Buddhism, Taoism, and other “mindful” spiritual practices and religions share a worldview that certain emotions like anger, hatred, fear, and envy are both toxic and undesirable. Because of this, they encourage their practitioners to work hard to let go of such emotions. And given the choice, who would deliberately feel these kind of emotions anyway? They don’t feel too good, and they generally don’t lead us to treat others kindly either.
Then I started thinking about this topic a bit more. In my previous post, I referenced a message from someone who had praised anger as a positive motivating factor in creating action. Anger, she said, could be a critical step – in creating urgency and initiative, in getting people off their butts and in motion.
There’s some validity to this point of view as well. The presence of angry thoughts (“this situation is completely unacceptable!”) can lead a person to experience the emotion of anger, which can be that critical catalyst that triggers useful action. Other negative emotions – disgust, hatred, fear – can serve a similar purpose.
Obviously, powerful positive emotions can also be the catalyst for transformation. One can imagine, for example, a young father seeing the face of his baby and deciding to quit smoking, so as to live longer and experience his child growing up. In this case, profound love is the trigger. The difference here is that it’s pleasurable and healthy to live and operate in a state of love, as opposed to a state of anger.
Whether positive or negative, it’s the intensity of the emotion rather than the specific nature of it, that decides whether it has any potential to activate real transformation in a person’s life.
How long does a feeling last?
The question is, how long does this intense, emotionally-driven trigger effect last? The initial burst of angry energy and adrenaline may feel powerful, but that effect fades quickly over time. Whether training for a marathon (“I’m so fat!”) or working to end human trafficking (“People shouldn’t be treated that way!”), a single spasm of anger is not enough to sustain a long-term effort measured in the months and years. And while running your mind on sustained anger for the duration of a long project may be possible, it certainly doesn’t feel very good.
We can see this phenomenon at play in a lot of different areas. Social workers who dive into their work, full of indignation against “the system” or “the rich”, risk burning themselves out. People making major life decisions to spite others or prove them wrong, may be full of righteous anger for some time, but that anger is unlikely to sustain long-term effort in an otherwise inauthentic direction. New Years resolutions are famous for this kind of snap decision – a shallow decision created by a brief burst of anger or frustration, which is doomed to fail unless immediately supported by a long-term plan and changes in habits.
Even if your anger, or hatred, or bitterness were powerful and long-lived enough to drive sustained action, is it really a win if you are able to maintain these states for a long time? These are not ways of being that are healthy for people to live and work in over a lifetime, since they are so stressful for the body and mind.
Buddha is quoted as saying: “holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else – you are the one who gets burned.”
Notice that he did not say that it was the appearance or the existence of anger that is the problem. If it were, then we would be facing an insurmountable problem because anger is inevitable – while we can get better through meditation and other practices, we simply don’t have control over all our thoughts or emotions.
Instead, holding on to anger – believing that we need it to keep us motivated, to create part of our identity, or for some other erroneous reason – that’s the real problem.
Your emotions are road signs, not fuel
Instead of holding on to anger and other toxic emotions to provide fuel for our ongoing motivation, we can exploit them to gain information about our world and our involuntary response to it. Once the information is received, the emotion can be released because it’s served its purpose for us. Continuing to dwell in an emotion that feels unpleasant, when it’s already given us all the information that it has to give, is simply an unintelligent and self-defeating decision.
That said, when anger or other negative emotion arises, it’s best to really tune in to the experience of it, and to truly allow yourself to be present for it. Don’t inauthentically turn on a tight, fake smile and pretend to yourself that everything’s fine when it’s not. If you experience a spasm of self-hatred when you look in the mirror and see a body that’s 50 pounds overweight, don’t smile and pretend otherwise. If you feel angry and frustrated when you look at your credit card statements, and realize that you’ve dug yourself into a massive debt hole, don’t smile and ignore it in favor of some more retail therapy.
Never push anger and other bad feelings away, even though they probably feel uncomfortable. Instead, give yourself permission to experience these emotions and to accept whatever lesson that they are teaching you. Don’t deny these challenging emotions, but don’t dwell in them too long either. Use them for what they are.
So what is your anger teaching you? Is there something that you genuinely want to change in yourself, or in the world around you? Or are you just in a temporary bad mood and taking things too seriously?
Understanding the actual message is important, rather than the message you might be hoping for, or the message that you think you “should” be getting. The more accurately you understand and interpret your own feelings, the more they will point you in the right direction. Your experience of anger gives you valuable information; use it – don’t throw it away.
Of course, when you make new decisions or start new projects based on what you have learned from your anger, it’s very important to transition your long-term efforts onto a more stable foundation. For the best possible results, this foundation will be anchored in your inner wisdom; in love, compassion, and other positive emotions; and in good habits that you can repeat automatically, without having to think about them too much.
This practice transforms the base metal of anger into the precious metal of insight. Through it, you create for yourself the ability to sustain and build on the lessons that you learn from your experience of anger and other destructive emotions.
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