I’m Bridget Owens and you're listening to the Waxing Soul podcast. Join me on an exploration of mindful modern magic, a journey towards deeper understanding of self and transformative individual spirituality. It's February 18, 2021, and on today's episode we'll be discussing how to deal with anger in our spiritual lives as part 3 of our 7 episode series on emotions in spirituality. Are you ready to grow your soul?
Who’s ready for a fun one? In case you’re just tuning in for the first time to the podcast, we’re three episodes into a seven episode series on emotions in your spiritual practice, and so far we’ve talked about fear and joy. And today we’re going to talk about anger, which is definitely an emotion I don’t think we give enough attention to in general, but especially in spirituality. Because kind of like fear, it has way more to do with the direction our spiritual path takes than most of us even want to acknowledge.
We consider anger a “bad” emotion, something we should try and not feel or not indulge. But all emotions serve a purpose, they’re all just manifestations, energetic responses, and they mean something. They’re useful. Fear keeps us alert to things that might be a danger to us, joy is a reward to keep us doing beneficial things, so what is anger? What does anger tell us that’s useful, and more importantly, relevant to our spiritual lives?
I think, more than anything, anger is a window into our soul-deep values and sense of morality. Not the one we claim, the one we harbor deep inside.
Because the valuable thing about anger is that, when it’s rooted in stuff like injustice, it’s a motivating energy to act on our values, to work to fix and change things about the world around us. Of course, that’s under ideal circumstances, when we can be confident in our motivations and when we’re mindfully acting on them.
But that’s the value of anger, that’s why we feel anger. Anger tells us something isn’t right. Anger turns our focus outward. So when it’s good, when we’re in those ideal circumstances, anger can keep us engaged in our community, engaged in our world. Of course, those ideal circumstances don’t often exist, or at least maybe don’t often enough exist.
But to put this in some context, I want to rewind to 2016. There were a lot about things going on in the world that I felt were wrong. Stuff that, maybe it wasn’t to the point of making me angry, but I wasn’t happy about it. There was maybe a bit of fear, there was disgust, lots of other feelings, but it wasn’t truly anger leading up to the election. And during all that time my day to day focus didn’t really change. I didn’t sign up to volunteer for campaigns or to work with community organizations, I didn’t DO anything about what I felt except to talk about stuff.
Then the election happened, and after that, I’m going to spare you the story, it’s not the point, but after that and because of that, I had my job threatened because of my sexual orientation. And at that point, whatever other things I had been feeling did become anger. There was a definite shift in the emotional dynamic, in the type of emotional energy I was dealing with.
Because, and this is maybe an overgeneralization, but fear and anxiety are future focused – it’s what might happen – and shame and disgust and stuff are past focused – it’s what’s already happened – but anger is present. Anger is This Thing Is Happening Right Now. All those things are tied up together, but when it becomes in-the-moment, it becomes tied up in present reality, that’s when it can boil into anger because that’s the emotional energy we respond to with action. Fear makes us freeze or run, shame makes us hide, but anger makes us act.
So I got angry, and that prompted me to do a whole bunch of stuff. I wrote a book. I quit my job. I donated to human rights organizations. I joined social justice groups. I ran for office. I marched and campaigned and petitioned and spoke in front of city council. I got involved. I shifted a pretty significant part of my life to act because that’s what anger does when it does what it’s meant to. It makes us look at what’s going on and motivates us to do something about what isn’t right.
Now, what does this have to do with spirituality?
Well, first of all, one of the things most humans wrap up in spirituality is morality. Our sense of what the world is like, what the universe is like, and what it SHOULD be like. What’s important, what’s right, what’s wrong. So if our anger comes from our internal values, if our anger is what drives us to act on those values, then it’s going to motivate our spiritual actions, right? It’s going to have a huge impact on the things we focus on in our spiritual practice and – this is the important thing – what we use our spiritual resources to try and change around us.
And if we’re really mindful about our anger and where it comes from, we can use it as a window into our deeper self, as a motivator to do the shadow work we all really need to do.
