Talking Dharma – Talking Anger
Within western culture anger is often understood to be a bad thing, yet it is a very normal emotion that can be helpful and unhelpful depending on the circumstances in which it arises. When you consider that the average time span of an angry moment lasts no longer that 15 seconds you have to ask yourself why it is considered to be such a problem? The answer must be surely be: how long does it take to pull the trigger of a gun, to lash out with a blade of a knife or simply to say something that will cause long term emotional or psychological harm? Before we explore the circumstances where anger could be considered appropriate, justifiable or even necessary, it will be helpful to consider how our cultural and psychological prohibitions against anger can be unhelpful for us if we are to understand the nature of anger, its cause and its connection with the worrying mind.
It needs to be borne in mind that the undertakings of the ethical training principals is not about setting up the standards by which we criticize ourselves when we make mistakes, or even worse, to criticize others when they make mistakes. Nor are they meant to be moral straitjackets for controlling our own behaviour or anyone else’s. Instead, they express what the authentic practitioner does naturally within the Dharma journey. As with all of the training principles, we need to work with anger in a way that liberates rather than confines us. That means not using the overriding principle to do the least amount of harm to reject or suppress what is actually happening. Because anger is so universal, frequent, and varied, it serves as a particularly helpful practical model for the exploration of that first principle.
First of all, it’s important to move beyond an oversimplified picture of what anger is. Anger takes many forms, and it’s good to explore its subtle and not-so-subtle variations so that each of us can find out precisely what works for us as a practice. Think of all the words there are for anger: rage, outrage, wrath, fury, resentment, annoyance, irritation, displeasure, indignation. Then there are favourite expressions such as ticked off, boiling mad, stewing, annoyed, simmering, or a descriptive such as to blow up, snap at, hit the ceiling, see red, get under someone’s skin, lose it. In addition to all the different kinds of anger are all the different things we do with anger. Some of us suppress it, some of us act it out, some of us disguise it as something else and some will pretend that they are not angry. Some of us get very angry at ourselves, and some of us haven’t the vaguest idea that we are ever angry. Some of us even get angry at things. How is that even possible? Have you ever tried working with windows 10? Because we have been conditioned to believe that anger is wrong, it is easy to think we should practice simply not being angry. But that approach is too general and abstract. It’s important for each of us to be precise, to be real, to be personal and honest, so we can find out exactly what our anger is and to be able to do that we need to ask ourselves lots of questions about its actual nature.
The first step is to discover our own particular version of anger. Once we’ve seen the quality of our anger, the next step is to get to know it intimately. Like many emotions, anger has both a cause and an object. Its cause might be that your favourite mug was broken through carelessness, but the object of the anger is you, the one who broke it. Getting to know your anger means turning your attention away from its cause and its object, and all the stories about it, to the anger itself. Getting to know the anger means not having any judgments about it, compassionately allowing it, and being curious about it. Suppressing anger is one obvious way of avoiding getting to know it, but so too is acting it out. In the latter case the anger is like a hot potato that you can’t get rid of fast enough.
What makes us avoid getting to know anger itself, rather than focusing on its object? Often it will be fear. The most common would be a fear of being rejected by the one with whom we’re angry. Then there is the whole conditioned guilt thing to contend with which does not allow us to admit it even to ourselves. One other area could be that we have created such a powerful self-image that we will not let others witness our infallibilities because it would be perceived as a sign of weakness. These are all different variants of fear.
A valid question to ask now would be: why is it important to know all this about my anger? Why not just not be angry? For one thing just not being angry is easier said than done. For another, there is no freedom in avoiding or suppressing it. Again, the training principles are not about rejecting any part of yourself, in this case, the one who gets angry, but rather getting to know that part of yourself and accepting it without any judgment. This is such an important step in working with the first principle. The more we can truly accept who we are, all the way to the point of becoming OK with it, the more we give the principle a chance to arise naturally. Some of us need to practice not acting out our anger and knowing when and how it shows up can be an enormous help in that regard. Others of us need to get in touch with our anger and not be so afraid or ashamed of it. Here too, getting to know the anger, even welcoming it, is an enormous help, especially when we have the courage to admit to others that we’re angry. For those with a self-image of never being angry, it’s important to realize that a never-angry self-image projects a self just as much as being angry does.
