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Working with Anger

adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, July 1st, 2001

A tension sometimes arises between Buddhist teachings and Western attitudes towards anger. When I give a talk on anger, describing how to work with it, how to not be controlled by it, and how to let go of it, inevitably someone will say, “I don’t think that anger is bad or that we need to get rid of it; it can play an important role in our lives.”

One of the issues between Buddhist and western cultural understandings of anger is the assumption that the English use of the word “anger” is the same as the Buddhist use. Often, they are referring to somewhat different experiences.

The Buddhist word dosa is usually translated as anger. But it would probably be more accurate to translate it as “hostility,” provided that we recognize that hostility can be present in emotions ranging from minor annoyance to full-blown rage. While the English word anger can include hostility, it doesn’t have to. The West has a long tradition of accepting certain forms of anger as appropriate responses, for example, a forceful protest against injustice.

Dosa burns the one who is angry. Classic Buddhist teachings liken being angry to holding a red-hot piece of coal. For Buddhists, acting on dosa is never justified; dosa is a form of suffering that Buddhist practice is designed to alleviate.

One ancient Buddhist text likens dosa to “urine mixed with poison.” In ancient India, urine was considered to have medicinal properties; it was unpleasant but beneficial. However, when urine is mixed with poison, the unpleasant medicine becomes harmful. At times a forceful “No!” is required of us even though it may be unpleasant. But an energized “no” mixed with hostility is like mixing urine with poison.

Dosa holds people out of our hearts, away from our kindness and care. We don’t necessarily need to avoid anger, but we do need to guard ourselves from locking others out of our hearts.

How can we work with this difficult emotion?

Meditation can be very helpful. In it we can experience our anger without inhibitions, judgments, or interpretations. It can be a relief to discover a capacity for witnessing anger without either pushing it away or engaging with it. In fact, meditation may well be the safest place to be angry, to learn to let it flow through us freely, without either condemnation or approval.

With non-reactive mindfulness as the foundation, we can investigate anger deeply through the body, emotions and thoughts. Anger can open us to a world of self-discovery.

Anger tends to be directed outward towards an object, towards other people, events, or even parts of ourselves. In mindfulness meditation, we turn the mind away from the object

of anger to study the source of the anger and the subjective experience of being angry.

We can investigate anger through the sensations of the body. The direct experience of anger may result in sensations of heat, tightness, pulsation or contraction. The breathing may become heavy or rapid, and the heart may beat strongly. Since these sensations are direct and immediate, bringing attention to them helps lessen the preoccupation with the object of the anger and with the story of why we are angry. This in turn, helps us to be more fully present for the anger in and of itself.

Turning our attention away from the object of our anger is important because, while the conditions giving rise to anger may be varied, the direct causes of hostile anger are found within the person who is angry. The causes include aversion, grasping, resentment, fear, defensiveness and other reactions that may be unnecessary and are often the source of the greatest pain in a difficult situation. A traditional folk saying states, “An enemy can hurt you physically; but if the enemy wants to hurt your heart, you have to help by getting angry.”

Hostile anger seems to have its roots in recoiling from our own pain. We may react to our own sadness, loneliness, fear, disappointment or hurt by directing anger outwards rather than experiencing these feelings. Learning to honestly and non-reactively explore our pain through the mind and bodily sensations is an important step to freedom.

In my own life, I’ve learned that my anger tends to have two primary causes: fear and hurt. When I get angry, if it seems appropriate, I remove myself from the situation and try to be mindful of what is going on inside. If I can find the fear or the hurt underlying the anger, then (if possible) I’ll go back into the situation and speak from the perspective of being hurt or afraid. Conversations tend to be more helpful when I do this, partly because I am not assigning blame. This often lessens the other person’s defensiveness or reactivity; they may even be more inclined to see their own responsibility.

Anger is always a signal. Mindfulness helps reveal what it signals. Sometimes it is a signal that something in the external world needs to be addressed. Sometimes it is a signal that something is off internally. If nothing else, anger is a signal that someone is suffering. Probably it is you. Sit still in the midst of your anger and find your freedom.