The Luxury of Anger

According to the thinking of many of the swordsmen of old Japan, there were four basic “sicknesses” to which the martial artist could fall victim. The sicknesses are fear, doubt, worry, and surprise. Many of the spiritual elements and much of the psychological training in the budo now, as then, has been directed at overcoming or preventing these illnesses. To that list of four I think it might be wise to add one more affliction that is just as deadly and insidious as the other four. To that list I would add the sickness of anger.

“A man is like steel,” goes a Japanese proverb (and the advice applies equally well to women, I hasten to add); “once he loses his temper he is worthless.” My sensei had a different, rather more direct way of expressing the same sentiment. He brought it to my attention one afternoon when he was teaching me out in a meadow below an old cemetery near his home. We were practicing with wooden swords. At that time in my training with him I was experiencing a phenomenon every serious budoka has encountered at one point or another. I was forgetting the kata. I had reached a stage of learning where sections of the different kata I had been taught were getting muddled in my mind. The movements of different kata were running together. Even more infuriating, during the execution of the sequence of a particular kata all of a sudden I would draw a blank. Some of these movements I had been doing regularly for more than a year or two, and suddenly, to my tremendous frustration, they were gone, vanished from my brain. My body would stop as if my nerves and muscles had short-circuited. It was maddening. It was especially hard to bear for someone like me who has a pathetically low frustration level. It was even worse because when I stalled, Sensei, who was acting as my opponent in the kata, would simply stand there, expressionless, waiting for me to execute a technique I could not for the life of me produce.

Shimatta zo!” I finally snapped in exasperation at my own stupidity.

Sensei’s response was so fast it was completed, over, long before I realized it had started, in less time than it took me to complete the interjection. He snapped his wooden sword against mine and flicked it over, using the powerful force of his hips, in an action that took my weapon right out of my hands. My sword wheeled over in the air a few times and bounced off the ground. Simultaneously, I was left with the distinct sensation that my wrists had just been yanked off of my forearms.

“Anger is a luxury,” he said quietly. “One that you cannot afford.”

Anger as a luxury item. That is a curious way of thinking about that emotion, isn’t it? But, as with most of the advice my various sensei gave me right after they’d captured my attention in similar and equally painful ways, it is worth thinking about.

Anger is a luxury because it allows us to focus our attention on only one thing: ourselves. Remember back to the last time you stubbed your toe or lost your keys or wanted to stomp that gas pedal right through the floorboards when the car wouldn’t start? At such moments nothing else in the world was on your mind but your immediate problem. Anger, in that sense, is very much like your mind taking a little vacation. When you take a vacation, you have the luxury of going for a swim or a hike, reading a book loafing around all day if you like. Anger may not be quite so enjoyable (nor does it include the healthy benefits of a vacation), although few would deny that it is a satisfying way to “let off steam” when we are really irritated, just as I did with my imprecation out in the meadow when I couldn’t remember the kata.

When I lost my temper I indulged myself. I focused on my problem, forgetting all about my opponent. On the battlefield, the place where those kata were intended to be implemented, that kind of self-indulgence could have cost me my life. As a budoka, the price I would have to pay for the luxury of getting angry was too dear.

Sometimes we may wish to believe that anger “pumps us up.” If the goal is simple enough, maybe that is the case. If I have to kick down a door, get me angry enough and I will probably be able to do it. But the physical, combative skills of a martial art are not simple. One must be aware of distance, timing, the actions and reactions of an opponent, the possibility of encountering more than one attacker, and so on. In such a complex situation, anger has no business.

Another belief about anger–and we see this quite often in films and other forms of dramatic entertainment–is that it can motivate us to be brave under situations of great stress. Again, in some limited instances, this may be so. But depending on anger as a source of energy can have some serious consequences over time. Anger involves the adrenal glands in the body. This may not be the most scientific explanation, but the adrenals squirt their juices into us in moments of stress or danger or anger. What follows is a complex process, but the upshot is that blood pressure, heart rate, respiration–all these functions go into a quick overdrive. It is as though the body is a family station wagon, one that has not been started in a while, which is suddenly turned over, revved with the pedal to the floor, and then driven as fast as it can go, all in a matter of seconds. If there is an emergency and you have got to go somewhere fast, it is nice to have transportation that can get you there. If you try that with your car on a regular basis, though, it will not be long before the engine and transmission are in trouble.

Those whose professions depend on violent or dangerous encounters–soldiers, policemen, and firefighters, for instance–soon learn of the negative consequences of depending on an adrenaline-fueled anger to meet these situations. The body can handle occasional bursts of anger, but when anger becomes a conditioned response to stress, cardiac surgeons start scrubbing up. As a species, we have not evolved, chemically or emotionally, to remain healthy under this kind of stress. No more than the family wagon was designed to be cranked over and raced at full throttle when the engine is cold. (The Chinese, incidentally, noted long ago some of the more subtle problems we encounter when we are too angry too often. Taoist medical texts from centuries past refer to this as an imbalance of “fire” chi, or ki as we would put it in Japanese, and many forms of tai chi chuan and chi kung practice provide special exercises to rid the body of this excess energy.)

Anger wastes energy indiscriminately, usually at a time when we need to preserve energy and use it to maximum benefit. It focuses concentration very narrowly in moments when we need to be more cognizant of what is going on around us. It robs us of self-control precisely when we most need to be in control of ourselves. It would be idealistic to hope that through training we could completely eliminate the anger that is sometimes within us. In my own case, I don’t hold out much hope of that happening. But if our budo training cannot eliminate our anger, it can teach us to recognize what our anger is really all about, and to see that more often than not it is an emotion that we can ill afford to indulge.

Copyright ©2000 Dave Lowry. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in Moving Toward Stillness, 2000.