Anger management

In the eighties, when I was probably even more deluded than I am today, I trained as a Gestalt therapist. I worked in healthcare and I wanted to help. Some of my friends joined Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and lived happily in orange for a few years. However, I was not looking for a guru, I was looking for practical answers. And like Anthony Storr says in his excellent book on guru’s “Feet of clay”:

“Rajneesh resembled many guru’s (…) but differed from them in being so eclectic that what was personal in his teaching is hard to determine.”

Gestalt just seemed much more concrete. It talked of chicken shit, bullshit and elephant shit. Nothing metaphysical about that. Just look at “no cube”:

Gestalt philosophy: The Gestalt (the Whole) is more than the sum of its parts

Gestalt philosophy: The Gestalt (the Whole) is more than the sum of its parts

So I made an attempt to follow chainsmoking Fritz Perls. He was a confident man and he said:

“Nobody can stand truth if it is told to him. Truth can be tolerated only if you discover it yourself because then, the pride of discovery makes the truth palatable.”

That still makes sense, actually, even though Truth might not be discovered in Gestalt therapy. Like almost everything I ever read about, I have not found Gestalt to be all wrong. At the time, many schools of therapy made people investigate their past for years, endlessly reliving trauma. Gestalt was refreshing in the sense that it was only interested in the present moment. It promoted awareness, looking into one’s feelings and behaviours in the here and now. I found it really interesting to face somebody and put our interaction under a microscope, unravelling words, feelings, projections, fantasies.

But sadly, we did not stop there. A lot of time was spent on expressing feelings like anger. I remember eight of us holding down one woman, so she could vent her anger by screaming and pushing us away. Even though she had asked us to do this for her, I did not feel comfortable doing it. One of the participants on that course was hospitalised for months with psychosis. My gut feeling told me not to become a Gestalt therapist.

By *christopher* from San Francisco, USA (PILLOW FIGHT  Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

By *christopher* from San Francisco, USA (PILLOW FIGHT Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Many years later, I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s book “Anger”:

“There are therapists who advise us to vent our anger to feel better. They tell us to say or do things to express our anger, like using a stick to beat a pillow or slamming a door. They call that ‘letting your feelings out’.”

Yes, I remembered that. We were taught to do exactly that, it was presented as a harmless alternative to being angry at another person. The anger was there, so it had to be expressed. Otherwise, the desired state of equilibrium could not be reached. Thich Nhat Hanh has a different view:

“When you’re hammering the pillow you are not making your anger go away. You are rehearsing it. The seed of anger will grow every day. Then one day, when you meet the person who has made you angry, you are going to practise what you’ve learnt and rehearsed.”

He compares it to coming home, seeing your house is on fire and running after the person who started the fire. While you’re busy doing that, what’s left of the house burns down completely. Still, we’re often convinced that another person has ‘made us angry’ and do exactly that. We want to punish them, hoping their suffering will make us feel better.

I’ve since reached a point where I think the buddhist perspective on anger is not for the fainthearted. It’s radical in the same way Gestalt was when it said: “Forget about the past.” It does not teach you to hide your anger, or to ignore it. It tells you that your anger is your problem. Nobody made you angry, so only you can embrace it and watch it fade away.

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About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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6 Responses to Anger management

  1. David Yerle says:

    Great. I agree with you. In fact, I read somewhere that research shows what you say is true: “letting it out” actually fosters more anger, not the opposite. Repressing it appears to be a much better solution for anger management.
    The Buddhist approach is probably the best. I have been practicing “letting go” for a while and it is working wonders, not only on anger.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I also think that the buddhist approach might be better than repressing anger. It’s interesting to see how little remains of emotions when you just look at what happens in the body (heart beats faster, that sort of thing) instead of viewing them as an impetus to act. I’ve found letting go works for me, too.

  3. Great stuff. I only have a passing familiarity with Gestalt so it’s good to read from someone who got into it. The whole field/background view (I’m assuming I’m confusing schools!) was interesting.

    The whole anger thing is interesting. It seems there’s a balancing act to be had. On the one hand, not to give in to it, but on the other hand, not to suppress. Middle Way?

  4. I agree that a Middle Way would seem best. Personally, I’m not sure about everything Thich Nhat Hanh says on the subject, although I have a lot of respect for him. But the two things he would advise is not to suppress your anger and not to express it to another person. Focussing on anger arising and leaving in a meditative way is also very interesting, I think. If you’re just mindful of the sensations, they don’t seem to stay with you for very long. It’s also in keeping with the idea that nobody else made you angry.
    Other people maintain that once you register bodily sensations relating to anger, you’ve already been sucked in too far.

  5. I think that suppressing anger is one of the most dangerous things one can do to oneself. Anger needs to be actively engaged. I think we need to face things that anger us and realize, by contemplation, that anger arises from ones’ own inability to process it. By doing this, I think, we’ll end up eradicating anger from our lives.

    • Thank you for your comment. I think you refer to the same thing Thich Nhat Hanh says when he talks about embracing your anger and taking care of it. He is convinced that compassion is the antidote for anger.
      I also think you make an important point by saying anger is something that happens inside you: that if you really look at it, the other is not the source of it. It would be brilliant if we could eradicate anger from your lives.

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