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"Dealing With Anger" by Lama Surya Das

3 June 2010

Buddhist teachings say that at the heart of the vicious cycle of samsara, the wheel of becoming, are the three poisons, the three root kleshas: greed, hatred and ignorant confusion. The main klesha that fuels this whole dualism of attachment and aversion which drives us is ignorance, or delusion and confusion. From ignorance comes greed - avarice, desire, lust, attachment and all the rest. Also from ignorance comes anger, aggression, cruelty and violence. These two poisons are the basic conflicting forces within us—attachment and aversion. They come from ignorance, and they're really not that different: "Get away" and "I want" are very similar, just like pushing away and pulling towards; and both cause anger to arise. Anger is often singled out as the most destructive of the kleshas, because of how easily it degenerates into aggression and violence.

However, anger is easily misunderstood. It is often misunderstood in our Buddhist practice, causing us to suppress it and make ourselves more ill, uneasy and off balance. I think it's worth thinking about this. Psychotherapy can be helpful as well. Learning to understand the causal chain of anger’s arising as well as the undesirable, destructive outflows of anger and its malicious cousin hatred can help strengthen our will to intelligently control it. Moreover, recognizing the positive sides of anger – such as its pointed ability to perceive what is wrong in situations, including injustice and unfairness – helps moderate our blind reactivity to it and generate constructive responses. As the Dalai Lama says, “Violence is old-fashioned. Anger doesn’t get you anywhere. If you can calm your mind and be patient, you will be a wonderful example to those around you.”

It can sometimes feel that the most frightening thing in the world is to honestly face ourselves. How do we deal with these difficult emotions like fear and rage when they arise, like a tsunami or a volcano? It is good to start by examining ourselves first in a somewhat less stressful situation, starting first with the little forms in which the difficult emotions arise, like during meditation. When we are alone in daily practice, or maybe in a Dharma center, yoga studio or meditation retreat--where everything's perfectly arranged for your protection, comfort and security--it's hard to get too overwhelmed by anger. But still there are the little irritations, like mosquitoes buzzing around the ears or traffic sounds from outside. Perhaps somebody inadvertently steps on your toe in the lunch line, or the person sitting next to you keeps coughing and shifting around; or maybe the teacher says the wrong thing for your hypersensitive ears? How do we deal with that when anger, aversion and judgment when it flares up? Do we just keep a stiff upper lip and suppress it, mistaking this stony pseudo-serenity for calmness, detachment and equanimity when it's actually violence against your own nature—violence in the form of suppression, repression, and avoidance? This kind of avoidance and repression is similar to more blatant forms of aversion, such as in the gesture that pushes undesirables away. Some people can seem very cool, calm and collected, yet they may be seething inside—and some of us may be those very people! Maybe our fangs and claws are not out, visibly pointed towards others, as in the case of some short-tempered individuals; but those jagged weapons may be pointed inwards towards ourselves, as in the case of low self-esteem, self-loathing and self-hatred, which are all common strands of depression. Denial is one of the largest rivers running through our heartland. We would do well to consider our little subterranean upsurges of anger and hatred along with the occasional larger outbursts, and not pretend they’re not there, if we want to be in a better position to deal with them. The seeds of anger are in all of us. There’s no shame in that.

Shantideva, the Gentle Master, who wrote the classic book Entering the Bodhisattva Path (Bodhicharyavatara) twelve hundred years ago, said: “Anger is the greatest evil; patient forbearance is the greatest austerity.” Isn't that interesting? Anger is thought to be the greatest negativity, just as killing is the greatest sin. Patience and forgiveness is said to be the greatest virtue, the hardest practice or austerity. Usually we think of austerities as fasting or vigils, staying up all night in prayer, pilgrimages, or fakirs in India sleeping on beds of nails or never sitting or lying down. Yet Shantideva said that patient forbearance, is the greatest austerity, rather than mere physical vicissitudes. Isn't that amazing? 

