On overcoming anger

I was asked recently about how I deal with anger and frustration. This is a good question, as I, like perhaps every other person, have found myself having to manage such feelings.

In my teenage years, I realized that anger was a part of a larger complex of emotion that if not properly understood, could wreak havoc on our lives. My response at the time was to meditate. I am not sure where the inspiration came from. I did not have any formal training in meditation, nor did I have any academic knowledge of mindfulness or psychology. Nonetheless, I set myself to the task of meditating, using breathing and visualization as keys to gain clarity and awareness, as well as to recenter myself. My practice was also informed by Sun Tzu’s classic, The Art of War, which became a key element of how I moved through the world.

Once I went to college and felt that I had more control over my life, this practice fell by the wayside. However after college, as my life intensified due to its burgeoning demands and as various interpersonal difficulties took their toll, I have found it necessary to both reactivate the practice from my youth and to augment it accordingly. Unlike then, I have been exposed to different types of meditative traditions, different schools of psychology, and different philosophical discourses. Here I offer a brief overview of how I have strove to manage such challenges in the present.

Sunyata (emptiness)
I consider perception as a precondition to anger. Often our perception of things determines whether or not we become bothered or angry.

As a teenager I discovered that things (including ideas) are insubstantial in their essence. This insight came not from reading, but merely reflecting on my own thoughts, my own feelings, my own consciousness. This discovery enabled me to navigate difficult circumstances. Years later I discovered that there was a term for this in Buddhist philosophy, sunyata, a Pali word that translates into English as “emptiness”. It refers to the insubstantial nature of all things.

The concept of sunyata has been, for me, profoundly edifying. It has enabled me to more fully internalize the wisdom in the Fulani proverb which states, “Hab’b’ere buri ginawol,” or that “Actions should be judged according to intention.” This means that my perceptions of reality are not fully constitutive of reality. Often I have misperceived things. Later I have found that my initial perceptions were incorrect. The solution has not been to cling to such misperceptions, but to strive to understand reality free from the fetters of such thinking. It also means that it is often necessary to go beyond my own feelings or perception of a particular situation in order to understand things from the vantage point of another.

I recall an occasion from a decade ago when I was talking on the phone with my mother and I observed that my then seven year old son was misbehaving. As I was preparing to punish him my mother said, “Remember, he has the mind of seven.” I immediately stopped in my preparation to punish my son and begin to contemplate how his actions possibly appeared from his point of view. Attempting to view things from his perspective made what he was doing seem far more reasonable. His intent was to have fun, which given his age was to be expected. I realized that my perception was limited in not considering that there were other ways that his behavior could be interpreted. I have continued to work to apply this insight in my parenting and other situations as a way to adjust my perception, to prevent anger or to manage other feelings that could lead to it such as frustration, disappointment, and so on.

Hasara (loss)
Throughout life I have seen a number of occasions where anger compelled people to speak far more harshly than they should have. A text from ancient Kemet, The Instruction of Amenemope demonstrates that even the ancients were troubled by such speech.

“Swift is the speech of one who is angered,
More than wind [over] water.
He tears down, he builds up with his tongue,
When he makes his hurtful speech.”

This text notes that harsh words are often given velocity by anger. They also have the power to destroy.

I too have spoken harsh words, as well as being their recipient. Often such actions leave lasting damage in our interpersonal relationships. This reminds me of the Swahili proverb “Hasira, hasara.” This translates into English as “Anger [brings] loss.” This proverb notes that anger can be quite dangerous. It compel us to act in a manner which may result in loss. The losses might be material or immaterial. To my thinking, though both can be profound, material things can be replaced, however broken trust or a loss of emotional intimacy can be difficult to restore.

The king’s sword
The path from anger to loss is more fully explored in the following Yorùbá proverb which states “Ìbínú lọbá fi ńyọ idà; ìtìjú ló fi ḿbẹ ẹ,” and translates as “It is in anger that the king draws his sword; it is shame that makes him go through with the beheading.” This Yorùbá proverb expresses the ways in which anger compromises judgement. When we are angry we forsake reflective thinking, that is we cease to be critically aware of our thoughts, and with this our words and our actions. Due to this, we make foolish commitments in anger. We say or do things that set us on a ruinous path. Often, we lack the humility to turn away from it even when the anger has subsided. Hence, pride encourages commitment to those intemperate thoughts, words, and actions. Suffering is often the result.

