Anger: Friend or Foe?

How can we motivate ourselves to overcome anger? We might begin by considering the nature of anger to see whether it is a necessary, helpful, or pleasant state of mind. In other words, does anger improve the quality of our lives in any way? If we have ever observed how our mind and body feel when we are angry, we will have no illusions about anger being a pleasant experience. Irritation, annoyance, and hatred are miserable states. Not only is the mind agitated so that we cannot rest, but the body is also affected in a negative way. It is well known that a predisposition to anger and irritation contributes to many health problems, such as high blood pressure, digestive disorders, and stress-related illnesses.

Allowing for the fact that anger is a miserable state of mind and that it is detrimental to our health, does it have any redeeming value? Perhaps you think that anger can motivate people to "do what needs to be done." Indeed, anger can be a strong and energetic motivator, but it often compromises our performance because it weakens our reason, intelligence, carefulness, and circumspection. Whatever we do when we are angry, in other words, may fall short of our true potential.

For example, if you are engaged in any kind of negotiation, say a discussion with your boss over a raise you have asked for, the worst thing you can do is become angry. Anger can make you "lose your cool" and start blurting out all sorts of nonsense. You might even insult your boss and jeopardize your job. Whatever happens, it's unlikely that you'll get the raise you are seeking. While anger may be an effective motivator for irrational, foolish, and destructive action, it is not useful for improving the quality of our lives.

Righteous Indignation Towards Injustice

Other people might argue that "righteous indignation" or anger in response to some injustice in the world is a positive quality. We may have good reasons to justify our anger, and we may be right. But anger is never a constructive response that leads to beneficial action.

In many parts of rural Asia, people still use oxen-drawn carts to transport goods and produce. While standing on the side of the road, a man observed a merchant sitting on a fully laden cart being drawn by a scrawny ox. The merchant must have been in a hurry and impatient with the pace of the ox, for he was beating the poor animal with a whip. On seeing this act of cruelty, the man on the side of the road was overcome by feelings of indignation. He leapt onto the cart, grabbed the whip out of the merchant's hand, and started to beat him!

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You may be thinking that the example above is remote from present-day experience, but consider the recent story of a father who had taken his ten-year-old son to play a game of hockey. Like many other sports, hockey can be quite aggressive, and it seems that this children's game was no exception.

While watching from the stands, the father became increasingly angry by the amount of physical contact and fighting being tolerated by the adults monitoring the game. His righteous indignation focused on one of the men on the ice, who happened to be the parent of another player. The father became so irate that he assaulted the man as he was leaving the rink, and then, after being ordered out by a rink manger, returned to slam the man to the ground beside a soda machine. The man's head hit the concrete floor, killing him instantly.

As this shocking story illustrates, anger is not a constructive response to any situation. It is an affliction that benefits neither the person who is angry, nor the people who come into contact with that person. Even worse, anger tends to be contagious; it spreads easily from one person to another. Therefore, when we say, "I have a right to be angry!" we are saying in effect, "I have a right to suffer this miserable and destructive state of mind!" Indeed we do, but why would we want to exercise such a right? We do not need anger to make a responsible and meaningful contribution to life. As human beings we can be motivated by more skillful qualities, such as reason, understanding, compassion, or duty. Anger is neither a good friend nor a helpful companion, so why not get rid of it?


If the preceding discussion has convinced you that anger is a state of mind you can do without, the Meditative Path offers a variety of approaches that can help you reduce the power of anger in your life. These methods help to free the mind from anger by changing the way you think about experiences, or the way you view the world.

Stopping the Cycle of Negative Thinking

It is possible for us to prevent the mind from sinking into a cycle of negative thinking when we are faced with an unpleasant physical sensation. We can apply the same approach to dealing with the anger that may arise when we come into contact with a person, experience, or situation that is not pleasing to us.

Using the awareness we have developed in meditation, we can "catch ourselves" quickly when feelings and thoughts of irritation arise. At the first sign of an angry response, we halt the negative thinking by reminding ourselves that anger never solves anything and that it always contributes to misery. When we use our powers of awareness and concentration in this way, we are not repressing our anger; rather, we are making a conscious choice about how we wish to respond to a situation and the mental state we wish to create.

