The Second Hindrance: Anger: Q&A with Lama Palden
I often find myself torn between lashing out at someone and trying to remain equanimous. I know it’s ideal not to explode in anger, but sometimes it still seems like the right thing to do—or like it would be “good” for me to express how I feel, directly. Is it ever right to let anger show?
When we are angry it may be important for us to communicate what we feel. But how we do this is critical. Simply blasting other people with our anger is not skillful or kind. We may think, “Well, they’re so thick-headed, I need to yell in order to get through to them.” But it’s difficult for people to take in what another is saying if they are being yelled at, because their defenses are instantly mobilized. They’re just as distracted by the reactionary thoughts going through their heads as we are by the force of our anger.
If we allow ourselves to calm down before addressing the situation, we can let go of our own defensiveness and anger. As we all have experienced, it is not possible to think objectively when we are in the throes of strong emotion. We need space to think clearly, to see what is really bothering us, and then to decide what it is that we actually want—and need—to communicate. We should take the opportunity to think through what is going on within ourselves, and imagine what the other person might be feeling as well. After we’ve given ourselves this critical distance from the situation, it’s possible to articulate what we want to say much more accurately and effectively. It is also more likely that we will be heard if we can deliver our message without triggering the other person’s defenses—or our own.
It’s understandable to feel better immediately after an initial catharsis: we’ve dumped our painful feelings onto another. But it’s not long before we feel worse, as our minds and bodies fill with the poison of anger, resentment, and, possibly, guilt or regret. We may try to cope with this miasma of feelings by going over the whole story in our minds again and again, talking about it with our friends, justifying our position and securing their support, planning our next attack, but these defensive strategies ultimately bind us further to suffering. When we feel that someone “deserves” our angry attack, we are indulging in hurting them in order to eradicate our own hurt—and hurting to get rid of hurt never works.
We suffer because we do not understand the openness of our true nature. This is the ignorance that the Buddha taught is the root of all suffering. The radiance of true nature is generated by compassion. The fortresses we construct around ourselves to ratify our position not only separate us from the person we’re angry with —but they also separate us from ourselves. The more we are cut off from our true nature, the more we suffer, and the less likely it is that others will listen to us. If we take the time to shift to a place where we can actually rest in openness and lovingkindness, our suffering diminishes. Anything that we feel needs to be communicated will naturally be articulated more effectively from this place.
Lama Palden is a licensed psychotherapist and a founder of the Sukhasiddhi Foundation, based in Marin County, California.