Given the anger that many people feel in relation to the tragic events in Ukraine and to violent conflicts in other parts of the world, it might be useful to reflect on this powerful emotion and to consider how we might deal with it. Here are a few thoughts.
It seems to me there are two broad aspects to the question of how we deal with anger: one, the emotion of anger itself; and two, our relationship with this emotion.
Anger as a response to a situation or event – cause and effect
Usually, anger arises in response to some external situation, event or action. Something happens to upset us, and we feel anger rise in us as a consequence of what has happened. We see someone being cruel to an animal or punching a person without due cause. We feel angry at what they are doing. The anger is a powerful response to something that we find upsetting and disagreeable. Can we channel the energy of the anger into doing something concrete to remedy the situation we are witnessing? Can we somehow stop the cruelty to the animal, or stop the person punching another? Can we channel the anger-energy to do good, rather than harm – to relieve the suffering of the animal or the person who is being punched? Can we use the power of anger to change the situation that is giving rise to the anger?
It may be that we can do this. Anger can be a force for change, relieving suffering and turning a potentially negative emotion into a positive action. Many social changes are brought about as a result of anger felt by many against an injustice of some kind. The campaign against slavery, for instance, harnessed the energy of the anger that many individuals felt against this cruel and inhumane practice, to change both public opinion and, eventually, to introduce legislation that outlawed such practices.
Even if we cannot change the situation – there may be others who can
Sometimes we may be powerless to change the situation that sparks our anger. We may be frightened as well as angry, or we may not have the strength to stop the cruel actions of the other person. Sometimes we are angry at events witnessed via the media that are occurring in another part of the world. Can we channel our anger to try to persuade those who may have some influence over these events to act on our behalf? Or can we support organisations who are working to relieve the suffering caused by these events? In all these scenarios, our anger can be channelled towards doing good rather than harm - helping remove the causes of our anger in a way that benefits those who are being harmed.
Of course, it is vital that our anger, either consciously or inadvertently, doesn’t ‘add fuel to the fire’ – doesn’t make matters worse, or lead to even greater suffering or injustice. We each have to make a judgment as to which actions will help and which will not. Being mindful of our emotions, our actions, and the consequences of those actions, is always of vital importance.
Our relationship with anger
This brings us to the second aspect of this matter: our relationship with anger. The insight meditation teacher, Joseph Goldstein, has written about this and I would like to paraphrase a passage from his book, Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom. Goldstein identifies three processes at work: one, the external event that prompts our anger; two, the angry reaction itself; and, three, the relationship of our mind to the anger. He points out that we often become lost in the first two: the external situation and our reaction to it. Often our reaction involves a cycle of feeling and thought that inflames the anger and keeps it burning. We add more and more fuel to the fire, as we pile up our angry thoughts and feelings, sometimes even remembering other events that can be added to our stockpile of anger.
Goldstein suggests that, if we are to free ourselves from this anger-cycle, we have to find a way to step outside it – see the fire of anger for what it is. He suggests that it can be helpful to ask ourselves questions: ‘How am I getting caught in this anger? How am I getting hooked by it? How am I identifying with it?’ Just asking ourselves, ‘what is happening here?’ - or saying to ourselves, ‘this is an angry thought or feeling,’ can be helpful. The very act of posing these questions, opens up a space between our mind, the angry reaction and the external event that triggered it. In asking these questions, we have changed our perspective and stepped outside the anger itself. It may be that this is enough to begin to dissolve the angry feelings and thoughts. We are not repressing the feelings or pushing them away; we are acknowledging them as feelings and thoughts, and, significantly, taking responsibility for how we deal with them. This is to be mindful – to be open to the presence of our angry thoughts and feelings, to see them more clearly, but no longer to be in their grip. To see the thought or feeling within the vast space of the mind.
A change of perspective
It seems to me that Goldstein is articulating a useful way of stepping outside the magnetic pull of angry thoughts and feelings. In Zen, this shift of perspective is sometimes described as a shift from the viewpoint of Small Mind or Ego to the vantage point of Big Mind or Zen Mind. We change our perspective and, in doing so, break the ties that bind us to the anger. We no longer cling to the anger and no longer identify with it. Instead, we free ourselves from the power that the thoughts and feelings have over us. We can now see the thoughts and feelings as what Shunryu Suzuki calls ‘mind waves’ – ripples that happen in the mind but that need not disturb the mind itself. Like ripples happening on the surface of the sea, or dark clouds blowing across the vast expanse of the sky, or angry thought-fish darting here and there in the big wide ocean. Goldstein refers to the shift of perspective as a move from ‘emotional bondage’ to ‘emotional freedom.’
