Filed in Zen (Chan)

Holding Anger

We must develop a measure of psychological insight along with our meditation practice.Jules Shuzen Harris, Sensei

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Bernd OttAnger hinders our liberation from suffering. It takes its toll on our spirit and our health. Stress levels are on the rise. The Harris Poll in 2002 recorded that tension levels in almost half of Americans had worsened over the preceding year. According to the American Institute of Stress, 75 to 90 percent of doctors’ visits are for stress-related ailments. Psychological distress such as anger, anxiety, and depression seems to be a good predictor of high blood pressure, heart attacks, and sudden death. But what is missing from this research is the “first cause,” the damaged self—a belief that manifests as anger projected for the most part onto others. On one level, this projected anger is a defense against one’s “bad self.” On a deeper level, it represents our feelings of vulnerability.

Over 2,500 years ago the Buddha identified anger as one of the three poisons that hinder our progress toward liberation from suffering. In the Anumana Sutta, a teaching on self-observation, the venerable Mahamoggallana, one of the Buddha’s closest disciples, counsels bhikhus against angry thoughts that lead to disparaging others. The bhikhus are instructed to refrain from unruly behavior such as hypocrisy, mercilessness, jealousy, and selfishness, to name a few examples. In the Lekha Sutta the Buddha asserts that there are three types of individuals in the world and three ways they manifest anger. First, he refers to the individual who is like an inscription on a rock. His anger stays with him for a long time. It is not effaced by wind or water. Next, the Buddha compares an individual who is often angered, but whose anger does not stay with him for a long time, to an inscription in soil that is effaced by wind or water. Lastly, the Buddha describes a person who is like water. When this individual is spoken to roughly or harshly, he or she remains congenial, companionable, and courteous, just as an inscription in water disappears immediately.

After more than 30 years of working first as a therapist and later a practitioner of Zen, the poison that stands out the most to me is anger. And while I believe that meditation has some transformative power, as a former psychotherapist I believe that teachers and spiritual guides need to address the role that small mind plays with regard to anger. Meditation enables us to see the transparency of our anger, and this is a good start, but we can still remain blinded to the mechanics of our anger. The Buddhist teacher and psychologist John Welwood asserts that “most of us live caught up in prereflective identification most of the time.” In working with dharma students, teachers must address the deeper wounds from which anger has sprung. We must enable students to see the anger they project onto others as a defense against old story lines, such as “I’m damaged, I’m unlovable,” and so on.

Anger is “habit energy,” to use Thich Nhat Hanh’s term; karmic in its origin, it is deeply engrained and deeply rooted. As Welwood says, we imagine that our thoughts and feelings are an accurate portrayal of reality and therefore justified. If we are to be effective in transmuting our anger into prajna (wisdom), then we must develop an additional measure of psychological insight along with our meditation practice that focuses on the cyclical relationship between thoughts and our body.

I saw chronic episodes of anger manifest when I trained former criminal offenders in counseling techniques that they could use to redirect youth caught up in the criminal justice system. The anger the ex-offenders projected onto their clients was cloaked in their judgmental attitude toward them. They were hypercritical of behaviors they themselves once engaged in. This behavior points to an aspect of anger that we don’t usually think of. We typically attribute the source of our anger to someone or something outside of ourselves: “I am experiencing great displeasure because it is the ‘other’ who is at fault.” The ex-offenders didn’t see their shadow beliefs and resisted addressing them. Their anger toward clients was a defense—it allowed them to distance themselves from their “bad selves.”

In order to work on anger, we need to employ an approach that incorporates psychosocial strategies in the service of spiritual development. This approach embraces the transpersonal, personal, and interpersonal. Mindfully held anger is a step in the right direction. This approach requires that we contain our anger—that we meditatively attend to our anger with an emphasis on neither suppressing it nor acting it out. Being present with our anger enables us to witness the process of it, which includes all three levels of awareness. On the personal level, we witness the felt sense of our anger, along with its cognitive and perceptual dimensions. On a social level, we witness the effect our shadow beliefs have on our interaction with others. On the transpersonal level, we witness the “I,” or who it is who is angry.

