Ways to Tame Our Most Destructive Emotion
NRAGED BY A FAST-BREAKING CAR in front of him, a man loses control and crashes at an intersection; tempers flare and a fist fight breaks out. In a store nearby, a man stomps off in a huff, cursing the clerk for declining his credit card. In an apartment up the street, a mother screams at her daughter to clean up her room. Down the block, a schoolgirl pouts because her father won’t let her date an older boy. Around the corner a man slaps his six-year-old son because he won’t sit still in the car. Anger, the most powerful and hurtful emotion we possess, is everywhere. Yet, the average person succumbs to it helplessly, willingly, lapsing into insane episodes now and again without thinking much about it. Many would defend it as their ally, a tool they could not live without. Anger is expressed by humanity in drastically different manners. Low-minded individuals take delight in being angry toward others and expressing that anger in aggressive and violent ways—gang wars, school bullying, vandalism and more. They deliberately use anger and violence to get what they want. Then there is the mass of generally law-abiding people who live a normal, working life but are seriously angry on the inside about one thing or another and express that anger regularly in their words and actions. They are simply angry at the world and have neither the means nor the motivation to eliminate anger from their lives. They are, as a popular book observes, angry all the time. Finally, there are those who are striving to live a life according to spiritual principles but are at times unable to control their anger and as a result end up hurting others and breeching Hinduism’s core virtue, nonviolence (ahimsa), while creating new negative karmas to live through in the future. It is to such individuals, who are striving to control anger, even eliminate it from their pattern of behavior, that this Insight is addressed.
Anger and the Spiritual Path:
To improve our understanding and control of anger, it is helpful to look at the concept of the threefold nature of man: 1) superconscious or spiritual, 2) intellectual or mental and 3) instinctive or physical-emotional. It is the instinctive, animal-like nature that contains the tendencies to become angry and harm others. The goal of living a religious life is to learn to control these animal instincts—as well as the ramifications of the intellect and the pride of the ego—and thereby manifest one’s spiritual nature. Spiritual striving produces gradual improvement in harnessing and transmuting our instincts, intellect and ego, with the entire process of soul evolution spanning many lifetimes.
Anger is the base behavior of reacting to challenging situations by becoming frustrated and upset, even enraged to the point of lashing out with words or fists. Webster compares the terms for anger as follows: “Anger is broadly applicable to feelings of resentful or revengeful displeasure; indignation implies righteous anger aroused by what seems unjust, mean or insulting; rage suggests a violent outburst of anger in which self-control is lost; fury implies a frenzied rage that borders on madness; ire, chiefly a literary word, suggests a show of great anger in acts, words, looks, etc.; wrath implies deep indignation expressing itself in a desire to punish or get revenge.”.
Learning to control anger is so essential to harnessing the instincts that the 2,200-year-old South Indian scripture on ethics, the Tirukural, devotes an entire chapter to the subject, shown above. It is, in fact, the chapter that precedes “Avoidance of Injuring Others”—the order of these chapters itself suggesting that to successfully practice nonviolence we need to first control anger.
The Tirukural warns that anger gives rise to teeming troubles. It kills the face’s smile and the heart’s joy. It burns even friends and family who try to intervene, and easily leads to injuring others. Left uncontrolled, it will annihilate you.
A few years ago we had a perfect opportunity to observe this fiery emotion. Two carpenters were building a house next door to the monastery. One, James, clearly more prone to anger than the other, would swear loudly and at length when something didn’t work out right, sometimes every few minutes. About once a week, the two men would have a huge argument and James would drop his tools, stomp off the job and drive away, his tires squealing in defiance. It was a powerful demonstration of how anger can become an accepted part of life for many people.
Swami Budhananda (1917-1983) of the Ramakrishna Mission noted in a series of talks published in Vedanta Kesari, www.sriramakrishnamath.org: “The evil effects of anger are innumerable. The first thing that happens to an angry person is that he forgets the lessons of wisdom he has learned in life. After that, he loses control over his thoughts and emotions. He becomes overactive, with his highly charged ego as his only guide. He loses his power of discrimination, sense of proportion, and becomes aggressive in manner, hostile to his own welfare. When anger becomes the second nature of a person, physical health and equanimity of mind suffer, and inner peace vanishes in a trice. Anger can destroy friendships, families, business partnerships, professional prospects. Communal and ethnic riots, arsons, wars, suicides, murder and many other forms of crime are basically products of anger. In fact, anger makes even a handsome person look ugly. I suggested to a friend, who is remorseful about his flashes of anger, that he keep a large mirror facing his office desk. In case the anger-prone person has a lively sense of humor, this mirror-therapy is likely to work.”
