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On Anger (Talk 3 of 3)

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 04/26/2006
In Topics: Emotion

If we can practice mindfulness with anger we can come to see that anger shows us where we are stuck, and can even provide a powerful path toward becoming unstuck. This is working with anger internally. But how can we work with anger when it arises in our relationships? Taking the time to work something out with another person can be difficult but it can also be transformative.

During zazen: a guided meditation on anger, based on Thich Nhat Hanh's "Anger":

Contemplating a person in anger I breathe in;
Seeing the suffering of that person I breathe out

Contemplating the damage done from anger I breathe in;
Seeing that anger burns and destroys happiness I breathe out

Seeing anger's roots in the body — in
Seeing anger's roots in the mind — out

Seeing anger's roots in misperception and confusion — in
Forgiving myself and others for misperception and confusion — out

Seeing the angry person suffer — in
Feeling compassion for the suffering angry person — out

Seeing myself suffering with anger — in
Feeling compassion for myself — out

So far we've been talking about the nature of anger, making an effort to understand better what anger is; and we've been talking about how to work internally with anger so as to make anger into a practice rather than merely an annoyance or a problem — or worse.

To review very briefly: on the first point, understanding anger, we've seen that anger is complex and pivotal, that it can't be understood in isolation from other afflictive emotions, and that its ultimate cause is probably our basic dissatisfaction and frustration with life itself. So that any instance of anger, if we look deeply enough, can take us all the way back to the basic human catastrophe: that we're small people in a large world that unfortunately isn't entirely constructed to look out for our personal interests. For one thing — among many others — we have to die, which is a problem for us.

On the second point, working internally with anger, we've been following Thich Nhat Hanh's method, the basic Buddhist method, mindfulness. Just as we practice mindfulness on our cushions — aware of body, of breathing, of mental and emotional state — so we can practice awareness of anger without being entangled in it. Or, if we do get entangled, to recognize that, and be able to take a step back, understanding that blame and a raging mind and, especially, speech and action committed out of anger, isn't going to be successful. Instead, simply being with the anger, feeling the actual feeling of anger with patience, will, in the long run, certainly change our relationship to anger. If we can practice mindfulness with anger we can come to see anger as valuable and even to some extent positive, for it shows us where we are stuck, and it can even provide a powerful path toward becoming unstuck. That's what we've been discussing so far.

Tonight I want to do two things; first, to talk a little bit about working with anger between people. And then I'd like to share a few things from Dalai Lama's book "Healing Anger."

First point: To go beyond internally working with anger to reach out to others with whom we might be angry, or who might be angry with us, is clearly a challenge and a risk. This is a huge topic of course and it is less clear than working internally with anger because it is so situational. In fact there isn't so much about it in the classical teachings, which are mostly about working within, and then, as far as working without, basically just tell us be loving, be compassionate, be kind, be helpful and to cultivate those feelings. But how to practice compassion, and so on, when anger is part of the equation, is not so much discussed.

In any case, the important point is that the internal work with anger is primary, and anything you do interpersonally depends on that. There are no techniques or tricks that we can count on absolutely to smooth our relationships. In the end what we do externally is a practical matter, a matter of common sense, that will work to the extent that we've been successful at the inner work. This is not to say that we have to wait until we are perfectly composed and enlightened before we take up our issues with another person. Only to realize that the more composed and enlightened we are the better things are likely to go. A few points to mention:

First, in trying to work things out with others when there is anger, the practice of patience is absolutely necessary. Difficult though it may be, before we can do anything in relation to the other person, we have to calm down. When we're furious there's no way we can make things better. It may be ok, and even beneficial, to communicate when we are still, to some extent, angry, but only when we are able to show our hurt as well as our anger, and when we are able to speak without flying off the handle.

Second, we need to remember that we can't have expectations of the other person. Maybe we can have a little hope, but no expectations. We have to ask ourselves, am I reaching out to the other person expecting that she will apologize, or that she will understand how I feel and be sympathetic? If so we should forget about communicating. We have to communicate because it is part of our practice to do so, because it is right to do so, and because it is an expression of our regard for the other person. We have to be ready to receive no response or even a negative response, and to have faith that our communication is worthwhile in its own right, and that it will bear fruit at some unknown point.

Third, we have to be realistic about how difficult it can be to work things out with others, and how emotionally costly and time consuming. For this reason we probably have to choose the times when we want to work things through with another person, and let go of the many others times when we're angry but don't have the time or inclination to work things out. If we were to deal carefully and seriously with others in every instance of anger that we feel we'd have no time for anything else! In my own experience of trying to help others work out strained relationships, and in my own as well, I have always been impressed by how much time it takes. And sometimes tremendous investments of time bear little fruit. So one needs to recognize this, be willing to spend the time, and see that the time may have benefits beyond this particular incident or person involved. Taking the time to work something out with another person can be difficult but it is always also interesting and beneficial as a learning experience even if it doesn't do any good. And if you work at this, it can be astonishingly transformative.

Finally, we probably need some support, good friends who are sympathetic to us but won't indulge or encourage us in our anger. While we hope they are capable of seeing our point of view, we hope just as much that they can help us see beyond it.

In "Anger" Thich Nhat Hanh discusses at length how to work with others in cases of anger and disputes. As a peace activist he places a great importance on this work, as we ought to as well, and sees a continuity between our personal relationships and our political commitments. As we've said, he begins with mindfulness and internal work, and agrees that we've got to get some purchase on our anger before we're ready to reach out to others. One of his techniques is writing a letter. This seems rather quaint in this day of instant messaging and call waiting but it is something to think about. If you are not yet ready to face the person, writing a letter, whether you send it or not, might be a very good way to begin. Writing the letter, letting it sit for a while, revising it, showing it to friends, revising it again, before you send it to the person, or read it to him or her aloud, or speak the letter's contents informally. In his text he gives some sample sentences and they always include three elements: loving kindness toward the other person; the humility of recognizing that your experience of the situation may not be accurate or complete; and an understanding that the root of all bad behavior is suffering. The benefit of writing the letter is that it gives us the time to study and remember these points, and when we actually express them in words addressed to another, it can change our minds.

The appendix to the book also has a "Peace Treaty."

Now, as to the Dalai Lama's book, "Healing Anger," which is a discussion of Santideva's chapter on Patience in Bodhisattvacharyavattara, a guide to the bodhisattva's way of life. The bodhisattva path is the path of developing compassion for others, through practicing the paramittas, which are: giving, morality, energy, patience, meditation, and wisdom. Patience is specifically discussed in the context of anger, as the antidote to anger. It requires a kind of intellectual yoga — coming to understand that anger at another never makes sense and is always harmful. It is a reflective meditation on the nature of anger whose purpose is to bring us to an understanding that will help us to deal with anger when it arises, or possibly even to prevent it from arising. The underlying assumption is that our ideas and conceptions drive our emotions, and so if we can straighten out our conceptions, this will change us on emotional and spiritual levels as well. Which is the theory of the Dharma Seminar! Why else study?

® 2006, Norman Fischer

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