I came across an article in The Daily Beast the other morning entitled ""America the Angry"." In it, political consultant Douglas Schoen discusses the findings of a recent Newsweek/Daily Beast poll revealing that the vast majority of Americans are in a bad mood.
As unemployment, gas and grocery prices are on the rise, so are people's levels of anger, anxiety and frustration. Three-quarters of those surveyed blamed the government and a lousy economy for their relationship problems, sleep loss and low sex drives. Two-thirds said they were "angry at God."
Sure, times are tough relative to the recent economic boom. Still I couldn't help but think, "What a waste!" All that energy people are churning and burning, when they could be channeling it into creating positive change in the world.
Here are my 3 steps for transforming anger into action:
1) Acknowledge and give yourself permission to feel what you're feeling.
There was a time in my life when, deeply immersed in Buddhist texts as I was, I sought equanimity. I imagined that attaining this desirable state of "detachment from one's emotions" meant not allowing myself to fully experience my feelings. Whenever an event left me sad or angry, I would push it aside, telling myself to "get over it." Then I'd busy myself with distractions, diving into work or going out for a night of partying with friends.
The problem with this approach was that later, the unresolved emotion would leap out of my heart and grab hold of me by the throat like a cornered alley cat. I'd lash out impatiently at the Starbucks barista when finding they were out honey for my tea. I'd yell at my partner for making a mildly critical remark.
Over the years, I've come to understand Buddhism and psychology better (especially thanks to fantastic recent work on self-compassion), and I've developed a new interpretation of equanimity. I now honor an emotion as it arises. I view it as an opportunity for self-knowledge. I consider, "What do I have to learn from this experience?"
This is a critical lesson in living the Life Out Loud: Don't shove your emotions under the carpet with yesterday's cookie crumbs. They are part of the human condition. Appreciate that your body is sending you a message, and give yourself permission to listen in for a while without judgment.
I recommend doing this during a meditation session. Simply allow whatever needs to come up to arise. Let yourself get outraged. Feel the heat flush your skin. If you need to yell, scream or punch your meditation pillow--do it. I've even been known to shout, "What the hell, Universe?!"
2) Breathe and begin to let go of your anger.
It's important, however, not to stew in your feelings ad nauseum. Once you've felt them for a while, start breathing and letting the anger, frustration and anxiety go. I learned from my 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat the powerful mantra, "This too shall pass," which I frequently recite as I sit on my meditation cushion.
This calls to mind the Native American proverb about the wise man telling his grandson that he has two wolves battling inside of him: one a positive force of compassion and love, another filled with anger, hatred and blame.
"Which one wins?" the boy asks.
"The one you feed," his elder answers.
Anger can prove particularly dangerous if you allow it to grow inside you. When fed and fostered, it becomes rage. In the worst-case scenarios, such negative energy fuels terrorist acts, school shootings and domestic violence. But even in the best cases, it eats away at our insides, often with negative physical as well as psychological consequences.
Reading the results of that Newsweek/Daily Beast poll made me wonder, are we Americans feeding the wrong wolf by nurturing our anger? By laying blame for our anxiety and frustration on politicians rather than taking responsibility for our own happiness?
It seems the answer is yes. And in so doing, we are only damaging ourselves: losing sleep, forgoing sex, and missing out on the precious micro-moments of joy in our lives.
3) Re-focus your anger onto taking action.
What if, instead of feeding the destructive wolf, we made a conscious effort to feed the creative wolf by channeling our anger into action? It is righteous indignation, after all, that gave Rosa Parks the courage to refuse to give up her seat in the front of the bus; that spurred Gandhi to lead his country to freedom; that has inspired many everyday heroes to build non-profits and socially responsible businesses.
Take my friend Nyla Rodgers, for example. She channeled her immense grief at the loss of her mother to cancer into an insatiable desire to be of service to others. When she observed many NGOs dispensing aid in disempowering ways, she harnessed her frustration to create Mama Hope. Her organization funds projects that people on the ground in Africa say their communities most need. Mama Hope then trains the locals to run the show--and collect the proceeds of their efforts.
So the next time you find yourself getting angry or frustrated by your life circumstances, ask yourself, "What can I do about this situation?"
For example, you may not be able to woo your ex back after a bad break up, but perhaps your experience made you realize how much you give your power away when in relationship. Perhaps you might start volunteering at a women's shelter. Or if you're furious about your inability to find employment, perhaps you might campaign for a politician whose values you believe in, or build a program to assist mothers returning to the workforce in finding jobs. Upset about the ongoing war in Afghanistan? Maybe you can offer your skills to veterans.
Rather than stewing in negativity and making yourself and those around you miserable, feel your fury as a fire in your belly that's propelling you into action. Make a difference. Then share your story, and inspire others to do the same.
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