One day someone sent me a note by e-mail asking about the nature of anger. I replied by saying, “Well, one of the painful things about anger is the tendency we have when we’re angry to put people in a box.” We bind the object of our anger, whether ourselves or another, to a certain definition and cannot see beyond it. Just after sending the reply, something went very wrong in the relationship between my computer and my printer. Terribly frustrated, I got down on my hands and knees and started unplugging cords from one place and plugging them into another, trying to fix the problem. The most computer-literate person on our staff at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), where I live, had gone away on vacation, and I found myself feeling angry at him. My mind was so filled with thinking “Why isn’t he here when I need him?” that I completely overlooked the fact that I had strongly urged him to go away, to take a break from IMS, and had in fact helped to arrange the trip. I was also angry at myself for not being more knowledgeable about computers, chiding myself, “Why can’t you be the kind of person who can fix these things?” In the meantime, despite my self-image, I managed to solve the problem.
Soon after, I got back on-line, and there was my correspondent again, this time saying, “I don’t know exactly what you mean by saying that anger leads to our putting people in boxes.” I immediately wrote back to him describing how I had just done exactly that to my computer-literate friend as well as to myself.
Anger is the mind-state that dislikes what is happening and strikes out against it. Anger wants to create distance and disconnection. It is a state of mind that does not cling to things but rather, searching for faults, pushes away from them. Think about what happens when you feel angry: The mind gets very narrow and tight. It isolates “the problem” and fixates solely on someone or something. Lost in this state, we get tunnel vision and see no way out. We forget the law of change. And so we put people, ourselves, and situations in boxes: “This is how it is, and this is how it’s always going to be.” Because we don’t see many alternatives and can’t imagine anything beyond our injuries or deficits, we feel overwhelmed and we panic. We lose perspective and forget that things do change.
Lost in anger, we tend to think we should be able to control the events of our lives. We blame ourselves when we can’t, even when these events are completely outside of anyone’s control. I did not make the computer and printer stop connecting properly, but I was so angry with myself for my imagined inability to fix it, that I scarcely noticed I was, in fact, fixing it.
When anger is a strong factor of mind, it is often a consequence of projecting outward our inner dissatisfaction. Everywhere we look, we see what is wrong. When we walk into a room, we are bound to see what we don’t like. We don’t like what that person is wearing, we don’t like who that person is with, we don’t like the wallpaper, and on and on. We all probably know someone who never seems satisfied in any situation, who has a perpetually soured expression on their face, who is often just simply reactive—all this from the sheer habitual force of being angry.
Anger, in itself, is not best viewed as bad or wrong. It is simply another state of mind that arises in reaction to circumstances. It is natural to feel angry at times, especially when confronted by cruelty or injustice, and this anger can burn through the fog of apathy that surrounds such issues. When we find ourselves in a situation where we feel ignored or unrecognized, where others have put us in a box, we again might well react with anger. Even though this is understandable, it is still painfully limiting and confusing. Our minds become narrow and our hearts shut off. We feel very alone, and we may seek to gain control without perhaps fully understanding a situation.
We need to understand how anger functions and how it affects us, not condemn ourselves for feeling it. Does anger give us the energy to make change in a sustained way? Does it allow us to see clearly? Does it actually enable us to control a situation, a person, our body, or our mind? Does it give us skill in making change? Or, when we’re angry, do we lash out in ways that prevent effective change?
It’s important to investigate the nature of anger because it is such a powerful energy and can be so destructive. When we can face our anger without being afraid of it, or angry about it, or defenseless in the face of it, then we can come close to it. When we are able to look closely at anger, we see the threads of different feelings—the sadness and the fear woven throughout it—and we can see its true nature. When we can uncover the helplessness and powerlessness that often feed anger, we transform them. In being mindful of these feelings, we actually use the sheer energy of anger—without getting lost in it or overcome by its tremendously deluding and fixating quality—to reveal instead the courage and compassion that have been concealed.