I heard an interesting segment about anger on NPR’s “Morning Edition” today. The story is about a woman who, inspired by her own experience, opened a business called The Smash Shack which caters to people seeking a cathartic outlet for their anger and aggression. Modern psychological research, however, seems to suggest that “the more you get angry, the angrier you get.”
While it’s nice to see Western psychology finally catching up (for the most part), this insight is rather old news from a Buddhist perspective. In brief, when we practice something, we become good at it. This goes for both pleasant and unpleastant mental states. When we “practice” anger, we simply become more skilled at being angry. And the more we train ourselves, the more automatic it becomes.
Certainly there may be a kind of short-term satisfaction in venting our feelings, and it can be just as harmful — if not more so — to suppress them. However the short-term satisfaction is just that, and never truly addresses the underlying causes and conditions for our anger. The trick, then, to working skillfully with strong emotions is finding a balance point: acknowledging our feelings without letting them take control of our actions. And this requires being able to stop and pay attention to what’s going on in our own minds.
While smashing plates or hitting a pillow may seem like perfectly harmless activity, training in the unmitigated expression of anger is like building a bomb: it has the potential to go off when we least expect it, and in ways that can be truly harmful — such as road rage, mass shootings, and so on.
So the next time you’re so mad you feel like smashing something, do everyone a favor: just take a couple of minutes and watch your breath.