Medew nefer (Good speech)
Given the foregoing, I have found that it is necessary to maintain practices that facilitate the kind of mindfulness that reflects good character, righteousness. A recurring theme in Kemetic thought is the practice of medew nefer, that is, “good speech”. Medew nefer is speech that reflects Maat (truth, order, righteousness, harmony, and so on) It is indicative of our commitment to the cultivation and practice of wisdom. Beyond this, medew nefer reflects self-control. As Ptah Hotep stated, “All conduct…is measured,” thus the practice of good speech requires the maintenance of mental and emotional discipline.

In his book, Intellectual Warfare, Jacob H. Carruthers, writes, “As the divine speech taught us at the beginning of our history, it is necessary that human beings, like the Creator, give life and power and health. We should examine everything that we do by that command. If our actions support life and power and health, then they are right. If not, then we ought to stop that line of action.” I think of this often. What does it mean to “give life and power and health”? How might such an imperative inform our thought, speech, and actions?

Recently I have been reading a book by Dr. Edward L. Powe titled Cosmic Combat Warriors. The book features accounts by various people from southern India about their practice of yoga and how it has impacted their lives. One of the recurring themes in their accounts is that their practice of yoga has enabled them to be calmer and less susceptible to anger.

One thing what was particularly interesting is that many of the respondents were both yoga practitioners and martial artists. Given their connection to traditions of warriorhood, as reflected by the martial arts, they echoed an idea expressed by Shaha Mfunidishi Maasi in his book The Essential Warrior where he wrote, ”The purpose of warriorship is to develop and enlightened being who is a human vortex of positive energy.” Herein, the warrior is one whose charged to serve others, to bring light into the world. Some of the respondents in Cosmic Combat Warriors reflected such a charge.

Their experience has also been my own. I too have found that the practice of yoga has been beneficial for both mind and body. In such a practice, yoga is not merely a form of exercise, but a holistic vehicle for personal transformation. I have also found similar effects by engaging in other types of movement practice mindfully and with consistency whether Qigong, Capoeira, Baguazhang, and so on.

Broken pots
I also try to remember that my efforts to live mindfully will be imperfect. I remind myself of the Ewe proverb which states “Tɔmedela ye gba na ze,” and translates into English as “Only the one who kindly accepts to fetch water may accidentally break the pot.” Hence it is in the practice of a thing where one’s errors are expressed. Were I too eschew any attempt at mental and emotional discipline, my discipline could not be found wanting, for it would not exist!

This also reflects an idea expounded by Shunryu Suzuku in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, when he wrote, “The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is, itself, enlightenment.” This means that enlightenment as a type of transcendence over one’s mental fetters is not a place or destination, but a process. Thus it is in the doing that we become that which we seek to become. It is only in the doing that errors related to such actions can be made.

Given this, I try not to be too hard on myself when frustration or anger get the better of me. I evaluate my actions, attempt to make amends with anyone who was ill-affected by my actions, and devise a means to prevent a recurrence of such acts in the future.

Righteous anger
In closing, I do not believe that anger is inherently problematic. As Mwalimu Baruti writes in his book Iwa: A Warrior’s Character, anger can be purposeful, especially when it is “correctly directed against” those inimical to one’s well-being or the well-being of one’s loved one, one’s people, and so on. Hence anger, like all emotions has its place. The key is to be guided by wisdom, rather than the impetuousness of anger.

Extremist violence in the US: A brief discussion of its cultural bases

Some people have myopically suggested that right-wing violence extremism in the US are consequences of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. In truth, the former has been born of many cultural forces. Below I note some of these, along with some brief remarks.

White supremacist ideologies are a part of the US’s cultural heritage
It is important to recall that the United States is a settler colony that established its territorial basis via warfare and the subjugation of Native American populations. It also established its economy via the exploitation of enslaved Africans. Both of these processes necessitated the formulation of cultural instruments wherein these processes could be achieved with maximum effect. Such instruments consisted of laws, economic institutions, technologies, and processes of socialization focused on both sustaining and optimizing oppression. What is most important here is that the inception of these processes—colonization and slavery—has only been counterbalanced by their maintenance by ongoing acts of violence and oppression. Hence, as John Henrik Clarke has told us, “History is a current event.”

The normalization of violence as a political instrument
While the above entails this, it is important to remember that political violence is not alien to the United States. Not only did this country fight a Civil War that resulted in close to a million deaths, but that state and private entities have also used violence against labor activism, civil rights activism, anti-war activism, police reform activism, and so on are testament to political violence’s recurring place in American public life. Hence, violence is an indelible part of the US’s social fabric. Acts of political violence are therefore not aberrant, but germane to the expression of power in the American political system. Do recall that the US is one of the most violent countries on Earth, so much so that it exports violence abroad in the forms war, military coups, and assassinations.

