“Anger leads to clouding of judgment, which results in bewilderment of the memory. When the memory is bewildered, the intellect gets destroyed; and when the intellect is destroyed, one is ruined.”
- Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 63
Of all the emotional states, none is as disruptive, damaging, and unsettling as anger. Anger, along with its cousin's hostility and rage, can contribute elevated levels of stress chemicals in your body, high blood pressure, compromised heart rate variability, and states of chronic inflammation. Anger distorts your perceptions and dampens your ability to see things clearly. It pollutes your mental, emotional, and energetic bodies with erratic and toxic vibrations, cuts you off from your source as a spiritual being, and robs you of your joy, happiness, fulfillment, and peace of mind.
Knowing how harmful anger can be to your overall well-being, learning to manage it through some simple anger exercises is an important step in any self-care program.
The Origins of Anger
But just what is anger? Where does it come from? Everyone gets angry from time to time, but why does it have such a powerful effect? As surprising as it may seem, anger, like our other emotional states, is the product of evolution. At some point in your biological history, anger gave you an evolutionary advantage. Those ancestors who became emotionally charged when a boundary was crossed had more “fire in the belly” to fight off attacking tribes or ferocious animals. Others, who didn’t get so easily emotionally triggered, didn’t live long enough to pass their less aggressive traits on to their offspring.
Stated simply, anger is the psychological version of the “fight” in the fight-or-flight or stress response. The full-blown fight-or-flight response is activated when you experience a situation that you perceive as life-threatening. You immediately activate a physiological cascade of biochemicals and events in your body to prepare to run or fight. If you’re not facing an actual do-or-die situation, however, the psychological expression of fighting is anger and aggression.
All emotions derive from needs, and anger is no different. Specifically, anger is the result of a boundary being crossed without permission. Imagine that surrounding your body is a force field about five feet in circumference. We’ll call this boundary the mine-field—what’s inside it is mine, and what’s outside it is not mine. Any time the boundary of your mine-field is breached, either by pushing something unwanted inside or taking something wanted away, you perceive it as a violation of your realm of control. The minefield is essentially the boundary of your ego, and when the ego feels violated, it takes the situation personally and gets offended, bringing negative emotions to the surface.
Most experiences of anger have their primitive roots in fear—the fear of something unwanted being forced upon you or the fear of something you want being removed. Understanding anger’s relationship to fear is important because as Master Yoda reminds you: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
This connection may not seem apparent in the heat of the moment because without a certain degree of self-awareness and emotional maturity, the transition from fear to anger takes you from being startled (“Yikes!”) to being defensive (“Grrrrr!”) in a momentary and runaway chain reaction. With your psychological “fight” switch flipped, the fuse has been lit and you feel engulfed in your anger’s gravitational field.
Now that you understand the origins and mechanics of anger, let’s see how using meditation on anger can help you manage this powerful emotional state.
First and foremost, meditation mitigates and down-regulates the fight-or-flight activity of your nervous system. It naturally lowers all physiological activities associated with immediate survival-based behaviors. This alone has a powerful anger-reducing effect, giving you time to relax and rid yourself of negative emotions. In addition, with regular practice, meditation creates new neural pathways that aren’t as prone to emotional reactivity. Fear-based perceptions become less frequent and your nervous system operates at a more mellow setting, creating a much less fertile environment for anger and hostility to take root.
Descend Beneath the Storm
Imagine the emotional turbulence of anger like a storm on the ocean. However, the storm only exists on the surface. Below the waves, the ocean is calm and tranquil. Like a diving bell, meditation allows you to descend deep within your own awareness to the home of ultimate stillness and peace. Far above, the storm can rage, but that’s not who you are. You are that pure consciousness at the core of reality. The more frequently you dive into this stillness, the more you embody those qualities. What’s more, when you return to the surface, you carry that peace and tranquility with you.
Discover Anger’s Impermanence
When you meditate, you create the space to observe your anger and recognize that like all your emotions, anger has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s not a permanent situation. Just like that storm on the ocean, it doesn’t blow up out of nowhere, nor can it last forever. Anger flows through you but is not who you are. As you stay connected to your true nature, you know that eventually the storm will pass.
Observing Anger Is Not Feeling It
As you learn to witness your anger, an interesting insight arises—when you observe your anger and label your feelings (“I’m feeling angry”), you’re no longer feeling them. You can’t be caught in the grips of anger and observe it at the same time. Cultivating more witnessing awareness loosens anger’s hold on you and weakens its power. Learning to observe your anger frees your feelings of resentment and grief. This also allows anger to “be” without judgment.
Anger isn’t good or bad. It evolved to help you survive, but in and of itself it’s just a rush of biochemistry and psychophysiological energy. There may be times when getting angry is appropriate and justifiable. Everyone gets angry; it’s your definitions and perceptions that make it “good” or “bad.” Stepping outside of those definitions cultivate compassion for self and others and can set you free from anger’s stigma.
Make More Conscious Choices
Finally, taking time to meditate creates the space to witness the transition between fear and anger, eventually allowing you to head it off at the pass. You learn to recognize that on some level anger is a choice—albeit often an unconscious one. However, as your awareness expands, you can, with practice, learn to transcend anger and begin to forgive. If you know that ego violations lead to fear, and fear leads to anger, you are better positioned to see it coming and take steps (such as taking a pause or practicing deep breathing) to reel yourself back in. Rather than unconsciously “Hulking out” and being a victim of your anger, you can remain established in the peace and stillness that always lives within.
The Sanskrit sutra moksha often translates as “liberation,” but it also means emotional freedom. This is the freedom that arises when you are released from anger, hostility, grievances melodrama, and hysteria. You may use the above exercises or consider a guided meditation on anger and forgiveness to help get you started. Through meditation, you can learn to unshackle yourself from the negativity and emotional turbulence of anger and live from the level of your soul.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
Ready to start flowing with the Universe, instead of against it? Learn a natural, effortless style of meditation that helps make every day feel easy, fresh, and fulfilling with Basics of Meditation, a self-paced online course guided by Deepak Chopra. Learn More.