There is a poignant story about two Buddhist monks who encounter each other many years after being released from prison where they had been tortured. The first one asks, “Have you forgiven our captors?” The second one replies, “I will never forgive them! Never!” The first says, “Well, I guess they still have you in prison, don’t they?” This story vividly illustrates the tyranny of anger.
In the Theravada Buddhism tradition, it’s taught that the antidote to anger is loving-kindness and compassion. If you’re angry with someone, you hold them in your heart with loving-kindness and compassion; if you’re angry with yourself, you do the same. But because you sometimes get swept away by anger, you forget your intention to respond with loving-kindness and compassion. Also, anger isn’t always so easy to recognize—sometimes it’s disguised as numbness, depression, helplessness, or fear. By applying mindfulness to your moments of anger, you can begin to see anger as it is arising and its harmful effects. As you continue to stay present to the anger, you realize that “This anger is not me, nor mine. It is just a mind state that like the weather will change before long.” This insight releases you from the prison of your anger. Although this may sound simplistic, it truly works.
Working with Aspects of Anger
You can feel anger toward another or yourself. Your anger can be justified or unjustified. If your anger is justified, you’ve got two possibilities: You can either do something about it, or you can’t. Therefore, there’s no cause for melodrama, which simply multiplies your suffering. You can act to right the wrong that provoked your anger, but if you can’t, you can still speak your truth.
Rather than judging yourself for being angry, be interested in how you might skillfully use it to motivate yourself or others. Anger is simply energy, and it is your response to that energy that causes harm. So you’re trying to find a wholesome way to use the energy that surges through you when you are angry. If you can dis-identify with the anger, it can give you the courage to take action. Sometimes there’s a tendency to simply let it go, but you can use your anger to overcome your own resistance and then skillfully deal with a person or situation. For example, you might use the anger to overcome your fear of something.
Sometimes your anger may not be justified, but you are still angry, or maybe you don’t know whether it’s justified. For instance, you might believe that someone mistreated you, but you’re really not sure. If you bring mindfulness to the anger, it will eventually become clear whether or not the anger is justified. In the meantime, you simply treat yourself (and the other person) as kindly as possible. The anger is already there. Don’t get angry with yourself for being angry—that’s like pouring gasoline on a fire to put it out!
I’m not advocating suppressing or denying anger, and I’m not saying that anger is bad. It is the identifying with anger that’s the problem. There are three renunciation practices that can help when dealing with anger, whether it’s justified or not:
- The first renunciation is “I renounce being right about the past, present, or future.” Many times you are attached to being right, and that attachment is what holds you in anger. It does not matter if, in fact, you are right. When you are attached to being right, you keep re-creating anger.
- The second renunciation is “I renounce measuring the success of my life by how well my needs are being met.” For example, if you’re mad at your mother because she didn’t nurture you in some way, you feel the loss but you let go of measuring your life by it. Therefore, that anger which haunts you doesn’t have fuel anymore.
- The third renunciation is “I renounce being the star of my own life.” Take, for instance, if you tend to get angry when you drive and someone cuts you off on the highway. If you cease to identify yourself as the center of the universe, that anger really can shift because suddenly you’re just creating traffic like everyone else—you’re part of the whole. You’re no longer the star. Everything’s not seen from your position.
For your reflection:
Is your anger usually directed at yourself or others or both? Are you able to have compassion for others but not yourself, or vice versa? The truly compassionate heart does not pick and choose.
- Begin to explore your relationship to anger. See if you can hold yourself accountable for your unskillful actions but still have compassion for your mistakes and any suffering they create. Can you do this for others?
- Throughout your day be aware of how often you remain mindful. Practicing mindfulness allows you to receive any experience without being overcome by it, even such emotions as anger, anxiety, or fear.
For further study, listen to Phillip’s two talks on anger:
Anger: A Pair of Rulers