In my previous post Inviting the Demons for Tea I looked into the klesas, known in Yoga as the demons of desire, anger, greed, envy and ignorance. Anger is a demon specially scary because of its potential for harm and violence. Perhaps this is the reason why we have a hard time looking at it openly. After all, nobody wants to be “bad”. But fundamentally there is nothing dangerous or negative about anger as long as we learn to “experience” it responsibly rather than indulge in it, shrink from it or feel victimized by it. Anger is one of the most common human experiences and for this reason it needs to be addressed, specially if we are on a path of self-discovery.
In “experiencing” anger we have several options. The first one – not recommended – is to unleash its power without restraint or respect for boundaries. To warn us about the dangers of this possibility many masters remind us that anger is a double-edge sword: it harms equally the person aggressed and the aggressor. Anyone who has expressed anger in a violent way knows this truth: anger destroys both ways. This is indeed a very scary situation and this is why many of us try to avoid it.
The next option is avoidance by repression but given the combustible nature of anger its energy tends to leak in many ways. Here are some of them: 1. blaming others, ultimately fostering conflict and isolation; 2. blaming ourselves, resulting in self-hate and energy-contracting habits; 3. numbing our bodies and distracting our minds (some of the most addictive behaviors relate to work, sex, exercise, food, tobacco, alcohol and drugs); 4. taking up social, political or environmental causes motivated by anger; 4. becoming passive aggressive, making derogatory comments, using humor and sarcasm and giving the silent treatment, etc…
The last option is to come to grips with anger and examine it for what it is. We become aware of the surge of energy felt in the body and mind and we acknowledge that anger “is happening” rather than identifying with it. Then we accept our state, our experience. Finally we take the appropriate action. These are the four stages or 4A’s (awareness, acknowledgement, acceptance and action) described by Joann Peterson in her anger management programs at New Haven Center (www.haven.ca).
In becoming aware of anger we first discover that our anger has probably been denied, ignored or expressed inappropriately for a long time. Then we realize that anger is a secondary emotion and that underneath there are unfulfilled or frustrated desires that manifest as feelings of loss, fear and hurt. Any of us trying to tame the demon of anger needs to look eye-to-eye at our attachments and desires that eventually fuel the fire of anger. This looking inward requires once more awareness, acknowledgement and acceptance without judgement or blame. Let’s not underestimate the power of awareness or mindfulness which can weaken the hold of any emotion. Still the path of transformation can be very painful and requires a great deal of commitment, courage and faith in our own potential for wholeness and goodness. Many stories tell us about the struggle of spiritual heroes like Arjuna in the battle field or Lord Buddha fighting his demons under the bodhi tree, all beautiful examples that can motivate us to persevere.
By mishandling anger we are also taking the ultimate risk of damaging our health. The list of ailments related to anger are extensive and remarkably common: muscle tightness, digestive disorders, headaches, teeth grinding, sleep difficulties, allergic reactions, etc… When we are angry there is a release of adrenaline that accelerates our heart beat, tightens our muscles, stops digestion, etc… While this mechanism can save our lives in a fight-or-flight response, our body cannot maintain the stress permanently without suffering damage. Many serious conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and even cancer have been associated to being “stressed-out”, a state that keeps us permanently ready to attack or on the defensive.
So are there any actions we can take to express anger safely, openly and without blame while at the same time short-circuiting aggression and violence? Here are a few suggestions that you can follow in any order: as soon as you become aware of the physical signs of anger (tensing of muscles, flushing red-hot face, accelerated breathing and heart beat, clenched teeth or fists, etc…)
1. Remove yourself temporarily from the triggering situation.
2. Count to 10. Swami Sivananda adds, “if it doesn’t work, count to 100!”.
3. Get a drink of cold water, have a cold shower or jump into a river!
4. Do some aerobic exercise: run, swim, go for a brisk walk, preferably in cold weather (Canada in Winter is ideal).
5. Do some vigorous stretches and movements (sun salutations, dance steps, etc…)
6. Sing or chant loudly. If you do not know how to sing, yell (in the car), scream (into a pillow or under water) or growl (also in the car).
7. Have a tantrum for 2 min. on a bed surrounded by pillows. Kick your legs and pound your fists.
8. Push against a partner back-to-back, hands-to-hands, head-to-head, etc… (There is a possibility that you’ll end up laughing).
9. Tense and release every part of the body (preferably lying down) starting with the feet and working up to the head. Work your facial muscles by making funny faces, sticking your tongue out, etc…
10. Focus on your breathing. Open your eyes, relax your jaw, deepen the breath by expanding and contracting the abdomen and the chest. You may use a vocal sound as you exhale (Ahhhhhhh!). This will help balance the oxygen intake and the carbon dioxide release. Inhale fresh cooling energy… exhale anger; inhale well-being… exhale tensions; inhale peace… exhale peace…
There are many ways to leave your anger and some of them might sound silly but that’s exactly the point. We take ourselves too seriously and we forget that a good laugh is sometimes the best therapy. This is why I also recommend joining a Laugh Yoga group to practice laughing together. Then you’ll be sure to get a diaphragm work-out!
On a more serious note, unattended anger results eventually in violence, the enemy of peace. So if we want to have peace in the world we first have to make peace with anger within us. Swami Vishnudevananda‘s mission was to bring peace to the world and he did it by helping all of us find peace within. Accepting, respecting and expressing anger responsibly is certainly the way to find inner peace but it is also a way to contribute to world peace.