There is certainly a lot of anger being experienced in our world today. There is no doubt about that. We feel it, we see it’s effect playing out before us. Anger is hot, dry, forceful — sometimes it feels righteous, sometimes not. I ran across the best definition of the feeling of anger in a little book entitled What’s on My Mind by Swami Anantananda. He says, “Anger is the intense desire to change that which is.”
ANGER IS FUEL FOR ACTION
The ‘that which is’ or the ‘what is’ is whatever we perceive is going on in us and around us. Anger itself fuels our actions when we sense the ‘what is’ must be changed but the feeling itself is not a logical thought process – it is quick and hot – it takes over and impels us to action. Anger is what pushes us into the street to save a child who is running into traffic, and it is also what causes us to shout ‘boo’ at a ball game when the referee makes a call against our team – even a good call. So, anger does have degrees, and it is often tied to our self-interests.
FEAR UNDERPINS ANGER
Inherent in our awareness of ‘what is’ is another emotion – fear. It is our fear that if the ‘what is’ remains as it is there will be dire consequences: our child will be hit by a car; our team will lose the game. All of this happens in an instant, the flash of fear, the fuel of anger to change the situation or to express our dismay. I would hazard a guess that all anger is rooted in fear.
EFFECT ON BODY AND MIND
All of this is nothing but energy, powerful energy running through our bodies and our minds. And that energy has its effects on both body and mind. One of my teachers said, “Anger destroys your memory.” This struck me as odd when I first heard it, but as I contemplated my own experience I saw that it was true. When my mind is bathed in the feeling of anger I forget all that is beautiful in my life and in the world, I lose touch even with my own body, I forget to eat, I don’t sleep well, I forget important appointments.
There is a known physiological basis for this forgetting. In the body anger creates a cascade of chemistry, the chemistry of stress, in order to bias us toward an action. This is the classic Flight or Fight response, now also expanded to include Freeze. The nervous system is activated on what we call the ‘sympathetic’ side, and the following things happen: the higher executive functions of the brain literally shut down as this is not a time to think with the rational mind, the immune and reproductive systems go offline, blood flows from the core to the extremities to fuel our muscles, our blood pressure goes up, digestion stops.
Taken together this is a survival mechanism that allows us to save ourselves and others in times of real or perceived danger. The downside of this response happens when fear and anger are chronic. We lose our rational minds, our clarity, we can’t think, we have digestive problems, sleep escapes us. It takes 3 days of work by the body to metabolize the stress hormones that are created by one single such event, so constant activation leads to a backlog of work for the body and a continuation of all the downside effects. We become exhausted, depleted, and depressed.
REMEDIES THAT HELP
I am not suggesting that we all give up anger and fear. Certainly, I have not evolved enough to have done so. (Maybe next year.) But I have seen that moderation is helpful, and for me that means not watching Rachel Maddow every single night of the week, only every other night!
It means finding non-violent action I can take in the face of what I see that needs to change in my life, my country, and the world. In the weird mix of my life that includes tap dancing, marching in the streets, attending vigils, donating money to people who are otherwise defenseless and unrepresented, and praying for children and parents who have been separated from each other. It includes speaking up for the other, the stranger, the poor, in keeping with my core values. In short moderation means finding ways to use the anger to create change without harming anyone or myself.
Another remedy is simple but not easy – Apprehension. Yes, a funny word, in this case it does not mean fear, but rather capture. It means I apprehend my anger and fear when possible – I catch it. When I am able to stop and simply feel the feelings without any story about why I am feeling them there is a moment when the energy can be felt only as energy. I feel where in resides in the body, I feel its power, its rawness, and even the pain it causes. In that moment I am ‘at choice’ with respect to the feeling. I can choose how to respond, I can channel the energy into right action, or I can choose to watch it until it dissolves back into the place from which it arose.
Meditation is key for me in making a space to reconnect with inner wisdom and strength, guidance, and peace. It has shown me that everything on the outside is reflective of the inside. It allows me to take up the battle with my own inner enemies, the false notions that keep me feeling separate and alone, that haunt and traumatize me. Meditation binds up the disparate pieces of self and connects me back to source, to love, to the holy, if you will.
Breath can also be used to reactivate the other side of the nervous system – the parasympathetic. It is the simplest and quickest way to rebalance the body and mind. Breathe in to the count of 4, hold for 5, breath out to the count of 8. In just a few rounds of this type of breathing you will notice that your body and mind are more relaxed and at ease. You can change the counts if it feels that the out-breath is too long, just keep the relationship to an out-breath that is twice as long as the in-breath.
These are my remedies for managing fear and anger. You are welcome to try them. I would love to know what others you have found.