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Anger has something to teach us. Can we listen?
This article is included in our new e-book, Tricycle Teachings: Working with Emotions, now available to Supporting and Sustaining Members for free download here.
We operate under a common illusion that the things that make us angry lie outside of ourselves, that they are external to us. Something out there is in opposition to our need for safety and security; it threatens our comfort or position. We feel a need to defend our vulnerable selves. Anger limits us. But if we have the courage to look at our anger and its causes and to learn from it, we can develop an open heart—a heart of genuine compassion.
My own journey in dealing with anger has included work with several systems of martial arts. Initially I studied the martial arts to learn how to defend against the enemy outside myself, which I thought was the reason for my anger. After some time, I was drawn to iaido, the art of drawing, cutting with, and sheathing a Samurai sword. Loosely translated, the term iaido means being able to fit into any situation harmoniously. Unlike many other martial art forms, iaido is noncombative, which was key: to create a harmonious relationship with myself, I had to confront the enemy within—and the enemy was my own anger.
I have often observed that while we each experience anger in our own way, a more general sense of anger pervades our society. That is, as a culture, we are angry. Our sense of humor is very sarcastic. A lot of what we find entertaining involves putting someone down. We have slapstick comedy: people running around doing mean, spiteful things that we are supposed to find funny. Whether it is a television show or a new viral Internet video, we find humor in words that mock or put others down, or insults that allow us to watch from the outside as someone else is subjected to some form of humiliation. We might ask ourselves, “What’s funny about that?” Not much. Laughing at others’ misfortune is a kind of expression of our own anger.
Have we ever said to someone, “You’re lazy,” or “You’re a bitch” or “You’re an insufferable bastard”? Of course. We’ve all done that in one way or another. Or maybe we have said, “If it weren’t for you, I would be better off,” or “It’s because of you that I am suffering.” It is as if we believe that by putting others down, by placing the blame or responsibility for our unhappiness on others, we can make ourselves better or relieve our own feelings of inadequacy. But anger doesn’t make us feel better. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, “You cannot really eliminate pain through aggression. The more you kill, the more you strengthen the killer who will create new things to be killed. The aggression grows until finally there is no space; the whole environment has been solidified.”
Among the Three Poisons we find the Pali term dosa, “anger.” The Three Poisons of anger, greed, and delusion keep us in bondage and control us—they overwhelm our best intentions and cause us to do harm to others. We may even cause the greatest hurt to the people we most care about. We don’t want to hurt them, or ourselves, but we are driven by our anger. Many times we find that a feeling that arises in us is the outward manifestation of a deeper underlying emotion or experience. We might explore this possibility by asking ourselves about where our anger really comes from. What is the other side of anger? Fear. We can’t free ourselves until we work through both our anger and our fear. And what is the cause of fear? Ultimately, it is the fear of nonexistence, death, the fear of losing ourselves and being forgotten. But a fear of death translates into a fear of living, because impermanence is itself a fundamental condition of our lives. In this fear lie the seeds of anger.
How do we break the cycle of anger? We all know anger from experience, but when we are asked to pause and consider, “What is this anger?” it’s not always so easy to see what it is. Yet when we approach our feelings of anger with awareness, with mindfulness, it becomes a productive part of our practice. We find, after all, that anger has something to teach us.
Anger is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “habit energy.” Like most habits, it takes just one particular event or word or incident to trigger us, as quick as a snap of the finger. Just because we have a kensho experience and see into our true nature and maybe for a second or two experience some sense of bliss, that doesn’t mean that we won’t return to habit energy five minutes or an hour later. If someone does something that irritates you, ask yourself the question, “Who is it that is ticked off? Who is it that’s angry?” We’ll find that there is no self to get angry or to defend.
And yet there may be something that sets us off again and again, as reliably as an alarm clock. Maybe we know what some of those things are. Often other people can tell us what brings out our flashes of anger even if we are not ourselves aware of them. But these habitual flashpoints offer us an opportunity to see ourselves more deeply, with a fuller understanding and with greater compassion, to look at what incited our angry reaction, and to follow the thread within ourselves. All we need is the space between trigger and reaction to mindfully look within.
So where do we find this space to separate ourselves from our anger? Many Buddhist traditions teach that all things are insubstantial. When we see this, we see that the support for anger and hate is eroded and eventually destroyed. This speaks to one of the three marks of existence—impermanence. We have all found ourselves in situations that illustrate the transitory nature of events. Something happens to us that makes us angry; perhaps we get into an argument at home with a partner at the very start of the day. A couple of hours later, we’re at work and we’re still thinking about the incident. More time goes by, and we continue to stew over it at lunchtime, and by the time we get home, we’re still holding onto it. But where is it? Where is the incident? It’s like last night’s supper—it doesn’t exist.
Over and over again, I tell students dealing with anger, “This practice is about being mindful!” While that may sound simple, it is in fact a very, very difficult practice because it goes against a lot of what we hold sacred. Many of us have a particular group of gods that we worship. It’s not God, Jesus, or Buddha. We worship pleasure, comfort, and security. Despite knowing that everything is impermanent, we still hold onto objects that we think will bring us security. We cling to what we believe will spare us from discomfort, and when these things slip out of our grasp, fear and anger arise. Part of mindfulness is looking at our reactions and perceptions—if we are all truly one body, why are we cutting off the relationship with our partner, our coworker, or our friend? If my hand is in pain, do I cut it off? Of course not. I take care of it. I take some Tylenol. I look more carefully into what might be causing the pain—maybe it’s an injury, or it could be that I’m developing arthritis and need to think of some therapies. But when it comes to anger, we cut ourselves off because we have an investment in maintaining who we think we are. Anger limits our expression of seeing our whole self. As a divisive force, it prevents us from living a fully rich life of connectedness. Instead of experiencing the one body that pervades everywhere, anger isolates us and reinforces the sense of a separate self, preventing us from identifying with and feeling compassion for others.