Soon after Nelson Mandela’s release from twenty-seven years in jail Bill Clinton asked him if he was angry the day he finally walked away free. “Surely,” Clinton said, “You must have felt some anger?” Mandela agreed that, yes, alongside the joy of being free, he had also felt great anger. “But,” he said, “I valued my freedom more, and I knew that if I expressed my anger I would still be a prisoner.
Anger can be an effective expression of passion for justice and fairness, for basic rightness, for what is appropriate and humane. But anger can also be like a single match that can burn an entire forest, causing tremendous damage and hurt, wars, greed and self-deception. The fallout can be huge and, invariably, we have no control over the repercussions.
Few of us want to admit that we get bitchy, shout, or lose our temper—we much prefer to see ourselves as being wonderfully tolerant and serene. Yet we all get angry at some time or another and in its passion anger pushes away, condemns, and makes everything wrong except itself. Our heart goes out of reach and we lose touch with our feelings. There is no compromise, no chance for dialogue—I am right and you are wrong.
Trying to eradicate anger is like trying to box with our own shadow: it doesn’t work. Getting rid of it implies either expressing it, and possibly causing emotional carnage; denying and avoiding it, which is a way of lying to ourselves and can cause depression or bitterness; or repressing it, which just holds it inside until it erupts at a later time when it can cause even more harm.
“Ducks don’t do anger,” says Deepesh Faucheux in our book, Be The Change. “Ducks fight over a piece of bread and then they just swim away. But people keep processing everything that happens to them. That processing of the story—what so and so did to me, she wronged me, why doesn’t he respect me—keeps the energy identified as anger and resentment, instead of seeing it as simply energy.”
There are often layers of conflicting feelings hidden beneath anger, such as hurt, insecurity, sadness or fear. The power of rage is such that it can overshadow these other emotions, causing us to lose touch with ourselves and struggle to articulate what we are really feeling. Having lost our connectedness with each other, anger can really be a cry for attention or for contact; it may be expressing grief, loneliness, or a longing to love and be loved. We are saying, “I love you,” or “I need you,” while hurling abuse at each other.
“We get to see that underneath anger,” says Rabbi Zalman Schachter in Be The Change, “there is fear, pain, and sorrow, and we cannot deal with anger unless we also deal with what sustains the anger. We forget how we are hardwired. The reptilian system within us makes sure we are secure and safe. If we do not feel secure, then the dinosaur will rear its head and roar. So under anger is always the question of how safe does the reptilian feel.”
We need to go beneath the anger to see what hurt, longing or fear is trying to make itself heard. There may be feelings of rejection, grief or loneliness, so if we repress anger or pretend it isn’t there then all these other feelings get repressed and ignored as well. Only by recognizing what the real emotion is behind the expression can there be more honest communication.
By naming and recognizing the many faces of anger, we can stay present with it as it arises, keeping the heart open, breathing, watching emotions come up and pass through. We can watch as anger fills the mind and makes such a song and dance, and we can just keep breathing and watching as it goes on it’s merry way.
Meditation not only invites us to witness anger, but also to get to know and make friends with ourselves. It gives us a midpoint between expressing anger and repressing it, a place where we can be aware of our feelings and not be swept away by them. Meditation is not going to make all our challenges go away but it does enable us to rest in an inclusive acceptance of who we are.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
~ Rumi ~