emotion: anger

Dealing with Anger- Ajahn Punnadhammo 

The modern urban environment often leads to a lot of stress. The fast pace, crowded conditions and constant sensory bombardment incline the mind towards agitation. This manifests as a constant low-grade irritability sometimes exploding into anger. We are all familiar with the general surliness of modern manners and with the more dangerous phenomenon of road rage. 

The Buddhist teachings have a lot to say about the state of anger, and provide practical tools for dealing with it. Anger is classified as an unskilful state of mind. This is very important, and it is crucial to see that there are no exceptions. Buddhism allows no place for "righteous anger." In other words, there is no conceivable case where anger is justifiable or where it is the most appropriate response. 

This might be hard to accept. It is easy to think of numerous examples of real grievances and injustices that seem to call forth the need for anger. But if we look at the results of anger the wisdom of this teaching may become more evident. An angry person is unable to think clearly, he has lost his perspective on the issue and if he acts from that anger he is likely to provoke an angry response, escalating the conflict. 

This does not at all mean that one should be passive in the face of abuse. It is a simple statement of the fact that any difficulty is best faced with a clear mind and a calm resolve. This holds true even in extreme situations where the skill of the warrior may be required. Ask any student of the martial arts whether the calm or the angry combatant is likely to take the match. In real life, avoiding anger can often defuse situations before they turn violent. All of this is in addition to the physiological effects of chronic anger, from high blood-pressure to ulcers. 

A final objection might be made by those who see anger as empowering, a way to self-assertion for the victimized. There is something of truth here, and it is important to clarify the issue. There is a great deal of harm in repressing any mental state, including anger. When a state is repressed, it is not that it isn’t present, it is just that it is not fully conscious. If we want to overcome anger, or any unskilful state, the first step is to be fully mindful of it. It is only then that we can work to get beyond it. 

Buddhism recognizes anger as a poison, and it offers an antidote. This is the skilful mental state of loving-kindness which is simply wishing well of another. If this state becomes universal, it leads into wisdom. It also feels better than anger, and that isn’t such a trifling advantage. 

As a practical example, let us go back to the case of road rage. If you are driving on the expressway and some aggressive driver cuts you off, you have a choice. You can indulge in the automatic flaring up of anger and it would be easy to justify it to yourself. That guy is an idiot, after all. You can become consumed with the anger, which will leave you feeling miserable and make your own driving more reckless. Alternatively, you can be mindful of the anger at the first arising and refuse to play along. You can cut it off immediately with a thought of loving-kindness. Instead of cursing that fellow up ahead formulate a conscious wish; "May he get home to his family safely." Isn’t it worth a try?


Anger, Thought, and Insight by Chuan Zhi Shakya

She was an energetic woman. She moved quickly and purposefully, and as she and her daughter sat down to join me for lunch, I could tell that she was clearly distressed. "It seems I’m always angry," she said, "and what’s worse, my daughter is picking up my anger-habits. This morning her pre-school teacher told me that she’s turning into a class b-u-l-l-y." I was glad she spelled the word. Watching the little girl innocently start to color with the paper and crayons the waitress had brought, I didn’t want her to think I saw her as any kind of bully. I asked her to tell me more about her problems.

"Everything that happens around me seems to make me angry. Yesterday I got a nuisance telephone call just as I had gotten into the bathtub… I stood there literally as ‘mad as a wet hen’ and slammed down the receiver. People can be so inconsiderate! Then, I tried to iron a silk blouse, and I had the setting up too high and I scorched the fabric. I yanked the blouse off the ironing board and threw it in the garbage. I was beside myself with anger. Last night, my husband made a crack about my mother, and I slapped his face. I just reached out and slapped him!  He was stunned – not by the slap but by the insult. Afterward, I apologized. I felt so ashamed. But my daughter hasn’t reached the point of self-analysis and repentence. She’s copying me."

"Do you ever hit her?" I asked. "Yes," she confessed. "I do, but only as a spanking on her behind. I never hit her face." "Is this spanking as ‘a last resort’?" I asked. "Yes," she said, "but often, instead of being patient and tolerant, I get angry at her when she doesn’t respond to verbal orders… when she ignores me or makes the same mistake repeatedly. Now, apparently, she’s doing the same thing with her classmates. What can I do to get over my anger."

"Anger is not a bad thing" I started out. "Anger is a natural response. Especially when we have certain responsibilites and we need to delegate authority to others or when we rely on some guarantee that a piece of machinery is going to work in a certain way and it doesn’t, we have a legitimate reason to become angry. Anger is supposed to indicate our dissatisfaction with the performance of people or things which have not performed satisfactorily. There is a limit to patience; and frankly, there are careless mistakes that people make that are injurious to others. We need to impress the person who carelessly makes those mistakes with the seriousness of his errors. Anger punctuates the message … as long as we are conscious of what we’re doing and are able to act reasonably.

