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From Mad to MADLESS

By Gil Fronsdal

Anger is one of the most common human emotions and perhaps the most dangerous.
Regardless of whether the anger is directed toward ourselves or others, it can be both
painful in and of itself and a cause for a great deal of ongoing suffering. While the
danger of mild anger may only be discomfort for the person who is angry, when
expressed as hostility it can lead to significant pain and distress for ourselves and
others. The danger of anger increases dramatically when it’s acted out: relationships
can be ruined, enemies made, and people’s lives shattered with angry words or actions.
It’s painful to be angry; and acting with anger easily produces more pain.

It seems that whenever I teach about overcoming anger, someone inevitably insists,
“But isn’t anger sometimes appropriate?” The answer depends on the nature of the
anger. If the anger involves hostility, then I hope it is never necessary. I hope we can
always find a better way to accomplish what is needed than through aggression. If
hostility is absent and the anger is a compelling frustration or a disapproval of an
injustice or harmful behavior, then perhaps anger may be appropriate — provided it is
acted on with wisdom and care. Yet even if anger is appropriate, it can all too easily be
expressed in harmful ways. And even when anger is justified, this doesn’t mean we
should act angrily. It may not be necessary to express the anger toward others; there
may be a better alternative. Avoiding the compulsion to be angry and instead looking
for and choosing wiser options is an exercise in freedom.

Anger tends to be captivating. It is easy to get pulled into it so that instead of “having
anger” we “become angry” — i.e., as if we’re possessed by the anger. The anger can
take over, so that it’s the anger that speaks and acts more than we who are speaking
and acting with choice and clear awareness. To avoid the dangers of anger, it’s
important to understand the anger and to learn how to work with it so it doesn’t drive our
behavior. Because taming the flames of anger can be difficult, I offer seven approaches
that can help. For the sake of remembering them, I refer to them by the acronym
MADLESS — Motivation, Attention, Dissipation, Learning, Empathy, Story, and
Speaking/Sharing. These are seven approaches that not only help us avoid the pull of
anger but also to free ourselves when we are “mad with anger,” i.e., so possessed by
anger that we lose a degree of sanity.

M stands for Motivation. We can ask ourselves: What purpose is the anger serving?
What is the anger trying to accomplish? Is the anger an attempt to release pent-up
frustration or to push away something uncomfortable? Does being angry involve
wanting to change, reject, or rectify something? Does the anger have a wise goal or
purpose? Might there be wiser motivations or wiser actions?

Taking the time to ask these questions begins an important process of stepping back
from the anger and considering it objectively. Having distanced ourselves in this way,
we can then examine our relationship to the anger. We can ask ourselves: Do I want to
be angry? Is it my intention to allow the anger to provoke and motivate me? If what we
want is freedom, then ideally our motivation for freedom has to be greater than our
desire to remain angry.

This brings us to A: Attention. Here attention involves being mindful of our anger by
clearly seeing what is happening emotionally, physically, and mentally. What thoughts
and beliefs come with the anger? What is the subjective experience of being angry?
How does it feel in the body? What is happening right now in the present? How much
does past and future thinking affect the anger?

One of the important benefits of mindfulness of anger is that we learn how to allow the
anger to exist without being caught up in it. This involves cultivating an awareness that
provides either mental distance from the anger or a sense of spaciousness around it. It
can help to learn how to feel the anger in the body while imagining the body as an open
container in which our energies flow freely. We can feel the impulses to move or to
speak without acting on them. Mindfully breathing while being aware of the anger in the
body can be a useful way to give “breathing room” to the anger. It can help us find a
way to be aware of anger while being neither for it nor against it.

D stands for Dissipation. This is useful when we are so angry that we have trouble
paying wise attention to our anger. Dissipation involves discharging the energy of anger
so it doesn’t continue to harm us or cause us to act in ways we later regret. We can do
this by going for a walk, exercising, taking a shower or a nap, or finding someone to talk
to about the anger in a manner that calms us down. I have known people who’ve gone
into the woods to be alone and then found a tree toward which they could safely
express the anger.

Dissipation is not meant as a way to forget the issue that caused the anger. Rather, it’s
a way to diminish the intensity of the anger so we are not being pushed around by it. It’s
also a way to become calm enough that we can Learn about the anger — which brings
us to the L in MADLESS.

