From Anger to Compassion
“Anger is like a hot stone. When you pick it up to hold or throw at someone, you get burned.”Ancient Proverb
Anger is an emotion most often legitimized by righteousness: anger at our assailant, anger at the hit-and-run driver, anger at our victimization, anger at our addiction. Justifiable anger certainly makes sense in some ways, but when we begin to examine our anger from a neutral position, finally seeing its source, our perceptions begin to change. Working with anger has been a key part of my own recovery. Anger would consume me when I was a teen, and it continued to do so well into my early sobriety. At that time, the justification felt authentic. I responded to most things by getting angry: Scared? Anger. Stressed? Anger. You can see where I’m going with this. Like drugs and alcohol, the anger stopped working. It was one more thing I was addicted to. I liked my justification.
I’ve learned that anger is fear’s way of not showing its wide-eyed terror; it’s hurt’s way of shielding a broken heart and hurt feelings; it’s loneliness trying to appear courageous. Anger, despite its deeply embedded hooks, is merely a mask. In reality, it is a secondary emotion. Granted, everyone gets angry, however, what we choose to do with our anger will ultimately choose its outcome. Because anger exhibits itself in our body’s “fight or flight” response, employing some self-awareness can be especially helpful. For example, pay attention to your body’s physical reactions. You can ask yourself questions like: What’s happening with my breathing—is it faster? Is it shallow? Is my stomach tight? Am I afraid? Stopping when the anger starts allows us to take care of the anger. It allows our anger the space it needs to dissipate, rather than being fed by the fires of our reactions. Buddhism suggests we observe our anger and send it compassion. In fact, they say compassion is the antidote to anger, which is a wonderful way of addressing anger. I rather like what Lama Surya Das has to say:
“I believe that anger is just an emotion. We needn’t be afraid of it or judge it too harshly. Emotions occur quickly; moods linger longer. These temporary states of mind are conditioned, and therefore can be reconditioned. Through self-discipline and practice, negativity can be transformed into positivity and freedom and self-mastery achieved.”
The truth is, feeding the fuel of anger only breeds more anger. Learning how to sit with the uncomfortable sensations that come with rage teaches us that those intense emotions will pass. It provides us with an opportunity to transform an emotion that has the potential of destroying us.
Here’s a story typically attributed to a Native American elder which explains this better than I ever could:
A grandfather imparting a life lesson to his grandson tells him, ‘I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is vengeful, fearful, envious, resentful, deceitful. The other wolf is loving, compassionate, generous, truthful, and serene.’ The grandson asks which wolf will win the fight. The grandfather answers, ‘The one I feed.’”
Which emotion will you feed?