Anger is an energy

I’ve been thinking recently about anger. In the current climate of austerity there is a lot of anger about and talk of anger. A refrain you hear from time to time is “Why aren’t you angry?” or “If you are not angry you are not paying attention”. I’ve struggled with this as I’ve been trying to practice compassion and non-violence. I think to myself “anger is a bad thing, and an unhelpful reaction” – to quote Yoda “Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

As I’ve thought about this, I’ve also realised that I should “check my anger privilege”. As a straight, white male, in a relatively affluent country, it’s absurd for me to tell other people who live lives far harder than mine “not to be angry”. But I still can’t help but feel that “anger” is a destructive response.

But His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama, of course, has an enlightened take on it. When asked “Is it un-Buddhist to feel anger and indignation?” he replied:

Here the issue is how to deal with anger. There are two types of anger. One type arises out of compassion; that kind of anger is useful. Anger that is motivated by compassion or a desire to correct social injustice, and does not seek to harm the other person, is a good anger that is worth having. For example, a good parent, out of concern for a child’s behavior, may use harsh words or even strike him. He may be angry, but there is no trace of any desire to hurt him.

[…]

anger brings more energy, more determination, more forceful action to correct injustice.

As always in Buddhism, motivation is vital

The deep motivation is compassion, but it takes anger as the means to accomplish its ends.

This is vital to remember when anger arises.

The question is a person’s state of mind or the motivation that causes the action. When we act, that act arises out of a cause that already exists in us. If we act when our inner motivation is hatred toward another person, then that hatred expressed as anger will lead to destructive action. This is negative action. But if we act out of consideration for the other person, if we are motivated by affection and sympathy, then we can act out of anger because we are concerned with that person’s well-being.

This take on it is highly instructive. It transforms anger into an energy which can have very different consequences. If it is anger arising from injustice, than it can be used to drive change (as long as the target of the anger is the injustice itself, not people involved). This was echoed by Lama Yeshe of Kagyu Samye Ling monastery in Scotland. He was giving a talk in Dublin last year and was asked about how to be compassionate to your enemies. As a man who was chased out of Tibet by Chinese soldiers who killed some of his compatriots, he harbours no hatred towards the people who did these deeds. Like most Tibetan’s he wants to change the injustice of the occupation of his homeland, but with feeling anger or hatred towards the occupiers.

As John Lydon once sang, anger is an energy. Where that energy comes from and what you do with it is important. “Anger” in an of itself is not the problem.