People are not equally susceptible to anger. Some are usually calm, but occasionally flare up. Others anger easily. Many people are selective about whom they get angry with—perhaps just their spouse or daughter-in-law.
My Gurudeva, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, observed that anger is the most difficult fault to overcome because it manifests in so many different forms: pouting, long silences, shouting, yelling, swearing and more. In Living with Siva, he lists the eight forms of anger from the book Angry All the Time (see sidebar below): 1) sneaky anger; 2) the cold shoulder; 3) blaming and shaming; 4) swearing and yelling; 5) demands and threats; 6) chasing and holding; 7) partly controlled violence and; 8) blind rage. These are called the eight rungs on the ladder of violence, an analogy that Gurudeva found helpful in showing how anger can easily snowball. For example, an evening might start with a mild expression of irritability that seems harmless enough but soon escalates into shouting and swearing and culminates in physical cruelty.
Anger and the Chakras:
Useful insights into the nature of anger and how to control it can be gained by relating it to the Hindu system of chakras, the subtle centers of consciousness within each individual (see sidebar to the right). There are seven primary chakras along the spinal column and in the head. When our awareness is flowing through these chakras, consciousness is in the higher nature. The seven chakras, or talas, below the spine, down to the feet, are seats of instinctive consciousness, the origin of fear, anger, jealousy, confusion, selfishness, absence of conscience and malice. Blind rage, the eighth rung on the ladder of violence described in Angry All the Time, corresponds to the second lower chakra, called vitala. Gurudeva explains, “Anger comes from despair or the threatening of one’s self-will. When people are in the consciousness of this chakra, they are even angry at God. With their wrath, they often strike out at those around them, leaving a trail of hurt feelings behind them. From sustained anger arises a persistent, even burning, sense of resentment.”
When someone goes into a blind rage, he drops far below the chakras of memory and reason—the muladhara and svadhishthana. Therefore, it is no wonder that afterwards he may not even remember what happened. His consciousness was totally in the vitala chakra, having given up the normal faculties of memory and reason.
Many people think that sneaky anger and the cold shoulder are natural and harmless. Gurudeva warned that, while they are not as vicious as yelling and screaming or throwing things, these expressions stimulate the lower chakras and over time can easily lead to more extreme outbursts, as well as the experience of other lower-chakra emotions, such as fear and jealousy. For these reasons, it is best not to indulge in sneaky anger or the cold shoulder. Sarcasm and cynicism can also be forms of anger. Gurudeva observed, “People who are cynical are expressing their anger and contempt with snide remarks. They may seem to be joking, but their sharp feelings come across anyway, which stimulates that lower chakra until one day their cynicism will turn into really good anger. Then they build up new karmas they never had before, which they will live with until they are faced with those karmas.”
Swearing is even more problematic, as it stimulates the lower chakras to a greater degree than sneaky anger, the cold shoulder or cynicism. Therefore, it is important in managing anger to break the habit of swearing.
Step One for Conquering Anger:
For those on the spiritual path who are striving to control anger, there is an important first step. That is to acknowledge that anger is a serious problem that easily leads to violence and is a quality that should be totally absent from those dedicated to making progress in their spiritual life.
I gave the following advice via e-mail to a devotee who was working to refrain from expressing occasional anger toward a parent: “Thank you for sharing the details regarding your angry encounters. I would suggest you reflect on the seriousness of disharmony in the home. It is taking a few steps backward in spiritual progress. When you do sadhana, you move forward. But if you become angry regularly, you step backward, and as a result you may end up standing still. It is like trying to save money for a special purpose. You save for a while, but then spend what you saved last month, which is like becoming angry and forfeiting the progress you made in your sadhana. By taking anger seriously, you will be motivated to avoid it at all costs.”
The devotee recently e-mailed again saying the advice had helped her cope with the force of anger. She had taken the first step—acknowledging that it is a serious problem, an unacceptable mode of behavior for those on the spiritual path.
