This post, adapted, originally appeared in New Age Journal.
(Material in italics is adapted from Indivisible: Coming Home to Deep Connection)
When I was a younger woman, working an intense job, raising children, trying to fit the cultural ideal of feminine beauty, I had an anger problem. It was the same type of anger problem my father had, and his mother before him.
For me, small frustrations would build over time, rising closer to the brim, my stress levels spiking. When the pressure exceeded capacity it would surge into anger, and then rage. There was no warm-up. There was no indicator of how intense it would become. I never knew when the anger was coming; neither did anyone else. Even if triggered by something small, my reaction would be disproportionate. If I asked eight times for the clothes to be put away and it remained undone, I would stop asking. I would start screaming and slamming doors. I’d be sweet, wonderful, wonderful, give, give, give—and then, suddenly, I’d lose it.
I got to the point of breaking things only once. Triggered by what I saw as a betrayal, I broke every picture of my husband and me—every single framed picture of the two of us. I slammed them into a pile on the floor. It felt fantastic. It felt like a magnificent release, a sense of relief. Those objects had their own magic and, by breaking them, it felt like I was breaking some bond. In that moment, I could understand why people beat people up, or why they hit things or mutilated their bodies. I looked at that pile of broken glass, frames and pictures, and felt like my pain had been transmogrified into the physical world. There was tangible, material evidence of how bad I had felt inside. There was no one else there; no one had witnessed this disaster; but the power in it was clear.
But once that rush was gone, I had to clean it all up. I had to deal with the mess. The release was temporary, and I was just as mad a week later. One could get to the point, I understood, where there was nothing left to break.
I often tried to redirect this bad energy into movement, and then into functional activity. If I was really mad, I would paint a room or rearrange all the furniture or go through the entire house and organize all my children’s closets in one day. Or, I would stomp out at four in the morning and go for a ridiculously long bike ride, until I felt grounded again.
Then, I found sports, tennis, specifically. I loved it: the thwack of the strings on the ball, the sweat, the pace. I would go hit that ball with grunts and hollers and all kinds of outsized power. There were demons hissing and hollering in each swing. My coach, Pietr, a big strong former Polish pro, asked me one day, “Where is this coming from in you?”
While there was true delight in the strategy and skill to play well, this expulsion of force wasn’t driven by love for athleticism or the release of endorphins or a burning need to expend calories. It was driven by anger. I had never found an outlet for anger until I got physical. Anger could fuel play, and tennis was teaching me how to expel the anxiety and anger on a day-to-day basis, quickly, with one solid whack of the racket. Hitting took something from my body and expelled it and released it into the air to dissipate, for a few hours at least. But this release, initially, had a short half-life. I wasn’t curing my problem; I was just moving it out of the way for the time being. And sometimes it made things worse: if I played poorly, if I wasn’t good enough, that would add to the frustration.
Still, in the hours and hours of practice, I slowly became aware of the power behind the negative energy rising in my body. The emotions I couldn’t express with rational discussion and constructive resolution were being released as physical energy. A new thought began to form: What if I could harness this energy and redirect it?
I came to realize I was dogged by the feeling that I wasn’t doing things right in many areas. Perfect was the standard. I always had to be doing more, even when there were literally no more hours in the day. It would take either a dose of grace or much, much effort to stop a belief so deeply ingrained and to remake myself anew in this area.
I grew up with a lot of violence, abandonment, chaos and fighting – and a limited emotional skill set or vocabulary. My “angry” behavior seemed normal. One could say that anger was given to me as a family tradition.
But, along with the anger, I was gifted with 3 counteracting things that fueled the desire to change and grow, and to end the cycle of anger that I was part of. These were a persistent call to the sacred, a deep love of nature, and a foundational concern for the wellbeing of others.
Then, one fall Sunday, when I was in my early 30s, I met Brother Wayne Teasdale.
