Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.
Maybe you’ve heard this one before. The one from the Buddha illustrating the pitfalls of anger.
Fight or flight.
Let’s get tribal.
Anger is wrong.
Like the time when I almost blew up at my colleague. I’d been slogging away at a report - a report that was kind of like my baby. We were just in the final stages of putting the content and design together, preparing it to be sent off. The report was the product of months of research, research that I’d designed, executed, and analyzed. Research that involved collecting stories from families dealing with incredibly difficult circumstances that only I was privy to. No one could take this away from me.
Until he did. In one fell swoop. Without ever consulting me. Someone who had absolutely zero role in the project. And what’s more, he handed the report over to an 18-year-old intern.
‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ I asked myself. ‘What right does he have to take this away from me?’
Blood hot. Heart racing. All those stress hormones pumping, shutting down any energy for rational thought. I felt the caveman brain come out as if a bear were chasing me, and that bear was my boss. I had to slay the bear - or be slain.
I try to call.
So I channel that caveman into an email. If I were to be honest, I might just write one word:
That's what this crab is also saying.
My neocortex intervenes:
Wait, Manny. You’re a Buddhist. Buddhists don’t do that with anger. Just watch it. It’s just energy. Let it be. Breaaaaaaaaattttthhhheee.
Okay. Anger is bad. Anger is to be avoided. Anger is sin. But wait, I don’t believe in sin. There’s no good or bad, right? That’s the whole point of nonduality. Oh wait - oh shit. That’s not the way you’re supposed to think about relative truth. It still matters.
Now you’re just overthinking it. Let it beeeeeeee.
But it’s too late - my heart rate increases even more. My entire body is prepared for battle. If you were to hand me a spear, I might impale the next person who touches me. I fire off a strongly worded email asking how he could do that.
Cave-Manny Crush. CAVE-MANNY KILL.
I look for sympathizers. I tell a colleague about the situation.
Yeah, man. That’s total bullshit.
Right? CAVE-MANNY KILL.
But wait, Manny. You do realize he could fire you. Then you’d lose everything - where would you go? Your relationship would fall apart. Your parents would say, ‘I told you he wouldn’t make it through this.’ And it would be ALL YOUR FAULT.
Whoa. Whoaaaaaa. Then you see his response.
He’s pulling rank. Oh no he didn’t…CAVE-MANNY KILL.
But then, I think: I’m walking on thin ice. I’m new here. I escalate this anymore and...KER-PLOW.
But CAVE-MANNY K-- no. No more Cave-Manny.
And so, I take that hot stone. And I swallow. I apologize profusely. We have a one-on-one conversation in which I feign coming to an understanding with him. It’s forced, only intended to avoid bringing up that stone that never really went away.
A stone that had a lot of friends in my stomach. Other stones I’d swallowed when I’d felt like a beta male. When I thought I’d lose face. But that hot stone doesn’t cool off in my stomach. I didn’t think I have the enzymes or acids to really break that down. It’s invisible.
At least I thought it was.
But the energy never really left me and my colleague. It just meant I would glower icily at him every time he entered the room. It meant I’d ignore him whenever he came in, smiling joyfully. I’d shut down, with my headphones covering my ears while I secretly paused the music to hear him speak so that I could wait for him to say something dumb and confirm my feelings towards him.
CAVE-MANNY still want to kill.
‘But you shouldn’t,’ the voice says. ‘Love him. He’s your teacher about anger. Just visualise him as a child, seeking exactly what you want - happiness. Freedom from suffer-’
CAVE-MANNY KILL THE VOICE.
This goes on for about nine months. Nine months of avoidance, of carrying this energy, of cursing this person. Calling the anger out as ‘bad’ is just as effective at uprooting it as is raising a fist in protest to a dictatorial president.
It just didn’t work.
Until I actually talked with him - honestly. I waited 9 months to approach him and share my feelings around the whole saga. How I’d let this become a reason to resent him. How he himself had felt that every time he’d enter a room and feel the energy drop when he was within a five-meter radius of me. And how, this whole time, he’d just been struggling himself in his new leadership role.
It’s never been easy for me to confront others after I’ve felt intentionally hurt or wronged and when the anger feels almost uncontrollable, even shameful. To cope, I dissociate from the feeling. And what happens? The anger just festers. And festers. Until the object of the anger is no longer human anymore - it's an idea.
In our ‘civilized’ society, anger is probably the most complicated emotion to manage with all the ethical and legal constraints in place to fence it in. To tame this emotional tendency that we haven’t quite evolved from our caveman days.
But the more I find ways of expressing it, the more I wonder - might there be a way to actually channel this in a productive way that invites honesty, openness and connection?