I belong to a practice group called, sensibly enough, Women in Practice. We’re a gathering of women practitioners—mostly Buddhist—who sit zazen together every month, then take turns facilitating discussions about our experience of practice within a religious tradition historically crafted by and for men. After we had met a few times, it became clear that at the core of much of our experience is anger. A good bit of it.
Anyone who reads the news—or who simply is a woman or has women in their lives—knows that we have good reason to be angry. The storm of violence, misogyny, harassment, gaslighting, shaming, victim-blaming, and just plain discrimination and disregard has been raging for a long time, and it shows no sign of abating. The U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, effectively opening the door for states to restrict, ban, and even criminalize abortion, even in the case of rape or incest. The world is on fire, yet we still choose to spend valuable time, energy, and resources on the control of women’s bodies. So the fact that women are angry should come as no surprise. But our group was talking about anger because it’s an emotion we’re so rarely allowed to express freely, particularly in the context of spiritual practice.
From a young age, women are taught to be likeable, understanding, nurturing. We’re expected to set aside our feelings in order to care for others, and if we’re unable or unwilling to do so, we risk being labeled selfish, uncaring, or cold. The general reaction to women’s anger is consistently negative and even punitive—particularly in professional settings—though the same response is not applied equally to our male counterparts. Angry men gain power, but angry women lose it in spades. Angry men exude authority, but angry women are “too emotional” (meaning irrational and therefore untrustworthy). We can be called bitchy, histrionic, hormonal, irrational, aggressive, ugly, and most tellingly, too masculine—because, after all, anger is the right and purview of men. By the time we’re adults, we’ve learned the price of expressing our anger, so we learn to refrain, doing our best to steer away from behavior that violates established gender norms. We learn to not make waves, in other words, because waves can drown us, and often they do.
In one 2014 study at Georgia Southern University, 170 undergraduate students watched a video of court lawyers offering closing statements and were asked to rate their competence. Angry male lawyers received the highest scores, while angry female lawyers got the lowest (male lawyers who showed no emotion were second, and their female counterparts were third). In addition, the students attributed the women’s anger to their emotional state but ascribed the men’s anger to the situation in which they found themselves. These results are not unique. Time after time studies show that women who show strong emotions are punished, and often severely.
And yet we get angry. We still get angry. So what happens to all that unvoiced rage? Well, it doesn’t go away. “There is no away,” says that 1970s dictum about pollution. The same is true of our emotions. We may succeed in keeping our psychic dump out of sight or out of mind for a time, but its footprint can’t be erased, and it definitely can’t be ignored for long. The women in our group knew this, so we asked ourselves, what is the most skillful way to work with our anger? Can anger itself be skillful—to resist oppression, for example, and to incite change? What do the Buddhist teachings have to say about this?
In the bhavacakra (wheel of life) paintings, anger, one of the three poisons, is portrayed as a long, sinuous snake, ready to strike at the slightest provocation. It holds on tight to the tail of a rooster, representing greed or passion, which in turn bites down on the tail of a pig—ignorance or delusion. Together, the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance are responsible for the creation of karma, which keeps us spinning around and around on the wheel of samsara. In this and other Buddhist teachings, anger is identified as an unskillful klesha, or affliction. Anger is hot, reactive, and potentially decimating. The 8th-century Indian master Shantideva wrote in The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life that thousands of eons of skillful deeds are destroyed in a single moment of anger. The thing to do with anger, then, is to abandon, avoid, or extinguish it, preferably long before it has a chance to do its harm.
Can anger itself be skillful—to resist oppression, for example, and to incite change?
While I agree that anger is a potentially destructive, even devastating force, I also think there’s real danger in dismissing it too quickly, or in overlooking, repressing, or trying to stuff it into a more “acceptable” container. This is a risk all of us face, but Buddhist practitioners—particularly women—are especially susceptible to it. We Buddhists are an earnest bunch, after all. If we take our aspiration and our vows seriously, we’ll work hard to not perpetuate suffering in ourselves and in the world. But if we move too quickly to be forgiving or kind, we risk leapfrogging over real feelings of anger which, left unacknowledged, have the potential to do vastly more harm. Making this deflection more probable is the fact that it’s backed up by teachings we know and trust—teachings on selflessness, compassion, and altruistic joy. In the best of circumstances, these are tools for liberation, but when used to bypass our own feelings, they become the bars of a gilded cage.
