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The Upside of Anger

Take a 2,600-year-old spiritual tradition from Asia and drop it into the blender of postmodern American consumer culture. Add science and multiculturalism to taste, and mix at Internet speed. This is 21st-Century Buddhism -- a weekly blog for the Interdependence Project. In this space, I'll talk about the issues that Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners face in our time and our place. I'll also bring in occasional posts from other guest bloggers who are contemplating these issues. If you have something to say, write to me at dhblogfeedback (at) gmail (dot) com.



Episode 009:

The Upside of Anger

In Mahayana Buddhism’s extensive teachings on how to work with the kleshas, or destructive emotions, anger often seems to get the lion’s share of attention. There is good reason for this: of all our emotional demons, anger is the most destructive. One brief flash of strong anger, if acted upon, can be the tiny match that burns down the fragile house of our best intentions. In a single moment of unmanaged anger, we can commit negative actions whose consequences will haunt us for the rest of our lives (and for future lives, too, say Buddhists). It is in the heat of such small moments of unbridled anger that many people lose their lives or take the lives of others -- or say things that wound each other irreparably, tearing apart friendships and marriages. Anger and its kissing cousin, hatred, are the root of violence and suffering at every level of society, from personal relationships to wars between nations.

On a personal, psychological level, few things we experience are as hot or as uncomfortable or as detrimental to our well-being as anger. It sends our minds reeling and keeps us awake at night. We sweat and tremble and mutter profanities and insults under our breath, if we don’t actually scream or commit violence. Anger triggers chemical reactions in our bodies and the release of stress hormones that contribute to a range of health problems from cancer to stomach ulcers to depression. As Shantideva wrote 1,200 years ago:

Those tormented by the pain of anger
Never know tranquility of mind --
Strangers they will be to every pleasure,
They will neither sleep nor feel secure.

Anger is the most volatile and flammable emotion; it so easily explodes and rages out of control, and it’s tremendously habit-forming. The more often we indulge in anger and direct its energy at others, the more accustomed we grow to being angry -- until rage comes to feel natural and automatic, a regular state of mind. Although the Christian notion of the Seven Deadly Sins (of which anger is one) has permeated our civilization, in Western cultures we tend to hold rather contradictory views about anger. We often don’t think there is anything wrong with it. In the Old Testament, Himself is portrayed frequently as an angry and vengeful God. Like father, like child. Our anger can seem not only justified, but righteous and holy, especially when it’s directed at what we perceive to be injustice.

In the Questions of Upali Sutra, the Buddha explained the conduct of a Bodhisattva: an altruistic spiritual practitioner whose life and actions are entirely dedicated to the awakening and enlightenment of all sentient beings. A Bodhisattva, said the Buddha, could misbehave for thousands of lifetimes, and if his or her misdeeds were motivated by desire, it would still add up to a relatively minor offense. This is because, when we act improperly out of desire or lust, we can at least (in most cases) still hold sentient beings in our embrace; we can still have their welfare and happiness in mind. Even if we just want to get into someone's pants, we're still thinking of them pretty fondly, and wishing them well. But when we act out of anger or hatred, we throw our care for the welfare of other beings out the window, and we do what no Bodhisattva should ever do: we actually wish harm and suffering upon them. A single act committed from such a blackened motivation, said the Buddha, is a grave offense against the path of awakening -- worse than all those lifetimes of misdeeds motivated by desire. Similarly, the great Tibetan yogi Padampa Sangye said, “A moment’s action arising from anger is worse than a hundred actions arising from desire.” (Now, don’t misinterpret: the Buddha and Padampa Sangye weren’t suggesting that we let ourselves get carried away in lust and attachment, and they weren’t praising the mind of desire, which brings its own set of problems; they were merely saying that, in the grand scheme of things, anger is far more destructive.)

In the moment it arises, anger can be very seductive. “There’s something delicious about finding fault with something,” says Pema Chodron. If we bite the hook and react out of anger when another person provokes us, then the force of anger acquires strong momentum. It becomes difficult for us to back down. When Joe says something to us that provokes our wrath, biting his head off can feel like the most natural and beneficial way to handle the situation. And why not, right? After all, it was such a stupid thing for Joe to say. He deserves to have his head bitten off, doesn’t he?

It's so easy to laugh, it's so easy to hate.
It takes strength to be gentle and kind.