Another approach to dealing with anger on the psycho-social-spiritual level is mind-body bridging. This technique enables us to see the impact that thoughts have on us viscerally. The prime mover behind the impact thoughts have on the body are our requirements: how we should be, how other people should be, and how the world should be in order for us to feel acceptable. This approach begs the question of how to bring compassion to our anger. It is not easy to refrain from repressing or indulging our anger. Our challenge is to embrace it with mindfulness and genuine caring.

We must become intimate with anger to clear the way to our connectiveness, to our vulnerability and an aliveness to everything. In the end, our anger is transmuted to wisdom, which in turn gives rise to compassion.

Jules Shuzen Harris, Sensei is a Zen teacher in the Soto lineage and the founder of Soji Zen Center in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania.

Bernd Ott/Gallerystock.


In the following audio teaching, Jules Shuzen Harris Sensei walks us through the Mind-Body Bridging technique. Samples of the four Mind-Maps (in the order that you will create them) can be found by clicking on the links below. Throughout the week, Harris will be available to answer questions about Mind-Body Bridging. Post a comment and he will get back to you.

Trouble Map
Requirement Map
Depressor Map
Fixer Map

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You may need: Adobe Flash Player.'s picture

I believe a lot of the anger in my family comes from feeling damaged.

melcher's picture

If one goes by accounts in the media the level of anger and rage manifesting across the world appears to be rising like a flood. Ironically, in that so many of us had such high hopes that the Internet would bring people closer together, it has also become one of the chief sources of fuel for the rage machine. Our relative anonymity amid the sheer volume of noise encourages people toward reactivity without deliberation. Our voices tend to gather into echo chambers of angst where prejudices and resentments are reinforced. As much as it has opened the doors of possible connection, this 'social' media has also thrown wide the gates of hell.

Not to be pessimistic, as there are certainly places (like this) where deliberation leads to true dialogue. What is required is a bit of self-awareness and vigilance applied to ourselves and to one another. In my own experience this is a challenge when conversing in a world of text rather than face-to-face. Still, it's possible and extremely important that we make the effort to step back from our words and to feel them in our own bodies before we unleash them on others. This is a matter of discipline, as crucial as meditation or spiritual practice if we intend to navigate this mental realm with any degree of grace.

I speak as one who has too often gotten lost in the cycle of reaction and seen the negative results. I have vowed to remain as vigilant as I can toward my own discourse and in the presence of others. It isn't always easy in a venue (language) that thrives on distinctions. We can all use a little help in this regard and the value of online sangha may be to encourage the evolution of healthy rather than divisive discourse.

jackelope65's picture

I agree. Is it possible that by relying too heavily on text messages, people begin to lose the ability to interpret, as well as express, human communication through non- verbal language including voice qualities, facial expressions, and body language? Even my dogs can be fooled when I say "do you want to go be killed," in the same manner as I say "do you want to go to the beach?" Through personal observation, we may see the suffering behind expressions of anger.

jackelope65's picture

I agree. Is it possible that by relying too heavily on text messages, people begin to lose the ability to interpret, as well as express, human communication through non- verbal language including voice qualities, facial expressions, and body language? Even my dogs can be fooled when I say "do you want to go be killed," in the same manner as I say "do you want to go to the beach?" Through personal observation, we may see the suffering behind expressions of anger.'s picture

Like Jules's quiet voice but actually can't hear some phrases despite having my speaker volume on high. This makes me very angry.... Seriously, is there another way to access the talk that will improve the volume? I'm on a Mac Air. Thanks all, Mary

markwoolner's picture

Hi Bobsing

You can download the audio. I have an apple so I use a piece of software called 'Downie'. This downloads mp3 mp4 etc. It's very cheap and versatile. I have often downloaded from this site all you need is the 'url'.
I have long since stopped using anything microsoft but I recall it is possible. Check out 'Gizmo freeware'.

