Anger – how can we handle angry thoughts & feelings?

Given the anger that many people feel in relation to the tragic events in Ukraine, I thought it might be useful to reflect on this powerful emotion and how we might deal with it. So here are a few thoughts.

It seems to me there are two broad aspects to the question, how do we deal with anger: one, the emotion of anger itself; and, two, our relationship with this emotion.

Usually, anger arises in response to some external situation, event or action. Something happens to upset us, and we feel anger rise in us as a consequence of what has happened. We see someone being cruel to an animal or punching a person without due cause. We feel angry at what they are doing. The anger is a powerful response to something that we find upsetting and disagreeable. Can we channel the energy of the anger into doing something concrete to remedy the situation we are witnessing? Can we somehow stop the cruelty to the animal, or stop the person punching another? Can we channel the anger-energy to do good, rather than harm – to relieve the suffering of the animal or the person who is being punched? Can we use the power of anger to change the situation that is giving rise to the anger?

It may be that we can do this. The anger can be a force for change, relieving suffering and turning a potentially negative emotion into a positive action. Many social changes are brought about as a result of anger felt by many against an injustice of some kind. The campaign against slavery, for instance, harnessed the energy of the anger that many individuals felt against this cruel and inhumane practice, to change both public opinion and, eventually, to introduce legislation in parliament that outlawed such practices.

Sometimes we may be powerless to change the situation that sparks our anger. We may be frightened as well as angry, or we may not have the strength to stop the cruel actions of the other person. Sometimes we are angry at events witnessed via the media that are occurring in another part of the world. Can we channel our anger to try to persuade those who may have some influence over these events to act on our behalf? Or can we support organisations who are working to relieve the suffering caused by these events? In all these scenarios, our anger can be channelled towards doing good rather than harm – helping remove the causes of our anger in a way that benefits those who are being harmed.

Of course, it is vital that our anger, either consciously or inadvertently, doesn’t ‘add fuel to the fire’ – doesn’t make matters worse, or lead to even greater suffering or injustice. We each have to make a judgment as to which actions will help and which won’t. Being mindful of our emotions, our actions, and the consequences of those actions, is always of vital importance.

This brings us to the second aspect of this matter: our relationship with anger. The insight meditation teacher, Joseph Goldstein, has written about this and I would like to paraphrase a passage from his book, Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom. Goldstein identifies three processes at work: one, the external event that prompts our anger; two, the angry reaction itself; and, three, the relationship of our mind to the anger. He points out that we often become lost in the first two: the external situation and our reaction to it. Often our reaction involves a cycle of feeling and thought that inflames the anger and keeps it burning. We add more and more fuel to the fire, as we pile up our angry thoughts and feelings, sometimes even remembering other events that can be added to our stockpile of anger.

Goldstein suggests that, if we are to free ourselves from this anger-cycle, we have to find a way to step outside it – see the fire of anger for what it is. He suggests that it can be helpful to ask ourselves questions: ‘How am I getting caught in this anger? How am I getting hooked by it? How am I identifying with it?’ Just asking ourselves, ‘what is happening here?’ – or saying to ourselves, ‘this is an angry thought or feeling,’ can be helpful. The very act of posing these questions, opens up a space between our mind, the angry reaction and the external event that triggered it. In asking these questions, we have changed our perspective and stepped outside the anger itself. It may be that this is enough to begin to dissolve the angry feelings and thoughts. We are not repressing the feelings or pushing them away, we are acknowledging them as feelings and thoughts, and, significantly, taking responsibility for how we deal with them. This is to be mindful – to be open to the presence of our angry thoughts and feelings, to see them more clearly, but no longer to be in their grip. To see the thought or feeling within the vast space of the mind.

It seems to me that Goldstein is articulating a useful way of stepping outside the magnetic pull of angry thoughts and feelings. In Zen this shift of perspective is sometimes described as a shift from the viewpoint of Small Mind or Ego, to the vantage point of Big Mind or Zen Mind. We change our perspective and, in doing so, break the ties that bind us to the anger. We no longer cling to the anger and no longer identify with it. Instead, we free ourselves from the power that the thoughts and feelings have over us. We can now see the thoughts and feelings as what Shunryu Suzuki calls ‘mind waves’ – ripples that happen in the mind but that need not disturb the mind itself. Like ripples happening on the surface of the sea, or dark clouds blowing across the vast expanse of the sky, or angry thought-fish darting here and there in the big wide ocean. Goldstein refers to the shift of perspective as a move from ‘emotional bondage’ to ‘emotional freedom.’

Of course, this shift of perspective is not always easy to achieve. The magnetism of anger can be very strong. We may have to try asking the questions a few times. Stepping in and out of the cycle of angry thoughts and feelings, until we break free. This is an art that requires cultivation, practice and determination. But we can all learn how to do it and get better at it each time we encounter the angry thoughts and feelings as they are spark and catch alight.

It is worth keeping in mind that not acknowledging and learning how to deal with anger – identifying too much with angry thoughts and feelings, maybe even enjoying these feelings, becoming over-attached to them – can lead to hatred. Anger and other negative feelings can feed each other and grow in power until they consume us. We find ourselves unable to step outside them, to shift our perspective. Instead, we burn with hatred – a deep-rooted tangle of powerful emotions and thoughts that are much harder to understand, and very difficult to let go of and to free ourselves from.

So, be mindful of anger as it flickers into being, try to see it for what it is, channel it and transform it into a force for good, and practice the art of changing perspective – seeing the angry thoughts and feelings as the mind-ripples they are. In this way, we can become freer and calmer, and be at peace once more with ourselves and with others.


Goldstein, Joseph. 1993. Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.