-- The Smiths

Anger, like any other emotion, is a chain reaction. It can be broken down into component parts, and the chain reaction can be interrupted if we are able to catch it in time. If we replay a past scene of anger in slow motion, it’s not difficult to see how it works. First, something provokes irritation or annoyance, an uncomfortable feeling that’s raw and vulnerable, and difficult to sit with. Then comes the anger that targets an object or person outside as being the cause of this uncomfortable feeling. Finally, if not recognized and released, the aggressive energy of anger attaches stubbornly to the object and mutates into an abiding sense of hatred and prejudice.

There is a tremendous difference between that initial, vulnerable feeling of annoyance or irritation, and the final result of wishing harm upon another person or group of people (and perhaps acting in order to bring about that harm). Yet we would have to be blind and deaf to fail to see the disastrous effects of this chain reaction in our world on a daily basis. Turn on the evening news or pick up the paper: husbands are murdering their wives out of anger; ethnic groups are committing genocide out of hatred. Nations are locked in bitter, intractable conflicts that drag on for decades or centuries and cause entire peoples to despise one another; in the name of self-defense, they plot angrily to inflict destruction and death and suffering upon each other.

Self-defense is often the wellspring of anger. Our so-called ‘self’ feels threatened or insulted in some way, and so we lash out in defensive maneuvers to push away or suppress the cause of discomfort. Not long ago, I got into a heated confrontation with a fellow monk at the Abbey, Sonam, who had criticized me for re-ordering a new supply of the Abbey’s old letterhead. He didn’t like the way the letterhead was designed and had ambitions to redesign it before any more letterhead was ordered. It was a petty matter, but it quickly blew up into a major meeting of egos. The way he expressed his displeasure seemed to imply that I was an idiot and a slacker — or at least, that’s how my mind heard it. I felt insulted and abused, and I reacted with strong, sharp anger. Who did he think he was to speak to me that way? We exchanged a series of remarks that grew more and more pointed and angry; other people in the office stopped what they were doing and stared in disbelief, uncertain whether to intervene.

Later, when I calmed down, I realized the conflict was not really about the Abbey’s letterhead at all. In fact, I didn’t even disagree with him: the letterhead was, in fact, cumbersome and difficult to work with, and should have been redesigned. Rather, the conflict sprang from Sonam’s harsh words, and from my reaction of lashing out in self-defense against someone who was triggering in me intense feelings of insecurity and vulnerability and humiliation. I was out for blood, which I was determined to extract from Sonam in the form of an apology that would placate my ego.

One evening, a few days after that confrontation, all the monks and nuns at the Abbey were gathered in the main shrine room for our biweekly Sojong ceremony in which we confessed whatever wrongdoings we might have committed in the previous two weeks, clearing the slates for a fresh start. The nun leading the ceremony read a chapter from Patrul Rinpoche’s book, The Words of My Perfect Teacher. One particular passage, about the benefits of working with patience when someone wrongs us, and the dangers of flaring up in anger, seemed to hit me right in the gut:

Every time anyone says a single word you are extremely sensitive to the way they speak, and boil with anger whenever you think you are being humiliated or criticized. That sort of touchiness is a sign that your mind and the Dharma have gone separate ways and that the Dharma has not changed your mind in the least.

As I contemplated all this in the context of the Sojong ceremony, I realized that an apology definitely needed to happen — from me, to him. Even before the clash with Sonam, I had been carrying around a backlog of unspoken anger and irritation at him. He had a forceful manner of speaking to people that I had often experienced as domineering and bossy, and I resented it whenever that tone was directed at me. In the confrontation over the letterhead, the emotional force of that undercurrent of unacknowledged, petty resentments had surfaced; it clouded my vision and shaped my reaction, turning what could have been a non-incident into a major one.

Tibetan Buddhists sometimes talk about döns, which are personified as malevolent, trouble-making spirits -- outer representations of our inner demons. Döns manifest as sudden attacks of anger, depression, and other negative states of mind that seem to strike out of nowhere and completely take over our minds. My confrontation with Sonam had that quality of an attack of döns; I had been shocked to see myself get so upset, and wondered where such an intense anger could have come from. But upon reflection, I realized it didn’t actually strike out of nowhere. Behind that sudden flare-up was a long, gradual accumulation of irritation that I had not dealt with. Our conflict over the letterhead was simply the match that lit the fire. But the kindling for the fire was already there inside me, waiting to be ignited.

