Yogi Assignment: Anger
It’s so easy to tear something or someone down. It’s harder to show up and do the work of accepting fault, taking responsibility and working for a feasible solution. The temptation to simply burn it all to the ground and watch it go up in flames, whether the “it” is yourself, your job, family, community, or country is a kind of destructive nihilism that we can all fall easily into. Think about how easy it is to complain about something and how hard it is to build something up. You can find fault in anything, everything, anyone and everyone if you look for it. The more you gossip about others and the more you complain about life the easier it gets to focus on the negative. Negativity, if left unchecked, can metastatize like a cancer of the mind. Soon nothing is ever good enough and you are never happy. But the polar opposite to be all positive all the time can be just as two-dimensional and destructive.
Anger has a place in the pantheon of human emotions. Some spiritually oriented people are afraid of anger, both their own and other people’s anger. But all that means is that they end up repressing their anger and rejecting other people’s anger. Sublimated anger is still anger. It just comes out in all sorts of wonky forms like passive aggression or victimhood. It spreads more like a virus and is murky and swampy. Repressed anger often ends up generating messy actions. Acting in anger without conscious reflection can also be dangerous. It can lead to fits of righteous indignation with blinding rage. But anger can be conscious as well. Anger, like all emotions, is a messenger of the inner world. Anger is, at least for me, quite often about saying no. No, you cannot treat me like that. No, you cannot speak to me like that. No, you cannot touch me like that. No, just no. It’s a boundary. And boundaries are healthy. To be without boundaries and to live in a world of total moral relativism where everything and everyone is ok feels hollow, like a delusion and misinterpretation of spirituality.
In case you haven’t realized it by now, I’ll say it straight out–I get angry. Just because I’ve been practicing yoga for over 20 years does not mean that I never feel anger. In fact, I feel the full range of human emotions including sadness, fear, love, happiness, joy and so much more. There was a period in my spiritual development when I thought nothing good could ever come from anger. I rejected the idea that anger was an acceptable emotion and I ended up with a lot of repressed anger. Anger is still something that is hard for me to feel. It often takes me a few days (or weeks) before I even realize that I’m angry about something. I’m comfortable with sadness and anxiety but the depth and power of my anger sometimes scares me. I see it like a tiger pacing back and forth growling. It frightens me because of its sheer power. There have been times that I’ve let my anger flow unchecked and it has harmed other people and even devolved into hate. But there is wisdom in rage. I’ve had to learn how to accept, listen and tend to my anger. I’ve had to learn how to set the tiger free in a space where it won’t attack any innocent bystanders. It’s my anger after all and I have to make my peace with it.
Again, anger is about boundaries. It’s a feeling that often declares that something is not ok. On one level, everything is always ok. And on another level, everything is not always ok. Navigating the space between these two truths requires subtlety and nuance and is not always simply pass-or-fail. The level where everything is always ok is a Divine, transcendent level of the Spirit. From the highest perspective of thousands of years of evolution everything is always ok. The problem with claiming to live in this state is that, while many of us experience glimpses of this state, we are inevitably human. In the Spirit we are all made whole and perfect and equal, but we are embodied and material. In this world we are not equal. Some of us have immense privilege and others experience subjugation and domination. There are things which we each experience in an average day which register as micro-aggressions or true acts of aggression. If your spirituality allows you to pass over injustice, falsehood, inequality, and other egregious acts by covering it all in light and love, your spirituality has failed. Instead of a morally sound philosophy of life, it becomes an act of spiritual bypassing that covers all things in positivity while glossing over and ignoring the painfully obvious reality front and center.
Yoga has always been a path of liberation for me. Liberation by definition means seeing clearly. But the yoga world is far from perfect. I know this all too well. It is intimately human. It attracts sincere seekers looking to heal, people who want to get flexible or strong, others who seek merely to capitalize off the trend and profit off yoga’s popularity and more. I get angry when I feel like the heart of yoga is in jeopardy primarily because I value this sacred tradition so much. Despite the commercialization of yoga, the dream of yoga remains pure at its center. It is a quest for true freedom, freedom from the chains of the ego, freedom to live up to your highest potential, freedom to see through the web of illusion. If the chains of the ego are strong and the web of illusion is deep it may require lots of effort to break free. But you can use this method to set yourself free.
Anger is honest, pure and raw. There is something even innocent about it. Now, I am not advocating for everyone to walk around angry all the time. I’m asking you to make peace with your own anger, to know it intimately and allow it to teach you about yourself. Only when you get in touch with your own anger and understand how to be present to it and process it will ever be able to hold that same space for someone else. The cure for spiritual bypassing is to dive deeply within yourself and bring to light all the places where you are passing over your own darkness. If you think you are free from darkness and live only in the light, you may be resistant to this blog. Yet, you are actually the person who needs to take the deepest dive. I know because I was you. I sat in a false bubble of positivity and thought that anger had no place in the yogi’s world. I was wrong. Anger is valid, just as all human emotions are valid. Anger is often complex and utterly human. It’s ok to feel angry. But it’s not ok to let anger rule all your actions or to deny that you’re every angry.
Emotions are teachers and they themselves have a shelf-life of about ninety seconds. Emotions only last longer because we recycle and rehash scenarios which recreate the same response over and over again. Feeling and processing your emotions is not the same as retelling the same story over and over again. Emotional maturity and truly enlightened self-awareness comes from begin fully present to your emotions, both the good and the bad. There is a delicate line between allowing your emotions to rule your life and suppressing your emotions. It’s like the practice, you are not there to perfect the asana, you are there to feel your whole body. In life, you’re not here to only feel happiness forevermore. You are here to feel everything and learn from all your experiences.
Make peace with your anger. Accept your anger. Take good care of it. The world is so angry right now. Sometimes rightfully so. There are so many boundaries that have been destroyed and disrespected. But we cannot hope to make peace in the world if we cannot even make peace with our own anger. This week’s Yogi Assignment is Anger.
1. Find Your Anger—It’s in there. I know it is. As an exercise I’d invite you to write a rant about something that you’re angry about. You don’t need to post it or send it to anyone. Just let loose with your full unedited anger. It can be about a friend who has betrayed you, a company that you find morally reprehensible or an action of the government that you find upsetting. Just go for it full force.
2. Feel Your Anger—After you’re done ranting, close your eyes and feel your body. Drop your mind into your breath and into the space of the inner body. Tune in. An image may bubble up to the surface or a feeling may spread throughout your body. Whatever arises give it full permission to be there and just be present with the feeling.
3. Express Your Anger—Ask yourself these questions: “If my anger could make a sound, what would it be? If my anger could move, how would it move?”. Then, make sure you’re alone and make the sound and move your body in the way that you anger wants you to. Just follow it and don’t judge it or yourself.
4. Learn From Anger— Go back to your initial rant and approach your anger from a wisdom perspective. See if you can identify a behavior or action that you would like to eradicate from your life. You might decide that you need to speak to your friend about not repeating a certain behavior. You may find that you decide not to purchase products from a company you are not morally aligned with. You may decide to vote in the next election or show up at a political rally.
Warning: do NOT think you can just jump to step 4. Thinking about and intellectualizing about emotions is not the same as feeling, processing and expressing them. Unprocessed anger is often sublimated and can be felt in any dialogue. I know this all too well from taking action before I had fully processed and expressed my own anger. Anger can be the source of constructive change if you take care of it well. All emotions are valid and have something to teach us. Yoga is a path of awakening and sometimes what you have to wake up to is the depth of your own emotions.