Transforming Anger

“Sublimation” is a term used in psychoanalysis to describe the process by which people convert negative impulses into actions that are constructive to themselves and others. Think of how many great artists have transformed their suffering into something that helps other people feel and think, or how many businesspeople have used a problem as an opportunity to provide people with valuable product or service. I’ve always loved this idea and would like to talk about it briefly from a Zen perspective.

As someone who harnesses a lot of energy and enthusiasm for life, I find myself also dealing with anger on a somewhat regular basis. My meditation practice has enabled me (when I’m lucky) to step back from my anger and recognize it. I see my anger appearing and I acknowledge it. In acknowledging it, I can redirect it towards a constructive ends rather than lashing out, becoming upset or letting it get the best of me.

This mirrors the process by which the mind experiences thoughts during meditation. With practice, meditation allows us to let our thoughts wash over without moving us. We are like an anchor beneath the sea, still and quiet. No matter how strong the pull of the current, we remain firmly on the ground. This is the meditative mind. Thoughts come and go and over time we build the strength to not let any of them drag us astray.

It only makes sense that such a practice would benefit people with anger problems. We all have emotional outbursts. Sometimes these are internal and end up causing us to hurt ourselves. Sometimes they’re external and lead us to mistreat other people. Our bad habits, destructive thought patterns and blind ideologies are all the result of unchecked emotions. Unchecked emotions are unchecked thoughts. Meditation allows us to check our thoughts so that they don’t grow into unfavorable emotional snowballs over time.

This is where the “transformation” part comes in. Anger often gets in the way when it’s most important for it not to. To resist anger isn’t to be weak or compromising. In fact, it’s the opposite. In being calm and collected you allow yourself to properly assess a situation and make the correct decision. How many times have you given into anger or strong emotions and made a hastily irrational decision? I know I’ve done this countless times. The meditative mind can exist outside of its own ego. It can step back and sublimate its anger into something calm and useful, like an anchor.

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