Afflictive Emotions: Aggression

japantileAggression or anger is considered an afflictive emotion because of the suffering that results from it. In Buddhism it is considered one of the five main hinderances to practice. Like all afflictive emotions, anger comes from the thoughts and feelings that are born from ignorance or misguided beliefs, attachment to what is wanted, and aversion to what is unwanted. When unexamined, it can color our perceptions obscuring reality.

An angry man opens his mouth and shuts his eyes
– Cato the Elder

Anger is powerful and can launch us into impulsive action even before we’re consciously aware of it. Hostile words or behavior intended to dominate, conquer, or harm another (otherwise known as aggression), may be the result. Aggression also includes the forceful pursuit of one’s own interests without regard for another.

There is a seduction in anger in that it is quite stimulating and can provide an illusory sense of empowerment. There may be a surge of adrenaline or a feeling of self-righteousness that temporarily assuages the fear or hurt underlying it. Aggressive acts might even result in a short-term change in a situation that appears to benefit the aggressor.

However, aggression is the fruit of an unexamined mind. Its consequences can ripple out far beyond ourselves and the moment. Chronic anger negatively impacts health and relationships. Instead of calling attention and bringing long-lasting change to a perceived problem, our acts of aggression point the spotlight squarely on us and our now questionable credibility. The consequences of an angry reaction can never match the impact of a wise and reasoned response.

Suppressing anger is also problematic. Even though pushing feelings down or bottling them up may seem like a way to protect others from our vengeful actions, we continue to smolder and burn inside with resentment and bitterness. Even thoughts have their consequences and the non-verbals that leak out from us often communicate so much more than words.

The antidote for anger is patience. Being patient means waiting to see how things unfold in their own time rather than forcing a result. The next time you feel angry, take pause. Notice what is going on inside you including any physical sensations, thoughts, feelings, and underlying emotions that arise. Acknowledge your own suffering non-judgmentally and send yourself some compassion and kindness. With practice, we can learn to notice anger brewing before it becomes overpowering.

Using patience, we can be more aware of emotions and approach them with a sense of curiosity, making space for responding with wisdom. In this way, we can channel the energy of anger for doing good, benefiting ourselves and others in the long run.

Those who struggle frequently with anger can learn helpful mindfulness practices and build a foundation to support them by taking an 8-week mindfulness course. Through my psychology practice, I lead a Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy course every spring and fall. This program uses a combination of mindfulness practices and CBT to help people relate differently to their emotions. I also co-lead a Mindful Self Compassion course that helps people learn to befriend themselves and treat themselves with kindness so they can respond more effectively to difficulty.

…You are the first victim of your own anger… you first harm yourself and then you harm others – You can’t harm anybody without harming yourself… Unless there is peace in the mind of the individual, how can there be peace in the society? – S. N. Goenka

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