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On Anger (Talk 2 of 3)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Apr 19, 2006
In topic: Emotion
In classical Buddhist discussions anger is viewed negatively. But anger can also show us something crucial about our emotional life that we may need to know in order to be healthy. Anger is an indicator: something needs attention, something needs investigation. Drawing partly on the writing of Thich Nhat Hanh, Zoketsu discusses how to work with anger, to find the Buddha at the root of anger.
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Last week we heard from Peter who brought in the social dimension of anger, how as a culture and as a nation we validate and cultivate anger as an article of personal and national pride. You might say that the war against terror exists as such because we believe that in the face of aggression we ought to be angry, and ruthlessly so. So wire tapping and unjust and brutal imprisonment make sense. We must be tough. Being tough means we should be angry at enemies; not to be tough is to be stupid and weak. And especially for men in our culture there is a lot of pent up anger that comes from the need to perform and succeed and dominate, and the pain that men feel over the pressure to be this way is something that can't really be discussed or acknowledged. Peter also pointed out how pervasive anger is, that it is, as he said "all over our lives."

I think he is right about that. The more I think about anger the more it seems to me both that anger is a basic and key emotion, and also that anger can't be understood without recognizing how connected it is to other emotions. We know that anger can be there when we don't experience it. We might say, and mean it, "I'm not angry at all," and yet we are angry, and others can see that we are by the way we speak or look or act, in small but unmistakable ways. It's in a way odd that we might be angry without feeling the characteristic feelings of anger — the sense of energy, the heart pounding, the mind racing, the tremendous and uncomfortable desire to lash out, and so on — and yet in our experience it seems that we often are angry without actually feeling anger. And the converse can also be true: that we're feeling angry but the anger is really a cover up for some other powerful emotion, usually fear, that we don't want or can't face. The point is that anger can't be separated from other strong negative emotions; it is a part of a complex of difficult and uncomfortable emotions that causes patterns of nasty behavior and nasty feelings that make us and those around us suffer a lot. So to practice with anger — rather than simply be a victim of anger — is to practice with more honesty and with more willingness to really look at our whole complex of negative emotions and to take responsibility for them and try to do something creative with them.

In classical Buddhist discussions anger is viewed negatively, and there might be an implication that we ought not to be angry and if we are it is a failing of our spiritual practice we ought to be able to overcome. As we discussed last time I spoke, it is clear that anger is a problem in that it causes us to act stupidly and destructively, and also in that it can be addictive. People who are quite self involved can become addicted to anger as a way to get what they want; and certainly angry people are intimidating. But if you are a bit less self involved you see that having reasonably satisfying human relationships is as important as and possibly more important than getting what you want on every occasion. And so you begin to see anger as a problem. There' s another, possibly more wholesome way, anger can be useful. Anger is, in large part, strong emotional energy, and if it could be channeled and somehow purified it might be helpful to us. If we could figure out how to manage our anger so that we would not be pushed around by its irrationality and destructiveness, then we might be able to use anger as an ally to help us work for the good.

But there's something else about anger that is important and really helpful to us, maybe more helpful than this. Anger is information, anger tells us about who we are and what is on our mind and on our heart. It's a bit like physical pain: just as physical pain is something negative, it hurts, and also positive, because it is the body's way of protecting itself and showing us that something is wrong and where it is wrong, so also anger can show us something crucial about our emotional life that we may need to know in order to be healthy. Anger is an indicator: something needs attention, something needs investigation. If we are angry it's because we are thwarted and frustrated or afraid somehow and possibly we don't know it and we need to know it so that we can shift and grow. Almost always our various fears and frustrations signal times and opportunities for growth and change — if only we will look them in the face. When we are willing to look them in the face we will see them differently, more accurately, and instead of avoiding them, or beating our heads against them in anger, we will be able to pass through them and become larger, more inclusive and more compassionate people. It is nice to recognize that anger can be the key to this sort of growth when we learn how to practice with it.

Some lines in a favorite Zen text of mine called Torei Enji's Bodhisattva's Vow say:

Then in each moment's flash of thought
There will grow a lotus flower
And each lotus flower will reveal a Buddha.


Once in the days when I was practicing with Aitken Roshi I had a big insight about that line. I realized that it was really true — that every thought and emotion I had, even very negative and painful ones, was capable of growing a lotus flower — in fact it already was a lotus flower if you could get to the bottom of it, past the habit energy of aversion and desire. So that every thought and every emotion had a Buddha behind it, or at the end of it; every thought and emotion had something valuable and worthwhile to show you. Every thought and every emotion was something to be grateful for, for it was — again, if you could see it finally as it truly was — all the way to the root of it — a Buddha. And this is true of our anger too. It is in fact a Buddha awakening us. And we can trust it and practice with it. I never forgot that moment of insight and it has been something that has been with me ever since, enabling me to trust whatever arises in my mind, whether it is seemingly good or seemingly bad. So I don't have to complain to myself about myself. I can accept whatever comes with patience and faith that if I don't allow myself to be pushed around by my thoughts and feelings I will eventually find the Buddha at the end of the lotus petal.