Best Wishes


bija's picture

Downie ($0.99) didn't work on my IPad Air2. It downloaded the audio file but then it was all garbled when played. Your post did remind me that I should google the problem specifically for my IPad. After some research I downloaded the Photon browser app ($4.99) and opened Tricycle using Photon. It showed the audio graphic at the bottom and I was able to play it from the Tricycle page. Thanks for the post!

lindamason819's picture

didn't martin luther king and ghandi subvert poisoned systems, we need some collective action.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Collective action is the mark of a healthy sangha. A sangha in which its members vigorously and courageously challenge the 3 poisons of their own lives.

trailpaloma's picture

I like your new picture! _/\_

Dominic Gomez's picture

Namaste, Trailpaloma. _()_

Richard Fidler's picture

A friend expressed anger towards a neighbor's landlord who had neglected to maintain the lawnmower my friend was supposed to use in mowing the neighbor's lawn (for money). The job my friend did looked terrible because the mower was not maintained. The source of my friend's anger lay in the conflict she had between her image of herself as a person with high standards and the miserable job performed by the poorly maintained mower. She was angry not with the landlord but with the way she appeared to herself: the way she presented herself to the world--a lousy keeper of lawns--conflicted with her own image of herself as someone competent. She was angry at this conflict. This shows that anger has an interior, not exterior source.

bija's picture

You just nailed it for an anger problem I've been having with another person for a long time. Now I understand I need to have compassion for myself and the image I have of myself before I can move on.

Thank you so much!

marginal person's picture

I believe think there's a difference between the sensation of anger and the emotion of anger.
Emotions are about behavior.
Anger occurs in a situation. It's about attempting to satisfy some need.
We perceive some threat (real or imagined).
We register the physical sensations in our body and we react or not
We choose to act in an attempt to resolve the situation.
Or we may choose not to act.
There is no choice involved in the sensation of anger only in the emotion.

Jules Shuzen Harris's picture

You may be right, but what I addressed in the article is the cyclical relationship between the mind (thought) and the body. The MBB exercises having been clinically validated. Situations don’t cause our anger; it is a brain network, that brain researchers call the default mode network.

marginal person's picture

It seems as if you're saying there is no original stimulus, only a "brain network" which causes anger. Is that correct?

celticpassage's picture

Emotions are interpretations by an individual of some situation (stimulus).

Have you ever gone through a McDonalds drive through and they apologize because they don't have the muffin you wanted? I have more than once. Usually I have no emotional reaction except perhaps a mild disappointment.

That happened to a woman in the states and her response was that she got out of the car in a rage screaming obscenities at the server and started smashing the drive through window with a crowbar.

Same situation, two different emotional responses.

marginal person's picture

Muffins? Now if they had been out of coffee, I could understand her response.

celticpassage's picture

I would say there is no such thing as the sensation of anger.
Anger is an emotion, sensations of any kind are not emotions (although emotions depend upon sensations to a large degree).

marginal person's picture

I agree with your point about angry sensations. I think of sensations as physical responses to some trigger in the environment

marginal person's picture


marginal person's picture

I don't understand the need for the Wellwood quote about ".... living in a state of pre reflective identification." I have a sense of what it means but it strikes me as unnecessary jargon.

Jules Shuzen Harris's picture

Pre-reflective identification comes about for the following reason -- we lack self-reflective awareness in childhood. As a result, we are mostly dependent on others to help us see and know ourselves – to do our reflecting for us. We inevitably start to internalize their reflection e.g. how they see and how they respond to us -- coming to regard ourselves in terms of how we appear to others. Thus we see, forming an identify means taking ourselves to be something based on how others relate to us. I hope this clarifies my reference to John Welwood.

marginal person's picture

Thanks for the clarification.

jerome's picture

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us to embrace our anger. He says we should embrace our anger like a mother holds a five year old child.

We develop loving kindness and compassion towards our anger.