If you're enjoying this episode of Waxing Soul, subscribe to the show! Each week we will dive into a different part of the world of spirituality, magic, and self-evolution. Check out last week's episode for the second episode of this series on emotions in spiritual life where we talked about joy. And come back next week when we'll talk about curiosity in part 4 of the series.
I talk a lot these days about how action is everything in spirituality. It’s far more important than belief. And this is a perfect time, a perfect topic to use to dig deeper into that because the thing about anger, the thing about this idea that anger is a bad emotion, something we need to overcome, is that the worst thing about anger comes when we act on it, right?
Sure, it’s not great to sit in anger and just raise your blood pressure. That’s just stifling and holding in energy that’s meant to be motivating, and that’s why when we’re in an anger management kind of thing it’s not about just learning not to act on the anger, it’s learning healthier ways to act on it.
The real problem with anger is that we act on our anger too often with violence and damaging actions. It’s the damage caused by the action that’s the problem, not the feeling itself. There are lots of good reasons to be angry, and there are lots of good ways to funnel that righteous anger into productive action. It’s just a problem when our anger isn’t rooted in productive motivations and when we act on it in destructive ways.
When we get into anger that’s reflexive, anger that’s about revenge or pride or misplaced other emotions.
When we let shame stretch into anger and keep something in that basket of “this is a thing happening right now that I need to deal with” even when it’s something that’s still in the past.
When we let our fear turn into anger and make something that hasn’t even happened, that isn’t even real in the moment, into something motivating us to look for ways to change something that can’t even be changed.
When we hang onto anger because we like how motivated and energized it makes us feel, to the point where we’re still angry over something that’s over and done and unchangeable.
So one reason that I say anger is so pivotal to so many peoples’ spirituality is that a lot of people shape their spiritual lives around anger in much the same way as people shape their spiritual lives around fear. What that looks like is when our spiritual focus is wrapped up in a sense of opposition. So pursuing something that’s the opposite of what we experienced with another spiritual path or idea in the past. Maybe it looks like defiance, embracing things, pursuing things as almost a radical spiritual act. It can look like taking up spiritual action like a mission, like a calling to go out and fight for or against something.
A lot of times, this looks like what happens when one group splits from another, forming their own religious path because of conflict. Which, just to be clear, is not always a bad thing.
Anger can be for good reasons, acting on anger can be a really good thing. But even if it’s a good anger, good motivation, is it a good thing for our spiritual life to be driven by it? Because where fear as a central part of a spiritual life is like placing it on an altar, giving it the central place of visibility, anger as a central part of a spiritual life is like giving anger the place of leadership and guidance. It becomes the compass you navigate by. So where it leads, you follow. And it’s worth considering whether anger, no matter how righteous, is the leader you want guiding your spiritual development. Because as much as anger can be a righteous motivator to make positive change, it’s also not entirely trustworthy all the time.
When we dig into our anger, when we really examine it, a lot of the time what we will find is that the things we get angry about don’t turn out to be rooted in the things we would claim are our core values.Tweet
Anger can come out of jealousy and greed and embarrassment and rejection and whatever just as easily as it can come from an actual sense of injustice or wrongdoing or harm. We can say we believe one thing to be important, but our anger can very quickly prove that belief to not really be rooted deeply in our sense of self. In spiritual terms, it’s like claiming a deep belief in karma and then getting angry about your own actions having consequences. And when stuff like that happens, it’s not a problem with anger itself, the problem is about our understanding of self, it’s about a need to examine who we are at the deepest level and where those emotional reactions come from and doing that shadow work.
But if we let anger lead, it keeps our attention focused outward rather than inward.
Anger is useful, just like all emotions, even in our spirituality, but not as the thing which drives our spiritual direction. And, bottom line, if we let anger lead us, we let our whole spiritual life be focused on the things which bother us, the things we think are wrong around us, and while I’m no fan of the positive vibes only type of spirituality, focusing your spirituality on the negative is no better.
