Circumventing anger (krodha) for the spiritual aspirant

Anger (krodha) is an emotion or mood that all of us have felt. Some of us feel it more frequently than others but nobody is bereft of this feeling. Anger occurs when a desired goal or need is not met despite one’s efforts or when someone does not behave in the way we want that […]

Anger (krodha) is an emotion or mood that all of us have felt. Some of us feel it more frequently than others but nobody is bereft of this feeling. Anger occurs when a desired goal or need is not met despite one’s efforts or when someone does not behave in the way we want that person to act or for some people, they have a free-floating hostility as part of their personality. Another related emotion is that of frustration which occurs when we do not achieve something in a desired fashion or time. While frustration and anger are normal feelings and within limits help protect us, uncontrolled or regular expression of these feelings can cause harm to us and others. First, the harm to our body and mind occurs as it triggers a “fight” response in which activation of the sympathetic nervous system occurs causing the release of several neurotransmitters and hormones, particularly adrenaline and noradrenaline in our system. As a result, our heart rate increases, our blood pressure shoots up, secretions in our stomach increase, blood flow to the lungs and skeletal muscles is increased and mentally we are upset. These byproducts are often not completely used up and can cause harm to the body. The accumulation can contribute to disorders such as anxiety, hypertension, stomach ulcers, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and others. Anger can also sometimes escalate into aggression and violence. We are seeing the harmful effects of violence in every sphere of life. In families, it is manifesting itself as domestic physical abuse, domestic emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and other forms of mistreatment. In the communities, we are seeing greater incidences of road rage, firearm misuse, active shootings, and so on. At the global level, it is responsible for acts of terrorism and wars between nations.
If we get angry, there is no point in freely expressing it, hiding it, denying it, repressing it, suppressing it, or giving unconditional forgiveness to the perpetrator. If we freely express our anger, it is bound to activate the sympathetic nervous system along with the release of neurotransmitters and hormones causing harm to us. Free expression also has the potential of creating a chain reaction in the other people around us which can double the harm to us. Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (1842-1914), an American author and Civil War veteran, once said this about such free expression, “Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”
If we hide or deny or suppress or repress the anger, that too is unproductive because, in essence, we have initiated the chain of chemical liberation in our system. Furthermore, such an approach leads to another condition called vengeance or bitterness. In this condition, we store our ill feelings for a long period of time only to release them when the opportune moment arises. Such a holding of a grudge can be more harmful than even free expression because of the long time entailed in holding on to the feeling and the repeated activation of the sympathetic nervous system at every moment when that thought arises in the mind. Maya Angelou (1928-2014), an American author and civil rights activist, wrote something to this effect, “Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”
If we practice the method of unconditional forgiveness to the perpetrator, then we may get the repercussions of the injustice rendered to us, if that is the case. It may also be somewhat impractical, especially if it is a situation that is making us angry. But this method has some merits in it and if practiced can be useful too. Western psychologists such as Albert Ellis (1913-2007), advocate the approach of showing annoyance and irritation to the person or situation which makes us become more effective at practically solving the problem. In showing annoyance and irritation one should not actually get angry or let the sympathetic nervous system get activated but it should only be a token expression. Such symbolic expressions will help us become more introspective of ourselves as well as help the other person become more thoughtful. This can then initiate a dialogue that can potentially resolve or defuse the situation. Such a disposition, however, requires concerted practice and is not easy to achieve. Aristotle (384-322 BC), the Greek philosopher also wrote something to this effect, “Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”
I am reminded of a story about dealing with anger in this way. Once there was a very vicious snake that lived near a village. Everybody was afraid of the anger of the snake as it used to bite people who came near him. Nobody dared venture near him. One day a saint was passing by, and the snake saw the saint and they interacted. The snake got really mesmerized by the peace radiating from the saint and asked if he could get the same state. The saint said, “It is very simple my dear, just stop biting people.” The saint then left. The snake was all transformed and gave up biting people. Very soon the villagers found out that the snake had become totally docile. They were no longer afraid of the snake and even the children could go near the snake’s den. Some naughty children used to derive pleasure from teasing the snake and beating it up from time to time just for their fun. One day, the snake was lying in a pool of blood, all beaten up by the village boys when the same saint passed by his den. The saint lifted the poor snake and applied medications to heal the wounds. Later the saint asked the snake, “What happened, my child?” The snake replied, “It was all your method that I gave up biting and people started beating me up.” The saint responded, “My child, I told you not to bite but did I tell you not to hiss.” “What prevented you from hissing, thereby keeping your fear alive in the heart of the villagers.” The snake realized his mistake. So, the moral of the story is that one needs to give up getting angry but not give up showing annoyance and irritation to deal with situations and people who exhibit irresponsible behavior or inadequacies in performance or do not live up to their duties. In today’s world, which has become more hostile and aggressive, there is certainly a need for us to show the world that we are not accepting unwanted behaviors while not truly getting angry.
Another approach to circumventing anger is based on the contemporary multi-theory model (MTM) of health behavior change in which the construct of emotional transformation is used to channel negative emotions such as anger into constructive healthy goals such as physical activity, healthy eating, adequate sleep, and so on. So, instead of getting angry, we might tell ourselves that we are going to do ten push-ups today or perform another healthy goal. Often this will make us forget anger and mobilize our energy into something healthy thereby using up all the accumulated byproducts of sympathetic activation. So, by showing annoyance and irritation or by emotionally transforming anger into healthy goals we can circumvent or bypass the adverse consequences of anger. Furthermore, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273), a Persian Sunni Muslim poet, has said if we accept things that are beyond our control then anger transmutes into tolerance which must be fostered. So here are the tips for introspective meditation on circumventing anger:

Dr. Manoj Sharma is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, USA. He is an avid practitioner of Kundalini Yoga.