Maybe it’s just me, but it appears that anger is the main emotion of our time. Yes, there is kindness, and I do meet people who are not angry; yet, of the people I meet, more display anger than who display kindness. I don’t think my experience is abnormal.
In a study conducted a year ago, researchers Okuda, et al. discovered that 7.8% of the Americans they surveyed, 34,000 adults over the age of 18, found an overall prevalence of inappropriate, intense, or poorly controlled anger. That percentage may not seem high, but round out the numbers, and for every 34,000 adult Americans, 3,000 of them exhibit poorly controlled anger. (“Prevalence and correlates of anger in the community: results from a national survey.“ April 2015)
Why is there so much anger? We see it in the streets, in demonstrations, on social media, etc. I have my theories, but the focus of this article is not on the why, or the origin, of the anger. Rather, I write this article on anger from the perspective of mindfulness. In mindfulness we are urged to remain in the moment, non judgmentally. Following that suggestion, I don’t necessarily need to understand why someone is angry. What would be helpful, assuming the anger is taking a person away from their peace, is to guide that person to shift their perspective and so take an action in the hopes of returning that person to sense of peace.
As a counselor and practitioner of mindfulness, I don’t perceive the feeling of anger as either positive or negative. The feeling is the feeling; what I do with the feeling is what is either positive or negative. So, anger in and of itself is not the issue. My perception and actions based on the anger is the issue. Therefore, that many people these days seem to be angry is not what bothers me. What many of them are or are not doing is the issue.
Anger, as an emotion, has it’s place. Anger has been used successfully as a means of defense against danger, both physical and emotional. Anger, felt when we perceive a threat, produces in us an increase of the chemical adrenaline. This chemical prepares the body for a physical fight, and for later coping with the emotions of the event.
In today’s society, whenever we feel that our ideas, beliefs, or opinions are attacked, our basic instinct kicks in resulting in an anger response. Anger is undoubtedly the most judgmental of our emotions. It’s also the most moralistic, self-righteous, and repudiating. Most of us will defend, sometimes to the death, what we believe. Attacking a person’s beliefs or opinions is akin to an attack of the person themself. Why? Because we are the thinker of our thoughts! In essence, if you attack my thoughts, you attack what I created, and in so doing you attack the creator, me.
Anger is probably the only emotion which we consciously cling to. Think about the last time you felt happiest. How long did that feeling, in it’s intensity, last? And when the feeling drifted away, many of us say “I wish it lasted longer.” Yet, when it comes to anger, when was the last time that feeling simply drifted away? For many of us, we hold onto it, ruminating over and over the offense which was done. Logically, between the emotions of happiness and anger, which would you choose to stick around? I would choose happiness, but as I write this I’m not angry. If I were, odds are I’d be choosing anger.
Why do we hold on to anger? Let’s examine what the emotion of anger does for us:
- It provides us with a feeling of power.
- It enables us to believe that we are in control of the situation.
- It confirms for us that we are right and correct in our stance.
Examining this list, why wouldn’t I want to hold onto anger? Actually, there is a number one reason why we can’t bear to let go of our anger. If I give up feeling angry then I allow myself to feel less powerful, less in control, and I may discover that I’m not completely correct in my thoughts or beliefs. If I am willing to give over power and control to re-examine my thoughts, I have just opened myself up to self-examination!
Self-examination is one of the goals of meditation, and a means of growth. But self-examination can be scary as we uncover aspects about us that we may not wish to open, or aspects that even we don’t like. As we hold onto our anger we don’t allow for this self-examination. In many cases, that which angers us in others is exactly what we are covering up in ourselves!
As I see it, there is what I call a “healthy anger” as opposed to an “unhealthy anger”. Healthy anger is feeling angry by choice (I grant that all emotions ultimately are chosen, as I often mention. For the sake of this analogy I am taking some license). For example, you witness an injustice and become angry since your belief system speaks to justice for all. Your motivation for feeling the anger is not toward a self-righteous indignation or a sense to overpower someone “because I can”. Your anger, in this scenario, most likely will result in action toward resolving the injustice, whereby all parties involved will be granted a sense of peace. As peace overtakes the anger one is willingly open to self-examination. While the unhealthy anger is that anger which I hold in a self-righteous manner with no motivation or intention toward a sense of peace or self-examination.
The person who practices mindfulness, meditation, and self-examination (the best they can) recognizes within them a sense of peace and peacefulness. Note that I don’t speak of the “feeling” of peace, rather, the sense of peace. Feelings, such as anger and happiness, are fleeting. They come and go. Having a sense of peace within is not fleeting. A sense of inner peace speaks to an awareness of the person and their environment. We can feel angry, happy, sad, etc,, while at the same time maintaining a sense of peace. Look to people such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. I have no doubt they felt anger, that was part of their motivation as to why they acted. But a reason their actions were not violent, and their rhetoric was of love is that they had a sense of inner peace allowing them to feel anger, yet not allowing them to betray their beliefs through their actions.
When we feel emotions and act in unison with our core beliefs, not violating our true self, then we are at peace. We may feel anger or sadness at situations or even toward specific people, but in maintaining a union between those feelings and our actions to our core beliefs, we retain our sense of inner peace even as we struggle through the turmoil of our feelings.
Our challenge is not to stop feeling angry. Rather, our challenge is to learn how best to respond to anger. Here are my steps for using anger for the good:
- Prior to feeling angry, practice mindful meditation and spend time in self-examination.
- When you feel anger, find your inner peace to help change your perspective to understand the situation from everyone’s viewpoint.
- Take action in union with your core beliefs and which will ultimately lead to the spreading of peace to all involved.
- When the situation is over, refuse the urge to hold onto the anger. Let your inner peace over take the anger and allow yourself time to re-charge.
I agree that there is much in our world toward which to feel anger, and there are many places and people who do not have a sense of peace. Use the steps above to rise to the challenge of using your anger for the good.
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