At its simplest, anger is ‘I don’t want this,’ amplified. Its sibling, frustration, is ‘I want this and I can’t have it,’ amplified.
It’s human nature to experience wishes, wants, and needs. We want our basic needs to be met. Food, shelter, water, sleep, physical activity. We want more of the things we enjoy, and less of the things we don’t.
Anger is one way we defend our wishes, wants, and needs.
When we don’t get what we want, we feel angry. It motivates us to get what we want and to get rid of what we don’t want.
In the spiritual path, anger is a signpost. It tells us what we want, and what we don’t. It tells us what our values are, and what they’re not. It tells us what we think is good, and what we think is unhelpful.
The unraveling of one’s anger isn’t, in the Buddhist path, something that happens quickly. It’s not one of the first steps towards Enlightenment. It’s not something to focus on when you’re starting out.
The Buddha’s teachings tell us that anger is eradicated in a never-returner. That’s someone whose spiritual practice rocks so hard that they’re not going to be reborn. This is a Big Deal.
Anger is weakened, but not eradicated, in a once-returner. You have probably deduced that a once returner is someone who comes back to human birth once. Well done!
The first big step in terms of progress (although this language really doesn’t sit comfortably with me with regard to practising the Buddha’s teachings) is becoming a stream entrant – someone who’s gone beyond the point of having a fixed sense of self, suffers doubt and indecision about the effectiveness of the path or of their potential as a student of the path, and the empty, meaningless use of rites and rituals i.e. they’re going through the motions.
So, only when you’ve gone beyond stream entrant, and your practice has taken you beyond once-returning to never-returning, are you free of anger.
In short: don’t expect people who aren’t profoundly and proficiently spiritually accomplished to experience or express zero anger. You’re bonkers if you think that’s even possible!
On the other hand, if someone claims to have reached the awakening (at least in the Buddhist sense) and they still experience anger? They’re not awakened.
The unraveling of anger comes about through unraveling the craving underneath it. If the wishes, wants and needs that drive the anger are weaker, the anger becomes weaker, too. It doesn’t disappear overnight. It doesn’t get stamped out prematurely. It dwindles over time.
How do we unravel the craving, and thereby diminish the anger?
By getting to know what the craving is. By becoming and being aware of what our inner wishes, wants and needs are. Through self-knowledge.
This is where anger has a starring role. When a need is frustrated, anger bubbles up. By getting to know what the anger is about, we know our craving. Through knowing our craving, we can be reasonable about whether getting the craved-for thing is going to lead us towards happiness and contentment or towards further craving.
Anger is information.
Take that information, get to know your craving, see the craving for what it is, let it go if appropriate. Your anger will diminish.
But why not just ignore the anger, and push it away? If anger disappears on the spiritual path later on anyway, why shouldn’t we just cut it out now and be done with it already?
Precisely and simply because it doesn’t work that way.
If we push away anger before we’re ready to let it go of its own accord, we create a bigger mess.
Put crudely, if the toddler pushes away the nappies (diapers, dear Americans, diapers) before she’s toilet-trained and ready to let go of the nappies, there’s going to be mess everywhere, in uncontrolled and unexpected places. You’ll end up learning a lot about how to clean poop out of upholstery, carpets, crevices and clothing, but you won’t have time or energy to help the toddler go to the toilet because you’re so busy cleaning up the mess.
Keep the nappies on – allow yourself to feel your own anger – until you’re toilet trained!
In fact, to continue the metaphor – your nappies are your trusted friends who will help you to contain your mess until you’re more skilled. I have some wonderful friends who are happy to be ranting buddies with me. They have a good rant, and I do too. We know we can hold the mess for one another while we figure out what the anger’s actually about. Do not imagine the nappies metaphor continuing at this point!
If we’re lucky, we had parents and other carers who helped us to learn, respect and contain our anger as children. Many of us didn’t, so we’re figuring it out as adults.
Many of us don’t even know we’re angry.
When your family culture disallowed anger, your anger goes unnoticed, unheard. It’s hard to hold your boundaries. You stay in discomfort, unable to move out of the situation. The anger is there alright, but you don’t feel it. You learned (subconsciously) to block it out, just like the adults around you showed you how.
On a spiritual path, you can’t integrate the parts of you that you shut out. Like it or not, you and your anger will meet one another on your path.
The many faces of anger
Angry anger is the one we perhaps expect and recognise the most. It’s raised voices, shaking of fists, posturing, pointing, and slamming doors on the way out. This is the one we were told not to do.
Rage is angry anger gone beyond control – or beyond what’s appropriate where it’s taking place. It’s violence against people and things – smashing crockery, windows, faces, or all three. We definitely shouldn’t be doing this one.
But these are but two of anger’s faces – neither of them allowed, so where does the anger go? Once anger rises up, what outlets does it find?
Pushed underground, anger goes silent.
There’s frozen, silently seething anger. The slight sharpness in an otherwise civil conversation. The avoiding of any contact other than the strictly necessary for being in the same physical space together. No eye contact, no bodily contact, nothing. An icy wall between you.
There’s leaking anger: whining is anger coming out through a very small hole. Anger that’s forced its way through into the open. Restricted, impotent, annoying whining.
There’s what I call hissy anger, where all interactions are tinged with the hiss of anger. Everything – every word, every action – becomes armed by a flash of anger, an implied or explicit criticism, an unmistakable edge.
Then we get to angry anger, and upping the intensity and volume of expression, rage.
What to do about anger
Admit its presence.
Making sure you and the people around you are safe – emotionally and physically – explore your anger.
Feel your way into it.
Write a few things down that you’re angry about.
What’s the outcome or situation that you would prefer to have? Ultimately, you’re angry because things aren’t how you want them to be.
Allow the anger to make itself known.
On the path to recovery from abuse or trauma, admitting your anger can lead you to find your strong desire to heal, to love, to be loved, cared for, and to not have crappy things happen to you. Tapping into this strong desire is like strapping booster rockets to your healing.
As always, you have options.
- Do nothing
- DIY it
- Get support from friends, skilled helpers or professionals, or someone like me who help you to home in directly on the roots of your anger.