Perhaps the most important reason for getting to know our anger is that anger is an energy that becomes anger only when it is caught up in the complexities of the habitual patterns of the self-biased mind. Those patterns will include the stories we create about our anger’s cause and object, as well as many confused beliefs, not the least of which is the confusion of separation. This energy needs to be processed and transformed in a helpful way rather than distorted or destroyed. When we are unable to experience our anger fully, with integrity, it will inevitably result in a worried mind. When we open ourselves to it and understand it we gain the potential for change and worrying subsides.
To make the practice of working with anger personal and precise, it is helpful to explore the following kinds of questions. You can do this on your own but it can also be helpful if you work with someone else, as in another person asking you the questions, then silently holding the space while you answer. The first thing to explore is what kinds of situations you get angry with, or at, with questions such as: When do I get angry? What makes me angry? Do I get angry when I’m criticized? Ignored? Not getting my way? Do I get angry at someone who treats others badly? Do I ever displace my anger onto the wrong person, or take anger at myself out on someone else? What happens when I get angry? Does angry language pop out of me?
Then you explore into the nature of your anger with questions such as: How do I typically get angry? Is my anger hot or cold? Is it quickly discharged or a slow burn? Is my anger suppressed, denied, or hidden? Do I walk around with simmering resentments day after day? How is my private anger different from my anger at public figures or institutions? If you have difficulty expressing anger or even recognizing that you’re angry, ask yourself these questions: When do I have difficulty expressing anger? With which sorts of people am I reluctant to express anger? Family members? Friends? Men? Women? Employers? Authority figures? Finally, ask yourself about any old angers you’ve been carrying around for a long time. It’s well worth a good old delve into our memory banks to see if the time has come to let go and move on.
The kind of anger we’re used to, the kind that isn’t helpful, can be a great teacher. Since anger by definition involves separation, it makes no sense to pretend that it is arising in a universe of oneness. When it does arise, it instantly reveals to us the confused creation of “me” and “not me,” but also reveals our interconnectedness not oneness. Anger shows us just how fast the self-biased mind can be in control of the confusion, especially when we least expect it. It can happen whether we react to someone or something with a flash of temper, or some ancient buried anger wakes up and slowly takes us over. In either case, the self-biased mind is born again and has reconditioned us. But when we see through the anger to what it is, and more importantly why it is, we can be released from the entrapment of the fixed self, even if only momentarily and our actions will arise from our compassionate original nature. In that moment we will understand the difference between compassion and pity or sympathy. To deepen this practice even more, we can try, in a spirit of simple curiosity, to get so close to our anger that we no longer know or experience it as anger. Cause and object, the self being angry, and the anger itself all drop away, and all that remains is the appropriate response to an experience.
That leaves us with the question can anger ever be helpful? I’m sure we all know stories about heroic whistle-blowers who were angry about chemicals being dumped in a river, or angry that information concerning the side effects of a drug had been withheld. That kind of anger is not about defending the territory of self. It is for the benefit of all. There is a selflessness there that is borne of compassion. There is a kind of cleanness, clarity, and purity to this kind of anger because there is no aspect of the self-biased mind present. But again, it can so easily be rationalised or justified if actually what is happening is little more than righteous indignation. This is why the Buddha linked ethics with meditation as a means of exploring our motivations within conscious awareness.
The Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has a very beautiful thing to say about getting to know our anger. “Treat your anger with the utmost respect and tenderness, for it is no other than yourself. Do not suppress it, simply be aware of it. Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed. When you are aware that you are angry, your anger is transformed. If you destroy anger, you destroy the Buddha, for Buddha and Mara are of the same essence. Mindfully dealing with anger is like taking the hand of a little brother.”
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