One of the unhealthiest emotions is our old friend anger.
It has been connected with cancer and it destroys our ability to think clearly.
Yogesh Sharda explains how we can manage it better.
What is anger, can it be overcome, and indeed should we even try?
If one were to ask a selection of people what triggers their anger I suspect there would be a wide range of answers. However one thing I am certain of is that whatever the cause, even a single word spoken in anger can leave an impression on a person’s heart that may remain for a long time, and has the ability to ruin the beauty of any relationship.
A famous sage once said, “How can there be peace on earth if the hearts of men are like volcanoes?” If within the person there can be peace and freedom from anger, only then can they live in harmony with others. So how can we set about creating that sense of peace within ourselves?
It starts with the realisation that we do have the choice to think and feel the way we want to. If we look at what it is that makes us angry we might discover there is nothing that has the power to make us feel this way. We can only allow something to trigger our anger—the anger is how we respond to some event or somebody. But because we are so used to reacting on impulse, we forget to choose how we want to feel, and then respond inappropriately, leaving ourselves with angry feelings.
Have you ever heard someone saying: “I really hate it when you speak like that to me?” Or how about, “How many times do I have to tell you to do it like this?” One lesson I have learned is that, try as I might, I can never control circumstances, people or situations, as they are constantly changing. The only thing I can control is the way I choose to respond. Only I can increase my capacity to tolerate; only I can develop my ability to understand; and only I can nurture my love for others regardless of whether one day they praise me and the next they defame me. Modern-day life comes with a whole host of challenges. In facing these I have come to see every interaction within our world as part of one large drama or game. And within this drama, every single individual has their own unique part to play, which is essentially an expression of their own inner self. As I come to accept this, rather than spending my time keeping an eye on what others are doing, I can begin to use my energy to play my own part to the best of my ability. I realise that I cannot possess or own the behaviour of others, because if I do, this will ultimately lead to conflict. Instead I need to practise the understanding that regardless of whatever action a person may be doing, according to their own part within the play there is some reason why they are behaving in that way. Therefore I should try not to jump to conclusions too easily; and rather than trying to control another person’s behaviour, it will be far easier and more productive for me to focus my energy on my own actions.
So what is so wrong in judging in their actions? There is a danger that if we become too concerned with their activity, we may begin to feel anger toward that person, which may lead to dislike for them. We put them into some kind of box, and fix a label on them. Then whenever we come into contact with that person, we will see him or her in the light of their past mistake. But in doing this, we are effectively imprisoning them in their past actions. However if we allow the person the dignity of actually growing out of their own mistake—if our vision allows them to do that—then, sooner or later, it is possible for people to change.
This concept of life being a drama can help us to detach ourselves from what’s happening around us, and this detachment or space is of great help in learning not to make judgements so quickly about others. If we create a small space, a healthy space between ourself and the drama of life, we find that that space acts like a buffer. Neither will we jump out and grab someone’s throat, nor will the drama of life be able to suddenly grab us unawares.
This is one of the many benefits of practising meditation. It helps us to create personal space within ourselves so that we have the chance to look, weigh up the situation, and respond accordingly, through remaining in a state of self-control. When we are angry, we have no self-control. At that moment we are in a state of internal chaos, and the anger can be a very destructive force.
It is often said that anger can be a useful thing. People say, “Look at all the problems in the world, surely unless someone got angry about it nothing would happen?” It reminds me of the story about an old man sitting by a river and talking to a group of his disciples. His hand was stretched out behind him and an insect came crawling along and bit him badly. As it did so, it slipped and fell into the river. This old man looked behind him and saw the insect struggling in the river, so he picked it up and placed it back on the ground. A few minutes later, the same insect crawled over to his hand and bit him on the finger, and again slipped over and fell into the river. The old man looked round, picked it up, and placed it back on the ground. When this happened a third time, one of his disciples said to him, “Master why do you do this? The insect bites you and yet you save it. Why do you not let it drown and it then it won’t be able to bite you?” He replied “It is in the insect’s nature to bite, it is in my nature to save”. Similarly, someone’s nature might be to criticise, or to backbite, or even to challenge us. Yet that is completely out of our hands. We can only do what it is that we have to do. We can’t justify a negative action by saying, “Oh well, you do the same thing too.” If we say that, then we are saying, “I will only grow and change when you decide to grow and change, it’s in your hands.” But can growth ever happen like that? If we wait for each other to change it is likely we will be waiting an extremely long time.