With this resolve firmly in mind, she was ready to take the second step: to apply remedies to improve her behavior. On pages 46-49, in the illustrated sidebar, we offer seven remedies. The first is to affirm the Hindu perspective that everything in the universe is perfect; the entire physical, mental, emotional and spiritual flow of events is moving in perfect harmony and exquisite coordination according to the divine laws of karma and dharma. Each happening is as perfect as an ocean wave or a butterfly’s wing. Anger is an instinctive-emotional protest to what is happening at a particular moment. “Things are just not right!” anger declares. The source of peace and contentment is the opposite sentiment—a wholesome, intelligent acceptance of life’s conditions, based on the understanding that God has given us a perfect universe in which to grow and learn, and each challenge or seeming imperfection we encounter is an opportunity for spiritual advancement. Gurudeva wrote: “We are all growing toward God, and experience is the path. Through experience we mature out of fear into fearlessness, out of anger into love, out of conflict into peace, out of darkness into light and union in God.”
The second remedy is a first-aid technique to apply during angry outbursts. It is to visualize light blue flooding out from the center of your spine into your aura, displacing the blackish reds that anger automatically displays in the colorful field of subtle energy radiating within and around your body. Mystically, this has the effect of moving your awareness out of the angry state of mind into a more peaceful mood.
The third remedy is to worship Lord Ganesha, the elephant-faced Lord of Dharma, a compassionate God, ever available to assist embodied souls with immediate needs to further their evolution. Remedy four is a penance, setting aside a specified sum of money every time you experience anger. The fifth remedy is to skip the next meal if you become angry. These two sacrifices are designed to remold deep-seated subconscious patterns, called vasanas, convincing your subconscious that you are serious about controlling your anger and gradually subduing any occurrence of wrath. Remedy six, the flower penance, is a way of letting go of angry feelings that you hold toward another person. Offering flowers with a loving heart has the effect of dissolving the resentment and awakening forgiveness—be it toward a parent, spouse, employer, sibling or friend. The seventh remedy is to perform three kindly acts toward someone who has disturbed you. For a loved one or close acquaintance, the acts can be performed openly. For others, such as business associates, employers or fellow employees, your good deeds may be done subtly, even without their knowledge. It may be difficult to fulfill this, as it requires you to go against the instinctive compulsion to hold on to hard feelings. But acting kindly toward offenders releases you from the grip of seething anger, as surely as the sun dispels a morning fog, dissolving it in the light of higher consciousness. The seven remedies are designed to help seekers objectify their anger, to see it in a clear, detached manner, as a force that they have the power to harness and transmute into higher forms of expression and ultimately be free of it altogether.
Diet and Ayurveda:
What we eat influences our state of consciousness and where we are in the chakras more than most people realize. The Hindu ideal of following a strict vegetarian diet has many benefits, including lessening the tendency to become angry. Eating meat, fish, fowl and eggs, on the other hand, opens the door to lower consciousness and makes it harder to stay out of the lower states. Temperament is largely a matter of food. The Chandogya Upanishad (7.26.2) teaches: “When the food is pure, mind becomes pure. When the mind becomes pure, memory becomes firm. And when a man is in possession of a firm memory, all the bonds which tie him down to the world are loosened.” A vegetarian diet helps put us in touch with our higher consciousness and is therefore helpful in increasing our control over anger, as well as the other lower states of mind.
In the healthcare industry, anger is viewed as an insidious malady that, if not harnessed, leads to serious illness, causing high blood pressure, various diseases and even fatal heart attacks. It is addressed with prescription drugs, aromatherapy, massage and homeopathy. The Hindu medical science, ayurveda, views anger as a primary sign of imbalance of the three bodily humors, known as doshas. Dr. Virender Sodhi (www.ayurvedicscience.com) of Bellevue, Washington, explained, “Anger is under the control of the pitta dosha. Pitta is intelligence, anger, digestion, fire, sight and so on. At the mental level, we have four drives: anger, attachment, ego and desire for sex. Although all these are normal animal behaviors, imbalance in these leads to imbalance of their respective doshas. Just as attachment increases kapha, anger increases pitta. Imbalance in pitta dosha can cause excessive anger, liver maladies, hypertension, etc. Balance is achieved by calming yoga, shitali pranayama, walks, mantra, self analysis and diverting the anger into a different form. Ayurvedic medicine also advises cooling foods and environment.”
Dr. Vasant Lad, director of the Ayurvedic Institute (www.ayurveda.com) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, offers basic remedies for anger in The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies:
“Pitta is necessary for right understanding and judgment, but when it gets disturbed or out of balance, it creates misunderstanding and wrong judgment, leading to anger and hostility. Here are several simple home remedies to cool down that hot pitta and keep tempers under control.
“Diet: Perhaps most important, a person who becomes angry easily or often should follow the pitta-pacifying diet, especially avoiding hot, spicy and fermented foods, citrus fruit and sour fruit. Favor simple, bland foods and cool drinks, and avoid alcohol and drinks with caffeine.
