“Getting angry with an angry person is like pouring salt on an open wound.”
The first time I heard my Guru, Amma, say this, I felt it referred to how a negative reaction only served to engender a more wrathful outrage on the part of the perpetrator.
As with all teachings of Masters of Amma’s caliber, even the simplest messages contain deeper levels of meaning.
Recently, a friend asked me advice on how to deal with an angry person without reacting with anger. The content below stems mostly from my spontaneous response to her request.
When I first joined Amma’s ashram around twenty-five years ago, I recognized some repressed rage issues within myself. It was surprising, as no one would have thought me an angry person. I was usually described as being sweet. With the help of Amma’s guiding grace, I gradually worked through hidden rage and discovered the roots beneath it: hidden hurt. It’s during those first few years that this straightforward saying revealed a deeper meaning: the source of rage stems from psychological wounds from the past. The only way to get rid of anger is to uproot those wounds by bringing subconscious influences into the light of awareness.
The next stage is forgiveness, which leads to acceptance.
Through practice and reflection, we gradually learn to detach from situations and to refrain from reacting externally. This is ‘the art of response’ Amma always teaches.
A later stage is to not react internally either (which is much tougher), and this stage has numerous peaks and valleys.
The ideal final stage is to never identify with the past, and to live fully in the present moment (each new ‘now’) in a state of openness and joy.
Defusing Anger with Love
But I digress. The point was about anger–and the point of mentioning the source of anger also provides the key to its remedy: compassion.
Once we do inner work on ourselves and our issues, it becomes easier to respond spontaneously when others, who have yet to process past pain, throw negative reactions in our direction. Recognizing and treating root-wounds in the psyche generates a by-product of compassion: we understand that a person reacting negatively is ruled by deep emotions and thus suffers intensely.
Practicing the art of response (sometimes with success), I discovered that if one does not react inwardly, and holds people in a compassionate light, they sense this and it has the potential to disconnect their anger-wires.
Angry people dwell in a love-starved state. They tend to provoke strong reactions and then feed off the resulting energy. That’s one reason we feel drained after an altercation. The other reason is because we expend tremendous life-force energy through our own anger.
Once we overcome our own anger issues, we face the challenge of not reacting defensively to negative provocation. If we do react defensively, we give away our energy. Energy-draining becomes like junk food for an angry person’s ego.
However, if we respond with pure love, that person’s real craving is fulfilled.
A Personal Vignette
I recall an unforgettable incident that occurred over two decades ago. I had been in New York, visiting my parents. I had lost my passport and wallet two days prior to my flight to India, so I called the passport agency. The manager assured me I could still get a replacement passport, even without a formal ID, if I had my mom with me to vouch for who I am, and if I happened to have a high school yearbook that had both my handwritten signature printed with my name and a photograph. Thankfully, I did. The kind manager also gave me a helpful tip that we must arrive in the early morning (like 6 am) because people started lining up that early so they’d be in the front of the line when the office opened at 8.
At 6:20 am, there were already about forty people ahead of us in the line spreading down the sidewalk outside the passport agency. At 8 am, the doors opened and everyone had to get ‘screened’ by an agent in the first entrance lobby before being allowed into the main area to an actual queue. The agent was to make sure each person had the required documents for his or her intended purpose. The agent, a huge, strongly built black man, whose face scowled with furrowed brows, looked intimidating, even from afar.
After waiting almost half an hour, it was our turn to approach him.
“What are you here for?” he shouted.
“For a replacement passport. I don’t have ID but-“
“Go get ID and come back,’ he barked.
“But the manager said-“
The harried New Yorkers behind us nudged us aside as my mom and I exchanged wide-eyed glances. I leaned over and asked him if I could say something. He pause, glared at me and growled, ‘If you want to talk to me again, get in the back of the queue!”
My mom frowned and pulled me aside. “Well, darling, I’m not sure you’re going to make your flight to India at this rate.” She gave me a consoling look and added. “I don’t think this man will listen to you or let you inside.”
‘We can always get in the back of the line,” I said, a bit disheartened but still hopeful. I felt a strong intuitive prompting to keep trying. It took some convincing for my mom to agree, as the line had grown to about two hundred and fifty people.
“Mom, I have an idea.” I drew her towards the back of the line. “That man seems really angry and aggressive. We’re not the only ones he’s being mean to. He must really be miserable in his life. Let’s send him positive vibes and maybe he’ll lighten up.”
“I’m not sure it he’s going to be receptive, and it will take us a long time. Are you sure you want to try? Maybe you can postpone your departure date?”
“Let’s try for a while, at least, and see how the line goes and if his mood lightens. Besides, we may be helping all the people in this line to have a better day if his mood lightens. It can’t hurt and it will open our hearts, too. Let’s try this visualization technique I heard about. Just imagine your heart’s glowing like a sun and picture his heart as an ice cube. Now, send your rays to melt his ice.”
After a few minutes of beaming warm energy his way, my mom exclaimed, “Honey, I think it’s working!” She threw me an astonished smile. “Look at him…he actually smiled at that person! His whole face looks brighter.”
It took us about an hour to come to the first spot again, and the man’s demeanor had steadily improved, so we kept beaming. When the people in front of us stepped aside, he looked up and saw us. His expression was intensely apologetic and concerned. He stood up respectfully and said, “Ladies, I’m so sorry for how I shouted at you earlier. It was unfair.” His eyes welled up with tears and he continued, “You see, my wife told me this morning that she wants a divorce. I feel hurt and angry about it, and frustrated that she would not discuss it with me, ya know?” His gaze pleaded for understanding and forgiveness.
“That’s okay, sir. I’m so sorry about your wife. That’s a tough thing to digest.” I went on to explain about what the manager had told us and showed him my yearbook and signature. My mom kept smiling at him while I spoke.
“I treated you so badly. Now I want to make up for it.” He gestured towards the door to the main area. “Come with me, please.”
My mom and I exchanged another wide-eyed glance, this time laced with the thrill of joy and amazement. The man took us to the head of one of the main section’s many lines (which had at least sixty people in it) and told the agent there about our case. Then he added, “I’ve already approved her application. See, here’s her yearbook ID and that’s her mother.” He pointed at my mom, who remained wide eyed. “Go ahead and put the authorizing stamp on that right away. These ladies have waited long enough.” He smiled.
The agent did as instructed, throwing an amazed look of appreciation our way. I had the feeling he intuitively attributed our black friend’s transformation to a sunny disposition to us somehow. In my mind, it was healing power of unconditional love that was responsible for his shift.
Experiencing ‘zero separation’.
The light of compassion and acceptance has the power to melt anger and nourish the heart. In that moment of transcendence, we merge fully in the present and the presence of supreme love.
When we cultivate this attitude, it has the power to evoke the best in people.
Seeing the good in others, rather than their faults, is a first step–one that ultimately leads to perceiving the Divine Light in all beings, and reveals how the power of unconditional love can act through events with the light of healing awareness.
If we knew people’s whole stories, we’d refrain from judging them or ‘throwing salt on their wounds’; we’d offer them the psychological embrace of unconditional love and acceptance or ‘automatic forgiveness’.