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 doing so, we watch it dissipate.”
My personal technique is to go back to my name. My Zen dharma name is Kyojin, which means ‘abiding in compassion’. It represents the kind of person I strive to be. Faced with an exploding rage, I ask myself, what would a compassionate person do? How can I respond to the situation from the perspective of love, equanimity, and understanding? Sometimes all it takes is that sudden change of perspective, for the rage to dissipate.
In a parenting situation like those above, that compassionate perspective reminds me to look out for the best interest of the child, for their safety and growth, and also for the type of non-explosive communication that they can actually hear and learn from. As it says in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), “Words spoken softly by wise men are heeded sooner than those shouted by a lord in folly.”
Not all anger is evil. Anger can give you a tremendous amount of power, the power to transform something bad into something good. Anger at unfairness or injustice perpetuated at your person, family, community, or people, can motivate you to act in constructive, transformative ways. From the Warsaw ghetto uprising to the ACT-UP actions during the AIDS crisis to Black Lives Matter of late, we have seen many inspiring examples of turning anger into addressing a social problem head-on.
I remember demonstrating by the polling station in a deeply conservative pocket of Orange County on the day a state referendum (Prop 8) was about to deprive my husband and me of our marriage. Many slurs, and even beer bottles, were hurled at our small group holding up the signs, but we didn’t move. I turned my anger at the discriminatory proposition into public action, and if my 3-D visibility as a gay man helped at least some people change their minds, it was all worth it.
Anger can teach us a lesson about ourselves, spotlight the insides of our soul with a high-voltage lamp. Like any other quality of the soul, it is always present within. Managing it mindfully, rather than succumbing to it or denying it, offers practical insight. “If a man’s wisdom overpowers his anger, and he . . . does not do anything in his anger that he would not do were he not angry, in this his wisdom is recognized” (Orchot Tzaddikim, 237). I don’t always succeed in managing my anger, but at least, I know I have options.
Jules Shuzen Harris. “Uprooting the Seeds of Anger” in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Summer 2012.
Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 9:17 quoted via Sefaria.org.
Orchot Tzaddikim: The Ways of the Righteous. Edited by R. Gavriel Zaloshinsky. Germany, 15th century. Jerusalem, New York: Feldheim Publishers. 1995.
“Pathway to the Inner Way, Part II. Lesson 11 Anger.” The Mussar Institute, 2020.