Sat 13 Oct 2007
Posted by Andrew Rooke under Theosophical Lectures
The tinderbox of strong emotions: personal suffering
and anger by Stefan Carey
Once I saw a real tinderbox used to start a fire. An old man with a beard held a metal case with a pile of fluffy material inside, and struck a flint against metal. It made a surprisingly big spark, the fluffy material quickly began to smoulder, and then with a strong breath, a burst of golden flame. Fire. Wikipedia’s definition of tinderbox is as follows “the term “tinderbox” refers to something is s o dry that it could catch on fire with the slightest provocation, perhaps even spontaneously 
Anger is frightening, dangerous, righteous, violent, unexpected, simmering, glowering, brooding, sullen, silent, infectious, justified, raging, controlled, sometimes not, an expression of frustration, or torment or a long suffering patience exhausted, or most often unheard personal suffering. It is a form of energy. The way it works is complicated, because some anger is fuelled by long past events, and some is not. Some anger is well hidden inside us. Anger is a big topic, and very complicated. I have written this paper because I felt there was a side to anger not well understood, so this is my attempt to shed a little light on it. It might help others to lessen the sting of this thorny question we all struggle with. And anger gets a mention in the bible. To condense several biblical references her is a useful definition from
To help me today I will present or should I say rehash in my own jumbled way, four thinker’s views – an anger counselor, a psychologist and two Buddhists monks, on where anger comes from and what we can do. So when we get really angry, where does it come from, this big black emotion? Are there different types of anger? Can we control this runaway horse? How? Why should we? What should we do when someone else is angry? Is anger ever justified? When? Should we smother anger like a blanket on a fire? Or should we run the risk of this emotion transforming the energy into another nasty human condition, the German theologian Paul Tillich warned us about when he said: “Depression is rage spread thin.” Our first expert witness is Frank Donovan. I have great respect for this Australian anger consultant, and his 1999 book Dealing with Anger. Why? Because he was the first writer I had come across with enough common sense and practical advice to help me understand and respect what anger is. He explains the reasons for anger in a simple language with compassion. He once wrestled with a serious anger problem, so he comes to the topic with first hand know-how.
According the author: “Anger is largely the natural emotional response to our experience (or perception) of threat, assault, attack of harm. These experiences can be physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual. I call these “assaults on selfhood” or “assaults on the self” because they challenge and diminish our own sense of who we are, what we can do and who we can become.
I believe this is central to our discussion today, so I will repeat it. He defines the self as “that inner set of experiences, hopes and fears of what is to come”, an “emotional biography” as he calls it, to which we add new lines daily. Our inner or authentic self he says is a project we are working until the day we die: I agree and I think you will agree we all have great hopes for it! The key to understanding anger, in this instance anger that gets out of control, he says, is that we have an inner-self wanting free expression, but among other things, it can be distorted by older unresolved pain and fears, and these can hang around as the fuel for anger if it seems to us that similar circumstances are happening again. Anger, the author says, is an intense emotional experience, it “is what we feel, not a reaction to what we feel”. The anger might come from an assault on the self, or others, or it might even be the result an accident, for example, slamming a thumb with a hammer. Anger is the way we “express our pain, fear and sense of powerlessness”: so we can say that anger is an intense clearing of the energy inside — with or without control. This is important, because if we hold on to this expression, which literally means a ‘pressing out’, the energy stays inside unless we have terrific self control, which I don’t and we re-frame the entire event, which I believe can be a clever form of suppression, and not transformation at all. And even more important is the distinction he makes between anger and violence. Anger is “what we feel, and violence is what we might do”. This I think makes for an intriguing definition. Therefore, he says you need to heal the pain and fear that drives anger. One must look inside, way down below the heavens so to speak, and work with anger to see where it is coming from, so one can control it and direct it in a less destructive direction than at a partner, child or workmate. Or a innocent bystander. Or another nation. A simple example is this, lets say as child we had a violent, abusive parent, if we see the same behavior today as an adult it will automatically trigger an overly strong emotional reaction, and perhaps even some of this anger I believe, is anger coming from the injustice we felt as children, when there was nothing we could do about it, but we suffered. I think when we were younger we did not have the life experience to realize what was happening, or perhaps even the ability to express our pain and fear, so this personal suffering and negative energy might be locked inside. As children we also have an innocent view of the world and are not expecting the world and life to be difficult or to let us down. And as adults we better understand the consequences of not defending ourselves against some form of attack on ourselves. About anger the author makes three general comments:
- Anger is a normal human emotion, all over the world
- When it produces violence, threatens or harms those around us, assaults other’s selfhood, it is a problem.
- Anger, especially men’s anger, is less and less acceptable.
