Living in times of big change can activate the entire spectrum of our emotional pallets. Change makes us more aware and sensitive to how things feel. Our emotions provide us with flavor, texture and richness. Like thoughts and actions, our emotions are powerful energies for communication, creative expression and inspiration. And they can be powerful traps.
The difficulty is not with emotions themselves but the story we tell ourselves about them. “I’m feeling this so it must mean that.” We tend to make judgments and evaluations about our emotions as being good or bad. We identify strongly with our feelings as being so big and powerful that they must be all we are, as in “I’m so sad and hurt right now I may never be happy again.”
It is helpful to remember that emotions are like weather fronts that rise and fall over the landscape of our consciousness. Some storms are intense and scary and can cause a great deal of damage. They can obscure the light of the sun for days and weeks, making us think that things will look gray and dark forever. But even the harshest storm system clears to reveal the sun again: a storm brews, gains power, discharges itself and eventually blows over. Emotions in all of their variety do the same thing…they come and go. This is an easy thing to forget when you are caught in a downpour without an umbrella.
Of all the emotions in our repertoire, anger seems to be the hardest to handle for older souls. We have been told that it’s “unspiritual” to get angry, so we judge it as bad and banish it deep into our bodies or unconscious, only to see it erupt in a host of destructive behaviors or create illness. Anything we disown in ourselves is bound to cause us trouble down the line. What is a skillful and wise approach to anger? Is it necessary to express it each and every time we feel it arising? Rather than being frightened by our anger, what if we just got to know it well, and met it with the same awareness we would meet a friend?
In developing awareness, here are some things to consider about anger:
- Don’t assume that you are a person who never gets angry or that you are a bad person for being angry. Anger is part of the human package and is there for a reason.
- Get to know the unique qualities of your anger when it comes up. Is it hot, cold, quick to rise and fall, an out of control fire consuming everything in its path, a volcano, a gentle rain, a flash flood?
- Is your anger rising to defend yourself from attack, to set a boundary with someone? To say “No” or “Stop”?
- Is your anger fresh, having to do with the present circumstances or a smoldering ember from the past?
- Are you feeling angry as a direct result of being hurt or being afraid?
Anger as a pure energy has the power to transform situations and to cause great destruction. Like a brush fire, it can burn away the dead grasses and clear the field of old debris, burning out when it has exhausted its fuel. Healthy anger allows us to set good personal boundaries and clear the air in relationships. Toxic anger pollutes everything it touches. Anger that sours and turns to bitterness is the most dangerous because it is the most armored and isolating. Through paying close attention to our anger when it arises, letting it be to burn itself out, we give ourselves a chance to decide what is anything needs to be said or done.
With intention, it is possible to channel the energy of anger into constructive outlets. Because anger is a physical energy, get moving. If your anger is old and volcanic, find out what the root cause is and liberate that. For many years I suffered from migraine headaches. After extensive healing work, I discovered that the root cause of the condition was accumulated anger that would rise up from the lower chakras and settle in my head. I tried to think and reason the anger away which of course didn’t work. I discovered that I didn’t have the ability to set good boundaries verbally and once I began to do that, the headaches went way.
The true medicine for anger is active generosity. Being generous means not fighting but embracing and transforming anger with patience and tenderness. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen teacher describes the process this way:
“When it is cold in your room, you turn on the heater, and the heater begins to send out waves of hot air. The cold air doesn’t have to leave the room for the room to become warm. The cold air is embraced by the hot air and becomes warm—there’s no fighting at all between them. We practice taking care of our anger in the same way. Our anger is us and our compassion is also us.”
Skillful means with our harder emotions requires patience and understanding. With all there is to feel strongly about in the world, we can apply the same understanding we give ourselves to what we hate about war and injustice. We can still have the purity of our feelings without adding wood to the collective fire of fear and aggression. We can also extend our generosity to those close to us that are being buffeted by emotional storms. It is possible be alert and helpful without having to get caught in a hailstorm that we don’t belong in. How we negotiate this territory is one our biggest challenges in a rapidly changing world.