This brings us to the teachings that Thich Nhat Hanh discusses in his book on anger. Some of this we covered in detail a few years or so ago when we studied his book on Yogachara Buddhist psychology, Transformation at the Base. In what's called Alaya Vijnana, or storehouse consciousness, which is a bit like the western concept of the unconscious, but not exactly the same in some crucial ways, there are seeds or tendencies of mind that are reinforced by our behaviors and reactions. These seeds or tendencies lay latent in Alaya until something in our present life triggers them; suddenly we find ourselves in a reactive mode, and our behavior is compulsive and primitive, as if we were in the grip of something beyond our control — which is true. In "Anger," Thich Nhat Hanh calls these seeds Internal Formations. He compares them to toxins in the body that need to be worked with so that they can eventually be healed and expelled from the body. And the method of working on them is mindfulness.

In his book, Thich Nhat Hanh makes tremendous claims for the power of mindfulness to transform intransigent emotional knots in individuals and in relationships in short order. While my own experience is that it is more difficult and usually takes more time than he seems to indicate, I am sure that he is right in what he says. We place so much faith in our intelligence and will, because, I suppose, we identify with them. I suppose this is what we think we are: the body, and our intelligence and will. Taught to be responsible and powerful, we imagine our intelligence and will ought to be able to shape a good life for us and when this proves not to be so we are at a loss. It must be our fault. Or possibly it is someone else's fault. We become disappointed in ourselves or in the world, usually in both, and we build up often reservoirs of despair and frustration. We believe our lives are unacceptable and the world is unacceptable, that things ought to be different, and we are stuck in a repeating loop of frustration. And there is no way to extricate ourselves. This is enough to make anyone angry!

Mindfulness is neither intelligence nor will. It is not "ours" and it is not "us" and can't really be manipulated or shaped by what we want. It is, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, a zone of energy, a force that has its own integrity. And it is essentially healing and positive by its nature. To be mindful is to relax and allow consciousness to open around an object. To bring a quality of presence to bear that is in its nature without desire or judgment but is curious and permissive. Mindfulness is like a soft light that illuminates what is there, showing it as it is, with honesty and sympathy. When we sit on our cushions we are practicing mindfulness, whether it is mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of breathing, mindfulness of sounds, mindfulness of thoughts and feelings arising and passing away. We're training ourselves in presence. It such a subtle thing. And yet it is radical. Isn't it interesting that the most radical changes we can make are those that are almost unnoticeable? And then getting up from our cushions, mindfulness continues as we practice patient awareness of what is going on inside and outside during our days. Rather than being entirely absorbed with what we want or distracted by emotions we are not yet even feeling, we are paying attention, being present, willing and interested to see more widely and openly what is happening. And that seeing changes what we experience, how we behave, and, ultimately, the sorts of things that happen to us.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains how to practice mindfulness with our anger. When we are angry we first simply recognize our anger as anger. Rather than going to blame right away, or to actions taken in anger, we take a step backward and just allow ourselves to pay attention to the actual feeling of anger. We might want to breathe with it, return awareness to the body, look and see what thoughts are coming, what feelings are coming. And that's all. We don't have to make the anger go away or cover it with feelings of love — or guilt! Just study the anger. Be with the anger. BE the anger, or let it be itself. The next step, and this step flows directly and almost automatically from the first, is to embrace the anger. This means that in simply recognizing the anger as anger and looking it in the face you disarm it, take away some of the toxicity that comes with our habitual aversion to the anger, our fear or love of it, our unwillingness to actually experience at it. Instead you embrace the anger, you forgive yourself for it, you begin to see it as an ally. And that leads automatically to the third step, to relieve the anger. At this point you are much calmer, your mind is not racing, your blaming and your frustration are toned down, and may almost strike you as amusing. Here, Thich Nhat Hanh says, you are greeted by the Buddha, who from now on will help you to work with your anger. What does this actually mean, that the Buddha appears and helps you? It means that you no longer feel the anger as you, as yours and your responsibility. You experience it as something valuable arising in the world and happening at this point to be arising in you for some reason that you would like to understand. In other words, you have expanded yourself to include the Buddha within you, the awakened point of view within you, and it begins to guide you. And then comes the last stage, understanding and transformation. Now you can see how and why the anger arose and you can learn something about yourself and also others. What you learn is compassion, sympathy. And so within one's self, or between one's self and another, it turns out that anger is something very poignant and valuable: it beings us closer to ourselves and closer to others. It deepens our intimacy.

This is quite easy to understand but not so easy to do. So strong is our habit of frustration, so compelling our sense of self, that we will again and again go back to that mode of feeling as soon as there is any strong stimulus. So we have to be very patient with this, and trust that our ongoing practice of meditation, our reflections on the teachings, and our sangha relations will little by little make it more likely that we will remember to practice more often in our daily life. And the path of working with anger may take us at first through more and more anger: we might have to get angry a lot more and feel a lot more acutely the pain of anger and its consequences before we are really ready to give it up. This is normal so we shouldn't be too worried about it.

© 2006, Norman Fischer