Why is anger the greatest evil? This is because a small moment of anger can in an instant burn down a whole forest of merits and good karma. For example, you might become blind with rage and do something that you regret for the rest of your life. In a moment of blind rage, or being drunk one night, you could ruin the rest of your life if you get in the driver’s seat, for example… The car could become a deadly weapon, in just one moment. That’s why we have to be careful, attentive, and mindful rather than mindless. That’s why Shantideva warns about how destructive anger can be, just as a mindless moment of carelessness in throwing a cigarette butt out the window of a car can burn down an entire national park. Even the acid-tongued 18th-century poet and social critic Alexander Pope recognized that, in his own words, “To err is human, to forgive divine”. We can access our inner divinity by practicing forgiveness, which is within our hearts’ capacity. Shall we choose to exercise that innate capacity, or not? We all know life is not always simple, and that it really is hard to practice patient forbearance and forgiveness in the face of injustice and in the face of harm? And yet we must, if we’re going to walk the radical path of non-violence, as Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi and others have shown. I think it is possible, once we commit ourselves to it.

Working from the Inside Out

We can work from the outside in as well as working on ourselves from the inside out, in order to be better people and cultivate our noble heart. Certainly we need to work externally for peace in the world, for disarmament among nations, and against injustice and oppression, racism and genocide; for “The gift of justice surpasses all gifts”, according to Lord Buddha in the ancient Dhammapada. But we also have to work from the inside out, disarming our hearts, softening up, unveiling the tender caring heart in our breast. The good heart, the Little Buddha, is in each of us, underneath all those intractable defense mechanisms, underneath that socialization we were put through-- the hard carapace of a spic and span persona we’ve developed like armor to cope with the exigencies of life. This basically means finding our tender heart, letting down our defenses, loosening up the impacted persona, and cracking the hardened shell that we formed around ourselves to protect our vulnerable, defenseless selves when we were growing up. Disarmament is not just about war and weapons. It’s about fear, survival and vulnerability. The more secure we become interiorly, the less threatened, fearful and aggressive we’ll be in life.

A great deal of aggression comes from fear, from egotism, and from perceived danger. When I feel angry, I find it personally useful to look at what am I afraid of. I ask myself, “Where and how do I hurt?” This instantly helps me better get in touch with what’s going on, rather than just blame somebody else or react in kind. After calming down, to get some higher guidance I like to ask myself: “What would Buddha do in this situation? What would Love do here and now?” This helps me cool my passions; be more creative and proactive, rather than simply reactive; feel fearless yet gentle, and more comfortable; feel more fearless, and transcend blame, resentment and bitterness. Here are a few clues about anger: a lot of it stems from fear and fright, and in the primitive fight or flight response. Peace comes about from working with our own mind, disarming our heart, not just passing gun control legislation or ceasefire treaties. It’s people that kill other people, not guns per se. In Buddhist training, there’s a great deal of emphasis on cultivating lovingkindness and compassion, forgiveness, acceptance and mercy, as well as the nonattachment and desirelessness which uproots greed and cupidity and has an incredibly soothing effect on our troubled, dissatisfied minds.

My own teacher, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, wrote a wonderful book on bodhicitta, the awakened Buddhist heart and enlightened mind, called The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones. Khyentse Rinpoche was the Dalai Lama’s Dzogchen teacher, and the lama of many other lamas, including Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Sogyal Rinpoche and Tsoknyi Rinpoche. There is much for us to learn here. We should not be paranoid, despondent or hopeless, because we have all have anger in us; it is part of human nature. The Dalai Lama has written Healing Anger, the Power of Patience and Forbearance from a Buddhist Perspective. The Dalai Lama himself admits that he gets angry; he knows what to do with it, however. Thich Nhat Hanh gets angry, too, as does Aung San Suu Kyi and other pacifist Buddhist leaders. These Buddhist activists have plenty to be angry about, considering what they have experienced in their lifetimes and what they have seen happen to their countrymen and homelands of Tibet and Vietnam and Burma in recent decades. Yet their anger doesn't destroy their peace of mind and serenity, because they have purified and transformed their interior selves and can constructively channel that hot emotional energy. They've learned how to do that, through Mahayana attitude transformation practices (lojong) and mind training.

