Moving Out of the State of Anger

An old bumper sticker reads, “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.” There is something to that. This world is full of wrongs that should be righted, and many of us shut out the awful truth so that we are not tortured by it. Outrage, anger and indignation are great motivators. They get us moving. They stimulate change. Great movements have arisen out of indignation. Leaders rise because they harness collective dissatisfaction with the status quo. These emotions also start wars and break up families.

It is important that we remain sensitive to wrongs. We won’t make corrections if we are not sometimes scandalized. For that outrage to be a virtue though, we must empower ourselves to act upon it with wisdom. Outrage without empowerment leads to cynicism, which is corrosive to the spirit.

Anger in its wild state is destructive. It may lead us to hurt others, say unkind words, or shut ourselves away. When it persists, it hurts our health. We must learn to tame our anger—use it to motivate us toward constructive efforts when that is appropriate and to release it when it is of no productive use.

Mindfulness is a way of managing anger. When we are enraged, we are out of our minds. We don’t think clearly. We say things we later regret. Maybe we even act out anger by breaking things or hurting people. By shifting into mindful attention, we regain control. We shift out of our emotional mind, into a wiser, more resourceful presence.

When anger flares, remember to breathe. Take a breath and let it out slowly. Push the out-breath a little, so that you empty your lungs. You don’t have to worry about the in-breath. You will inhale when the time comes. Do this a few times. While you are focused on breathing, take your time to collect yourself. If possible, don’t say anything. Your first words in an angry state are likely to be poorly chosen. Get calmer before you speak.

Remember yourself. Notice who you are and where you are. Anger narrows focus, so to gain control over it, expand your focus. See the whole situation. Bring your attention back to center. When angry, your attention shifts to the person who angered you. Your attention is your power center, so don’t put it all on somebody else. Keep some on yourself.  We could rewrite the old bumper sticker to read, “If you are enraged, you are not being still and paying attention.”

Remember what is important. If you are in a family argument, remember what is most important in the relationships. Is being right the most important thing, or is it the quality of the relationship? Is it the child who might be witnessing the event? Being right is overrated.

Listen to the other person with compassion. In front of you is another suffering person. Hear their suffering and make it your wish for that suffering to be lifted. Our inclination when angry may be to create more suffering in the other. It is our mistaken belief that somehow that will lessen our own suffering. Generating suffering in others only leads to more suffering of our own. Remind yourself that revenge is primitive. Give it up.

Breathe. Regain attention. Remember what’s important. Listen with compassion.

Recommended reading: Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by Thich Nhat Hanh

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© 2010 Tom Barrett