In Traditional Chinese Medicine there is a particular emotion associated with each of the five elements. These are:
- Joy/Excitement for the Fire element
- Anxiousness/Pensiveness for the Earth element
- Grief/Sadness for the Metal element
- Fear for the Water element
- Anger for the Wood element
Of all these emotions, I truly believe that anger is the most challenging and toxic. Because of this, I think it is important to explore anger a little more deeply – what it is and how to deal with it.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said that anger is healthy and takes ten seconds to express. It’s like steam coming out of a kettle and when the temperature hits boiling, it turns off. If it lasts longer than that and we cannot switch it off, then it has morphed into something quite different. This might be annoyance, frustration, or hostility – all of which can easily become habitual responses. Beneath the annoyance, frustration, and hostility there can be a profound sense of ‘nothing ever works for me’ or other similar negative self-talk.
Have you ever seen the branch of a tree that looks as if it is going in one direction and then all of a sudden seems to grow in a new direction? A healthy Wood element has that capacity – to change direction and continue to flourish. When it bumps up against an obstacle like the branch of another tree, the innate intelligence of Purpose and Survival kicks in and the branch will find a way to continue growing.
The Buddha said, “You will not be punished for your anger. You will be punished by your anger.” He also said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
Another unknown wise man was asked what anger is and he replied, “It is a punishment we give to ourselves for somebody else’s mistake.” People who have the ability to see energy fields can see all the fiery redness and confusion in the aura of someone who is angry. And of course, physiologically there is an increase in heart rate, adrenaline, and cortisol production – all of which can be precursors to serious physical ailments.
Not only are we harming ourselves if we get out of bed angry on a daily basis, we may also deeply hurt beings who we love.
There was once a small child who had a very bad temper, so his father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he had to hammer a nail into the fence. The first day, the boy hammered 37 nails into the fence! Over the next few weeks the boy gradually began to gain more control over his temper. However, when the bag of nails was empty, his father said, “You have done well, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. Just as when you say things in anger, your words leave a scar. No matter how many times you say you are sorry, the scar will still be there.”
Apart from harming ourselves and others with our anger, there is also the possibility that anger is telling us something about the quality of our life and whether or not we are on purpose and living our dharma. Anger can tell us that we are in the wrong job, or the wrong relationship, and once we recognize this, then we can make a new choice about how to move forward. And the power to make choices is another attribute of a healthy Wood element.
When I was little we had a principle by which to live: “Never let the sun go down on your anger.” I did not know where it was from, but it was a rule my brothers and I lived by. We always kissed and made up before we went to bed. By doing so, our caring and connection was restored and the trivialities of our conflict long forgotten by the next morning.
Now as an adult, my understanding of this quote is:
- We never know when this moment will be the last moment and we will not have another opportunity to apologize or to ‘kiss and make up’
- Holding on to anger is a sure way to harm ourselves and block the magnificent expression of who we are and who we can be
In retrospect, and with years of clinical experience witnessing the damage that long-held anger does to our Body, Mind and Spirit, I am grateful that I learned that anger is and can be just a fleeting moment of recognition that I am off track, and that only I can get myself back on track by making new choices.