Buddhist author Ani Thubten Chodron has written: “Science says that all emotions are natural and okay, and that emotions become destructive only when they are expressed in an inappropriate way or time or to an inappropriate person or degree….Therapy is aimed more at changing the external expression of the emotions than the internal experience of them. Buddhism, on the other hand, believes that destructive emotions themselves are obstacles and need to be eliminated to have happiness.” In the moment of anger’s arising in our body-mind complex, at first there is just an energy, a feeling, the merest glimmer of an experience; it has not yet devolved into violence and aggression. We can learn to deal with it, through mindful awareness coupled with patience, self-observation and introspection. Afflictive, destructive or negative emotions can be skillfully antidoted by cultivating positive emotions, such as patience, compassion, lovingkindness and so forth. When feeling hatred, cultivate forgiveness and equanimity, trying to empathize with the other and see where they are coming from—see things through there eyes for a moment, if you can. If moved towards aggression, try to breathe, relax, quiet and calm the agitated mind and strive for restraint and moderation, remembering that others are just like yourself in wanting and needing happiness and avoiding pain, harm and suffering. Regarding violence and rage, the ultimate external extreme of the internal emotion of anger, redirection and psychological reconditioning are absolutely necessary.

One very simple practice to apply in the moment that anger arises is:
1. SAY: "I know that I'm angry now." (Or fill in the blank: afraid… sad…lustful…)
2. BREATHE DEEPLY: while breathing out, with the exhalation, say: “I send compassion towards that particular emotion/energy.” In this practice, do that mantra, or some variation of it; this will magically interrupt the general pattern of unskillful, thoughtless reactivity. This on the spot practice can instantly provide a moment of mindfulness and sanity. It helps you take better care of yourself, rather than putting yourself down; and it heads off negative behaviors that we realize we don’t want to do, because such reactions have not really helped us in the past.
4. BREATHE IN, BREATHE OUT. Then consider how and if to respond, and not simply to react.

Through these Four Remembrances we can learn experientially, not to identify so completely with whatever arises in our mind, and to recognize that it's not just MY anger so that we don’t get even more angry about it, thus just adding fuel to the flames. (As when we say to ourselves, “I'm an angry person, goddamn it; when is this anger going to stop!”) By simply feeling anger or any strong emotion arise and directly experiencing the heat of it, or the earthquake or volcano of it--perhaps experiencing it in our stomach as heat, or as vibration, energy, and maybe shaking a little with it… By being aware and balanced enough to just mindfully, consciously feel that experience, it need not immediately drive undesirable behavior. Just because you feel a sharp feeling doesn’t mean you have to bite and get hooked, like a fish smelling the bait. Therefore, I think what we have to do with anger in the present moment is to see it simply as an energy, just like any other klesha or emotion that arises. It's nothing but a momentary surge of energy. We don't have to judge it harshly, suppress it or repress it. Repression and denial also have negative, unskillful, and unwholesome effects on our physical and mental health. Emotional energy such as anger is just like a swollen balloon; if you push it down somewhere, it bulges out somewhere else. That pressure has nowhere to go, unless we know how to discharge and release it; perhaps channeling it creatively, productively, rather than destructively. So when we press down on or repress the anger, it makes us sick. Maybe it bulges out into our organs, gives us ulcers, migraine headaches, hypertension, cancer or kidney stones. That is why it's important not to suppress it when it comes up, but to be wise and aware enough to lighten up about these things by taking yourself and everything that happens just a wee bit less seriously.

Lama Surya Das is a Buddhist teacher and authorized Dzogchen lineage holder in the Tibetan tradition. He is the bestselling author of many books, including Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World; founder of the Western Buddhist Teachers Network with the Dalai Lama; a poet and translator; and has twice completed the traditional three year meditation retreat. Spiritual Director of the Dzogchen Center in Massachetts and Austin, Texas, he leads retreats and seminars year round and has long been active in charitable third world causes. His websites are www.surya.org and www.dzogchen.org.


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