That said, I’m not suggesting that women run around in a rage, giving full rein to their feelings of hatred, aversion, or hostility. But I believe there’s a way to make space for our anger. There’s a way to experience it fully and safely, so that we can work with it without judgment or the impulse to cancel it out. The answer is not to extinguish anger but to realize it, which in Buddhism means to clearly understand its nature; and part of this process is seeing how intimately it’s tied to a deep sense of care and love.
Elie wiesel once said that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference—a view not unlike that of the Anglo-Irish poet David Whyte (who, incidentally, has practiced Zen):
Anger is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect, and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for.
—Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words
Whyte undoubtedly knows that it’s a thin line that separates the three poisons from the three virtues. On the flip side of a slender coin, greed becomes generosity, anger turns into compassion, and ignorance transforms into wisdom. Determining what side the coin falls on is self. Liberate self by seeing it for the illusion that it is, and poison naturally becomes medicine, ailment becomes antidote. If anger is self-defense, then it follows that when the self is let go of, the need to protect becomes a moot point. This is true of anger, and it’s true of greed or sorrow or jealousy, of pleasure and pain.
Buddhism teaches that like any other conditioned thing in the universe, emotions are empty of any independent existence. They have no substance. They’re like wisps of fog, fragile bubbles, fleeting thoughts. (It’s not actually anger that’s destructive, but the actions that follow that initial emotional burst.) Therefore, from an absolute perspective, the only way to truly uproot anger is to realize that it’s inherently empty, to see that it has no power other than the one I give it with my actions and thoughts. However, in the relative world, before anger is self-liberated, it simply is, and its existence is as valid as that of equanimity or joy.
Emotions are our weather vane, letting us know which way the wind blows in our internal landscape. They’re also our response to the external world. As Whyte points out, anger shows us that we care, first and foremost, and what we care about and why. In its barest form, anger shows us that there’s something that needs tending—something deep and close.
In The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, bell hooks tells the story of a man who once asked a Masai elder, “What makes a good warrior?” The elder answered, “When the moment calls for fierceness, a good morani [warrior] is very ferocious. And when the moment calls for kindness, a good morani is utterly tender.” But what makes a great warrior, he added, “is knowing which moment is which.”
It’s this commingling of fierceness and tenderness that I find most helpful when thinking about anger and, in the context of practice, the ways in which I can work with it with skill and care. Imagine being able to ask ourselves and each other not “Why are you so angry?” but “Where does it hurt?” If the dark side of anger is its destructive power, its potency lies in its ability to wake us up, to lift us out of a sense of hopelessness or defeat, to let us know there’s something we’re overlooking, something that urgently demands our care.
That’s why, as a woman and as a practitioner, I’m most interested not in liberation from anger, but in liberation within it. I believe we’re all better served if we use our energy not to deflect or subvert or preemptively transform anger but to ask why it’s arising in the first place. A necessary aspect of our work is to investigate how we can collectively bring about the social, economic, political, and spiritual conditions in which anger will be the exception rather than the norm. For if we can harness the energy of anger, this powerful emotion can lead us down the quickest path to love.
In a telling anecdote in her memoir Wintering about the power of anger, the British author Katherine May speaks of the fury she felt when her husband was in the hospital with a burst appendix. The staff, seemingly in no hurry to help him, went nonchalantly about their business while May struggled with her fear. Finally realizing that she could indeed lose him, the normally shy woman focused her anger and used it to advocate for his care. Years earlier, I’d done the same when my brother tried to kill himself.
Two years younger than me, Derek was like my other half. So when I got the call that he was in the hospital, I took the first flight out of Mexico and arrived just as he was being transferred to the psychiatric ward of what was then Saint Vincent’s Hospital in New York City.
A few days went by, and each day the psychiatrist in charge refused to see Derek. The reason he gave was that my brother was “stirring up trouble”: he’d given his money to a visitor and asked him to buy takeout from McDonald’s for all the unit’s residents. When I asked Derek about it, he said the place was so depressing, they all needed cheering up. He also refused to tell the staff what they wanted to hear. Looking at the ward’s vomit-green walls, the withered plants on the floor, I couldn’t blame him. I knew no healing would happen in the hospital, so I asked to see the psychiatrist about Derek’s discharge. After waiting for more than three hours, I was finally ushered into the doctor’s office. I sat across from him, a cheap metal desk between us, and stared at his Clark Kent face.
“We’re leaving,” I said, and watched as something in him coiled tightly, ready to fight. Normally I’m calm in stressful situations, and in most cases, I’d rather die than make a scene. But this time, my own body was thrumming. I’ve never been in a fistfight, but I imagine this is what it feels like, the moment before the first punch.
