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Anger: Destructive, Yet Manageable

You look for the phone charger in your son’s car glove compartment and instead pull out a Ziplock with small bags of weed, neatly marked with his friends’ initials, ready for the resale. Now you understand where that money for the Xbox came from.

Your daughter’s phone pings in the middle of the night on the kitchen table. You pick it up and discover the revealing pictures she’d posted of herself on social media, and the validating round of applause from adult male admirers.

I’ve heard these stories. How would I feel if I were that parent? I know exactly how – a rush of anger about to explode into a full-blown fit of rage.

What would it accomplish? Who cares! That’s what I’d feel at that moment. But in retrospect, an outburst of rage usually accomplishes little, but destroys a lot.

Jewish literature abounds with moralistic teachings about why anger is wrong, unwise, unholy, “a disease of the soul,” as Orchot Tzaddikim calls it. And yet it’s there.

What can we do about anger? How can we put out the lit fuse before it detonates the bomb?

Three Mindful Practices

One practice I recently learned in my Mussar class is to visualize your immediate reaction rather than act on it. When you get angry, imagine a lit match brought before a fuse. “Hold that image steady. Imagine yourself in control of the movement of the match . . . You, and you alone, can control the movement of the match. Now slow down the speed at which the flame moves toward the fuse. Pause, take a deep breath. Now, begin to expand the space between the flame and the fuse. Keep expanding that open space” (Pathway II).

The goal here is not to suppress the anger, but to create the space and time in which one can respond more reasonably, mindfully to the situation at hand. And this visualization can be practiced beforehand - a few times or regularly - before the situation occurs, so that when needed, it can be quickly deployed.

In the Buddhist tradition, anger, or ‘dosa’ in Pali, is one of the three ‘poisons’, which along with delusion and greed, control us and overcome the best in us. One Zen approach to anger is to notice it and stay with it, explore it. Where is it in my body – in the chest, throat, knees? How does it feel – burning, rolling, pulsating? Meditating on it, rather than, going with is a path away from it.

“To ‘become the anger’ does not mean to act it out,” explains Zen teacher Jules Shuzen Harris. “It means we stop separating ourselves from it; we experience it fully so that we can understand what’s behind it. . . We become intimate with anger, and in d