Of course, this shift of perspective is not always easy to achieve. The magnetism of anger can be very strong. We may have to try asking the questions a few times. Stepping in and out of the cycle of angry thoughts and feelings, until we break free. This is an art that requires cultivation, practice and determination. But we can all learn how to do it and get better at it each time we encounter the angry thoughts and feelings as they spark and catch alight.
Anger can develop into hatred
It is worth keeping in mind that not acknowledging and learning how to deal with anger can lead to hatred. When we identify too much with angry thoughts and feelings, maybe even enjoying them, becoming over-attached to them, the anger can gather momentum and turn into hatred. Anger and other negative feelings can feed each other and grow in power until they consume us. We find ourselves unable to step outside them, to shift our perspective. Instead, we burn with hatred - a deep-rooted tangle of powerful emotions and thoughts that are much harder to understand, and very difficult to let go of and to free ourselves from.
The power of hatred is such that we may seek others who can help us fan this emotional fire. One individual’s hatred can become a collective emotion that is fed by the thoughts and feelings of each participant. The hatred becomes so strong that those who feel and reinforce it lose their ability to think and act clearly or rationally. The emotion engenders a collective delusion that is as powerful and destructive as the emotion itself. Unable to step outside their hatred, or to see beyond it, individuals become imprisoned within walls of prejudice and irrationality. Individuals and communities bound by this kind of hatred see anyone who does not feel as they do as their ‘enemies’ or ‘opponents.’ The collective delusion prevents them from listening to other voices and views. The hatred has become a rigid inflexible worldview that excludes all alternative opinions, beliefs and emotions.
When a feeling turns into something as hard and intractable as stone, it is very difficult to work with it – to change it into something malleable and constructive. Only when those involved begin to see the hatred for what it is, and to take responsibility for it, can they begin to free themselves from its magnetic attraction. In this way conflicts and wars begin, run their course and finally end – leaving behind a trail of death, destruction and ill-feeling that may last for generations. It is for this reason, that angry thoughts and feelings need to be recognised, understood and handled with care and patience – enabling us to use the emotional energy of anger to do good in the world and to transform the potential violence of anger into non-violence – for ourselves and towards others.
Anger, conflict and compassion
And so, let our thoughts return to Ukraine and the many other zones of conflict around the world. Let us have the strength to channel our despair, anxiety and anger into actions that will help, in some small way, to alleviate suffering and bring the conflicts to an end. Let us give what we can to the charities and other agencies that are working to provide medical and humanitarian aid. And let us communicate to politicians and those in power, in whatever way we can, that everything possible must be done to bring these conflicts to an end.
And let us spare a thought for the countless citizens of countries in which opposition and disagreement are ruthlessly suppressed, who feel despair, shame, and possibly guilt, at the actions of their government – who do not support these actions, but who live in fear of the cruelty and inhumanity of those who have initiated violence and aggression towards others. In such circumstances opportunities to transmute the energy of anger, fear and guilt into more constructive actions are severely limited. Individuals who oppose the actions of their government but are powerless to change the minds of those in power, can only be mindful of their own feelings and find ways to understand and come to terms with the feelings that trouble them. Transforming their own thoughts and feelings into understanding and compassionate insight, can enable individuals in this situation to take care of themselves and those around them, biding their time until the situation changes, and they can exert some influence on the actions of their government.
Through understanding and insight, a change of perspective can occur. It is possible to free ourselves from harmful thoughts and feelings. When we are no longer bound by anger and fear, and no longer identify with them, we can once more feel the warmth of compassion and begin to care about those to whom our anger and fear was directed. In this way we can turn away from enmity and conflict and return to the path of empathy and peace.
It is important always to be mindful of anger and other harmful feelings as they flicker into being, trying to see them for what are, channelling and transforming their energy into a force for good. And it is equally important to practice the art of changing perspective – seeing the angry thoughts and feelings as the mind-ripples they are – no longer identifying with them and releasing our hold on them. In this way, we can become freer and calmer, and be at peace once more with ourselves and with others – hopefully enabling us to act with wisdom and compassion.
Goldstein, Joseph. 1993. Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.