A word, such as anger, gains its meaning through agreement and through the circumstances of its application. A word does not possess an inherent meaning.
For example, I hate you can express an intense dislike, a rage against another or against a group of people.
For example, does our hate show in wanting another to suffer as we have suffered?
Or, we might say laughing Oh, I hate you showing a light response to a close friend who teases us. There is no malicious intent in this use of the word hate.
The Buddha employs the word anger and similar words in specific ways. In his application of the meaning of anger, he never gives support to anger. He regards anger as an unresolved problem arising in the mind distorting our capacity to see a situation with clarity.
I share the same definition of anger. Others use the word in a positive way.
Unresolved anger arises due to dark images from the past, identification with self-righteousness, inflammation of feelings/emotions and an aggressive language.
Dharma teachings do not justify such anger but offer practices to dissolve this anger and to address such problematic behaviour towards ourselves or others.
Anger towards another(s) often produces five reactions from the other(s):
- same angry reaction thrown back
- a trauma
The teachings regard the outburst of anger or the continuity of it through negativity, fault-finding and blame as having a corrosive impact on our inner life and destructive in human relationships. People tell me that another’s anger ranks as their most difficult emotion to handle.
Children subject to daily anger from parents or peers become vulnerable to growing up with resentment and anger. The mind has learnt adults behave like this. Adults on the receiving end of anger can feel traumatised and desperately unhappy facing anger.
The angry person erodes their own peace of mind, natural happiness and friendship with others. Such a person unwittingly shows the same patterns as the person or people who they condemn for their angry behaviour. A person can justify getting even more angry if another person(s) engaged in more abusive, exploitive and violent behaviour.
Anger shows an absence of imagination to work to change a situation.
Not surprisingly, wise teachings do not offer any kind of sanction of this kind of anger.
Nor should we.
The Believer in Anger
We regularly hear words such as:
“I am really angry because the government (religion, business, institution etc) allowed this to happen.
“I am carrying around this anger inside of me about what is happening to our world.”
“Nothing makes me more angry than adults hitting children.”
“He (she, they) make me so angry.”
“I have the right to be angry.”
Such responses raise questions about our relationship to anger.
- Does such anger make a difference?
- Does it add to the anger in this world?
- How far can anger take us?
- Do we want to be in the company of angry people about specific issues?
- If we think anger is effective, should we encourage people to be even more angry as it will make them more effective?
- Do the levels of anger gradually increase and then burst out in the violent behaviour of the individual, the group or the policies of the nation state?
- What happens when we are no longer angry?
- Do we know how to respond in non-angry ways?
New York Times reported this week that homicides in the USA increased 30% in 2020. 77% of the murderers used a firearm. What difference does it make if we get angry about US gun laws, violent impulses and the killing of men, women and children?
An angry person might refer to their anger as righteous anger. Burning up inside, the person might think of ways to show their righteous anger. The person or the group conclude their righteous anger gives justification for inflicting it on others, innocent or not.
Righteous anger can become the rationale to increase levels of suffering. This is turn can increase the levels of anger among those who witness the suffering of their loved ones, their community or the citizens of their country.
What kind of righteous anger is acceptable and what kind is unacceptable?
To quote the Buddha in one of his well-known statements: Anger does not cease with anger. Anger ceases with non-anger.” (Dhammapada. Verse 5). Some translators translate the passage as anger ceases with love. The Buddha does not hold to such a high expectation to switch from anger to love. A sudden transformation of the heart from anger/hate to love does happen but it is rare.
Righteous Anger and Boundaries
The person holding to righteous anger will need to set a boundary on their righteous anger. What is the boundary? Is raving, yelling, shouting a form of righteous anger or has the person crossed the line to abusive language, harmful and destructive?
Is simmering anger justified with coldness, detachment, cutting and harmful comments?
If righteous anger fails to lead to any skilful and wise action, then the righteous anger reveals rage in the mind but no real concern about the abuse behaviour of others.
The person who regularly gets heated up about people who make them angry will not have the capacity to control their anger. This dark emotion is an outburst, a surfacing of the dark corners of the mind and a means for the self to gain attention. The same anger might turn on gentle souls, on members of the family or a stranger.
We delude ourselves if we think we can constrain our anger to global issues, politics, business or other issues. Anger spills over affecting the lives of many at home and elsewhere.
We can be angry with ourselves – for what we did or did not do. How far do we allow our anger to go towards ourselves? Constant fault-finding? Rubbishing ourselves? Sullen behaviour? Thoughts of self-harm.? Self-harm?
If we have the right to be angry, why set limits on it?
Can the reaction of anger towards ourselves lead to meaningful change or to feeling low, depressed and suicidal?
We might say to others and ourselves we have the right to be angry but we also don’t want our anger to get out of hand. There is a wish to restrain anger, to set a limit to anger.
Can the mind always control the emotion?
A difference use of the word Anger
I have contact with political activists. We give support to political/social change for the welfare of people, animals and environment, near and far. Activists employ a variety of strategies to alert the public to support changes in policies of governments and corporations.
Demonstrations, blocking streets and occupying public buildings can generate anger among those whose routine or travel get affected.
What is the response of the activists to the anger it triggers amongst some sections of the general public?
I hear regularly activists saying “I am so angry with our government. My anger got me to act. I joined street demonstrations. I protested. Without my anger, I would have stayed at home.”
“A person in my family is so angry. I could not stand by and let him (her) keep making our lives so difficult. I had to speak to the person. I realised my anger would only make him or her worse.” The person knows anger does not end anger. The Buddha referred to this as an enduring truth (Dhammapada Verse 5).
A person describes their anger but their meaning of the word may be different from the Buddha’s use of it, who regarded it as a dark cloud blocking a clear view. Instead of anger, we could say the person experienced passion and determination to engage in change. The person had no interest to inflict suffering on the other and no interest to dump any anger onto another.
We need to recognise the power of protest, direct action and fearless engagement to bring about change. The firm voice, the unwavering critique and our actions on the ground matter. Expressions of sustained concern and skilful practices apply to family, friends and associates as well as to people with power.
There is an epidemic of anger in this world. We need a public conversation on the issue. Anger easily conveys abuse and arrogance. This anger is part of the problem not the resolution.
When saying to others, we feel angry, let’s state what we mean. Let us ensure we know what we mean when using this word.
- Do we experience a real passion and conviction for change and take steps?
- Do we just get angry and do nothing?
- Do we wish to inflict fear and humiliation on others, who we can’t stand?
I have friends who tell me they are angry about something. I know them for years. I do not associate their anger in the way the Buddha views anger.
I hear from them strong criticism and words, written or spoken, forceful and direct. Such people do not go quietly into the night. The power of action can occur with clarity of mind, not born of old, unresolved anger issues.
I, too, am among those who write and speak on issues of our time. People say to me “Christopher, you sound angry.” I check in with my words, tone and motivation. Am I trying to articulate an issue with passionate conviction or am I in the spell of anger?
Let us welcome those who address issues with their heart and mind.
And take action.