Anger is not just an emotion, not just a negative response to stimuli. It’s alive. It lives and moves and has its being in the mind. The mind is a jungle, populated by the nettles of regret, the stagnant pools of apathy, the elephants of good intentions. Anger is a tiger, prowling the mind jungle, always hungry, always tensed for the attack. It’s dangerous enough left in that jungle, where, over time, it may befoul even the purest of thoughts and intentions, but all too often we let it out into the world, and it is an apex predator there.
Human life is an array of paradoxes. We want happiness, yet we seek it where it can never be found: in the gratification of the senses, the fulfillment of material desires, the attainment of fame. We know that living a disciplined life is far more fulfilling than hedonism could ever be, but still we’re on the lookout for the next adventure, the next excitement, the next entertainment. Just so, we want peace of mind, but we cultivate discontent, attachment, aversion.
And anger. We have birthed the Age of Rage. Road rage abounds on our highways. Our prisons overflow with violent offenders. The nightly news splatters our television screens with blood. Our school children become gun control statistics. Anger is an ever-present companion, its consequences all too familiar. But we do not learn our lessons. Rather than mindfully analyzing our situation and making effective changes, we allow anger to take control. Too often we even encourage it, jump in the passenger seat and give anger the wheel, and he swerves into this lane and that, mowing down pedestrians, running red lights, taking out anyone in his way. Anger is not a friend you can trust, not the kind of guy whose advice you want to take. Anger will only ever lead you astray, turn a victim into a perpetrator, leave a trail of collateral damage and in time, you survey the wreckage left behind and say to yourself, “What was I thinking?”
Simply, you weren’t. You let anger do your thinking. You stepped out. You vanished. It happens to us all to some extent. Maybe you take serious offense at a rude hand gesture from an aggressive driver on the Interstate, and you beat your steering wheel and fling vulgarities and wish you could pull him out of his car and teach him a lesson. Of course, you’re a decent person, really, so you would never actually hurt someone. Maybe you get wrapped up in politics, have a special loathing reserved for the president, and say to your co-workers that nothing short of a bullet is going to fix the White House’s problems. Not that you would ever wish such a thing on anyone no matter how you felt about them. It’s just talk. Blowing off steam.
And maybe is really is just talk. For you. But that same impulse, that same rage and loathing have driven people to violence over highway frustration, and turned an ordinary person into an assassin. Anger has destroyed families, ended lives, wrecked entire nations. It is not merely an emotion, something to work out at the gym or on the heavy bag. It is a force most of us hardly understand, with the potential to destroy in a moment.
In the same vein, anger is a power that can be harnessed, transmuted, transformed into spiritual growth. Sri Ramakrishna encouraged his disciples to give any impulse a Godward turn.
“Direct the six passions to God. The impulse of lust should be turned into the desire to have intercourse with Atman. Feel angry at those who stand in your way to God. Feel greedy for Him. If you must have the feeling of I and mine, then associate it with God. Say, for instance, ‘My Rama, my Krishna.’ If you must have pride, then feel like Bibhishana, who said, ‘I have touched the feet of Rama with my head; I will not bow this head before anyone else.’”
Then the question is how to put anger to work for us. In my limited experience, the answer is to pour out the emotions at the feet of the Lord in intense prayer. God is not some distant entity, some unknowable thing. He is our very own, dearer to us, so say the Sufi mystics, than our own jugular vein. There is no reason to restrict prayer to certain forms, to think of anything as taboo. Rage at God for not granting the boon of pure love for his lotus feet. Yell about your problems, your frustrations, and all of your grief, and lay it all upon the Lord’s altar. His purifying grace is the Philosopher’s Stone, transmuting even the basest of emotions into spiritual gold.