by the powerful negative energy of anger, we are closing our hearts tightly shut. In most cases we are still mainly in the grip of fear, in which we make life -- whether in the guise of a person, a group, or an institution -- the enemy. This roots us firmly in a narrow sense of "self." When we justify our anger in this way, we have lost all sight of the bigger picture, of our basic connectedness.
So notice your anger whenever it arises. Regard it as your path to awakening. See how it arises out of your unfulfilled pictures. Notice whether you stuff it or express it. If you express it, notice your flavor: do you express it internally through stewing, or do you put it out there, even in subtle ways? See whether you can identify your believed thoughts. Then bring yourself back to residing in the physical experience of anger itself.
Be open to experiencing your core fears. Remember, you can do this only when you choose to stop blaming. Do you want to keep your heart closed in anger? Feel the pain of continuing to live in that way and let that disappointment penetrate your heart.
This article was excerpted from:
Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life
by Ezra Bayda.
About the Author
EZRA BAYDA is a Zen teacher affiliated with the Ordinary Mind Zen School, having received formal dharma transmission in 1998 from the school's founding teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck. A student of meditation for more than thirty years, he lives, writes, and teaches at the San Diego Zen Center in San Diego, California.