Anger — whether outwardly expressed or concealed — is a response to something underlying it, something felt before. A bite. Panic. A punch in the gut. Anger is what occurs after. Often that prior feeling was hurt, damage, fear. To focus on the anger, as if it’s the “problem,” is to linger on the surface of things. Trying to deal with anger itself might help a person cope, or behave better. It will not bring about freedom.
Sometimes anger turns in on itself, morphing into depression, putting the “real” problem even further out of reach. The numbness becomes its own paralyzing fog.
Sometimes the recognition of the power of anger will lead a person toward spiritual practice, supposing this might be the route to managing it, or perhaps “healing” it. But the idea of healing anger is like a cat licking a surface wound: the skin may knit, but the pus is trapped below the surface, making infection inevitable.
Somebody told you anger was healthy. You believed them.
Anger is a symptom. Let it be a light directing attention toward the deeper vulnerability, the thing that gave rise to it in the first place. Like everything the ego does for us, anger is meant to be protective. Look at the thing it means to protect, at the point of origin, where vulnerability lives.
When fear is the underlying thing, if you’re willing to see what’s really there, there will likely be something about the absence of control, the inability to predict the future. Better by far to let yourself know these truths — to rest in the truth of the unknowable — than to live in the poison of the anger that means to protect you from that unwelcome truth.
The way to deal with anger is not to cultivate a mask of civility. It’s not to escape into mystical experiences or bodies of belief. To become free, it’s necessary to move toward the anger, the defensiveness, the righteous indignation — to see what’s beneath it — and then to feel that profoundly vulnerable sensation, in the body. Without making reference to what the mind has to say about any of it.
The story must go. Or if it persists in telling itself, you must recognize that this is happening, and see the purpose of the story: to protect you from the pain that gave rise to it in the first place.
Maybe it’s the thing you didn’t get (your mother or father’s love; safety; a good life with a partner). Maybe it’s the terrible thing you experienced, perhaps at the hands of someone who meant you harm. It could be something going on right now. Or a string of financial or professional or relationship disasters. Something to do with your physical well-being.
So you got mad at life. You developed a story about how you’d been wronged, neglected, abandoned. About how life has had it in for you. You began to define yourself as a survivor. A loser. Somebody told you anger was healthy. You believed them.
You can tell yourself forever that you’re “entitled” to your anger. If you keep believing that, you will die angry. If you’re bound and determined to cling to this identity, give up the spiritual life. Save yourself a lot of trouble, and illusion.
You don’t have to know the origin of the pain, in a mental, psychoanalytic way. What’s important is that you feel it, in the body. That you see anger as an indication of an underlying wound, and that you see the story you’ve made out of it, and what refuge you take in that story.
The spiritual life, for some, amounts to the forging of a spiritual identity. Adopting a spiritual practice (identity, beliefs) has become, in recent times, the frontier beyond other modes of attempting to deal with unresolved pain. As if it’s all on the same spectrum of “ways to deal with life.” There was therapy and medication, and the consolation of numbing substances, and there were various New Age remedies, and then . . . now . . . there is the pursuit of spiritual awakening, or at least the prospect of exciting spiritual experiences having to do with being out of the body or something apparently psychic. At the very least, coping better, via meditation or some other method.
After years, maybe, of depression or self-loathing (as if you “deserved” what happened to you), it can look like it’s healthy to get in touch with the anger, to express it. Like it’s progress to become angry, if all you’ve done so far is beat yourself up, having believed all the negative messages you were given about yourself. Anger can be exhilarating for a while. Life-affirming, as it may appear. The forging of an identity out of a painful history can seem to be a kind of triumph over adversity.
See what it’s like to allow yourself to sit in the bodied sensation of the terrible sorrow, the gripping fear, the absence of what you wish you had, or the pain of the thing you wish had never happened. Sit in reality. The feeling of the hurt itself. If the absence of cherishing or safety or success of some kind is deep in you, allow yourself to rest there. Without ideas about it. Just the physical sensation of it. Lay your head down and let it take you in its arms.
It’s there anyhow. It’s been there right along. You might as well make your peace with it. It doesn’t have to define you forever.
It won’t kill you. It might even free you.
Meanwhile, if you don’t rest in it, you will continue to be imprisoned in anger. And wondering why you’re never at peace.
Also, see (for pity’s sake, see) how you have carved from your pain an identity. See how you’ll be damned if you’ll give that up. How entitled you feel you are to your story. How it’s become a way of relating to people in your life.
If this “makes you mad,” a light should be going on. (But you’ll look where it points only if you want to become free of the whole mess.)
You think you want to be free? You may be kidding yourself. If it’s freedom you want, really and truly — if you want to know what you are that’s beyond the reach of anger, of any story at all — you need to be willing to let your heart break. If you’ve allowed your painful background or your present-tense life to define you, the brave thing is to see that truth. To ask: Am I willing to be done with that identification?
Retreats are sometimes attended by people who carry themselves in a certain way, straining to appear and behave as if they are at peace inside. Anger is often just below the surface. But the concealed anger isn’t what’s important: it’s the thing beneath it that comes across most vividly, that tender, broken thing in their eyes — the pain they cannot bear to rest in.
But people don’t want to go there. The whole point of retreats (they think) is to escape the pain. To distance themselves from it. They take on a spiritual identity whose purpose is to mask the deeper identity, the wounded something that never got over itself and doesn’t actually want to. Because to set it down would be to leave behind what feels like their very self.
Oh, the irony: the way past the identity is to turn toward it, to see how it comforts and defines (and limits) you.
Every once in a while somebody sees through all of this in themselves. Or simply collapses, weary, into the agony. They sink into the pit and sob. Then they come back up for air, clean and fresh, relieved, the identity put down. Seen for the burden it always was. The thing is, it can’t be let go until it is fully and consciously assumed. Felt. Seen for what it is, the light shining right through it. You see what the identity has done for you — and to you. The burden of it! The very thing it seemed would rescue you — the story about the awful thing — became a leaden thing you’ve hauled around.
It might have served its purpose for a time, but without it, you can freely move. You can feel the air move over every surface of your skin.