Buddhist teachers often say that dwelling on thoughts of anger is like picking up red-hot coals to throw at someone. Who will be burned first? Because we do not want to burn our own fingers, we stop ourselves from picking up the coals. Similarly, to prevent a mental state of misery, we stop the mind from indulging in thoughts of irritation and anger. We center ourselves and establish awareness to guard against such tendencies.

This approach can be quite effective if our awareness is sharp and we are able to catch the negative reaction at its inception, before it gathers momentum. However, once our reaction has developed into a strong feeling, it is very difficult to stop the process, because anger weakens the rational and reflective qualities of the mind. An angry mind is highly agitated and has little chance of establishing the clear awareness necessary to restore peace and balance.

Anger: Friend or Foe?We can think of anger, in this regard, as a fire in a wooded area and negative thoughts as the brush and other fuel that feeds the fire. While the fire is small, it is relatively easy to extinguish it by denying it fuel. However, once a brush fire has consumed enough fuel to grow into a forest fire, it is very difficult to put out. In such cases, firefighters often must retreat and establish a perimeter of firebreaks to contain the fire until it burns out.

Similarly, when anger has already developed into a strong emotion, it is very difficult for us to halt the negative mental cycle. We may need to retreat or remove ourselves from the situation until the inner fire of negative feelings and thoughts burns itself out. Then we will be able to reestablish awareness and assess the experience with a clear mind.

Replacing Negative Thoughts

A variation on the approach above involves using awareness to interrupt negative thinking and replace it with constructive thoughts that help diffuse the feelings of irritation and annoyance. In other words, instead of continuing to justify and reinforce our negative reaction to a situation, we make the effort to bring to mind thoughts that elicit a more positive response.

We can prove to ourselves that this technique is effective by considering the following story:

A man was waiting at the station for his usually punctual 7 o'clock train to the city. But this morning, the train was late. As he waited, the man became increasingly irate. By the time the train arrived forty minutes later, he was fuming. He could barely restrain himself from venting his anger at the conductor. However, before the man could speak, he overheard someone say that there had been an accident at the previous station during which a little girl had been killed. The feelings of sympathy and sorrow the man felt at this news caused his anger to vanish immediately.

Many times we generate anger or irritation about some situation based on assumptions and speculation because we do not know all the facts. Rather than persist in this unhappy pattern, we might try abstaining from judgment or giving people the benefit of the doubt until we understand what's really going on. To counter rising feelings of anger, we can intentionally bring to mind an explanation that helps us respond in a more patient and equanimous way.

For example, say you are driving to work and someone cuts in front of you. Instead of becoming angry or planting the seeds for "road rage" by indulging in negative thoughts about inconsiderate and dangerous drivers, why not give the driver who cut in front of you the benefit of the doubt? What if someone in that car was being rushed to the hospital? What if that driver was late to pick up a young child who was waiting at school? Once the thought of those possibilities arises in the mind, your feeling of annoyance automatically disappears.

The two methods for dealing with anger we have discussed -- stopping the cycle of negative thinking and replacing negative thoughts with positive ones -- assume that we have sufficient awareness to catch our negative thoughts early in the cycle, before they generate too much energy. Both are valuable techniques that require continuous vigilance, like an allergy that requires preventative medicine to keep its painful symptoms from flaring up. Other approaches to anger focus more directly on the root cause of the problem -- the way we view ourselves and the world around us.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Quest Books. ©2001.

This article was excerpted from the book:

The Meditative Path: A Gentle Way to Awareness, Concentration, and Serenity
by John Cianciosi

The Meditative Path by John Cianciosi. Directly from the heart, this practical, nonreligious book guides the reader of any faith to reduce stress, increase health, and achieve inner peace. It clearly explains the meditative process and offers very simple exercises to balance theory and practice. Each chapter includes Q&A sections based on the average reader's experience and crafted from the author's twenty-four years of teaching, first as a Buddhist monk and now in lay life. Of all primers on meditation, this one excels in showing how to slow down life in the fast lane.

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About the Author

 John Cianciosi, a student of the late Venerable Ajahn Chah, was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1972 and served as spiritual director of monasteries in Thailand and Australia. He now teaches at the College of DuPage near Chicago.