May 22, 2012

In Defense of Anger—or, Life Lessons from the Incredible Hulk.

Whether it’s yoga, meditation, mushroom hunting, scotch or hockey, spiritual pursuits can be excellent for managing suffering.

We all want to get away from uncomfortable emotions. So we use these spiritual pursuits to go numb.

I can at least speak for myself here, and I’ve definitely used my yoga to keep the demons at bay. Sometimes it’s in a healthy way, and sometimes it’s because I need someone to take me through a powerful vinyasa so I don’t have time to think about the obsessive ruminations in my head—and don’t take that away from me or anything, but I have noticed something interesting about my yogic addiction: when I don’t do it for a while, I start getting angry.

Sometimes, when I’m really angry, my yoga doesn’t even work to calm me down. It makes me feel stronger, clearer, more powerful, more willing to stand up for myself. Angrier.

Anger is a really uncomfortable emotion, and a lot of the time, it’s really not very useful. It makes you crazy and reactive and sometimes you say the wrong thing. Sure.

But I think there’s an upside to anger.

Maybe keeping my anger at bay all the time is just a convenient way of ignoring the places in my life where I feel powerless. Maybe I feel powerless because I live in a culture that tells me I’m not allowed to be angry.

Let’s take, for example, the Incredible Hulk. I’m going to go ahead and assume we’ve all seen The Avengers by this point, but I’ll point out this particular scene, lovingly edited by someone on YouTube to draw out the salient points:


Bruce Banner is a mild-mannered scientist. Calm, collected, rational, intelligent: everything we ask a modern man to be. But deep inside, there’s “the other guy,” a green monster who appears anytime Banner’s sympathetic nervous system gets into fight-or-flight mode: when he gets angry. Banner tries valiantly to suppress this aspect of himself and deeply wishes it wasn’t there. “The other guy” is not responsible for manners or social niceties. He just acts.

I’ll admit, there is something about watching the Hulk destroy cruel and egotistical Loki in this scene that is incredibly gratifying. So gratifying that there were several other YouTube videos that had been edited so that the part where Hulk smashes Loki is on repeat for five full minutes.

I think the reason this scene is so wonderfully satisfying is that everyone has an “other guy” living inside us that we try desperately to keep at bay. We are all told that it’s not okay to react to anything negatively, that it’s not okay to feel primal uncomfortable emotions or worse, to display them. Instead, we internalize conflict and assume that when someone is cruel to us, we’ve done something wrong and that it’s all our fault because we deserve to be treated that way.

We are bad, bad humans. Bad feelings!

I think the tendency to internalize cruelty masquerades within a yogic lifestyle as “compassion.” Many people think that because they are not standing up for themselves, they have won the war against their inner “other guy.” If we don’t think critically about what yoga philosophy is telling us, we start hearing it wrong:

Just stay quiet, stay calm. Breathe. Relax. Open your heart. Trust us. Don’t worry little sheep. Go to sleep. Big Brother will take care of you.

Doesn’t it remind you of when Derek Zoolander is getting hypnotized?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWFoCdHypd8&feature=related This is, of course, a huge pile of bullsh*t, and there’s nothing ‘yogic’ about it. Compassion doesn’t mean letting people treat you badly. Sometimes compassion means speaking up and telling someone they can’t treat you that way because hey, maybe they didn’t know. Maybe it’s a good idea to help people understand that you are not a little sheep. Perhaps they need to know there are more goats around them than they think.

Well, I’ve gotten tired of beating myself up for feeling hurt. I started beating up my pillows and writing articles about the Hulk instead. Giving my anger a chance to speak rather than swallowing it has shown me its amazing ability to burn right through the insecure crap that confuses your instincts and what you know in your heart to be true.

I refer you back to the above clip: Loki tells the Hulk that he is an ugly, stupid monster and that he, Loki, is a God who may not be trifled with. Hulk doesn’t even hear that shit. The Hulk is so connected to his primal instincts that there is no freaking way Loki can emotionally manipulate him into backing off. He just beats the self-righteousness right out of the puny god.

I’m not advocating that we lead our lives with anger or even react to it in the moment—it’s probably not a good idea to beat the daylights out of anyone, at any time. Yet, if we allow our anger to talk to us, it may decode some of our social programming. It can help us to see if something is wrong and what we can do about it.

Connecting to our primal “no” responses can teach us a deep kind of clarity.

It becomes clear, for example, that it doesn’t matter what other people think of you. You no longer ‘need’ that partner who is constantly telling you that you should lose weight or they won’t love you anymore. You don’t care if you get fired for standing up for yourself because you don’t want a job where you are treated with disrespect. You can see who has power over you, and who doesn’t, and your primal “other guy” can teach you exactly what you are capable of. Your anger can be a true source of power, especially when it is channeled it through intelligence, compassion and respect for ourselves and others.

So the next time you feel yourself getting consumed by the fire of anger, sit with it, and see what it burns away. Move it through your body, direct it at any imaginary or inanimate object that works for you, but remember what it taught you. Then go tell those puny gods who’s got power over you.

And you’ll remember that it’s not them. It’s you.


Editor: Brianna Bemel

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