Sometimes anger is used as a kind of self-defence mechanism, a sentry guard standing outside the fortress walls of our inner selves. When anybody tries to attack or criticise us, anger pops up and demands, “Who do you think you are? Look at you!” Anger reacts. Anger is the emotion which tries to hold all the other illusions together. If anyone tries to attack what we believe in or care about, anger comes out to chase them away. This is an example of using anger to protect our simulated self, our sense of ego. However, by recognising ourselves as spiritual beings, and through the awareness and experience of the beauty of our true nature, our dependency on other people’s approval reduces as we rediscover an inner stillness and stability. Thus the need for anger as our protector is eliminated.
This form of stability can create a firm foundation, a kind of positive stubbornness. Others can say whatever they want, and it may also be true, but we don’t lose our peace or happiness for any reason. This is to respect what is eternal within each of us. We give ourselves the opportunity to maintain our own peace of mind, because let’s face it, no-one’s going to turn up at our door with a box full of peace and say, “Here, I think you could do with some of this today!”
There is a particular story about Buddha which illustrates an important principle. Buddha was under the tree of enlightenment when someone who had heard that the Buddha was an enlightened person came along to test his self-control. He came in front of Buddha and started swearing at him, calling him all the names under the sun and yet there was no reaction. Some time later this person got a bit tired so he went off and had a rest and came back and had a second go. He abused Buddha’s family and hurled every insult he could think of but there was still no reaction. He grew very tired and so asked Buddha, “I am defaming you every way I can think of, and yet you do not say anything back at me”. Buddha looked up at him and said, “If someone gives you a gift, but you don't accept it, then who is the gift left with?”
This highlights a crucial insight. We have a choice. If we have taken sorrow from someone, we cannot blame the other person and say, “It’s your fault, you spoke to me like this”. We recognise that we do have a choice in every moment. We can use our intellect as a filter to decide what we are going to allow to enter, and what we are going to prevent from coming inside and affecting me.
Broadly speaking, there are two methods which people suggest one should try and deal with anger. Some say if you’re feeling angry, then be angry as a way of expression—let it out. And indeed, at that moment we do become free from the anger, because we have let it out. However, as we deepen our understanding and experience of the way in which our consciousness works, we realise that the more we do something, the deeper that habit becomes. So tomorrow we will find it easier to become angry because we have already done it today. It is like a smoker trying to give up cigarettes. When he feels like smoking, he smokes, and so he doesn’t feel like smoking any more. Nice idea. But instead of removing that desire, the act of smoking has only temporarily fulfilled it, and the habit has taken an even firmer grip such that tomorrow the desire will be even stronger. So expression doesn’t transform the habit or feeling.
Another suggestion people might make is that you should suppress anger. If you feel yourself getting angry, stop yourself, suppress it. But this is the pressure cooker situation. I just get more and more heated up inside until I explode! I can only ever suppress for a certain period of time. And actually when I am suppressing, I am really pushing those fears and emotions into my subconscious, from where they will emerge in another form, rather like weeds.
But there is a third method, which could be described as sublimation, or the changing of form. Through the daily practice and application of spiritual principles in our practical life, the experience of our own inner peace can become a very natural. In this way, just as the form of water can be changed from solid to liquid to gas, so too the energy which was previously being used to express and feed anger, can also be changed to the force behind the expression of determination or courage instead. Rather than being angry with someone to prove a point, we can learn to be assertive. Assertiveness contains respect for oneself, whereas anger shows respect for neither the self nor others. Only by ridding ourself of anger can we become free to experience the peace of our true spiritual nature.
There is a story about Alexander the Great, as he was about to return to Greece from India. Since he had been told to bring a yogi back with him, he went searching into the forest. Eventually he found one sitting under a tree and quietly sat down next to him. After some time, the yogi opened his eyes. Alexander said to him “I want you to come back to Greece with me”. The yogi just looked at him. Alexander continued, “If you come with me you’ll have your own people to attend to your needs and you will be well known throughout the land”. Yet the yogi explained that he had no desire to go. So the exasperated Alexander drew his sword and shouted, “Do you not realise who I am, I am Alexander the great conqueror and if I want I can cut you up into pieces!” The yogi smiled and replied, “You have made two statements, neither of which is true. Firstly you cannot cut me into pieces; you may be able to injure my body, but I am the eternal soul, deathless, immortal. And secondly, you say you are Alexander the great conqueror, but may I tell you that in fact, you are nothing more than the slave of my slave”. Alexander put his sword out to him and demanded the yogi explain himself. The yogi said “I have conquered anger through the process of meditation, and yet look how easily anger gets the better of you. Anger is my slave and you have become the slave of anger.” I never did find out what Alexander did to that yogi!
Yogesh Sharda is a teacher of meditation and spiritual development currently based in Istanbul as a co-ordinator of the Brahma Kumaris Centre there.