Is there anything wrong with letting the anger out, from a Buddhist's standpoint?
Generally speaking yes, letting the anger out is wrong, but precise answer as to why it is wrong and what to do instead depends on a school:
From Theravada's standpoint, acting on akusala (pathological) thoughts and emotions is bad karma and serves to feed corresponding sankhara's. In this context, the right way to deal with anger falls into Four Right Efforts:
- Effort toward non-arising of pathological qualities that have not yet arisen.
- Effort toward abandonment of pathological qualities that have arisen.
- Effort toward arising of wholesome qualities that have not yet arisen.
- Effort toward maintenance & increase of wholesome qualities that have arisen.
The Buddha of Pali Canon emphasizes the importance of abandoning pathological dharmas (including anger) immediately, within seconds of arising, using techniques such as 1) switching attention to an opposite object, 2) contemplating dangers of letting pathological qualities increase, 3) forgetting, 4) stilling corresponding sankharas, and 5) suppressing by force. (MN 20)
From Mahayana's standpoint, emotions come from ego, from attachments. Correspondingly, the proper way to deal with emotions in Mahayana is not by suppressing the symptoms but rather by solving the underlying issue: attachment to ego. This is done through a number of techniques, from developing compassion, to philosophical analysis of emptiness, to surrendering to teacher's upaya.
From Vajrayana's standpoint, emotions are a natural play of energy. This energy is not inherently good or bad, but could be destructive if used unwisely. Correspondingly, rather than trying to fight with nature, Vajrayana looks to harness its power for virtuous purposes. This is done through a technique called transmutation.
In transmutation of emotion (e.g. anger), rather than acting it out, which would be a waste of energy, we try to directly see the emotion as a blob of raw energy. This feels similar to seeing pain as pure information, which is another Vajrayana technique. So, rather than mulling over the cause of our anger, whatever it is, we see our emotion directly as pure energy. We look this energy straight in the face and accept it, take ownership of it. As we do this, we re-unite ourselves. It is like I am an aquarium which for some reason has grown a glass wall within itself, separating itself in two halves. Then I identified with one half, and alienated from the other. By feeling the emotion directly I recover my sense of the second half, then the glass wall dissolves and I become the whole aquarium again, if this makes any sense.
To quote Chogyam Trungpa,
Transmutation takes place with the understanding of shunyata and then the sudden discovery of energy. You realize that you no longer have to abandon anything. You begin to see the underlying qualities of wisdom in your life-situation, which means that there is a kind of leap. If you are highly involved with one emotion such as anger, then by having a sudden glimpse of openness, which is shunyata, you begin to see that you do not have to suppress your energy. You do not have to keep calm and suppress the energy of anger, but you can transform your aggression into dynamic energy. It is a question of how open you are, how much you are really willing to do it. If there is less fascination and satisfaction with the explosion and release of your energy, then there is more likelihood of transmuting it. Once we become involved with the fascination and satisfaction of energy, then we are unable to transmute it. You do not have to completely change yourself, but you can use part of your energy in an awakened state.
The whole point is that we have not actually experienced our emotions, although we think we have. We have only experienced emotions in terms of me and my anger, me and my desire. This "me" is a kind of central governing structure. The emotions play the part of messengers, bureaucrats and soldiers. Instead of experiencing emotions as being separate from you, your rather unruly employees so to speak, you must actually feel the texture and real living quality of the emotions. Expressing or acting out hatred or desire on the physical level is another way of trying to escape from your emotions, just as you do when you try to repress them. If one actually feels the living quality, the texture of the emotions as they are in their naked state, then this experience also contains ultimate truth. And automatically one begins to see the simultaneously ironical and profound aspect of the emotions as they are. Then the process of transmutation, that is, transmuting the emotions into wisdom, takes place automatically. The problem is that we never experience emotions properly. We think that fighting and killing express anger, but these are another kind of escape, a way of releasing rather than actually experiencing emotion as it is. The basic nature of the emotions has not been felt properly.
If we are trying to be good or peaceful, trying to suppress or subdue our emotions, that is the basic twist of ego in operation. We are being aggressive towards our emotions, trying forcefully to achieve peace or goodness. Once we cease being aggressive towards our emotions, cease trying to change them, once we experience them properly, then transmutation may take place. The irritating quality of the emotions is transmuted once you experience them as they are. Transmutation does not mean that the energy quality of the emotions is eliminated; in fact it is transformed into wisdom, which is very much needed.
Here are some links on transmutation of emotions for you:
- Befriending Emotions article by John Welwood of Naropa University.
- Dealing with Emotions blog post by Ringu Tulku.
- The Myth of Freedom book by Chogyam Trungpa -- where I first learned the concept of transmutation from.
- Cutting through Spiritual Materialism book by Chogyam Trungpa.