“Not possible,” the psychiatrist said, waving his hand dismissively.
I stood up slowly. “We’re leaving,” I repeated as I stared down at him. My voice was low and steady, but inside I was shaking.
I still wonder what I would’ve done if he’d refused to sign Derek’s discharge. When I think of that moment, I still have fantasies of tearing up the place. I’m not sure if I would’ve followed through, but I do know I was not about to back down. At that instant, No was the furthest thing from my mind.
I saw the doctor hesitate, then make up his mind. He nodded curtly and said, “OK.” An hour later Derek and I stood on the sidewalk, staring at each other and shivering.
Perhaps anger is the thing that tips the scales from inaction to action. Perhaps that’s why anger is not just skillful in certain moments but necessary. Stripped of its self-centering quality, anger can enlarge our boundaries, allowing us to encompass more of the other, or of the world. Mothers know instinctually this kind of expansion. Lovers touch it now and then; so do artists and activists of every stripe. Also those of us who love someone or something deeply, however briefly. When what you love is vulnerable and possibly about to be hurt, has been hurt, is hurt, then your willingness to hazard yourself becomes very clear.
Ultimately, this is what I wish for all of us: that we live and act and love with a fierce and tender clarity. That we allow anger to be neither a weapon nor a shield but the purest form of care.
If you’re a woman struggling with anger, the first step of working with it is to acknowledge its presence and to give yourself permission to feel exactly how you feel. Because our conditioning established a narrow band of acceptable behavior for a woman, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that it’s perfectly fine to be exactly who we are, and how we are. That’s the purpose of this simple affirmation practice that borrows loosely from the format of the metta, or lovingkindness, affirmations. (I acknowledge that men also feel anger and experience their own forms of repression. Here I’m speaking directly to that specific designation “angry woman” that so many need to heal from.)
Take a comfortable and stable seated posture, resting your hands gently on the tops of your thighs. If you’d like, you can place one or both hands over your heart. Close your eyes.
Begin by following your breath, allowing your mind to quiet down as you let your breath settle. When you’re ready, repeat to yourself either silently or aloud, “I am safe. I am loved. I am right.” I like to pair each phrase with an exhalation, letting the words trail off in my mind in time with my breath. Continue repeating these affirmations to yourself for the length of your meditation, or let the words fade away when you feel ready to engage the other two steps of the practice, to begin another practice altogether, or to simply rest in silence.
Just a note that the “right” of the third affirmation is not a value judgment or a measurement of any kind. It doesn’t stand in opposition to “wrong.” This rightness is the rightness of wholeness, of inherent perfection. It’s meant to convey the exactly-right-as-I-am of our being. It’s unconditional, just as our love—which is self-love—is unconditional and immutable. We don’t have to do anything to earn it. We don’t have to prove to ourselves we’re worthy. We are loved because we are. That’s all.
The second step in working with anger is to feel it completely. The practice here is to give it as much room as it needs, letting our bodies move through the physiological sequence of anger: the hammering heart, the burning stomach, the shaking hands. If the feelings get too strong, remind yourself that you don’t need to do anything with this emotion. You’re not suppressing it, but neither are you acting it out. As you sit with it, all you’re doing is creating a container in which your anger can just be. Ask yourself: Where do I feel this anger? In my chest, my stomach, my face? Is it cool and simmering, or hot like a blaze? How does anger feel on my skin, in my muscles? How deep is it? How old? If you find yourself drifting into thought or following a story about your anger, gently bring yourself back to the physical sensations in your body. Allow yourself to feel what you feel, and if you need to, stop and repeat the affirmations until you are grounded again.
The third step is to harness the energy of anger so you can use it for good. There are different ways of doing this, but my preferred strategy is to visualize anger as light. Begin by imagining a solid sphere of light in the center of your chest, where the heart is. Gradually and deliberately let this light spread through your body, suffusing it with its energy. Remind yourself that anger is just another form of energy; that you can use it to sustain the hard work of caring for whom or what you love.
As you continue your meditation, allow the light to keep spreading beyond your body, imagining it radiating in all directions. Do this until the light is strong and stable, and after a while deliberately imagine it condensing back into the sphere at the center of your chest—a kind of battery to fuel your next steps.
This is one practice out of many with which to turn poison into virtue. Except “turn” isn’t even the right word. Poison is virtue, and vice versa. Understanding the unity between anger and compassion, we no longer have to struggle with this strong emotion. We can feel it, honor it, and at the same time safeguard our actions so that, like this bright, warm light, they are both tender and fierce.
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