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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.
Mindfulness is cultivated through meditation practice. That is one of the reasons why I like the focused practice period of sesshin, several days of intensive sitting. It is amazing how much stuff surfaces in sesshin. In my first few years practicing Zen, I thought of myself as a pretty laid-back, easygoing guy. But then during these intensive meditation periods, I couldn’t believe the amount of anger and rage that came up. I was ready to kill the teacher, kill the monks, and burn down the monastery! It stood in stark contrast to my ideas of who I thought I was. My anger was exacerbated by having the duty of scrubbing the toilets with a toothbrush. But all along the way, I continued meditating. And at some point, scrubbing the toilet with a toothbrush became a practice of mindfulness for me.
When we work with anger in Buddhist practice, we work with it a little differently than you would in psychotherapy. We don’t ask you to beat a pillow, open the window, and scream. When I was a psychotherapist, I had a Bozo the Clown bop bag in my office; you could hit it and it would just bounce back. And I would say, “Just keep pounding it, get it all out!” But that’s not our approach. In Buddhism, we work to illuminate the fundamental truth of our self-nature. When anger arises, it is pointing to something. Our anger is a clue to our underlying beliefs about ourselves. It can help to reveal our constructed sense of self-identity.
Today many psychotherapists embrace Buddhist practice as a way of looking at ourselves in relationship to others. The Identity System developed by Stanley Block, M.D., involves two processes called “mind-body mapping” and “bridging.” Mind-body mapping as a part of Buddhist practice requires an openness to adapting the dharma for a particular time, place, and person—in this case for the Western psyche. You begin mind-body mapping by paying attention to a particular thought that is on your mind, perhaps one that is connected to strong feelings. Then, using this first thought as a focal point, you trace the paths of further thoughts and ideas that are generated out of the initial thought. At the same time, we give attention to how our thoughts feel in relationship to the body. We all have personal requirements, thoughts, or rules about how we—and the world—should be. While they may remain hidden from our conscious awareness, we can recognize them by our anger, which arises when our requirements are broken. By deepening our ability to be fully present, we have a better chance of seeing our requirements and letting them go, uprooting the seeds that sprout into anger.
This exploration, together with an approach called “bridging,” has proven to be a valuable tool. Bridging is akin to mindfulness. When you are washing the dishes, you are focused on touch, the place, the water on your hands, the feel of the sponge; or when you are driving your car, you listen to the hum of the engine, the vibration of your hands on the steering wheel. Bridging and mind-body mapping help us deal with the shadow beliefs we carry with us—“I’m not good enough,” “I’m undeserving”—which create negative story lines. Our anger can be seen as a defense against these vulnerable feelings and negative self-beliefs. The deep-seated fear and anger we harbor has to do with our feelings of a damaged self. Mind-body mapping and bridging enable practitioners to see how they create their suffering in relationship to the body rather than a situation outside themselves. From a Buddhist perspective, we are trying to reach the place where there is no separation, no subject, no object. Bringing our mind back again and again to a place of present-moment awareness, we create a space where we let go of our habitual reaction patterns and our recurring negative feelings. We then open the opportunity to view ourselves—and others—with real compassion.
Our meditation practice is also a place where we can work directly with our experience of anger by becoming the anger. To “become the anger” does not mean to act it out. It means we stop separating ourselves from it; we experience it fully so that we can understand what’s behind it. In sitting zazen, we can encourage the anger to come up. We become intimate with anger, and in doing so, we watch it dissipate.
We have to look deeply into the cause of our suffering. Our anger not only creates suffering for others, but it also creates more suffering for us. We might take a mind-body perspective that what we think affects every cell in our body. Neuroscientists suggest that our neurons are affected by our immediate environment. If we are in a hostile, argumentative, negative environment, then that affects our neural networks and neurochemistry, and our nervous system becomes conditioned to react every time we go into that environment. So we could say that very environment becomes toxic. We’ve all had the experience of walking into a certain space and feeling at home, and going into a different space and becoming very agitated or depressed, because of the subtle energy or our unconscious relationship to the place.
We must remember that we create our own anger. No one makes it for us. If we move from a particular event directly to our reaction, we are skipping a crucial awareness, a higher perspective on our own reactivity. What is that middle step, that deeper awareness? It is mindfulness about our own beliefs, our attitude, our understanding or lack of understanding about what has really happened. We notice that a given situation reliably provokes our anger, and yet somebody else can be exposed to the very same situation and not react angrily. Why is that? No one can tell us: we each have to find the answer ourselves, and to do that, we need to give ourselves the space to reflect mindfully.
We’re going to keep getting angry. It’s going to come up. It has come up in our lives before, and it will come up again. This practice is about becoming more mindful, becoming aware of how we are getting stuck. With care and work, we find ways to get unstuck. But we also know that the moment we get unstuck, we’re going to get stuck again. That’s why it is called a practice—we never arrive. So when you find yourself upset or angry, use the moment as a part of your practice, as an opportunity to notice and uproot the seeds of anger and move into the heart of genuine compassion.
Jules Shuzen Harris, Sensei is a Soto priest and the founder of Soji Zen Center in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania.
Artwork by Faith McClure
Image 1: Birth Hour, Monoprint Collage and Mixed Media, 2010
Image 2: Inverted Landscape, No. 11, Monoprint Collage, 2011