I experience anger. A lot. So much so, that I have developed a close relationship to anger. I watch with awareness those familiar, hot waves rise up and clinch my chest. I know that my heart rate will increase shortly after. And finally, to my chagrin, I listen as my mouth spews forth words without thought. Once I have reached that point, I feel as though I have lost control. And usually, whatever tumbles out of my mouth completely contradicts what’s in my heart.
But what is it that my heart feels that my head (and mouth) completely misconstrues?
Essentially, Jack urges us to patiently (and courageously) honor our emotions without reacting to them. Here are five inspiring quotes and practices outlined in The Wise Heart that have helped me better manage anger.
The Nature of Wanting
People want things, constantly. It’s totally natural to desire warmth when we’re cold or food when we’re hungry. According to Kornfield, “The idea is not to be without desire, but to have a wise relationship with desire.”
Even healthy desires can become unhealthy if we allow them to throw us off balance or distort reality.
For example, I am extremely goal-oriented and driven. I won’t stop until I have achieved my goals, which often means I loose sleep and allow joyful moments to pass me by. But the worst is when my desire-turned-anxiety triggers feelings of anger over small matters.
Like when I begin planting a new flower in my garden, I mean to continue until I’m finished. So when my three-year-old says she’s hungry, I immediately feel frustrated. Within a split second, I (wrongly) interpret her plea for a snack as her interrupting me.
Jack Kornfield might say that I am grasping the goal of finishing my project so tightly, that anything “getting in my way” enrages me.
The Truth Shall Set You Free
According to Kornfield, “for those of us who easily indulge their desire (i.e. me), the wisest approach will require a powerful discipline of letting go.”
So when my daughter asks me for a snack, I need to hear it for what it is; that she is simply hungry. Not that she is blocking me from achieving my goals. If I can remember that truth in the moment, I can “let go” of my desire (and my shovel) before giving rise to anger. I can also make peace with my desire knowing that I can return to planting shortly after and at no cost to my ultimate goal, which is to care for both my plants and my children.
Split Second Decisions
It only takes a second between the moment we feel triggered and the moment we react out of anger, making it seem uncontrollable. But with practice, aggression can be stopped in that fleeting moment before it takes its toll.
Kornfield describes our consciousness as “particle-like” and because of that, “we can enter the space between instinct and action, between impulse and reaction.” But here’s the kicker: “To do so, we must tolerate pain and fear.”
That sounds masochistic. Tolerate pain? Well, here’s how I understand it: The only way we can make that split second decision and not react out of anger is to accept the pain that is causing us to want to lash out. We are essentially buying ourselves time by sitting with that initial pain or fear. As Thich Nat Hahn describes it, we need to listen to our suffering, cradle and sooth it like one does a crying baby.
In my garden scenario, I was really reacting from a fear of failure. Had I sat with my fear in that moment before allowing my anger to ripen, I would have noticed a tiny little voice inside saying, “if you don’t finish this now, you are a failure.” That was the inner suffering that needed tending to.
A Painful Undercurrent
“Aversion and anger almost always arise as a direct reaction to a threatening or painful situation. If they are not understood they grow into hatred.” I would rather engage with my underlying fears and pain then harm the ones I love with anger. But it requires courage. It means I have to sit in the midst of my pain and accept it. Then, if I am wise, I can use it to “understand”, as Kornfield suggests.
Here’s an example from when I responded without anger. In the middle of an argument with a loved one, I suddenly felt the urge to destroy them with words I knew would surely hurt their feelings. At that moment, I became aware of what I was about to do and so, I shut my mouth. The temptation to shout was powerful, but I resisted. The more I resisted, the stronger the urge to hurl insults grew. But I continued to sit in silence.
Finally, the urge to rage subsided and out came tears. Crying was a healthy response to what undergirded my anger: the pain of loneliness and exhaustion. I watched my anger implode and die, until it led me to the truth that needed attention. Once there, I was able to say how I felt hurt rather than spew hatred.
Pain is Pain is Pain
According to Kornfield, “However painful our experiences may be, they are just painful experiences until we add the response of aversion or hatred.” Pain is inevitable. Fear is here to stay. They are both part of our human experience and there is no use avoiding or fighting them. It is by doing so that we suffer, as Kornfield suggests.
When we sit gently and patiently with our selves in times of pain, we learn. We also grow more kind because practicing compassion with ourselves inspires us to have compassion for others.
It is also liberating to know that I can experience fear and pain without having to be swept away by anger.