We all experience anger. How we express, manage and understand its power is a challenge for everyone.
To the ancient Chinese anger was one of five primary emotions that cycled through life. To observe nature is to see a variety of expression. To observe ourselves is to see that same variety in human life.
A tiny green crocus leaf unfurls and pushes dirt aside to rise up to the light. This thrust of upward movement happens as a vital action in nature’s cycle. The ancient Chinese noted the patterns and cycles in nature and in humans. They recognized that human emotions are a reflection of the energies in nature. Through careful observation they traced patterns in nature to an element and for each element an emotion.
The Chinese noted the purpose of each season. Nature’s cycles embody creation and birth, growth and flourishing, finally a dying down and destruction. All aspects are vital to the balance of nature. These same cycles happen in our bodies, our emotional selves and in our souls.
So how does anger fit into this picture? To the Ancient Chinese it was one of five emotions, each one associated with an element of nature and a season. The five elements are Fire, summer its season, and joy as the emotion; Earth, late summer and sympathy; Metal, autumn and grief; and Water, winter and fear; and back to Wood, spring and the emotion of anger.
The wood element, plants and trees, show us the power of transformation in the spring season. Plants that were dormant make a leap to growth and activity. They burst forth seemingly overnight in the spring, but after considerable activity under the earth in preparation.
To the Chinese anger is the emotion linked with spring and the wood element. Consider this emotion. It flashes with a release of energy, like a thunder storm. A person who is angry about something feels like this. Martin Luther King, Jr. experienced prejudice and hatred as a young man. Anger simmered in him over time and eventually burst forth, but he learned to temper that energy, to harness it into a stream of action and clarity of mind. His anger addressed injustice. Thus human beings are challenged to work with and be tempered by anger. This is the positive power of anger revealed in the wood element.
Mahatma Gandhi expressed caution in dealing with anger. He felt the need to manage it so that it did not control him, working through to avoid pointless and ineffective violence. Yet at his core, anger at injustice inspired him to act.
Violence in thoughts, words or deeds is a natural part of anger. Gandhi’s lifelong work was to temper anger, not suppress it. He galvanized it into action without resorting to violence. One famous example is his journey to the sea for salt which was against British law. This defiant action took clarity of thought, energy and commitment. It was a transformation of anger into a sustained action for a result.
“Anybody can become angry,” says Aristotle, “ — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”
Aristotle captures the essence of anger here. There is a place for anger, but we must work with it carefully, almost as medicine, so that it transforms.
Throughout our lives we have rivulets of different emotions in varying degrees of intensity. Our job is to bring awareness to them and to better understand ourselves through reflection. How do we ride the waves of emotion, temper them and deepen our knowledge? Human beings grapple with this question throughout time.
Because emotions are ever changing, we can’t make them stand still.
We have to learn to ride them and harness their energy. Just when we think we have contained an emotion, the flow continues. This phenomenon provides an opportunity for us to learn from nature by observation. We can also learn by observing ourselves and shining a light on our own energies.
When does anger arise? Is it always a negative emotion? What is the arc of an angry moment? These are questions not easily answered. We spend our lives seeking to understand ourselves and our world. Anger is one mystery that we may think of as damaging. Yet to suppress it or deny it is like trying to stop a tornado or thunder storm.
How does the food we eat support our efforts to find balance with anger in spring?
In ancient times, across many cultures, people ate different foods in different seasons. These eating patterns supported the cycling from one season to the next. Availability was the ruling factor. In winter people ate warm, rich foods to provide sustenance. The first foods to appear in spring were dark green, tough little plants, like cresses, parsley, green onions, dandelion and violets. These green shoots gave people just what their bodies craved coming out of the winter. Spicy plants stimulate the liver. They cleanse the body for the greater action of spring. This cleansing promotes clearer thinking. The liver as planner and gall bladder as decision maker come into their own in spring.
Anger may cause us to feel out of control. It comes flooding or shrieking out of us. Two year olds have tantrums as they discover their limitations. As they grow, they also discover independence. Anger arises as they move through this developmental stage. They learn from the modeling of adults. Adults are challenged to respond in a way that builds the experience of boundary and limit for the child.
From the perspective of Chinese medicine , an emotional imbalance is a sign of other kinds of imbalance. A person may be lacking appropriate anger. Passivity and reluctance to stand up for oneself can signal an imbalance that needs to be addressed. Excessive anger is another sign of an imbalance.
Today is an early spring day. Seeds germinate out of sight under the earth, and early blossoms appear seemingly overnight. A great deal happens at once. This level of complexity is part of our emotional landscape as well, part of the beautiful challenge of transformation. It is not easy and straightforward. Anger can mix with other emotions and even mask them. But it is an energy that must activate. It can feel like playing with fire, or it may cause us to slip into depression when not appropriately channeled.
The Book of Changes, the I Ching, outlines the many ways that the energies of nature manifest their underlying truths. A sunrise will burn into bright day. An intense storm will pass. Daffodils that burst forth seem permanent, but just weekslater they are falling back to the earth.
To work with these ever changing patterns and appreciate the power of anger is to align with natural law. To be able to sit with anger, reflect on it and carefully allow clarity to emerge is to be well tempered by this powerful emotion.