Ways of Seeing: Anger should be handled like fire

I was talking on the phone with a dear friend, and boy was she mad! She was so angry that her voice had a hard edge to it, her breathing was rapid, and my chest felt tight just listening to her speak. Her emotion was so immediate, so current, so fresh. The incident at the root of the rage? It happened 24 years ago.
Here’s the thing about anger. It is like a fire that makes us hot. When we tell the story of what someone did to us that made us so angry, we are feeding the fire, adding more and more dry kindling to encourage the blaze.
I am not suggesting we stop telling our stories. But like a stone hearth that protects our wooden home from the flames in our wood stove, we need practices that help protect us from the heat of our anger.
I read somewhere that powerful emotions last about 15 seconds. Our ability to recognize the emotion of anger when it is manifesting in us is the first step in getting free of its grip. If we fail to recognize our anger when it rises up in us, we may inadvertently clench our belly, harden our throat, or hold our breath, all of which feed the fire of our anger, and start us in on a fresh new cycle. That 15-second anger blast can repeat again and again, until we may realize we’ve been angry all day, all week, all year.
Speaking to my friend on the phone, I told her I could tell she was very angry. I also said that I worried about the effects of that anger on her physical and mental health. “I know!” She said, “I don’t want to carry this all the time. I want to let go of it.” We agreed that if she had a simple ritual she could use when she noticed herself feeling angry, it would be a step toward the softening she was longing for.
Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that all emotions are like seeds that live in our consciousness. We have seeds of anger, and also seeds of compassion and understanding within us. Just as in our garden we encourage the seedlings we want to grow, we must be watchful observers of our internal emotional states. When we notice anger arising in us, we can silently say, “Hello anger. I see that you are here. Now I will take a soft breath in and out. I will relax my face muscles. I will take care of you so that you don’t have to burn quite so hot.”
Some wise person said that anger is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy. Thich Nhat Hanh also says that when our house is on fire, we must be like a firefighter. We must pour water on the blaze and not waste time searching for the person who lit the match.
Having grown up in a household where anger was frequently blazing and crackling, I recognize that taking care of my own anger is a real gift to the people around me. Having the self-awareness to notice when we are feeling angry, the self-control not to speak or act when anger has its grip on us, and the willingness to work to transform our own anger are three precious ingredients. Now add a generous amount of compassion for yourself and you will have the antidote to anger’s poison.
Joanna Colwell is the director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury’s Marble Works District. She lives in East Middlebury with her husband, daughter, father-in-law, and two cats.  Feedback for this and other columns warmly welcomed: [email protected]

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