We are always very sure about the “cause” of our anger. We have the person who provoked our anger clear in our telescopic sights, pinpointed with laser accuracy. The person, the time, the place, the incident. Though sometimes that picture blurs; it is not an individual, but an institution that precipitated our ire. These institutional perpetrators sometimes seem worse than the individual ones, because there is no single person that can be targeted, no one individual with whom to work through the problem.
But as we look through the telescope at our “enemy,” what happens when that lens suddenly encounters a mirror instead? What happens when we see ourselves in that reflection, looking back at us with a fixed glaze? Do we turn away, not believing our eyes? Or do we ask ourselves, “why am I seeing this person in my sights?”
The reflection is important. Because that is where our true anger lives. Because what we are mad AT is merely a reflection of what we are mad about IN ourselves. And that is the really important anger we need to get to know more fully.
The fact of what was said to us, done to us, is what it was and remains unchanged. That fact causes us to make a secular/temporal judgment as to whether the action was hurtful or helpful, motivated by ill-will or good-will. But our emotional response is our spiritual choice. Consider Pope John Paul II: the would-be assassin seeking to kill him was wrong to do so; yet instead of calling in anger for his trial and execution for that deed, John Paul sat in the jail cell with his attacker joined in prayer.
Anger is not an absolute emotion; it is a relative one. Your triggers are not necessarily my triggers; the depth of your reaction may well exceed mine; the reaction you chose to take could very likely be different from mine. And while our anger likely continued well beyond the incident in question, our perpetrator has probably long since forgotten about it. Even though we clearly have not.
People and institutions will always continue to “do things” to us. That is an ongoing reality of Life. But “they” do not “make us angry.” We CHOOSE if we will be angry. A choice we make from a broad range of other possible choices. The figure that is looking back at us in that mirror is asking us WHY we chose anger. What are the experiences and thinking patterns in us that drove us to that option. Why was the degree of our response so furious. These are the enlightening lessons waiting to be learned. And such learning is the better use of our time and energy.
When we recognize that anger is a valuable pointing tool for understanding our own self and our inner conflicts, from which we can draw great personal growth, that is how we can transform the negativity of anger into the positivity of a guide. It is insight that can come in moments of reflection after our anger subsides; with practice it can ideally come even before it gets out of our mouths. It is not about blocking, stifling our anger. It is about transforming it before it leaves our body and attacks another. It is about transforming the sourness of our potential words into a sweetness of personal discovery. For there is so very much to be learned in that spiritual classroom of our anger. Look homeward, anger. Look homeward to find the angel inside.
“You are responsible for everything you experience. You can no longer say, ‘He made me angry.’ How could he make you angry? Only you can make you angry. That understanding changes your way of relating to the world and your way of looking at stress.”
(John Daido Loori, Zen teacher)
© Randy Bell 2014