Paraphrasing Dickens, anger is the best of times and the worst of times. Anger happens. An event occurs, your mind/body perceives a violation in the event. At the speed of light, your body registers sensations, especially in your chest, jaw, perhaps in the small muscles around your eyes. You begin to breathe more rapidly, more shallowly. Impressions of behaviors come into awareness; perhaps you “feel” the urge to strike back, physically, verbally, ready to do damage to the perpetrator. You begin to act, and now thoughts arise, thoughts that make sense, and maybe even justify your aggressive actions. Later, you look back with regret, wishing you had moved more slowly, more thoughtfully, more mindfully.
Anger is a difficult emotion to manage, moving through a person with speed, intensity, and direction. Our bodies are “wired” for anger, and its purpose is clearly in service of survival. Don’t attempt to wish away your anger; you always have to careful about what you wish for. Without anger, you might not survive.
What I’m describing up to here is “state” anger, an emotion that emerges in reaction to changes in the environment, and then gradually fades as the mind/body perceives resolution of the perpetrating events. Maybe the wrong has been righted through your actions, or perhaps the originator of the wrong has repented with remorse and restoration. Or, maybe you simply decided that the weight of the violation was not worthy of your energy, and you forgave the offense.
State anger is normal and natural, but trait anger is dangerous. When I would try to look monstrous as a child, my mother would say “hold your face that way long enough and it will be permanent.” That was incentive to look even more monstrous to my 7 year old self, but it was also a trenchant insight by my mother. People who have experienced much violation in their life, especially if their anger response was invalidated by a parent or authority on some regular basis, can come to a point where anger is not only a state they experience, but actually has become a trait of their personality. Anger that persists, anger which is never fully quenched by justice making or forgiveness giving, becomes embedded in the body and mind of the person, and is always present like a background program in a computer system. We’ve all experienced the so-called “ear worm,” the song that runs in our head on autopilot for hours or days at a time. In a similar fashion, unextinguished anger can become a kind of “body worm,” leaving the person vulnerable to outbursts of state anger much more easily than is healthy for one’s body, mind, and relationship life.
If you have found yourself in this sort of trap, consider the possibility that the fire of anger might be diminished through the regular practice of lovingkindness meditation, known to many as metta. Making metta is an ancient practice, and has parallels in all religions. The simple act of allowing the body/mind to enter into a state in which it experiences deep feelings of compassion, and then escorting the compassionate-active body/mind to images and memories of those who have hurt us, who may have kindled much anger in us, can be very healing. It takes time and discipline; making metta is not a complex process, but like anything in life worth having it is worth working for. I’ve embedded a guided metta that I recorded as part of a workshop I gave some time ago:
The practice of metta might help you, if you struggle with anger, to feel a softening of your heart. The person (or people) who have caused harm to you may still be toxic; do not misinterpret making metta as a tacit admission of self blame. To the contrary, the act of forgiving another is more complex than acting to soften your heart. But an important first step in the act of forgiving is to realize the harm that comes to you by remaining angry: harm to your body, your mind, and your spirit. So please enjoy this ancient practice, and if you are not plagued with anger, enjoy it all the more. I don’t think that there is any greater pleasure than the act of feeling, expressing, and acting on love.