I was asked recently about how I deal with anger and frustration. This is a good question, as I, like perhaps every other person, have found myself having to manage such feelings.
In my teenage years, I realized that anger was a part of a larger complex of emotion that if not properly understood, could wreak havoc on our lives. My response at the time was to meditate. I am not sure where the inspiration came from. I did not have any formal training in meditation, nor did I have any academic knowledge of mindfulness or psychology. Nonetheless, I set myself to the task of meditating, using breathing and visualization as keys to gain clarity and awareness, as well as to recenter myself. My practice was also informed by Sun Tzu’s classic, The Art of War, which became a key element of how I moved through the world.
Once I went to college and felt that I had more control over my life, this practice fell by the wayside. However after college, as my life intensified due to its burgeoning demands and as various interpersonal difficulties took their toll, I have found it necessary to both reactivate the practice from my youth and to augment it accordingly. Unlike then, I have been exposed to different types of meditative traditions, different schools of psychology, and different philosophical discourses. Here I offer a brief overview of how I have strove to manage such challenges in the present.
I consider perception as a precondition to anger. Often our perception of things determines whether or not we become bothered or angry.
As a teenager I discovered that things (including ideas) are insubstantial in their essence. This insight came not from reading, but merely reflecting on my own thoughts, my own feelings, my own consciousness. This discovery enabled me to navigate difficult circumstances. Years later I discovered that there was a term for this in Buddhist philosophy, sunyata, a Pali word that translates into English as “emptiness”. It refers to the insubstantial nature of all things.
The concept of sunyata has been, for me, profoundly edifying. It has enabled me to more fully internalize the wisdom in the Fulani proverb which states, “Hab’b’ere buri ginawol,” or that “Actions should be judged according to intention.” This means that my perceptions of reality are not fully constitutive of reality. Often I have misperceived things. Later I have found that my initial perceptions were incorrect. The solution has not been to cling to such misperceptions, but to strive to understand reality free from the fetters of such thinking. It also means that it is often necessary to go beyond my own feelings or perception of a particular situation in order to understand things from the vantage point of another.
I recall an occasion from a decade ago when I was talking on the phone with my mother and I observed that my then seven year old son was misbehaving. As I was preparing to punish him my mother said, “Remember, he has the mind of seven.” I immediately stopped in my preparation to punish my son and begin to contemplate how his actions possibly appeared from his point of view. Attempting to view things from his perspective made what he was doing seem far more reasonable. His intent was to have fun, which given his age was to be expected. I realized that my perception was limited in not considering that there were other ways that his behavior could be interpreted. I have continued to work to apply this insight in my parenting and other situations as a way to adjust my perception, to prevent anger or to manage other feelings that could lead to it such as frustration, disappointment, and so on.
Throughout life I have seen a number of occasions where anger compelled people to speak far more harshly than they should have. A text from ancient Kemet, The Instruction of Amenemope demonstrates that even the ancients were troubled by such speech.
“Swift is the speech of one who is angered,
More than wind [over] water.
He tears down, he builds up with his tongue,
When he makes his hurtful speech.”
This text notes that harsh words are often given velocity by anger. They also have the power to destroy.
I too have spoken harsh words, as well as being their recipient. Often such actions leave lasting damage in our interpersonal relationships. This reminds me of the Swahili proverb “Hasira, hasara.” This translates into English as “Anger [brings] loss.” This proverb notes that anger can be quite dangerous. It compel us to act in a manner which may result in loss. The losses might be material or immaterial. To my thinking, though both can be profound, material things can be replaced, however broken trust or a loss of emotional intimacy can be difficult to restore.
The king’s sword
The path from anger to loss is more fully explored in the following Yorùbá proverb which states “Ìbínú lọbá fi ńyọ idà; ìtìjú ló fi ḿbẹ ẹ,” and translates as “It is in anger that the king draws his sword; it is shame that makes him go through with the beheading.” This Yorùbá proverb expresses the ways in which anger compromises judgement. When we are angry we forsake reflective thinking, that is we cease to be critically aware of our thoughts, and with this our words and our actions. Due to this, we make foolish commitments in anger. We say or do things that set us on a ruinous path. Often, we lack the humility to turn away from it even when the anger has subsided. Hence, pride encourages commitment to those intemperate thoughts, words, and actions. Suffering is often the result.
Medew nefer (Good speech)
Given the foregoing, I have found that it is necessary to maintain practices that facilitate the kind of mindfulness that reflects good character, righteousness. A recurring theme in Kemetic thought is the practice of medew nefer, that is, “good speech”. Medew nefer is speech that reflects Maat (truth, order, righteousness, harmony, and so on) It is indicative of our commitment to the cultivation and practice of wisdom. Beyond this, medew nefer reflects self-control. As Ptah Hotep stated, “All conduct…is measured,” thus the practice of good speech requires the maintenance of mental and emotional discipline.
In his book, Intellectual Warfare, Jacob H. Carruthers, writes, “As the divine speech taught us at the beginning of our history, it is necessary that human beings, like the Creator, give life and power and health. We should examine everything that we do by that command. If our actions support life and power and health, then they are right. If not, then we ought to stop that line of action.” I think of this often. What does it mean to “give life and power and health”? How might such an imperative inform our thought, speech, and actions?
Recently I have been reading a book by Dr. Edward L. Powe titled Cosmic Combat Warriors. The book features accounts by various people from southern India about their practice of yoga and how it has impacted their lives. One of the recurring themes in their accounts is that their practice of yoga has enabled them to be calmer and less susceptible to anger.
One thing what was particularly interesting is that many of the respondents were both yoga practitioners and martial artists. Given their connection to traditions of warriorhood, as reflected by the martial arts, they echoed an idea expressed by Shaha Mfunidishi Maasi in his book The Essential Warrior where he wrote, ”The purpose of warriorship is to develop and enlightened being who is a human vortex of positive energy.” Herein, the warrior is one whose charged to serve others, to bring light into the world. Some of the respondents in Cosmic Combat Warriors reflected such a charge.
Their experience has also been my own. I too have found that the practice of yoga has been beneficial for both mind and body. In such a practice, yoga is not merely a form of exercise, but a holistic vehicle for personal transformation. I have also found similar effects by engaging in other types of movement practice mindfully and with consistency whether Qigong, Capoeira, Baguazhang, and so on.
I also try to remember that my efforts to live mindfully will be imperfect. I remind myself of the Ewe proverb which states “Tɔmedela ye gba na ze,” and translates into English as “Only the one who kindly accepts to fetch water may accidentally break the pot.” Hence it is in the practice of a thing where one’s errors are expressed. Were I too eschew any attempt at mental and emotional discipline, my discipline could not be found wanting, for it would not exist!
This also reflects an idea expounded by Shunryu Suzuku in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, when he wrote, “The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is, itself, enlightenment.” This means that enlightenment as a type of transcendence over one’s mental fetters is not a place or destination, but a process. Thus it is in the doing that we become that which we seek to become. It is only in the doing that errors related to such actions can be made.
Given this, I try not to be too hard on myself when frustration or anger get the better of me. I evaluate my actions, attempt to make amends with anyone who was ill-affected by my actions, and devise a means to prevent a recurrence of such acts in the future.
In closing, I do not believe that anger is inherently problematic. As Mwalimu Baruti writes in his book Iwa: A Warrior’s Character, anger can be purposeful, especially when it is “correctly directed against” those inimical to one’s well-being or the well-being of one’s loved one, one’s people, and so on. Hence anger, like all emotions has its place. The key is to be guided by wisdom, rather than the impetuousness of anger.