Dear Susan, How Do I Deal with Anger?

April 21, 2016   |   2 Comments

A meditation teacher and award-winning author provides guidance on readers’ real-life problems. Here is her advice on understanding and resolving anger.

Dear Susan,

How does one let go of anger—not deep-rooted anger but anger over everyday trivial things? How can I learn to really let go of things that don’t matter in my life? Too much time is wasted on this use of energy!

Dear Friend,

I appreciate your wish to let go of things that don’t matter and not waste your precious time here on Planet Earth in some kind of hissy fit. I applaud you for that! However, your anger is not the problem. Your wish to get rid of it is. Anger is a jewel in disguise.

A super long time ago, I, your humble advisor, was in a brutal car accident. I was stopped at a red light, minding my own beeswax when I was t-boned by a drunk driver. He came out of nowhere. I was thrown out of the passenger door and landed 30 yards away. My ribs were broken. My pelvis was fractured. My liver was lacerated. This last is a very horrible injury that often causes a person to bleed to death.

An ambulance arrived very quickly. I was hustled into surgery to stem internal bleeding. It didn’t work. They rushed me back into surgery. This second procedure worked and 24 hours later I was hauled back into surgery to remove whatever they stuck in there to contain the situation. By this time, my parents had flown in. My friends were in the waiting room. My existence was spinning on a cosmic roulette wheel.

So I have heard. I woke up to find myself…somewhere. Something bad had happened, but I had no idea what it was. To this day, I have no recollection of these events.

I was told that I had been in a wreck, about the injuries I sustained, and what had been done to treat them. Okay. If you say so, was all I could remember thinking.

I was released from the hospital some three months later. Eventually I regained enough strength to return to my job. (As a bartender. In a blues nightclub. But that is another story.)

Though you might imagine that a near-death experience would bring me closer to profound manifestations of compassion and joy, I was instead filled with anger, agitation, and frustration.

Everything set me off. If someone accidentally brushed up against me in the market, I would push them and say, “Watch where you’re going, asshole.” I snapped constantly at the people I worked with. I tried to intimidate everyone. I was a stone-cold bully.

What does this have to do with your question, dear reader? It was anger that brought me back to life. It woke me up. It was a weird, backwards, unskillful expression of life force, but life force it was. (Sorry, everyone I yelled at. I wish I could send each of you flowers, kittens, cupcakes, hugs, and money. I feel so ashamed.)

This is the power of anger. The softer feelings—love, kindness, appreciation, generosity—don’t seem to have the same capacity to wake us from our trances. Rage (and its annoying cousin, irritation) wakes us up! It is impossible to be drowsy and angry. So, even though it is terribly uncomfortable and potentially dangerous, there is something worth examining and harvesting.

In Buddhist thought, there are five forms of wisdom, sometimes called the Five Buddha Families or Five Dhyani Buddhas. Each Buddha is head of household for one of the wisdoms: spaciousness (Buddha family), clarity (Vajra family), generosity (Ratna family), discernment (Padma family), and accomplishment (Karma family). Each of the wisdoms has a neurotic corollary: spaciness, anger, jealousy, grasping, and speed. The interesting thing is that the aspects of wisdom and neuroses exist along a continuum. They are twin expressions of the same essential quality. When you come into possession of one, you also possess the other.

Though you belong to each family, one is likely to feel most like home. Maybe you are Team Buddha and have a genius for seeing all points of view—but are also likely fall into a mental stupor from time to time. Or perhaps you are Team Padma and can sense the finest nuances of all phenomena but also have tendency to grasp onto what is most pleasant and reject everything else.

If you are Team Vajra, you are predisposed to anger. This means you also have a gift for clarity. Thank you. We need you.

The next time you become angry or irritated, I invite you to try this. Rather than turning away from your anger, turn away from the object of your anger. Lean into your experience and just feel. Allow anger to be present. It is uncomfortable, I know. But when you open to anger, according to this theory, you also open to clarity and wakefulness.

If anger had layers, the very top layer would be the story attached to it. The story may matter, but not right now. The next layer is the uncomfortable bit, the urge to do something, tear something, cut something, smash something. But wait. The layer just below that is what we are looking for. There, you are likely to find energy that is wakeful, sharp, and fearless. If you can separate it from its story and tolerate the discomfort, anger provides tremendous fuel. So being angry is by no means a waste of time. The wasteful bit is the reluctance to embrace your gift.

From a new-agey point of view, anger is bad. We should be soft, ethereal messengers of peace and love. Anger is sign that we’ve lost our spiritual equilibrium. The Self should always abide. Well, maybe on some other planet.

On this planet, sometimes the Self loses his way. He is crushed by a motor vehicle or served the wrong dish or watches presidential candidates debate. On a moment-to-moment basis, we veer between ease, sorrow, rage, delight, boredom, terror, and joy. This is because we are human. Emotions are our super power. When we embrace the so-called negative, we also embrace the positive and thus find the source of all-seeing intelligence, mirror-like wisdom, vast equanimity, subtle discernment, and the power to accomplish anything. So don’t worry about becoming less angry. It is not a waste of energy; in fact, it is just the opposite.

Dear reader, I wish you well. I send my love. I offer you a deep bow.

Do you need advice? Submit a question to Susan here.

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  • Posted by:  Another Susan

    Such a great response. I was drawn to this post because of the irritable mood I was in this morning. I’m quick to note my ill temper and to criticize myself for it, but I think you are right. Instead of immediately criticizing anger (= feeling guilty), it’s much better to accept it, observe it, and learn from it instead. Don’t make it an enemy. Even appreciate it. It’s speaking to you. Listen!

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