The Nature of Anger

Throughout this book, starting with the presentation of the Four Noble Truths, the emphasis has been on changing oneself. It is summed up in Fig. 25.1, where the "passions" (ego needs, angers, fears, and desires) are substantially reduced, and where the mind is cleared. Such changes, of course, are a tall order, requiring that we overcome the influences of biology, culture, and upbringing. Several techniques—attaining right views, practicing immersion, and so forth—were described, but in a rather general way. How do we make specific changes in specific cases? How do we apply the techniques to handling any one of the many states characterized as painful, as Dukkah?

In this section, I illustrate the application of change to a particular subset of the passions—namely, to anger. I have selected anger for two reasons. First, it is much written about in Buddhism where it is considered a "poison," destructive of progress toward liberation. Second, anger has been a kind of hobby of mine. I have studied the topic in western psychological literature and have observed it in myself. The Buddha was once asked by a novice monk what he could do to diminish his anger. The Buddha replied: "Study within yourself the things that make anger come and that make the anger go away." This I have done, noting the events that evoke anger in me and the techniques that dispel or even prevent the anger. These two considerations, the importance of anger in Buddhist teachings and my own experiences, have led to the present section. I also believe that if one learns to handle anger there will be generalization of that learning to other kinds of disturbance. Many of the emotions that arise out of interpersonal dealings (feeling stressed, intimidated, embarrassed) will be better handled.

By "anger" I mean the name of a category that embraces many states ranging from irritation to fury. These states all have certain properties in common, so that the general term may be usefully defined as follows:

Anger: An emotional state that is usually provoked, that is unpleasant, and produces the impulse to hurt (criticize, scold, attack) the provoking person (or animal, institution, or symbol).

Along with this straightforward description, we might add that the impulse to hurt can spread to hurting others. The man who is offended by his boss, for example, might that evening be harsh with his wife. In addition to being unpleasant, this emotional state has another disadvantage. It can take control of our actions so that we do or say things that we later regret.

I said that I am using the term anger as a category. Its range is suggested in Fig. 30.1, where I've organized many of the states into a two-dimensional space. At the left are the states of short duration, at the right are those of long duration. At the bottom are the milder states, at the top are the more intense states. To take some examples, feeling displeased is a mild state, usually of short duration. Hatred, on the other hand, is very intense and lasts a long time. Resentment is someplace in the middle both in intensity and duration1. For all of these I'll use the generic term anger.

Of course, there are other variables besides duration and intensity that determine the character of anger. Let us briefly review two of these, the provoking conditions and the threshold determinants. A variety of conditions seem to provoke anger.

1This chart, I confess, is not the result of any systematic survey, but reflects my own experience. If you feel that some of these concepts should be shifted in the space, that would be all right. I am simply embodying here, in a visible way, the fact that anger has a range of forms and that these vary in duration and intensity.

FIG. 30.1 The names of many psychological states subsumed here under the generic label "anger." The names are distributed according to the characteristic intensity and duration of the state.

• Pain: A child accidentally hits you and you lash out at him or her.

• Frustration: A bureaucrat insists that a task, which you know is perfectly straightforward, can't be done. An assistant, despite your lucid explanation, does the work incorrectly.

• Disrespect: You're spoken to as if you are a child or an inferior. Closely related provocations are people scolding you, insulting you, commanding you.

• Injustice: One (yourself or another) is deprived of some good in a way that you perceive to be unfair.

Clearly, there are a variety of evoking sources, more than are contained in this list. We vary individually in our sensitivity to these various sources. Some people do not, as they say, suffer fools gladly; others are perfectly patient in explaining and re-explaining. Some people flare up at an insult; others have "thick skin," scarcely noticing the insult, and laughing it off. As the Buddha suggests, studying within yourself the things that make anger come, is an important preliminary step. In my own case, for example, I observed (over a few years) that I was most vulnerable to anger directed at me. I was patient with all kinds of frustrations. But when someone confronted me angrily, I immediately flared up. Having detected this, I have been able to work on eliminating this reflexive anger.

In addition to the different provoking conditions, another important variable is what I call the threshold for anger. The psychological concept of the threshold comes from the study of the senses where, if the energy is small enough, the sense organ won't respond. The ticking of a watch, for example, won't be heard until the watch has been brought close enough to the ear. At that point, the sound energy at the ear is strong enough to produce a perception. That minimum amount of required energy is the threshold. People with acute hearing are said to have a low threshold; people who are hard-of-hearing have a high threshold. Although the threshold concept was developed for the senses, a loose but useful analogy holds for the emotions and for anger, in particular. We may say that a thick-skinned person who readily brushes off insults has a high threshold to that kind of provocation. I had a low threshold to angry confrontation. When we're in an irritable mood we can be said to have a generally low anger threshold.

This threshold for anger, unlike that of the senses, is noticeably variable—some days we're touchy, other days nothing bothers us. It is useful to know the conditions that determine that variation. Within myself I find that the anger threshold is lowered by fatigue, a noisy environment, and alcohol. I've known people who have become irritable from a headache, physical exertion, or from having had a hard day at the office. Also, sub-threshold irritants tend to add to each other. The 3-year-old who gets out of his bed after bedtime doesn't bother you until he's done it a few times. Your response is mild, mild, mild, then bang! You're angry. Of course, the higher the threshold the less likely it is that you will flare up. It is important, therefore, to dis-cover within ourselves the determinants of the threshold level. In some sense, our ultimate task in transforming ourselves is to raise the threshold to the point where no provocations evoke anger.

To summarize, then, anger is characterized as an unpleasant emotion ranging from irritation (brief and mild) to fury (prolonged and intense). It can be evoked by a variety of provocations and it varies in its "evokability," in its threshold.


This section, Handling Anger, is derived from workshops that I have presented. Instead of suggesting topics for reflection and discussion at the end of each chapter, I am proposing a general exercise, to be carried through for at least one month.

The Buddha said "Study within yourself the things that make anger come and that make the anger go away." Start keeping a journal of your anger episodes. Every time you find yourself angry (ranging, ramember, from irritation to fury) write down a description to the episode: When it occurred, what evoked it, the state you were in at the time (e.g., drunk, tired, headachy), and what ended your angry feelings. You want to determine:

1. conditions that lowered your threshold for anger;

2. provocations that were most likely to evoke anger;

3. how the feelings of anger ended;

4. techniques you brought to bear (a) to control your behavior, and/or (b) to dispel the angry feelings.

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