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The bottom line on anger is that the feeling is usually so strong that it shorts out our logical thought processes. And for the most part, I think what we’re told or led to believe we should do about our anger is to either deny it or stifle it or at least talk ourselves out of whatever we’re feeling because anger is bad.
I grew up in a household where there was definitely a good emotion/bad emotion thing going on, things we weren’t apparently supposed to feel, and those “bad” emotions were treated kind of like sins. Things like anger were supposed to be turned over to god and prayed away and let go of because, well, god had a plan or whatever, blah blah blah. The effect of all that was that somewhere in my adult life, after I’d started embracing more empowering and magical type spiritual ideas, and once I really started digging in and doing my shadow work for the first time, I realized that I had no idea how to deal with so called negative emotions. I didn’t know how to deal with anger or disappointment or hurt or sadness or frustration. Just telling myself that someone else or something else out there had a plan and that those feelings meant I wasn’t trusting them or having enough faith had never even once worked, but I’d also never learned a better way. I’d learned to internalize things, but that’s no good either.
The thing is that all emotions, anger included, are, like I said in a previous episode, barometers. They’re warning lights. They’re detectors and reminders and alarms. They exist somewhere in that instinctual, reflexive part of our being that we share with other living creatures.
The thing about humans, though – one of the things that makes us human, in fact – is that we don’t operate from that place. It’s still useful, it’s very useful, and we need it. But we get to take those feelings, those signals, and process them in ways the rest of the animal kingdom just can’t.
So the answer to what we do with things like anger, what we do with uncomfortable feelings, is we have to process them. And that’s something that is absolutely part of what spirituality is and can be. Anger can call our attention to things we have the power to work to change. Anger can call our attention to deep soul values that we maybe don’t want to hold onto anymore. Anger can make us aware of other things we feel. like hurt and sadness and regret and shame. Anger can be – and this one’s huge – anger can be a call to build empathy, to take a closer look at why people do the things they do.
Anger is just a feeling, it’s just energy, and we get to choose as humans what we do with that energy.Tweet
And as magical practitioners, we have something of an expanded range of options for how to use that energy, what to do with it and where to direct it. That’s the beauty of magical practice. Recognizing that everything is energy and building a whole spiritual life and practice around using and working with energy lets us do way more things with and about the things around us than the average person. So when we step back from our anger long enough to look at it, to figure out what it’s pointing towards, we have tools and skills to put to use to either take that motivating energy and act on it, to turn our attention inward and work through what it’s showing us, to connect with other people and evolve our worldview, or to just see what it’s showing us and expand our understanding of reality accordingly.
Of course, the first key to all of this is mindfulness. The ability to not just act instinctively when we feel that fire of anger. To not just let it push or pull us where it seems to want us to go. To not be consumed with what’s wrong, with what seems bad, with what actions will make us feel vindicated or more in control. That’s the first place where our spiritual tools should be put to good use. Cultivating mindfulness and focus and the ability to pause and step back.
But the second key to this, then, is to have some more reliable leader and compass in your spirituality so you’re not led by the anger instead. Knowing what it is you’re building through your spirituality, where you’re traveling, what you know to be your place in the universe, all of that can be a guidepost so you can make more mindful, more purposeful decisions, discernments about what to do about and with your feelings of anger. How to use your spiritual tools to advance your intentions rather than to let anger guide your actions.
And the final key to this is that, in the end, sometimes we do just need to release the anger. Not into the hands of something or someone else to take the action we can’t, but because there isn’t any action to take. Nothing which is in our power to change to alleviate the anger, and it’s just about release and acceptance of reality.
Thank you so much for listening. Look for a new episode of Waxing Soul every Thursday. All materials and resources except the music are © Bridget Owens. Music is Dream Catcher by Kevin MacLeod https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/4650-dream-catcher License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ Many thanks to my readers, listeners, friends, mentors, inspirations, and my framily. None of this happens in a bubble. Until next week, blessed be and be good to yourself.