When we free ourselves from the stronghold of anger, we gain access to the transforming graces of love—a far greater power.
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Yoga Teachings on Anger
I think it is fair to say that along with grief, anger has been on the rise in this pandemic year. It has been on vivid display in our national politics in the US. I've seen it more in myself and talked with others who wonder how to put the lid on their anger and the anger in their families. Kids are fighting more than usual, pushing back against parents, while spouses are losing it, impatience with others is at an all-time high, and so on. Sometimes we don't directly identify anger, but we can see signs like frustration or complaining.
What do we do with anger? Some spiritual texts advise us not to get angry. How's that work? How do we prevent it from taking over our hearts and minds and causing us to think, say, and do things we know are not consistent with our true nature?
Yoga philosophy offers us some wisdom for dealing with anger that is both lofty and practical.
The lofty advice is: abide in the soul's peace, wholeness, stability. Anger won't arise.
A verse from the Bhagavad Gita (2.70) describes this state of being established in inner peace: Be like the ocean, which becomes filled yet remains unmoved and stands still even as the waters enter it.
Imagine! Even as major rivers such as the mighty Amazon, Ganges, Yangtze, or the Nile flow into the sea, it remains stable. How does it do that? Depth. Oceans are deep. They also "give up" moisture to the clouds. These qualities of the ocean provide two delightful teachings for us: Be deep. Be anchored in the depth of our essential nature and be free from overly reacting to surface matters. And practice "giving up"—working in harmony with the Infinite by letting go of clinging to our separate-self agenda.
Our lack of depth perception and pernicious clinging to what we want allow anger to move in with us and stay too long like a bad relative who won't leave.
We have to outwit anger. How do we get that cantankerous relative to move out? First, it's helpful not to invite him in. But once he is there, don't entertain him; don't make it easy for him to stay.
Steps to Freedom from Anger
Here are four steps we can practice for winning the anger battle:
1) discern where it comes from,
2) learn how to manage it,
3) discover how to transform it, and
4) realize freedom from it.
1. Discern Where Anger Comes From
Anger comes from attachment and thwarted desire. The Bhagavad Gita describes this origin succinctly. When a person dwells on the objects of the senses, attachment is born. From attachment, desire is born. From desire, anger is born. (2:62-63). It is thwarted desire that brings anger in its wake, the frustration of not having or getting what we want.
Thus, it makes sense that we would experience the rise of anger during the pandemic year. We are not getting what we want. Our desire for freedom, safety, for some semblance of control—being able to do what we want to do when we want to do it—has been thwarted.
Sometimes just discernment alone will begin to dismantle anger's power. Whenever we feel angry, we can inquire: what do I want that is not happening here? What is the attachment behind that desire? Can I release that attachment?
2. Learn How to Manage Anger
Yoga philosophy teaches us that our ordinary mind has six main impurities: attachment, jealousy, meanness, anger, hate, and vengeance. These impurities cause the mind to be restless. That restlessness obscures our ability to meditate successfully or reason clearly. Spiritual practice clears that up.
The prescription given in Kriya Yoga practice to free the ordinary troubled mind of its impurities is to introduce the medicine of virtuous qualities. We learn to substitute a soul quality for an ego-driven reaction.
Sutra 1.33 from Patanjali's Yoga Sutra gives us the formula to work with: The mind becomes serene by the cultivation of feelings of love for the happy, compassion for the suffering, delight for the virtuous, and indifference for the non-virtuous.
Here's how those four scenarios work.
When others are happy and successful, the knee-jerk reaction is jealousy. "Why them and not me," the ego cries. Cultivating feelings of love and friendliness instead and understanding that their happiness is our happiness, too, calms the mind. Secondly, when others are suffering, we may distance ourselves out of fear or distaste. Cultivating compassion as a healthier alternative opens the heart and quiets the mind. Third, when we experience others who are virtuous, we might feel envious or even suspicious. Making a course correction to develop delight in others' virtue removes the impurity of envy from the mind. Lastly, indifference, or equanimity toward those who are misguided or non-virtuous, frees us from the impurity of intolerance.
When the mind is purified, soul light illumines it. Then discernment, innate peace, and happiness prevail.
3. Discover How to Transform Anger
The first two steps are foundational. First, we discern how anger arises by seeing what it is attached to. Then, we learn how to manage it, how to nullify its strength. After that, we can use the energy of it and apply it for a useful purpose. But we can't transform that energy when we are overtaken by it. When we deconstruct anger through discernment and apply the proper remedy, we can then use the power constructively.
Anger is fueled by rajas guna or restless desire. We can take that restless energy and put it into constructive action. When we look at the root of our anger and inquire: what do I want that is being thwarted? We free ourselves to ask a more transformative question. What do I really want? When we sincerely ask that more profound question, what do I really want? We are on the threshold of freedom to love.
4. Realize Freedom from Anger
When we work with anger, we first ask: what do I want? What is missing? Then we can dive deeper by asking: what do I have? What do I always have? What am I? Who do I want or choose to be?
An exquisite poem by Rumi tells the story of Ali, which so clearly demonstrates freedom from anger becoming freedom to love. It is the choice to serve something greater than our momentary passions like anger. It is the choice to serve Love.
Ali In Battle
Learn from Ali how to fight
without your ego participating.
God's Lion did nothing
that didn't originate
from his deep center.
Once in battle he got the best of a certain knight
and quickly drew his sword. The man,
helpless on the ground, spat
in Ali's face. Ali dropped his sword,
relaxed, and helped the man to his feet.
"Why have you spared me?
How has lightning contracted back
into its cloud? Speak, my prince,
so that my soul can begin to stir
in me like an embryo."
Ali was quiet and then finally answered,
"I am God's Lion, not the lion of passion.
The sun is my lord. I have no longing except for the One.
When a wind of personal reaction comes,
I do not go along with it.
There are many winds full of anger,
and lust and greed. They move the rubbish
around, but the solid mountain of true nature
stays where it's always been.
There's nothing now
except the divine qualities.
Come through the opening into me.
 Rumi, The Essential Rumi, Translations by Coleman Barks with John Moyne (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995), 223.
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