Anger also affects men and women in different ways. Women, he says can bottle anger up for years, “which they feel guilty for feeling!” Men another author points out, have an anger pattern that can easily spiral into ‘natural fight to the death anger’. I think our culture is getting confused about anger in general. The “unexpressed personal pain and unresolved fears of a lifetime” can be buried in the interests of looking strong and even spiritual. We are trained, sometimes at a young age, perhaps just by parental example, to be ashamed of getting angry, for all the right reasons, and this blanketing of all anger gets in our way sometimes. His comment on this approach of suppression is that we are “cutting off large parts our emotional selves and potentials is one of the most destructive assaults we can suffer. Yet we, by blocking out what we [really feel, we] …do it to ourselves daily, the way others did it to us as we grew up” So what is the way out? The author goes on the say that we must first own the anger, in other words face up to the fact that we have it, something less easy to do if we are well trained to hide from our anger, especially if we think all anger is sinful or a moral failure. And then he suggests these simple techniques. I have done some of these and they worked for me. To summarise this author’s thoughts, our unwanted anger patterns flourish on the “old, dry fuel of unhealed and easily rekindled pain”. We can do something about it if we develop the awareness; the mindfulness to act in a positive way and not pretend it is not there. One can defuse anger using these techniques. What does it feel like when solved? It feels like an over-inflated tire has had the extra air removed, and the road of daily life as a result is less bumpy. The Dalai Lama also mentioned deep-seated unresolved past fear and pain, but he said it as leaves what he calls a bad mark in our minds. Here’s what he said at
“I think some of the troublemakers in our society, including among religious people, sometimes I usually describe ‘mischievous people’. So those mischievous people, I think if we study about their upbringing, I think most of these people grown up in the atmosphere of fear, or sense of insecurity. “Usually as children, particularly young age…feeling of peace and security, a sense of satisfaction, that’s basic nature, but those children who are lacking at that period, I think, I feel, some kind of bad mark in their mind, that remains their whole life. “So now the point is, the positive emotions, or constructive emotion, bring us tranquility or peace of mind. With peace of mind, difficult life can be handled more realistically, more practically. Disturbed mind often creates unrealistic method, including using force. The strong anger, or suspicion, fear, jealousy, these emotions bring unrealistic actions.” I find his comments fascinating. Notice we now have two experts on human nature telling us that past experiences leave a mark, making it harder for us to stay with positive emotions, one suggesting the bad mark of a lack of affection will be there forever, causing a lack of the inner feeling of peace and security, a lack of a sense of satisfaction with life. They are not the only ones who say this. Dr Phil is up next, with some thoughts on why our inner view of ourselves is important, and where it comes from. I think you’ll find Dr Phil agrees with the first two speakers, but he just has a different way of saying what amounts to the same thing, When we react to circumstances and other people’s actions, and sometimes with unnecessary anger, it’s often a result of our self-concept. This is the script or internal dialogue we have with ourselves about who we are, what we are saying to ourselves about how we will cope with things, and what we expect to happen. I see it as the way we pre-filter all life’s events, moment by moment. One common self-concept says “life is a great journey” where another’s self concept says is “life is to be endured”. Put simply, we build a large part of our self-concept from what he calls ten life defining moments and seven life defining decisions. Some of these life-defining moments are positive, a simple example is I used to win a lot of spelling bees in primary school: I therefore believe forever after that day, I can spell. And some of these life-defining moments are very painful. A simple example might be being sent to boarding school against our will and forced to stay for all the right reasons (and some wrong ones too). The result might be that that person is forever afraid of abandonment, even to the point where being on one’s own brings feelings of dread when the husband has taken the car and the wife is left at home. What this is all leading to is that anger, the strong destructive emotion, can appear inexplicably if we are in a situation that somehow reminds us of a life defining moments where we have been emotionally or physically violated, we suffered, and our authentic self was helpless to fight back. There does not seem to be a good reason at the time for such a strong reaction, but its there.
None of this is an excuse for destructive anger, it is an explanation. It is in our nature to resist whatever is happening today if we think we are under attack to try to stop it happening again. We will be more prone to strong emotions and anger if we do not have the calm centre and a positive script playing on the inside to work from.
How do we get to know our own inner causes and the signs, and create some way to get past them if we want to? The answer Dr Phil suggests is to identify these life events, carefully document what they were, and see if they reveal about our self-concept, and what limitations we might have put on thinking. This he says can help you get past their influence, back to your authentic self.
Notice the importance of identifying buried pain and personal suffering, this exercising mindfulness and clarity, is not just pop psychology. I like this approach because his aim is to help reach back into the authentic self, not plaster over everything with an autocratic veneer of synthetic positive thinking.
Here we are at the last part of the paper, and we are turning our thoughts to our daily relationships, and using mindfulness in a very practical way.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk from
How can we summarise? As with all papers like these, the writer probably learns more than the listener. (I hear the same applies to consultants). It is a difficult topic. It asks us to look at the events that have shaped us, and respect ourselves enough to admit that personal suffering is a cause of anger, and like a crying baby, we need to look after this anger.
Stefan Carey October 2007: This talk should not be used as a advice; it is just general information with some reflections of my own.
 (Matt. 5:22; Eph. 4:26; Col. 3:8). (anger. Dictionary.com. Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/anger (accessed: September 17, 2007)
 Frank Donovan, Dealing with Anger, Finch Publishing,
 Think Pieces: Thoughtful Essays and Other Think Pieces Pertaining to the State of Our World, A Public Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh at the
 Thoughtful Essays and Other Think Pieces Pertaining to the State of Our World,
A Public Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh at the
This is the text of a lecture given by the author at a public meeting of the Theosophical Society (Pasadena) in Melbourne,
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