There is nothing intrinsically harmful about anger. Anger is a natural emotion that moves us to action. As with all emotions, it rises and falls away. So why do we often feel that we can’t shake anger? Why does it stick to us however hard we try to push it away?
The answers are many. Perhaps this stickiness comes from how our culture teaches us not to show anger or how as children we protected ourselves in difficult and dangerous situations by not showing it. The truth is, though, the cause is not what matters. What matters is how we are with it; how we respond to it.
In my life experience, anger has been a great teacher. A person very close to me had for many years been caught in the throws of addiction hurting herself, her family—all her relationships and endeavors. Her suffering was palpable. At first, when the call would come that she was in a desperate situation, I would run to her side with the belief that I could set everything right. Once the appearance of balance and health emerged I assumed all was right and would leave triumphantly. Of course, this was a delusion. I had accomplished nothing and failed to notice this for the longest time.
Over time my anger grew becoming a constant irritating companion. Then, fortuitously, as my mindfulness practice developed, I noticed and sat down with my anger. This starting where I was, was crucial in my journey of awakening to my anger and my true nature.
At first I sat with it in the same way I might sit by a roaring campfire. Giving it space, I sat a little bit away from its heat while watching intently its flames flicker and dance. I sat with it for a long time in this way noticing, acknowledging, and watching. When it felt right, I invited it to,open to me from its perspective by asking, “What’s the worst part of the situation?” It let me know.
It showed me what lay beneath. First, there was hurt ego desperately playing the savior, believing that it could control and fix everything. There was resentment that this person had spoiled our relationship. There was paralyzing fear that this person would be arrested, thrown into jail, or die. There was recognition that this suffering was arising from my response to the situation. Finally and surprisingly, my anger released.
It showed me that the way to freedom from my suffering, lay in going through the anger. Not skirting it, not attacking it, not pushing it away. By being fully present with it and immersing my full attention in it in a neutral yet friendly way it both dissolved and led me to appropriate actions.
In my case the appropriate actions were the setting of appropriate boundaries which led to the further action of changing my behavior. I acknowledged that I had no control over the situation but I did have a choice in how I responded to it. In this process, my love and compassion grew stronger.
My experience led me to understand that noticing, acknowledging, and being present with anger are the first steps to allowing anger to do its job, to move me to action. So now when anger arises, I turn to it and invite it to let me know what it is wanting while knowing that its wanting will unwind like the layers of a juicy onion. At first as we cut the onion, it brings tears to our eyes. Then as we slowly cook it, it releases its sweetness. So, too, with anger.
Go ahead. Experience your anger.