Restraining Anger – Commentary by Sally Jo Gilbert de Vargas

“A paradise as vast as the heavens and earth has been readied for those who are conscious of God …who restrain their anger and pardon their fellow beings…” (Qur’an 3: 133-135)

“Raise your words, not your voice; it is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.” (Rumi)

Anger is a complex emotion, one which demands intense scrutiny if we are to understand and learn to control it.  Becoming aware of what situations arise which create anger in us is the first step. Wise sages have given great advice on how to do this. Shantideva, a Buddhist sage from ancient India, presents anger as the opposite of patience. In his chapter on “Patience” in his treatise, The Way of the Bhodisattva, he says, “No evil is there similar to anger, No austerity to be compared with patience. Steep yourself, therefore, in patience, In various ways, insistently.”   The entire chapter contains wisdom on how and why we need to control and contain our anger through patience. I believe it was Nelson Mandela who said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

I have found that anger is a secondary emotion, meaning that underneath anger there is usually something even more intense buried more deeply in my heart.  The primary emotion might be fear, or hurt, or feeling disrespected.  If we can reach the primary emotion, we can often find a more productive way to express our feelings so that we don’t harm others.  Lately I have found that when I hear about grave injustices done to others, situations that used to make me feel very angry, now arouse intense sadness.  When one of my children or students does something very dangerous and I find myself becoming angry, I try to recognize the underlying fear, and express that rather than the anger.  Similarly, when I am disrespected by someone I love, I look past my anger and try to express the hurt or pain that I feel. This owning of the feeling permits the two of us to explore the problem together, without accusations.  Usually there is some kind of misunderstanding or mis-communication that has occurred, that can often be resolved.

Becoming aware of the source of our angry feelings helps us to separate from the emotions for a time, and allow them to calm.  It’s not helpful to simply repress the anger, and worse yet to become angry at oneself for becoming angry!  That only amplifies the problem.  Better to observe with curiosity what seems to have caused the anger.  For example, I have noticed that when someone criticizes me for something that I am sensitive about – something that rings true, it is likely to make me angry and defensive.  But if someone criticizes me for something that I don’t really believe about myself, I usually just laugh it off.  I might become curious, and say, “What makes you say that?”  but it isn’t likely to make me angry.

Another common cause of anger is making assumptions about people’s intentions.  This is a very bad habit which leads to many damaged relationships.  I try to remind myself not to make assumptions about anything or anyone.  Find out the truth – use your curiosity – ask questions and get to the bottom of something, but don’t assume you know what a person meant or why they said or did something. It takes patience to observe and explore feelings and motivations.

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