The dislocations of deindustrialization and globalization
The processes of economic transformation of the late 20th Century have produced profound contradictions in American life that have contributed towards the exacerbation of pre-existing challenges. Consider that the Civil Rights Movement sought to achieve the structural assimilation of African Americans and other racialized and oppressed groups within the dominant political economy of US society. In a context of economic expansion and prosperity, such demands might appear feasible. How do such demands appear in contexts of economic contraction or dislocation, as has been the case for much of the last fifty years? Hence, the processes of deindustrialization and globalization have not only destabilized the US’s working classes, but have also contributed greatly to a cultural malaise which pervades this society best described by Jacob H. Carruthers as “fundamental alienation”. The resulting dislocations have created or expanded interstices wherein a variety of ideologies—some atomistic, some reactionary, but all based on alienation to varying degrees—might thrive and flourish.

A willingness of politicians to capitalize upon these social tensions for short-term gains
The American political system, much like its economic system, is driven by the inescapable myopia of short-term thinking. Just as corporations act on the basis of achieving profits in the short-term. American politicians strive towards the goal of electoral victories, which also are short-term aspirations. Such actions necessarily wed them to the political currents of the day. Whether these currents are corrosive to the society is secondary to their utilitarian expediency. Hence, the courting of reactionary movements and ideologies is seen as a necessary end, which also serves to facilitate the increased normalization of extremist rhetoric in American political life.

It should be noted that this “extremist rhetoric” is not anathema to the political ethos of the US, as again, we are speaking of a settler-colony born of enslavement which has institutionalized the application of coercive control as a means of sustaining its social order. Thus, we are already dealing with an extreme reality, one however that in other moments, the rhetoric of politicians might seek to conceal rather than acknowledge or champion.

The pervasive alienation of American culture
Alienation in this milieu acts as a cultural foundation of violence and is expressed in many facets of American culture. The culture of mass-consumption, which promises eternal happiness if only we would spend, tune-in, or act to satiate the insatiable stream of artificial desires constantly foisted upon us is not the source of pervasive alienation in this country, but it is an expression of it. We live within a society that works laboriously to deny people’s consciousness of who they are and of the nature of reality. We are told by entertainers to be happy while climate change imperils our survival as a species, to watch the latest sporting event while African people’s lives continue to be destroyed by the US’s criminal justice system, to binge watch our favorite television shows while women and children are sexually assaulted and families destroyed in detention centers for undocumented immigrants, and to camp out for Black Friday sales while tens of millions lack health care, millions are unemployed, and hundreds of thousands are homeless.

Further, we are told that our idiosyncratic identities are the highest expressions of ourselves and thus should form the basis of personal and political existence. Yet we live in a society wherein systems of oppression cannot be critically analyzed or dismembered on such a conceptual basis. Malcolm X was clear that his personal identity as a Muslim, though spiritually meaningful, was not sufficient to inform either African people’s struggle for sovereignty or the destruction of imperialist/white supremacist systems. He acknowledge that his spirituality provided a social ethic for the transformation of the humanity of African people, but that it was not expressive of the totality of the political and economic transformation that African people or the world needed.

Herein, we confront the inevitable finitude or limitations of personal identity and the politicization of such identities in a world where systems of power have been forged on the basis of capitalism and white supremacy. In such a context, the fetishization of personal identities, the obsessive and incessant mining of signifiers of idiosyncratic novelty are too bases of alienation, as they cannot “cure what ails us,” which in this case are the bases of fundamental alienation.

In closing, though the current American president has been seen as the epicenter of America’s extremism of late, we would do well to remember that he has merely re-articulated and re-presented such tendencies. He has been an important signifier of our times and the more pervasive social unraveling characteristic of it. The cultural vectors of such disintegration will not dissipate with a change in the presidency, nor will the alienation that is at the heart of US society be undone by any actions of the electorate. These challenges, along with their specific manifestations born of capitalism and white supremacy, will not be satisfied by a retreat into ideologies that enshrine the idiosyncratic or the ever-fashionable politics of atomization which seek to divide African people against themselves on the flimsy bases of nationality, ethnicity, gender, or social class. A more expansive vision is needed accompanied by a set of commitments to the transformation of reality, but most importantly, one must apprehend as clearly as possible the present reality and its inescapable moorings to the past.