Fixing Your Fire - 002 Anger | Advice On Reducing Anger
Anger Stemming From Water-of-Earth-of-Fire: A Loss of Energy Amidst Anger
With siyata d’shmaya, we continue here to learn about the element of fire and its resulting trait, anger. Previously, we discussed anger that stems from earth-of-earth-of-fire. Now we will discuss, with Hashem’s help, the anger stems from water-of-earth-of-fire.
As mentioned in the first chapter, water-of-earth-of-fire is when a person’s vitality (his chiyus) leaves him as he is angry. Our life-giving energy (our chiyus) enters us as we inhale and exhale, which is through our nose; in Hebrew, the nose is called “af”, which is another term for “anger”, as in the term “charon af” (lit. “wrath of the nostrils”). When a person is angry, he has “charon af”; his soul leaves him, as our Sages explain; and his life-giving energy leaves him with this.
Lessening Our Anger
The stronger the anger, the more a person loses his chiyus\vitality as he’s angry. The intensity of anger is not always the same each time, and therefore the loss of chiyus is not always on the same level. For this reason, in order to rectify anger that stems from water-of-earth-of-fire - which is when a person loses his vitality as he’s angry - the solution will lie in lessening the intensity of the anger.
The complete level of tikkun (rectification) will of course lie in uprooting anger itself, but long before a person reaches this complete level, he can still rectify his anger, when he lessens his anger. When a person realizes that getting angry makes him lose his chiyus, this can greatly aid him in avoiding anger, and this is a part of the rectification process of anger.
We will mention here several methods which can aid a person in lessening his anger, and they add to the solutions explained in the first chapter. However, these solutions are not only to be used specifically with regards to the kind of anger we are discussing this chapter. We will need to make use of these solutions when we discuss the other kinds of anger which we will discuss in later chapters, with siyata d’shmaya. Here we will try to present the roots of these matters.
Preparing Before The Anger
When a person knows beforehand that he will be in situations which will anger him, and he prepares beforehand, this can lessen the anger when it comes. For example, we know that in the winter, where Shabbos is earlier, Fridays are shorter and are much more stressful. Our anger is tested more frequently during these short Fridays when we are preparing for Shabbos. Therefore, we can prepare ourselves before these situations arise, by realizing that these situations will probably test our patience, and in this way, we experience much less anger when those stressful situations come.
We will soon explain how exactly we can prepare beforehand for these situations, but the first step is to simply prepare ourselves for these stressful situations and to be aware that these situations test our anger. In this way, we save ourselves from the surprising stress of these situations, and the intensity of the anger we feel will then be much less.
The way this works is because anger stems from fire, and fire has a jumpy nature, so if we ‘stave’ the fire from beforehand, the jumpy nature of fire will act restrained when the fire is eventually activated.
This is not merely a piece of advice that lessens anger. It is a solution that deals directly with the root of anger. The very essence of anger is that it is fueled by its jumpy and unrestrained nature, so if we manage to slow down the fire (by stabilizing it from beforehand), this will contradict the very nature of fire, and then the very ‘fire’ is prevented from getting sparked in the first place.
The idea is to stabilize the element of ‘fire’ before it is activated, because it is much harder to restrain fire while it is burning. Whereas the elements of earth and water are calmer elements to deal with, because earth and water do not move that much, the element of fire is jumpy by its very nature, so it is hard to restrain once it is activated. (If we analyze this further, this is actually due to the “wind” present in fire, which is the movement aspect of fire).
Therefore, if we restrain the ‘fire’ from beforehand [in our case, by preparing ourselves for the situations that anger us], the fire will then perform in a more delayed manner and it will not spread as much, decreasing the reach of the fire (This is called “tzimtzum”\narrowing).
Preventing the fire\anger from beforehand will not entirely uproot the anger when it comes, as we can see in what happens with most cases; but it will definitely weaken the extent of the anger.
Method 1: Don’t Think Or Talk About The Anger
Now we will discuss how we can deal with anger when we’re actually experiencing it.
When a person becomes angry, we can all recognize that there are two stages of the anger. The very first moment of anger is one stage, and the next stage is the anger that spreads from there. The more a person thinks about what’s angering him, the angrier he becomes, like a fire that is being blown at and spreading.
