Solving the Anger Riddle
Sitting in the poisonous garden
Today, I’ll get personal, so you can see from example how tackling the root cause of anger solves the anger riddle.
I’ve written about anger before. Specifically, I stated that getting angry is OK, but staying angry is not. It takes some severe introspection to understand the source of your anger is always inside you:
The State wants mandatory vaccination, and it’s still your fault you are angry.
They want to mask up the kids again this Fall, and it’s still your fault you are angry.
Your friends don’t support your views on censorship, and it’s still your fault you are angry.
Your employer makes you wear a mask or get a jab, and it’s still your fault you are angry.
Your wife doesn’t want to hear your Covid rants anymore, and it’s still your fault you are angry.
(Some humor for Live Better Now subscribers, I could add here: gold is still under $2,000, and it’s still your fault you are angry!)
Staying angry never solves problems. It just creates distance between you and the world - a world that presumably includes people you love. Coping with anger involves understanding that you are capable of explosive rage and amazing calmness. Then you learn to manage those aspects with full awareness.
Imagine having a backyard that is divided into two areas. On one side you grow food for your home - delicious fresh vegetables and fruit that your family loves. You keep that ground watered and you tend to that side of the garden constantly.
On the other side, nothing grows but poison. Weeds, poison ivy, poisonous mushrooms, and anything else that is harmful to touch and taste. You would not want to do anything to increase the bounty from that side of your garden. And unfortunately, you can’t get rid of it. Nothing you plant there will grow. Your HOA probably forbids you from pouring concrete over it.
If this was really your yard, you would do anything you can to keep the food side watered and sunlit. You would do anything you can to keep the poisonous side from growing.
Anger lives in the poisonous side of your mind. If you water that side, you will grow the seeds of anger. If you constantly shine light on that side of your mind, you will grow the seeds of anger. If you want to stop anger at its source, stop making it so easy to grow.
Funny enough, in the heat of the moment, we can convince ourselves that the angriness we host is actually the better version of us. This is called the “Hero Story.” Hero stories came in several flavors but the main dish [hint: the main dish is revenge] is that you picture yourself as the righteous defender of the victim (most often, you view yourself as the victim) against some unjust character, such as but not limited to:
recalling a time when your boss was disrespectful and you imagine telling him off, likely in public if that’s where it happened to you
imagining a future argument with your wife about something you know she won’t yield on, and then slaying her objections with perfect comebacks and logic
picturing someone in your family being mistreated and stepping in to save the day, sometimes with violence
Hero stories water the poisonous side of your mind’s garden. These self aggrandizing exercises in mental masturbation actually make it more likely you will react poorly in future stressful situations. They create a tense mind, and you need a relaxed mind in order to think under high stress.
But how do we go from understanding that we are responsible for our anger to making real progress towards controlling our anger?
What made the poisonous garden grow?
Let’s stick with the analogy of the poisonous garden. If we spend time contemplating our existence, we might ask, why does this part of me even exist? Why do I have an angriness inside of me? Where did it come from? Why does it grow? Does it have to exist?
Now, we are really getting somewhere.
Like so many people, I come from a broken home. I grew up in a gang infested big city neighborhood in the 1980’s. Selling drugs had exploded the power and reach of inner city gangs, and unfortunately, my older brother got caught up in it. By the time he was 14, he was addicted to drugs. As an addict, he was an easy target for the local gangs, and they used him as a drug mule.
Eventually my brother went to jail. This does not tell the whole story, of course. The turmoil of my childhood is still vivid. There is one night I will never forget.
My brother had been missing for a couple of days. He was 15 at the time and it was already common for him to disappear. My parents didn’t know what to do about this. Our neighborhood had been gentrified in the opposite direction, so we didn’t have much of a support system. It went from middle class family friendly to lower class gangland over the course of a decade. No one ever complains when gentrification goes the opposite way.
My father was working as a shift supervisor at a warehouse and his shift this time was the evening one. So that meant mom and I were on our own. I was 11 years old the night my mom decided to confront the gangs. She put me and my younger sister in the car, and we drove the neighborhood. She found the local gang honchos sitting on the front porch with their pals and girlfriends a couple of blocks away. She got out of the car, walked right up to them, and told them she wanted her son back.