We then can let the anger go like the person who is like water.

marginal person's picture

Thanks, Jerome. The image of embracing anger as if it were a child is a striking one.
Anger is part of our make up and visualizing it can bring new levels of insight to the concept.
Using the mind's eye can sometimes be more effective then words in understanding concepts.

celticpassage's picture

Well, really. To me those statements just sound like a series of empty platitudes which offer no insight at all. And as advice, I would think they would be totally ineffective.

bobseng's picture

I'm new to this site--so sorry if this is wrong place for my question. Is there a way to download the audio to iTunes or something like that?

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi bobseng,
Welcome! At the moment there is not, but we're working on it!
Emma V.

Janejenn's picture

I have the same issue - flash player is needed to access the audio, and it's not supported on iPhone or iPad. Post to YouTube? Or maybe a transcript? Thanks.

jackelope65's picture

If anger is only caused by binder circumstances, then why is it on the rise. When I first practiced medicine, it was extremely joyful, but the stress levels became intolerable when medicine turned from a service industry to profit making and dramatic rises in knowledge and skill requirements while helpful technology for communication, documentation, and problem solving lagged far behind dramatically increasing both risk and stress levels for physicians as well as other health care workers. I took care of catastrophically ill patients, and breaks for rest, relaxation, and eating became impossible. I struggled to maintain my Buddhist practices, exercise, and unrushed healthful eating. I just quit at 62 despite my love for medicine and my patients because of burnout. I now can focus on reading, buddhism, diet and exercise. My stress levels are dramatically down along with my blood pressure. Outside circumstances do make a difference.

khickey's picture

Wow! This spoke to me! I am still practicing medicine and everything you have written rings true. I am only able to stay serving my patients because of my meditation practice and practice of the dharma. Until we learn to value caring for the caretakers in medicine ( docs, nurses,NP's PA's anyone working in healthcare at all!) we will NEVER heal this broken system

Bagdad's picture

jackelope64...I feel your pain (and the other emotions). I practice medicine as a PA for 31 years and now in Hospitalist medicine at a rural ME hospital - and the problems you noted are some of the great challenges of continuing to practice and, for me, compounded by my inner story that "I'm not enough" in caring for people with long problems lists and even longer medication lists (as well as all the other attendant issues). Every day I dream about retiring and leaving this stress behind but I keep plugging away with the faith/belief that by working with all of these emotional states and by working with these negative self stories that I will eventually find the peace that I seek in metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha. But, bagging groceries at the local Shop and Save sure looks appealing, too. I'm happy for you that you were able to transition away from your medical practice and life of service. May you be at ease.

Jules Shuzen Harris's picture

Because of our cultural conditioning we tend to externalize the source of anger or distress to forces outside ourselves.
You referenced your Buddhist practice, then you know, that the Buddha said, the source of our suffering stems from our attachments. What MBB points to as the source of our distress is our requirements or rules governing how we should be, how people should and how the world should be in order for us to feel ok. This is a delusion born from the mythological belief that we are damaged.

I would encourage you to do some mind-mapping. You might start with “Why outside circumstances make a difference.” Take 3 to 4 minutes and quickly jot down thoughts associated with your initial statement. Next scan your body and note tension and breathing patterns. Also note if your body feels heavy or light. Lastly, identify your requirements. For further detailed instruction, visit the mind-body bridging website:

Vic's picture

Thank you for this, Sensei.

celticpassage's picture

Yes. Seems to me that capitalism is the main external cause of increasing stress levels and much of the ills that plague societies. Anytime something becomes a business, morality and caring and humanity are tossed aside. There is one and only one concern: profit. And absolutely everything is falling before this predatory greed: medicine, higher education, governments, entire societies, and the earth itself.

Bagdad's picture

Can we just simply say that the 3 poisons (greed, hatred, delusion) are the root cause of our suffering - in whatever guise they show up in? And may I continue to be mindful of my own poisoning and work to find skillful ways to live in the world and not add to its suffering.