Therefore, in order to prevent the anger from getting worse, the first step (upon becoming aware of the reason that made him angry), is: do not continue to think about what has just happened, and do not express it verbally either. If you keep thinking or talking about what made you angry, this is like blowing wind upon a fire, and the anger will continue to burn and get worse.
Method 2 – Shifting The Focus
An additional advice to lessen anger as it comes is to employ the ability known as “hesech hadaas” – removing your mind from the current thoughts, and steering your thoughts in a different direction.
There are two ways how you can use hesech hadaas: one way is a positive use, and another way is in a more negative use (each of these can be helpful).
2A) “Positive” Hesech HaDaas
Using “positive” hesech hadaas is by keeping the focus of your mind on an inner, spiritual kind of thought which you find pleasant to think about, and connect yourself to that thought. In this way, you take your mind off what’s angering you and your mind is instead drawn towards a pleasant thought that you have prepared for yourself from beforehand.
2B) “Negative” Hesech HaDaas
An alternative way of how you can use hesech hadaas is to “switch evil for another kind of evil”, in our case, by leaving the anger mode and instead entering into a different negative character trait. This method was used by some of our Sages, but it contains a danger, as we will soon explain. An example of this method is that when a person is angry and he wants to calm the anger, by engaging in some kind of indulgence or desire that pulls him away from what’s he’s currently involved with, he stops thinking about his anger and he is instead immersed in fulfilling the desire.
Rav Dessler said that when he was a child and he had a hard time getting up for davening on Shabbos morning, he needed candies as an incentive to help get him up. He discovered that a negative middah (in this case, taavah\desire) can be used to over a different negative middah, laziness. As a child, he used his desire for the sweets overcame his laziness; so he used a negative middah to weaken a different negative middah.
Using this method of “switching evil for evil” can weaken the anger, when one gets busy with a different desire of his as he is angry. But the danger of it is that it awakens other negative character traits, and it might cause a person to further enlarge the negative character trait he is using. For example, in the example we gave, where one switches anger for desire, he gets involved with some kind of indulgence instead of being angry, and he might become gluttonous in the process.
Therefore, if one is using this method of “switching evil for evil”, he would need to pray to Hashem for special assistance that he not be harmed by using this method.
In Summary of the “Hesech HaDaas” Solution
In summary, we mentioned two different ways to apply hesech hadaas: to take your mind off the angry situation by thinking about a certain holy thought that you find pleasant to think about, or by indulging in something else, which steers the mind away from the anger.
One can also use hesech hadaas to think about anything else in particular that he wishes to think about it. However, this is not very feasible when one is very angry. This is because the anger is far more interesting to the person than some random thought about something else which is not particularly interesting to the person.
Therefore, in order to use hesech hadaas to deal with anger, it is recommended to prepare a certain thought that you like to think about, which will interest you more than the anger, and that is where you should steer your mind to when you are angry.
Method 3 – Pushing Off The Anger
Additionally, similar to what we discussed about using the trait of desire to disconnect the mind from anger, one can try another method that our Sages recommended: one can try putting off the anger for later.
If you try tell a person when he’s angry “Don’t be angry!” he might feel that this is too high of a level for him to be on. Therefore, the advice is to push off the anger for later. Usually the anger will subside in between, “slowing down” the jumpiness of the fire. Getting used to this method can greatly weaken one’s anger. By constantly interrupting the anger, the fire of the anger is not given a chance to build up its fuel.
Again, let us emphasize that this does not completely get rid of the anger. But it certainly lessens anger.
Method 4 – Weakening The Anger While You Are Angry
An additional method to weaken anger, which is a more subtle kind of exercise, is that one can try lessening his anger even as he’s angry. Although he may not succeed in totally restraining his anger, it still lessens the intensity of the anger, and therefore it is still helpful to lessen the anger somewhat.
So even when a person is very angry and he feels the anger burning in himself, he can still practice minimizing his feeling of anger as much as possible. Although he is still angry, he is still lessening the intensity of the anger, which is a worthwhile gain. The very act of trying to lessen the anger will certainly prevent the anger from getting too out of hand, and it will place some restraint on the anger, preventing it from spreading any further.
Method 5 – Contemplate The Verse “Remove Anger From Your Heart”
An additional method in lessening anger is based upon the advice of Rav Yisrael Salanter, who wrote that when a person wants to fix a particular negative trait, he should study the parts of Torah that explain that character trait, and even more so, he should also contemplate Torah verses that speak about the character trait.
