Let’s Talk about Anger

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Dear Still Water Friends,

Over the years I’ve talked with lots of people about anger and I’ve come to recognize that what people believe anger to be and how they experience anger is very personal. As children we absorb a working knowledge about anger from watching and listening to the people around us, and through what we ourselves are encouraged or discouraged to express. In my family, although there were occasional angry outbursts, much more common were quietly held angers and resentments. One pretended to oneself and others that everything was ok, but one didn’t let it go. However, the angers and resentments often broke through the pretense and appeared, usually without conscious intent, in forms such as angry or blaming thoughts, comments about people, cutting remarks, lack of communication, or social distancing.

I carried into adulthood the sense that my possible responses to annoying, frustrating, or threatening situations, or perceived injustices, were either outward anger, or a resentment-filled passivity. I learned the hard way that being limited to these two approaches didn’t work well either in my personal relationships or with regard to social and environmental injustices I wished to ameliorate. Many friends, nonviolent activists, psychologists, and Buddhist teachers helped me expand, bit by bit, my understanding of emotions, habitual patterns, and loving actions.

One of the most helpful realizations was that anger was much more complicated than I had ever considered it to be. It wasn’t simply an innate response to various stimuli, somewhat like a gagging reflex. Anger was usually, perhaps always, just one of many possible responses to a given situation. The Buddhist teacher and therapist Sylvia Boorstein wrote in It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness:

Anger is often a big problem for people who grew up in families where the overt expression of anger was an everyday occurrence. They have too much opportunity to practice anger and not enough sense of the other possibilities. Rage becomes, for them, the habitual response of the mind to unpleasant situations.

But what is anger anyway?

The scientific study of emotions, beginning with Charles Darwin in the 1870s, posited that all humans and even some animals expressed emotions in remarkably similar ways. Decades of research were done on the presumed universal emotions (such as anger, fear, surprise, disgust, happiness and sadness) that researchers took for granted that all humans experience and can recognize in others, regardless of culture. Until recently, this is what psychology departments taught, therapist believed, and pretty much anyone who thought about emotions agreed with. In the twenty-first century, however, a new cognitive science paradigm emerged that challenged the universal emotions presumption as overly simplistic, and documented that the research that supported it was deeply flawed. Emotions like anger, fear, or sadness do not arise from a specific organ or function of the body, brain, or neurological circuitry. All the information our bodies can give us is whether a particular experience is pleasant or unpleasant, and whether we are activated (high energy), or non-activated (low energy). It is our early family experiences, our shared cultures, and our own prior experiences that give us words for and help us make sense of what we are experiencing in different contexts.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, a proponent of the new approach, writes in a 2016 New York Times article:

Anger is a large, diverse population of experiences and behaviors, as psychologists like myself who study emotion repeatedly discover. You can shout in anger, weep in anger, even smile in anger. You can throw a tantrum in anger with your heart pounding, or calmly plot your revenge. No single state of the face, body or brain defines anger. Variation is the norm.

The Russian language has two distinct concepts within what Americans call “anger” — one that’s directed at a person, called “serditsia,” and another that’s felt for more abstract reasons such as the political situation, known as “zlitsia.” The ancient Greeks distinguished quick bursts of temper from long-lasting wrath. German has three distinct angers, Mandarin has five and biblical Hebrew has seven.

The Buddha also often taught about anger. Anger was included, along with greed, and delusion, in what are called the three poisons, the primary causes of suffering in our lives. However, the Pali word he used, “dosa” is not simply “anger” in the generalized English sense of the word. It is a particularly strong and destructive anger. The Pali Text Society Dictionary translates dosa as anger, and also as ill-will, evil intention, wickedness, corruption, malice, and hatred.

The Buddhist tradition identifies dosa/anger as a hindrance to liberation because such a such a strong and destructive anger clouds the mind. When we are angry like that, we are not allowing in new information or possibilities. In the extreme case, anger overwhelms us and irrationality takes over. If we act out of dosa/anger, even though others may make concessions or appease us, our actions are rarely wise and often the actions born of anger only make the situation worse. There is a Zen simile that acting out of anger is like stabbing yourself through the stomach in order to attack with your sword a person standing behind you.

I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) that mindfully sitting or walking with my anger would help me acknowledge, embrace, and transform my anger. In Peace is Every Step he explained:

The first function of mindfulness is to recognize, not to fight. “Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me. Hello, my little anger.” And breathing out, “I will take good care of you.”

Once we have recognized our anger, we embrace it. This is the second function of mindfulness, and it is a very pleasant practice. Instead of fighting, we are taking good care of our emotion. If you know how to embrace your anger, something will change.

We have said many times that it is like cooking potatoes. You cover the pot and then the water will begin to boil. You must keep the stove on for at least twenty minutes for the potatoes to cook. Your anger is a kind of potato and you cannot eat a raw potato.

Mindfulness is like the fire cooking the potatoes of anger. The first few minutes of recognizing and embracing your anger with tenderness can bring results. You get some relief. Anger is still there, but you do not suffer so much anymore, because you know how to take care of your baby. So the third function of mindfulness is soothing, relieving. Anger is there, but it is being taken care of. The situation is no longer in chaos, with the crying baby left all alone. The mother is there to take care of the baby and the situation is under control.

Over the years my experience of sitting with my anger is that when I am able to feel my anger (and sometimes, to have a dialogue with it), I can identify underlying circumstances and feelings. I’ve learned that my anger has non-angry elements in it, such as annoyance, frustration, sadness, hurt, disappointment, or moral outrage, and sometimes elements much more personal that I don’t have names for, such as “the bitter emotion that arises when I’m feeling disrespected or dismissed.” (Feldman Barrett and others call this more finely-tuned awareness of our feelings and mental states “emotional granularity.”) Sitting with, recognizing, and embracing all that my anger contains helps me to calm down and to discern those actions or non-actions that might relieve my suffering and the suffering of others.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation, I look forward to talking with others about anger. We will begin with these questions:

  • What was your experience with anger growing up?
  • What have you learned about anger?
  • When do you manage your anger well? When not so well?

In an except below,  Lisa Feldman Barrett explains how we construct different emotions out of very similar physical sensations.

Warm wishes and many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

From the transcript of Lisa Feldman Barrett’s 2018 TED talk

Predictions link the sensations in your body that give you these simple feelings with what’s going on around you in the world so that you know what to do. And sometimes, those constructions are emotions.

So for example, if you were to walk into a bakery, your brain might predict that you will encounter the delicious aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. I know my brain would predict the delicious aroma of freshly baked chocolate cookies. And our brains might cause our stomachs to churn a little bit, to prepare for eating those cookies. And if we are correct, if in fact some cookies have just come out of the oven, then our brains will have constructed hunger, and we are prepared to munch down those cookies and digest them in a very efficient way, meaning that we can eat a lot of them, which would be a really good thing. …

But here’s the thing. That churning stomach, if it occurs in a different situation, it can have a completely different meaning. So if your brain were to predict a churning stomach in, say, a hospital room while you’re waiting for test results, then your brain will be constructing dread or worry or anxiety, and it might cause you to, maybe, wring your hands or take a deep breath or even cry. Right? Same physical sensation, same churning stomach, different experience.


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