It’s never that easy of course. They said they didn’t know where he is. They waved her off. They didn’t do anything, but she eventually had to leave or escalate. It was incredibly brave, but she did the right thing to leave.
How many times do you think I replayed this scene in my head growing up? How many times do you think I inserted revenge into this scene? Probably hundreds.
My brother’s problems tore my family apart. My mother would develop early onset dementia a decade after he went to jail. My father buried himself in his work. My younger sister and I moved as far from home as we could once we had the chance.
Anger consumed me for decades. I was angry at the gangs, angry at my parents for not figuring it out, and angry at my brother for his terrible choices.
Now, here is the really important lesson you must understand:
The anger that you store inside of you, that you push down and try to forget, lives within you silently, and you walk the Earth angry without understanding the reason
I made myself into an angry person by taking this anger that consumed me and trying to mask it. I tried to push it down. That is counter-productive. The anger remains, but the reasons for the angriness are no longer distinguishable. I would forget why I was angry. I would just be angry.
Now what happens when we walk the Earth angry, without an understanding of our angriness? Well, naturally, we find all kinds of reasons to fill the void. We find reasons to be angry. Our favorite sports team loses? Anger. Our co-worker has a different opinion about the importance of a company announcement? Anger. Our girlfriend forgot to tell us she had plans with her friends when we were supposed to be going on a date? Anger. Anything can set you off, small or large. I know because I lived it. I constantly felt like the victim of a cruel world. Hero stories were a regular feature of my daydreaming.
That’s how my poisonous garden came to exist and how it grew. All of us have some pain in our life that creates the garden. Anger exists because pain is a fact of human existence. If we don’t recognize and resolve these incidents of pain, we may end up watering the poisonous garden. Then it grows and grows until we become explosive. Anything can set us off in a rage.
So what can we do about it?
This is really what you want to know. But don’t rush the answers, as time serves its purpose too.
Go back to the garden imagery above. However, instead of spending time with the beautiful garden and being afraid of the poisonous one, I want you to imagine sitting in the poisonous garden. You see nothing else around you but blackness and death. [Kinda like how AOC felt during Jan 6th…I kid, I kid…]
Make it real. Be still and be quiet. Let the images of pain come to you. Relax your mind. You will begin to see the events that have caused you pain. You will meet them in your garden.
Here you have to make peace. It’s not a one-time and you’re done thing. You need to go back to this place regularly. You want to imagine that you can walk into the poisoned land at any time and be completely comfortable.
You should try to do this because that poisonous garden is you. More clearly, it is aspects of you. It can be a terrifying place, but it’s a construct of your own psyche. You created it. You built it up. And then you came to fear it.
As you get comfortable visiting this dark and terrible place, it helps to have someone to talk to about what you see there. But it’s OK to talk about it with anyone, really. When I realized how important my childhood trauma was to the growth of my poisonous garden, I started opening up about it. It was surprisingly easy and it was calming. I gained the clarity of understanding and I learned about so many other events in my life that built up this terrible place.
Start the journey
The path to living a more calm and peaceful life - a life without explosive anger, is now a little more clear. There is no “hallelujah” moment where the devil is cast out of you. I still have my moments of angriness. I have fallen on my sword. It takes years but the growth will be there. If you commit to the path, one day you will look back in amazement at how calm you have become.
The path looks like this:
Awareness that anger is real inside you, that it does not come from external events
Recognize that the responsibility for dealing with your anger is yours and yours alone
Understand that your mind contains both the potential for growing the beautiful garden and the poisonous garden, and make a commitment to growing the beautiful garden
Contemplate the existence of the poisonous mind. Why does it exist? Why does yours exist?
Have the courage to accept the dark part of your existence, become comfortable with it and discover why yours grows.
And finally, learn to embrace the aspect of you that is angry and hold it. As the great Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn says, learn to hold your angry self tenderly, like a child that is lashing out.
If you’ve dealt with anger, I’d love to hear from you. You can message me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you are up to it, drop a comment below and tell us how you’ve handled anger in your life. Learning from each other helps us all deal with it. The tyranny of the State always gives us plenty of reasons to engage our anger and everyone here needs the help.