With regards to our subject, uprooting anger, one can keep reviewing the verse, "הסר הכעס מלבך", “Remove anger from your heart”.
Besides for the fact that this is a segulah (a spiritual charm\remedy) to chip away at anger, it is essentially a spiritual light that becomes lit within one’s own inner world as he says the words of the Torah which disparage anger; it is the light of Torah that has been ignited within him which is weakening the anger.
It is based upon the concept of “Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world”. Hashem has placed into the Torah a spiritual light which enables us to create new possibilities, when we tap into the Torah’s power; specifically, when we review and contemplate the particular verses in the Torah that speak about character refinement.
When one reviews this verse of the Torah, “Remove anger from your heart”, and he reviews it 10 and 20 times and more, he taps into the Torah’s light and he can be improved by it. The letters of the holy Torah that he is studying and verbalizing contain the spiritual light that can affect him, and by reviewing this verse of Torah again and again, one can weaken his anger.
Method 6 – Judge The Other Favorably
An additional method to weaken anger, which is a more subtle method to use, is “dan l’kaf zechus” – judging the other favorably.
(There are generally three situations of anger. One kind of anger is where a person gets angry at another, another kind of anger is where a person is angry at himself, and another kind of anger is when one is angry at Hashem, chas v’shalom (which borderlines on heresy). In most cases of anger, a person’s anger is directed at others. That being the case, one of the ways to lessen anger is to judge others favorably.)
However, this method will not always be practical, because if the anger is very strong, it is hard to judge the other favorably, and the smaller the anger, the easier it is to judge another favorably. The power to judge others favorably is an ability of our rational intellect, but anger stems from the element of fire, which is an emotional aspect. Therefore, judging others favorably doesn’t work in most situations of anger, because usually the strong emotion of the anger overpowers the intellect’s ability to rationalize.
In addition, the Sages state that when the yetzer hora (evil inclination) is present, there is no mention of the yetzer tov (the good inclination), thus, when a person is angry, his yetzer hora is dominating, so it is very difficult for one to gain control over his emotions. Most people, even when they are calm, are not that much in control over their rational mind to the point that their mind can dominate their emotions; and surely when most people are angry, they have difficulty in controlling their intense emotions. Therefore, it is difficult to judge others favorably when one is angry.
The only exceptions to this are: (1) Those who can maintain extraordinary self-control over their emotions in all situations, (2) If the person’s anger was not that intense to begin with, (3) People who are regularly involved and immersed in the avodah of judging others favorably and they apply it to all areas of their life.
Such people are able to judge others favorably even when they are angry at others, but most people are not any of the above three categories, and therefore, it is very difficult and impractical for most people to try to judge others favorably while they are angry.
Method 7 - Ahavas Yisrael
Another method that can be used to lessen anger is to awaken one’s ahavas Yisrael (love for the Jewish people). The more a person has revealed ahavas Yisrael to all Jews (and this means that he feels a deep connection in his soul to all Jews, with no exceptions), the less angry he will be others, even when he is actually angry. Even if his anger is awakened at another, his love will be reawakened with it, and the love will overcome the anger.
To illustrate why this works, we see that when children anger their parents, the parent is angry, but soon after his love for the child is reawakened, and the love makes him overcome the anger. This is true even when the child has greatly angered the parent, because love has the power to weaken anger.
Therefore, the more a person loves other Jews, before he is angered by them, the more he will be able to overcome his anger at others, when he gets angry.
But it won’t be practical to start having ahavas Yisrael when you are angry. The ahavas Yisrael has to already be developed from beforehand, in order for the ahavas Yisrael to overcome the anger when the anger comes. It will be almost pointless to try to begin loving the other person when you are angry; you cannot suddenly have a change of heart, as your heart is burning with anger. But if you have developed a love for him from beforehand, it is much easier to awaken love towards him when he angers you, because it will already be in place.
It is in fact difficult for a person to reach true ahavas Yisrael to others in the first place. Ahavas Yisrael is reached when a person feels deeply and truly that his soul is part and parcel with all other Jewish souls and he realizes that “Hashem, the Torah, and Yisrael are one.” Although a Jew can know of this lofty concept, that doesn’t mean that he has reached it, because this recognition can still be very distant from being felt in the heart, and it is certainly very hard to think of when a person is angry at another person.
