Anger is not the most comfortable emotion to feel. It also may be the most abhorred emotional state in spiritual contexts. We often get the message that anger is what our practices should be able to get rid of, that we should be able to transform it into pure sweet compassion. What if we considered anger from another view: not as an enemy, but as a dear friend?
Anger, writes psychotherapist Robert Augustus Masters in his fantastic book Spiritual Bypassing, is “the primary emotional state that functions to uphold our boundaries.” When we feel anger, it’s an indication that something is wrong—a boundary has been crossed or a need is not being met. It’s not always just about our individual selves, either—anger is the appropriate response to oppression.
Anger is an emotion like any other, and we have as much right to feel it as sadness or joy. Actually, we have about as much “right” to feel any emotion as we do to hunger or thirst. We don’t choose what to feel, we just feel. Our choice lies in what we do with the emotion.
Many spiritual traditions, Masters explains, insist we transform our anger into compassion, implying that anger is not a “spiritual” emotion. This idea confuses anger with aggression, the emotion with “what is actually done with anger.” Anger can actually be an expression of compassion, a willingness to uphold boundaries that are sacred, or stand up for someone who is being oppressed. Compassion and anger can absolutely coexist.
Anger is not an action, though one of its characteristics may be the urge to do something, and do it fast. Anger can help us overcome fear in order to take some action. So how do we know what action to take?
First, we must slow down. We must be still. This is incredibly challenging. In my experience, there are two types of anger: righteous anger is very calm and grounded, and knows exactly what must be done. It’s also very rare. Much more common is anxious anger, which is fidgety and confused, impatient for action. This is usually because anxious anger is mixed up with fear or hurt (or both), and the anger is trying to find a way out of feeling those other things. Sitting still brings those other emotions to the surface.
And so we must sit still. We must listen to the message of the anger, even if all it knows is that something is wrong. We have to give it a chance to talk to us, to dialogue with it, even ask it some questions. What boundary has been crossed? What needs can we address right now? Can we be honest about those needs with compassion for the other person’s viewpoint?
Anger may be quick to place blame on someone else, but if we can slow down enough to try to identify what boundaries have been crossed, we may be able to see the situation more clearly, with compassion for ourselves and others.
In Masters’s view, spirituality is not about finding ways to avoid or eradicate our feelings. Its work is deeply emotional in nature, and it’s about getting close enough to ourselves that we can see to the heart of what’s happening, be honest about it, and care for ourselves and each other to the best of our ability. Rejecting our emotions is not the path. Listening closely to the messages of the heart and honoring them, even and especially when they are uncomfortable to sit with—that’s the practice. That’s where we find the nectar of anger.
More from Julie Peters: “Celebrating the Darkness”