Cooling the Flames of Fury

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”

Road rage, roid rage, mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore. sometimes it appears as if the only thing we have in common with our fellows is our feeling of ill will toward them.

As the existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, so acerbically put it:  “Hell is other people”.  The Buddha, on the other hand, reminds us of our duty to take care of each other, to dwell in the spirit of compassion and loving-kindness.  As the Buddha said, “One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.”

Anger, said the Buddha, is one of the three poisons, (the others are greed and ignorance) and a serious impediment on the road to enlightenment.  Yet, who of us, even the most calm and serene of Buddhist masters, does not occasionally flare up, boil over or slowly burn up?

Anger, is a nearly universal human experience.  It is considered to be a secondary emotion, closely related to pain and aggression.  Anger is a powerful emotion.  It is an energy that can be wielded for the good, as well as for the ill.  When we are threatened or hurt or when we are frustrated, we react instinctively – fight or flight.  Anger’s physiological response of arousal evolved to help people to handle threats, real or imagined.  It is a message to others – back away or suffer the consequences.  The consequences are often, as we know, violent and sometimes even deadly.

Culturally, our ability to express anger toward others is closely tied to our degree of dependence on them. To the Inuit of Canada, the Kalahari bush people, and the Tarahumara of Mexico, anger is virtually unknown, except in extremely ritualized and expressionistic ceremonies.  The reason for this is simple:  In extreme environments where our survival is so intimately dependent upon the goodwill of our brothers or sisters, anger cannot be tolerated.

In our own semi-civilized civilization, where we are largely disconnected from our fellow men and women, we can afford the luxury to be angry while suffering calculatedly little in the way of consequences to our individual survival.

But anger is very often self-defeating and the consequences of our anger can be severe and long lasting.  Anger can irreparably damage relationships and even destroy lives.  In short, anger creates suffering – for us and for others.  It is also difficult to control. like a brush fire it cannot be easily doused and is easily re-ignited.  The expression of anger, rather than diminishing our arousal, increases our capacity for becoming angry and this can result in a lower threshold for anger and in our becoming angry more and more often.

As in the story of the Buddha and the poisoned arrow, we do not need to know the maker of the arrow or the source of the poison before we can treat the victim:  we need to pull the arrow out immediately and treat the wound in order to begin to effect the cure.

Likewise, regardless of its cause, anger can be treated and managed.  Here are some simple tips:

1. Recognize your anger triggers and try to avoid them.  For example, if running late stresses you out and leads to you getting stuck in traffic and your losing your temper, try to leave yourself a little extra time.  The best way to deal with anger is to avoid the situations that are most conducive to creating it.

2. Stop.  Breathe deeply and relax.  Counting to ten is not such bad advice.  Just pausing can help us to realize that we can behave differently. If you’re stuck in traffic, you’ll have no problem finding a few moments to take a breath.

3. Remove yourself from the situation!  Sometimes you need to put a little space between you and the object of your anger. Anger can easily get out of control and escalate into violent conflict.  Pull over or pull off out of the traffic jam if you can, even if it means adding a little extra time to your journey.

4. Imagine the consequences of your anger and try to step outside of the situation.  For instance, recognize that speeding past that inconsiderate driver may lead to unintended consequences, such as an accident, a ticket or a careless driving charge.  Ask yourself if you will still be angry about it ten years or even ten days from now.  Imagine acting in such a way yourself.  Each of us has been that bad driver at one time or another.

5. Be assertive.  Assertiveness is positive behaviour that clearly communicates your wants and needs but acknowledges and respects the other person.  You have a right to say `no’ without having to feel resentful or guilty.  Driving assertively means driving defensively.

Finally, remember, anger is an energy that is capable of uprooting us when we get stuck and sometimes we do need uprooting.   When we are frustrated, anger can move us toward finding a solution. Anger can be the catalyst for change when we are hurt or when we are in pain.  We must keep in mind, however, that anger is not an excuse for blaming or harming others.  As the Buddha said, “Hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible”.