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The Issue at Hand

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Chapter 19: Working with Anger

A “charioteer” I call the one
Who keeps in check
The unsteady chariot of arisen anger.
Others merely hold the reins.

– Dhammapada 222

 

A tension frequently 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 a useful role in our lives.” These comments may come from 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, usually translated as anger, might more accurately be translated as “hostility,” provided we recognize that hostility can be present in emotions ranging from minor aversion 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 non-hostile anger as appropriate – 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. To discover a capacity for witnessing anger without either pushing it away or engaging with it can be a great relief. 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 toward an object, toward other people, events, or even parts of ourselves. In mindfulness meditation, we turn the mind away from the object of anger and focus it inwardly 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 heartbeat strong. Because 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. These 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 explore our pain honestly and non-reactively through the mental events 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. He or she may even be more inclined to see his or her own responsibility.

Anger is always a signal. Mindfulness helps reveal what it signals. Sometimes the signal tells us that something in the external world needs to be addressed, sometimes 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 from that suffering.

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