Anger presents us with an opportunity to learn something about ourselves. The
presence of anger is a symptom of a disharmony or conflict that would be helpful to
understand well. This can be done by reflecting carefully on what happened, including
an honest consideration of our own contribution to getting worked up. For example, we
can explore our own reactivity so that in the future we aren’t as easily triggered.
Hopefully pride, embarrassment, resentment, or blame won’t interfere with the
willingness to do this important investigation.

When learning about our reactivity in relation to anger, it’s helpful to consider that there
are chain reactions within us. The anger may be the last link in a series of reactions,
many of which have gone unrecognized. Three of the most common and
underappreciated causes of anger are hurt, sadness, and fear. Taking the time to
discover if and how these underlying emotions are present can change not only our
relationship to the anger but also our relationship to the person or situation with whom
we’re angry. Seeing how anger is a symptom of the underlying feelings can help us to
address those root feelings without perpetuating a conflict or antagonizing others.

When anger involves hostility, there are even deeper layers to uncover and explore.
Perhaps the most important is selfishness. There is no hostility without some degree of
self-absorption and ideas of “me, myself, and mine.” Listening to how often our speech
and thoughts are self–referential can provide a useful way to understand the degree of
our self–centeredness. Sometimes we may learn that anger arises when our self–identity
is hurt or threatened. Hopefully becoming aware of our selfishness doesn’t become an
additional reason to be angry. Whether or not it feels like it, such self–understanding is a
step toward freedom and greater self–compassion.

The E in the acronym stands for Empathy — a quality that, while often absent when
anger is present, can be evoked by searching for a fuller understanding of the people or
situation we’re angry with. People seldom cause harm unless they are suffering
themselves. Their meanness or negligence may have more to do with stresses they are
living under than with the person they are hurting. Those who are ill, for instance, may
anger easily because they have little tolerance for frustration. A bully may be smarting
from an earlier humiliation. A boss may speak sharply because of the strain of being
unable to care adequately for a dying parent. Or someone may exhibit anger as a way
to compensate for insecurity.

Of course, understanding people’s inappropriate behavior is not the same as excusing
it. Empathy might, however, allow us to soften our hard position toward them, perhaps
even to let go of our anger. Realizing the other person has difficulties just as we do may
help us take their behavior less personally. And most important, this empathy may
actually lead to a feeling of compassion: rather than lingering in our anger, we feel
concern for the person’s well being. Working through conflict and disagreement
becomes easier when there is empathy for the other party.

Related to empathy is Story, the first S in MADLESS. Anger often arises from an
inaccurate story we tell ourselves. For instance, we might make up a story about
another person’s intention. Or we make up a story that our anger will teach the other
person a lesson, or that anger is necessary to prevent others from taking advantage of
us. Investigating the story we have around the anger is a way to question what we may
be holding on to and begin to consider if there are other ways of understanding.

One useful story to consider is that being angry may be causing us pain while having
minimal or no effect on the other person. I have known people who did the cost/benefit
analysis of anger and concluded that being mad was not in their best interest. They
found that holding on to resentment was not worth the pain it caused them. Another
useful story is to imagine that the circumstance that elicited the anger was designed as
the perfect training opportunity for one’s path to freedom. The task then is to discover
appropriate ways to take advantage of the opportunity.

If we find ourselves seeing conflict through the filter of a hard “me versus you” view, it
might be interesting to find a realistic story that includes everyone in an “us” or “we.” Is
there an approach that considers what is best for all parties, not just “me”?

The last S in MADLESS is used for both Speak and Share. Overcoming anger is not a
substitute for dealing with the conflicts we have. Rather, it opens the door to finding
productive ways of discussing the conflicts with others, especially with those involved.
Even if we have not overcome the anger, we can learn wise ways of speaking that don’t
offend or threaten those we’re speaking to. Telling someone we’re angry with them
probably won’t create the best conditions for a fruitful conversation because the other
person may feel criticized. If instead we explain how much we feel hurt by their
behavior, the person may be given a chance to feel empathy for us and then be willing
to have a constructive conversation.

Finally, as another “S,” one of the most powerful ways of dealing with anger, especially
when all else fails, is to Share something with the person with whom you are angry—to
give a gift. Gift-giving can shift moods and relationships in many beneficial ways, some
unexpected. It can also pull us from being stuck in our anger; it is hard to be angry
toward someone to whom we have been generous.

Learning to use the MADLESS strategies helps us approach our anger with respect and
as something that warrants our careful attention. These steps can become a path
through anger to freedom. Not only does this path reduce the dangers we face; it also
makes us safer for those around us.