“Keep cool: It’s also not recommended for people with a pitta body type to take saunas or steam baths, to get overheated from exercise or sports, or to be in too much direct sun.
“Oil massage: Rub some bhringaraj oil or coconut oil on your scalp and on the soles of the feet. That will help to bring down the excess pitta. You can do this every night before getting in bed to regularly moderate pitta.
“Sandalwood oil: Another simple and effective way to help balance your emotions is to place a drop of sandalwood essential oil on the third eye area between your eyebrows, as well as on the throat, breastbone, navel, temples and wrists.
“Herbal teas: Take ½ teaspoon of chamomile and 1 teaspoon of fresh, finely chopped cilantro leaves and steep them in 1 cup hot water for about 10 minutes. Allow this tea to cool before you drink it. You can drink it three times a day, after each meal.
“Ghee nasya: Dip your little finger into a jar of brahmi ghee (or plain ghee) and lubricate the inside of your nostrils with a small amount. (Make sure your nails are trimmed so you don’t scratch yourself.) Then gently inhale the ghee upward. This sends a calming message to the brain.
“Shitali pranayama: Make a tube of your tongue; breathe deeply through your mouth down into your belly, hold the breath for a few seconds; exhale through your nose. Do about 12 repetitions.
“Yoga postures: Good yoga asanas for pitta include the camel, cobra, cow, boat, goat and bridge poses. Avoid the headstand or other inverted poses, such as the plow and shoulder stand.
“Meditate: There is an ancient method of meditation that involves watching your every emotion come and go, without either naming it or trying to tame it. As the feelings arise, breathe deeply and exhale the emotions out.”
Anger and Spiritual Striving:
Anger is a natural emotion, a protective function of the instinctive mind, not to be vilified or feared. It is a part of our nature, and it is normal to express it—that is, if we are content to live at the instinctive level of our being, which many people are. But each soul inevitably reaches a point where it seeks to harness the natural instincts. Gurudeva explained, “Anger is also, like fear, an instinctive control, and at one time served its purpose. The onrush of anger served to protect man’s private interests in critical situations by injecting adrenaline into his blood and thus preparing him for defense. But as man evolves closer to his real, actinic being, he discovers that actinic love, understanding, compassion and wisdom are higher qualities than anger.”
Managing anger is vital for anyone who seeks success at sophisticated endeavors and stable, wholesome relationships. For aspirants seeking self-transformation on the spiritual path, it is absolutely essential, for only when the lower nature is subdued can the divine nature be fully expressed. Daily spiritual efforts designed to bring forth the divine nature are known as sadhana, such as japa, meditation and yoga. As Gurudeva wrote, sadhana, spiritual discipline, is “the mystical, mental, physical and devotional exercise that enables us to dance with Siva by bringing inner advancement, changes in perception and improvements in character. Sadhana allows us to live in the refined and cultured soul nature, rather than in the outer, instinctive or intellectual spheres.” But, Gurudeva warned, every time you become angry, you destroy one month’s worth of spiritual striving and practice, or sadhana. So, if you don’t control anger, performing sadhana is a waste of time. Hence, the number-one sadhana is anger management.
Gurudeva is adamant that seekers refrain from any serious meditative practices until anger and other lower emotions have been harnessed. “Those who remain prone to anger should not do raja yoga or any form of intensive mantra, japa or pranayama amplification of the energies into higher chakras—lest that collective energy plummet into the corresponding lower chakras and be vented through fear, anger and jealousy. Rather, they should perform the always healing vasana daha tantra [writing down and burning recollections of the past] and confine themselves to karma yoga, such as cleaning in and around the temple and picking flowers for the pujas. These simple acts of charya [humble service] are recommended, but should not be extended to intense worship. Then, and only then, their life will be in perspective with the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma and begin to become one with Siva’s perfect universe. Brahmadvara, the door to the seven chakras below the muladhara, will then be sealed off as their experiential patterns settle into the traditional perspective of how life should be and each individual should behave within it.”
When working to harness the instinctive nature, what is it that tells us how well we are doing? It is the subtle irritation, the seed of wrath, that precedes every form of anger, from the cold shoulder to blind rage. Viewed in this way, the impulse to anger is—at the beginning of the path, the intermediate stages and even subtly at the upper reaches—our astute teacher, signaling to us each split-second the opportunity to be more patient, more understanding, more compassionate and to find a better way to cope with tense situations and keep closed the door to the lower chakras.
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