But if a person has worked on his Ahavas Yisrael before he is angry, there is a much higher chance that he will be able to lessen his anger when he is angry at someone.
Method 8 - Emunah
An additional method to weaken anger, which is very clear to all, is to awaken emunah (belief in Hashem’s Divine Providence).
When Dovid HaMelech was hailed with curses by Shimi ben Geira, he did not retaliate, and when others wanted to attack him for it, he did not allow them, and he said, “It is Hashem who told him to curse.” Anger at another person, in all cases, is always rooted in a lack of emunah that this happened due to Hashem’s will.
When a person is angry at Hashem, there it is obvious that he needs to rectify this with emunah. (When anger is directed at oneself, this is a separate topic which we will explain later). But anger is usually directed at others. The stronger a person’s emunah, the more he can recognize that nobody else can harm him unless Hashem has decreed that it happen. It is not “this” person or “that” person who has hurt you; it is Hashem’s will that it happened. The more you have this emunah, the less angry you will be at the person who has harmed you. The depth of emunah is to see Hashem as the sole Performer behind every action and every person your encounter.
So the more a person lives with emunah, the weaker his anger will be. This does not mean that he will never get angry anymore. It means that when he gets angry, the anger will be lessened, to a prominent and noticeable degree. The more a person has worked on his emunah from beforehand, the easier it will be to summon forth emunah when one is angry.
The depth of emunah does not mean simply that Hashem does everything. Hashem certainly does everything, and everything He does is good, but the power of emunah is essentially to make use a spiritual light, which awaken the true inner ratzon (will) of the soul which only desires Hashem’s will – even when one is angry.
Thus, emunah rectifies the faculty of ratzon in the soul, because it enables a person to feel that he should want what Hashem wants; it enables a bittul (nullification) of one’s personal ratzon, in favor of Hashem’s ratzon.
Emunah fixes anger at its root. From all of the methods in weakening anger, the root method in getting rid of anger is to use the power of emunah. In the previous chapter, we explained that the stronger one’s personal ratzon, the stronger the anger will be when the ratzon is attacked. But if one has the ability to nullify his ratzon in favor of Hashem’s will, the anger is weakened before it even surfaces. When something happens that doesn’t go his way, the person who has developed strong emunah is able to awaken his understanding of the truth that this is Hashem’s will.
Thus, the depth of using emunah to fix anger does not simply mean that now that I am angry, “I must remind myself that Hashem has caused this to happen.” That would imply that I am still angry, but I have no choice but to believe that it’s all from Hashem, without actually nullifying my own ratzon to Hashem. Instead, the more inner attitude is that my own ratzon is nullified to the ratzon of Hashem, therefore my very “I” doesn’t want anything other than what Hashem wants. The inner attitude of emunah is that if Hashem wanted something to happen, then I must want it to, for my ratzon is nullified to His ratzon.
These are not merely superficial words. If one has truly worked on his emunah, the spiritual light of the emunah will have directly affected the ratzon in the soul, and then a person’s ratzon will feel nullified to the ratzon of Hashem.
Defining The Concept of “Nullifying The Will”
However, this is a power that contains a danger, when it is used in the wrong place. There are people who regularly use the power of emunah in this way, always reminding themselves that they must nullify their ratzon to Hashem’s will, but then they despair on their entire life. They keep nullifying their ratzon, which eventually destroys their ratzon altogether, so they give up on ever attaining anything they want in their life, and they give up on their life altogether.
Therefore, we need to really clarify what it means to nullify one’s ratzon. Nullifying your ratzon means that you want what Hashem wants. It is a very subtle point.
If bittul haratzon means that I must simply give up whatever I want because I know that Hashem wants otherwise, that would mean that if I miss the bus in the morning and I come late to Kolel, I must want what Hashem wants, and since Hashem wanted me to miss this bus for some reason, it must mean that it was His will that I should also lose time from Torah learning. With this attitude, a person would come to be lax with his time for learning Torah.
Bittul haratzon, when not understood properly, can cause a person to despair on reaching any of his retzonos, even his retzonos that are holy and proper. Therefore, bittul haratzon doesn’t mean that I don’t want my ratzon if Hashem willed otherwise. It means that my ratzon becomes aligned with Hashem’s will, and now this is what I want. It is essentially to awaken the inner will of the soul, which is: “Retzoinenu Laasos Retzoncha”, “It is our will to do Your will.”
