If we aim to engage destructive social structures, as we must, our efforts will bring us into direct relationship with anger and outrage. At its worst, anger burns us up, injures others, or, when we repress it, collapses us into depression. In the spiritual realm, it can also become passive aggression, which either internalizes as the hyper-energized inner critic or projects out onto those who are “not following the rules.”
Women in particular—who are socialized over millennia to be accommodating, nice, pretty, and enabling—are shamed when they express anger. Rather than shaping themselves into pretzels in service of distorted and immature power—which leaves them muted, manipulative, frustrated, damaged, and damaging—women can recognize outrage at its root: the activated energy experienced in their bodies. This energy, when distilled into clarity and wisdom, burns away the dross of self-seeking desires and fears. It cuts through one’s subtle addiction to transcendent, calm states—an addiction all too common among dharma practitioners.
In the realms of Buddhist iconography and practice, we see the dynamic force of fierce feminine energy represented in the Vajrayana school, particularly in the female image of Vajrayogini. Known as the “Essence of all Buddhas,” she is depicted in a dancing posture similar to that of Shiva. She wields a sharp knife symbolic of her ability to cut through ignorance and illusions. Her hair is untamed and her face radiates a numinous, wrathful expression. She is wild. Her red body is ablaze with the heat of yogic fire and is surrounded by the flames of wisdom.
This portrayal signifies the gift of the protector feminine. If we are to undertake the blessed and grueling journey of the luminous, fierce, yet tender heart needed for our times, then anger is an asset. Looking on at the mindless destruction of the planet, how can we not feel outraged? While anger is an uncomfortable and difficult emotion, it serves a vital purpose. It shocks us out of the stupid trivia of celebrity lifestyles and media dirges. We should be on a war footing, in the same way we might in the face of an alien invasion. Instead we are lost in distracted twaddle while a terrible destruction unfolds around us.
It is healthy to feel angry and enraged that the boreal forests of Canada are being stripped to make way for tar sands mining, to feel angry that the fossil fuel companies are determined to extract the last drops of oil, gas, and coal, whatever the environmental and human cost. Our anger tells us they are absolutely not to be trusted. They do not have our collective welfare at heart. Instead they funnel billions of dollars into campaigns and advertisements that misinform the public about the actual state of the planet.
It is important to feel upset, remorse, and anger at what humans have done. It means we have a conscience. In Buddhist understanding, the force of conscience is the guardian of the world.
It is important to let ourselves feel outrage rather than sanitize this raw emotion with spiritual speak or shame it as ignoble. Yet if we harbor or act out of anger, it almost always poisons us, diminishing our credibility and harming others. The late Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah recommended we “catch emotions in the net of mindfulness, and then examine them before reacting.” Anger is a warning that something is invading and overwhelming us. If we don’t take heed, disorder and destruction will follow.
Holding onto anger, however, is not sustainable. There is a fine line between feeling anger and being blinded by its energy. Anger can sometimes arise when we activate early patterning. This kind of upset needs careful tending.
Anger as a healthy response to injustice has a different quality. It is clarifying. In Buddhist teachings, particularly in Vajrayana Buddhism, so-called negative emotions mask pure essential energy. Once the coarser emotion is transmuted, the finer energy is distilled.
Anger is traditionally thought to be close to wisdom. When not projected outward onto others or inward toward the self, it gives us the necessary energy and clarity to understand what needs to be done.
If we prematurely condemn or repress anger because we think it unworthy to feel, then we will fail to transform it. The fullness of its embodied energy will remain unavailable to us. We won’t be able to protect what needs to be protected; we will let what is most precious slip away.
From Time to Stand Up by Thanissara, © 2015 Sacred Activism, an imprint of North Atlantic Books.
[This story was first published in 2015]