"But other times anger is just a response to something going on within us. It’s not another person who makes us angry — that’s just an excuse to make ourselves angry — it’s our ego’s response to a perceived lessening of status, of threat, or to a conflict which we suspect we can’t win. The conflict may be known and conscious or unrecognized and unconscious: if it’s conscious, we can learn to understand our anger and then can maintain an inner calm: this is the only way we can command the power to avoid harming ourselves or others. This is the only way we can act, teach or protect in any constructive way.

"But if the conflict is unconscious, actions arising from that anger are unconscious as well and we, necessarily, lose command of them. Then our behavior becomes a pure response of the ego that is struggling to maintain superiority over the Self. In this case, the reason for our anger remains beyond our reach; and when we struggle for an explanation, we look outward and blame the person or thing nearest us: the telemarketer, the husband, the child, the blouse. This is what the ego thinks it has to do to protect itself from the injustices of fate that it can’t understand."

"What can I do to make her understand that hitting another child is wrong," she asked.

"Well, you can’t teach her theology or philosophy. She won’t understand that. But the wisdom of the East is not necessarily beyond her appreciation." I turned to the child. "I wonder," I said pretending doubt, "that if I tell you a special story you are old enough to understand it?"

"I can understand," she assured me. "Tell me."

"Well, a famous teacher named Saraswati likes to tell this story: I’ll repeat it for you:

"Once upon a time there was a holy man who encountered a big snake while he was walking through the forest. The holy man immediately recognized the snake as the reincarnation of a man who, in his previous life, had been very angry with many people. Oh, he caused his mother and his family and his friends so much trouble because of his anger and his meanness. That’s why he was reborn as a snake . When the snake saw that the holy man recognized this, he spoke to him. ‘I’m so miserable as a snake,’ he said. ‘I have no friends, and all the people who come here hate me. They say nasty things to me and want to hurt me. But I don’t let them. If they come near me I bite them. Tell me, how can I escape from this predicament?’

"The holy man said, ‘Why that’s simple! Stop biting people and eventually you will be liberated and can become a human being again!’

"So, in his desperation, the snake stopped biting people when they came into the forest to collect berries and fruit and firewood. But soon, the people realized that the snake did not react to their presence and so they started throwing stones at him. The poor snake wanted desperately to become a human being again so he did nothing at all; and, in time, he grew weak from the all the injuries he received.

"Many months later the holy man returned and saw the terrible condition of the snake. He asked him what was wrong and the snake explained what had happened. "The holy man saw the problem and the solution. He said to the snake: ‘You were forbidden to bite. You were not forbidden to hiss! So hiss! But then, mind you, hiss only when they throw stones.’

"The snake understood, and from that time on when people came near, if they were pleasant, the snake did nothing; but if they started to throw stones at him, he hissed. Oh, did he hiss! And so the people learned that if they respected the snake, he would respect them. They learned that even a patient snake can remind them that he is not exactly powerless against them.

Now," I asked, "what did you learn from this story?"

Even at the age of five, she could understand. "The people stopped trying to hurt the snake."

"Right," I said. "So hiss if you must hiss… but don’t bite. And if people are nice to you, you should be nice to them."

As to the young mother’s problem, the solution was not nearly so easy to determine. What was needed here was for her to learn to be conscious of what was making her angry and, through that inquisitive investigation, to gain possession of the anger instead of letting it possess her. She needed to take the ego out of the equation.

When we practice Zen, we practice engaging our Buddha Nature, that inner, separate-less, Self. When we experience a sudden outburst of emotion such as anger or fear, we need to pause and, through an act of will, engage our Inner Self. It requires that we activate our heart as well as our mind before we respond to a situation. Someone slaps us on the face and our immediate response is anger ­ "How dare he!" But what really happened? A hand has struck skin causing nerve impulses to travel to the spinal column and then to the brain … the brain responds by stimulating another part of the brain that generates the sensation of pain on the face. This is the reality of a slap to the face, but are we aware of it? Such a simple inquiry into the nature of an event that stimulates the anger reflex is often enough to break us free of it. Once we’re out of the anger-loop, we can reasonably investigate the cause of the slap to our face. Did we say something that offended someone? Is the other person trying to teach us a lesson? Was it an accident because the person happened to turn around quickly without knowing we were standing there? The only way we can understand is first to diffuse the anger and then to analyze the event. If we don’t do this, we’re a hungry devil’s meat.

We chatted through the meal about anger and ego and Self and selflessness. What seemed to be an overwhelming problem to her at the beginning of the conversation – that she was helpless before the disease of anger and had passed the disease to her child – now seemed within reach of a solution. She wanted to practice this new technique, she said, to see how well it worked.

I told her it’s really not that hard and that it all begins with awareness of the possibility that we are more than the sum of our parts. We can also think. She had already achieved that insight.

"I will stop biting," she said, "and learn how to hiss. Hissing will give me time to think things through."



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