Nullifying one’s will for Hashem’s will therefore does not mean that I don’t want my ratzon anymore; it means that I want what Hashem wants. This is what is meant by “Chaim b’retzono”, “Life according to His will.”
Thus, emunah enables a person to nullify his retzonos for Hashem and to reach the inner and holy ratzon, which is “Retzoinenu Laasos Retzoncha”. This is the deepest method to prevent and rectify anger. We have listed thus far several methods (in order of lower level to higher level), and this method, emunah\bittul haratzon, is the highest and the most complete rectification of anger.
These Methods Are Applicable To All Kinds of Anger
Depending on which method a person uses to weaken his anger, to that degree will he regain the chiyus\vitality that he has lost as he was angry.
As mentioned before, all of these methods explained here are not uniquely applicable to the subject we are discussing, which is anger that stems from water-of-earth-of-fire (a loss of vitality when one is angry), for these are all methods that can be used to solve all kinds of anger. We mentioned all of these methods here with regards to anger that stems from water-of-earth-of-fire only because they are directly relevant to this kind of anger, but they can be applied to all kinds of anger.
Regaining Your Lost Vitality: Becoming Aware Of What Gives You Vitality
Now let’s deal with the anger that stems uniquely from water-of-earth-of-fire, the subject of this chapter, which is when anger results in a loss of chiyus\vitality. A person can use any of the methods listed above or he can use a few of them at once (but he definitely should not try to use all of them at once, because this is unrealistic), but either way, there is always a loss of vitality as a person is angry, whether he has succeeded in lessening the anger or not.
The solution to this is to become clear about one’s source of chiyus\vitality. One must know: “What provides me with vitality? From where do I get my chiyus from?”
After one has gotten angry and he senses a loss of his chiyus, now that he is aware of it, he should awaken in himself a reason to give himself chiyus. But one has to know what gives him chiyus, in order to awaken it.
If one merits it, he gets his chiyus in life from d’veykus in Hashem, from learning Torah. We say of the words of Torah “for they are our life”, the Torah is the ultimate source of vitality in our life, but this is only to those who merit it. One has to know clearly of what really gives him chiyus in his life and then awaken that chiyus, so that he can regain the chiyus he has lost when has gotten angry.
The less clear a person is about what gives him chiyus in his life, he will not be able to regain his lost vitality when he is angry. The more a person is living with clarity towards his life, he is clearer about what gives him vitality, when his anger is awakened and he feels like he has dried up from vitality, he has a source to go back to re-awaken his vitality.
Similar to this method is another method we mentioned earlier, which is to get involved with another character trait that provides a person with vitality, such as desire. When a person becomes involved with a particular desire, this can provide him with vitality, and then he can then regain the vitality he lost when he was angry. However, we mentioned earlier that this method contains a danger, as it might awaken other negative character traits in the soul.
Sometimes a person will need to make use of this solution when his nefesh habehaimis dominates and he is not on the level of implementing any spiritual solutions. But even when this solution is used, it needs to be used sensibly, and one will need to pray to Hashem for assistance. Whenever we involve ourselves in something that is “permissible” but it is not holy, we need special assistance from Hashem to succeed with it and not have a spiritual fall, and thus we need to pray to Hashem for assistance, if we are using this solution.
The main source of chiyus\vitality that we need, in order to regain the lost vitality that results from anger, is to derive our chiyus from “Hashem, the Torah, and Yisrael are one.” When our main chiyus in life is coming from being connected with Hashem’s Torah, we will then have a chiyus to return to even after we have lost our chiyus from getting angry. In that way, even when we fall into anger, the anger becomes a catalyst for spiritual growth, and we ascend from the fall.
This will not mean that the anger has been completely rectified. There is still more inner work to be done on uprooting anger in general, but at least we will regain our lost vitality that results from anger and to become alive again with chiyus; it is a degree of the revival of the dead.
When we utilize our situations of anger in this way, it becomes a “descent for the purpose of ascent” (yeridah l’tzorech aliyah). It is written, “Because I have fallen, I have risen”, and, similarly, “A righteous one falls seven times, and rises.”Through our failures, where we fall, we are presented with opportunities to rise higher than even before.