“What’s eating you?” is the perfect thing to ask since anger really does eat away at us emotionally and physically.
I see it as a habitual, conditioned response that shields against anything that would require me to feel more fragile and open. There is always something underneath anger I'd rather not experience—usually fear or sadness. My anger can be ignited by something as minor as an unintentional bump in the subway, or by something I perceive to be poor treatment by someone else: a remark that I decide is hurtful, or a behavior that I interpret as insensitive.
What lays beneath my anger is the misconception that there are certain ways in which the course of history ought to progress, and when it doesn’t go according to my grand plan I want to pick up my marbles and run over to another corner of the playground where everything is more to my liking.
My mind is like a mini courtroom with a virtual judge and jury that constantly weighs in on every situation I encounter. I deem some of these situations to be unfair or unjust and I get a lot of pleasure out of coming up with reasons as to why I'm "right". Most of the time the defense produces a very compelling case that justifies why I am angry and who is to blame. Not surprisingly, this inner jury almost always decides in my favor.
There is no such thing as “righteous anger” because nothing good is ever produced from an angry thought or a decision made under the influence of this emotion. Our culture is very big on expressing anger and even psychologists and psychotherapists encourage us to do so. I used to think that expressing anger was a wonderful thing, even if it meant punching a pillow or screaming out loud in an empty room. I’m no longer so sure that expressing anger really does anything beneficial at all—and in fact I tend to think that doing so might be harmful and ultimately counterproductive. I think the best way to deal with anger is to simply experience the emotion, to be aware of the thoughts that set it off, and to feel physical sensations that accompany it. It really does feel great when we lash out at another person by yelling, arguing or behaving aggressively—for a moment. But anger is a bottomless pit, an insatiable fire that wants to be constantly fed with the coals of our insecurities, our sadness, and our fears.
Some people think that getting angry is a necessary component of social change. But the people that are looked up to the most in this world acted with a passion that was tempered with awareness, patience, and loving action. None of the public figures that we admire today (ie Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama) attained their status by being aggressive or cruel. What makes them so memorable is that they achieved great things by helping countless numbers of people through their positive actions and their virtuous examples.
We can work through anger by being aware of it and how it really feels in our bodies. It is important to become aware of the underlying emotions and thought patterns that give way to the rage we suffer from if we ever hope to move beyond it. If we relate to our anger instead of from it, we have a chance to free ourselves from the pattern of behaviors that cause so much harm to ourselves and others. If we let ourselves simply experience anger instead of reacting whenever it comes up, it will gradually lose its hold over us.
It isn't a stumbling block on our way to waking up. It is an invaluable tool that will help us do so, as long as we pay attention.