Brother Wayne was a Christian mystic. He taught us a Christian meditation practice called Lectio Divina. It’s rarely practiced in modern churches. We each simply opened the Bible, found a place, held our fingers on that place and read it over and over and over to ourselves. Then we closed the book, meditated on that passage and tried to capture its essence and meaning in our own lives. Most prayer is talking, not listening. In the quiet created by Brother Wayne’s meditation all kinds of questions arose, and all kinds of feelings. Sadness, fear, exhaustion. This was a miracle to me, and it occurred to me that for most of my life, I simply didn’t know what I felt. I couldn’t pause and notice that my heart rate was rising, that my breath was short, that my thoughts were racing. I couldn’t call out fatigue or hunger. When I finally sought to understand and communicate the needs underneath my anger or frustration, to notice and name feelings in my body, things began to change.
The meditation practice that came through Brother Wayne sparked further passionate investigation into yoga practices and eastern meditation traditions. As my own anger healed and I became more capable, I dove into the literature on anger management,taking counseling and certification courses and began to work with violent offenders who had similar anger issues.
Anger, I learned, is a trickster. It is so convincing, so powerful, we want to believe it’s real! But it isn’t real. It’s ephemeral. It’s just an energy, as all emotions are- an energy married to a thought- and it is temporary. It will rise and peak and fade away- as long as we don’t hold it in or pretend it’s not happening. Underneath anger is an array of emotions, and the angry emotion is only it’s manifest form. Those underlying drivers can be as simple as not getting what we want, some core unhappiness that gets triggered, fear (of loss, of rejection, of physical harm), some challenge to identity or attachment. Anger may even maybe even appear as moral righteousness, if we tie ennobling thoughts about ourselves (such as we’re fighters for justice)- to our expression of anger. But usually, it’s not that pure. And sometimes, anger is just expressed out of habit, without noticing the impact the self or others.
On the flipside, suppressed, unprocessed anger shows up as depression, anxiety and sociopathy.
Here’s what I’ve learned to be the most effective way to transform anger into power, while doing no harm:
• Recognize the physical signs of angry emotion arising: angry emotion shows up as tingling in the hands and feet, maybe a clenching response in the extremities, a sense of a rising energy, flushing in the face or a tension in the pit of the belly. Let these be early warning signs to pause and become very alert to what is happening in your body.
• Feel the angry emotion as pure energy: feel it, do not repress it or stuff it. Jacques calls it “sitting in the fire” – it can can be very uncomfortable at first, but don’t be afraid of it.
• Let it flow, without taking any external action: As the feeling of anger comes up, and you notice it, breathe into the rising energy. This is a perfect moment to recall in your body a moment when you were in your wisest, most centered, deepest presence, and step into that mindset. As energy comes up into the chest and gets to the throat notice what you want to do: swallow it? Push it back down? Spew harsh words? Raise your voice? Don’t do any of those things, let it rise past the throat and up and out the top of the head. You might need some reminders in the beginning: I am bigger than this temporary emotion, and I don’t add to the harm in the world by acting from this place.
• Name it: “I notice that my hands are tingling.” “I notice a desire to yell at you.” “I notice a desire to defend myself.” “I notice a flood of energy in my muscles.” “I feel amped up.” In the heat of the moment, the job is to notice and name the feelings, and to stand in your wisdom and power. It is not the time to analyse or theorize on the source of the angry emotion, that can some later.
• Act from your own wisdom. Working with anger is behavioral. It is learning to observe and control the space between your inner life and your actions in the outer world. Just because you feel it, doesn’t mean you act from it. Violent words and actions from anger will echo for a very long time.
We have never before seen so clearly and immediately the impact of our divisions; the incredible suffering that fear, posturing, othering, labeling, and hate produce in the world. We’re going to need a lot of psycho-social-emotional skills to meet these divisions with our eyes wide open and counteract them. We will need profound love and wisdom. A lot of spiritual bravery, AND every possible voice to be an instrument in improvising and navigating a collective shift away from anger, separation and violence toward profound interconnection. While mankind’s factual knowledge is growing exponentially, the knowledge of how to deal with our emotions is relatively stagnant. The understanding of how to process emotions such as greed, anger, lust, sadness and fear has to be re-learned experientially by each subsequent generation. Through self-mastery and grace, we will be in a position to make that learning and transference easier for the coming generations, and be a link in a chain of increasing good.