We don’t plan on being angry. No one ever wakes up and says, “Today is a good day to be angry. I think I’ll start cranking up my anger right after breakfast.” Anger usually strikes with that sudden, dön-like quality, when something provokes us. But döns only have the power to strike us abruptly because we’ve already rolled out the red carpet and invited them to come in. The habitual patterns in our minds create conducive conditions for negative emotions to flare up suddenly. To interrupt this process, we need to re-train ourselves in new ways of working with anger.

One way of working constructively with anger is to apply an antidote: arouse the opposite, positive state of mind and try to dwell in that experience in order to cool the anger and let its energy dissolve. This method works on the principle that two opposite mental factors cannot exist simultaneously in your mind; they might alternate so rapidly that you think they’re both there simultaneously, but they’re not. So, when anger arises, cultivate a mind of patience, loving-kindness, generosity: open, accommodating qualities that are the energetic and emotional opposites of the shut-down, hardened mind of anger.

Patience, in particular, is traditionally said to be the antidote to anger. The hot discomfort of anger pushes us towards verbal or physical displays of aggression; we are driven to act impulsively because we feel that something needs to be done now to change the situation and alleviate our discomfort. When we apply patience to the situation and refrain from acting impulsively, we create space for the hot energy of our anger to cool down. Practicing patience in this way does not mean suppressing our anger, but it also does not mean indulging it.

Often we think of patience as simply biding our time and twiddling our fingers while we wait for something else to happen. But the patience we need on the spiritual path is of a different kind. In her book Working with Anger, the American Buddhist nun Thubten Chodron writes:

Patience does not involve pasting a plastic smile on our face while hatred simmers inside. It involves dissolving the anger-energy so that it is no longer there. Then, with a clear mind, we can evaluate various alternatives and decide what to do to remedy a situation.

Another way of working with anger is to practice seeing the positive qualities of the person at whom we feel angry. When we are angry, we single out negative qualities about the object of our anger; we focus exclusively on those negative aspects, ignoring other, more positive qualities that would tend to undermine the emotion. But no person or situation is ever entirely positive or entirely negative.

There are many stories of Buddhist monks from Tibet who were imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese after the invasion of 1959, but who nevertheless held a positive view of their Chinese torturers. One monk who was kept in prison for many years was tortured repeatedly with electric cattle prods that were inserted in his mouth, shattering all his teeth and causing unspeakable pain. When he later fled Tibet and went to India, he met the Dalai Lama, who asked him if he had been afraid when he was in prison. The monk replied that yes, there had been times when he was afraid: he was afraid that he might lose his compassion for the Chinese.

It boggles the mind to imagine having that much serenity and compassion and patience: it seems almost impossibly advanced in spiritual terms. Most of us would probably be eaten alive with anger and hatred of our oppressors in situations containing even a fraction of the horrors to which that monk was subjected. But as the example of such people shows, it is, in fact, possible to transform even the most difficult and negative situations into positive fuel for awakening.

That is the upside of anger: like every other moment of consciousness, it is a brilliant expression of mind's natural luminosity and wakefulness. The question is whether we rest in that wakefulness, or fall back into the sleep of our habitual patterns of acting and speaking destructively. We recoil from the sharpness and intensity of anger because it is bright, blinding, painful to look at: it's easier to divert our attention outwards and focus on the object that's provoking our anger. Yet the brilliant sharpness of anger is nothing other than the brilliant sharpness of mind itself. Everything -- our entire future -- depends upon how we work with our anger when it strikes.  


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Before there is an emotion, like anger, there is always a thought. Even if that thought is a micro second long: thought first, emotion second. Anger is an effect of thinking.

It can have a use as a warning that our thinking is overheating. Like the warning light on the dashoard of a car flashing to let us know to pull over and let the car cool down, anger is an indicator that our thinking has shifted from being herenow into mad processing or analysing mode. If we pay attention to the warning we can settle back into our natural herenow wisdom thinking and healthy well being arises.

Emotions are interesting because of what they tell us about the quality of our thinking and we can let them be guides.

As young Buddha said: "We are what we think. All that arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world."

Thank you and bless

David Lewis

Thanks Dennis

Anger is a "deadly" fire indeed. In spite of my decades of practice, the kindling gets carefully laid by my careless habits, and then I strike the match.

The mind and body are closely married as any student of meditation will attest. One's breathing is indicative of the state of the mind, whether you are reacting to a perceived danger or deep in shamata meditation.

When anger becomes a potential response it has on occassion been usefull for me to take one solid deep mindful breath.

The moment after the breath is the opportunity to choose no-anger.

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