In this post I suggest that anger is a deluded person’s emotional response to the existential facts of impermanence, dissatisfaction and insubstantiality. Anger serves no useful purpose whatsoever, and through meditation and mindfulness practice one gets better at dealing with this destructive emotion…
If it can be remedied,
Why get into a foul mood over something?
And if it can’t be remedied,
What help is it to get into a foul mood over it? – Shantideva
Ordinarily I perceive self inside a material body that’s separate from everyone and everything else existing in the world “out there”. Instinctively I’m attracted to whatever appears as “positive” and “pleasurable”. I’m repelled by whatever appears as “negative” and “painful”. I’m bored by whatever appears as “neutral” and “insignificant”.
I want to be happy and free from suffering. My creative efforts are almost entirely focused upon maximising pleasure and minimising pain. And I get angry and disappointed whenever it seems that my desires are being frustrated by disagreeable people or unfavourable circumstances.
However, this ordinary view of life that I mindlessly subscribe to is fundamentally flawed.
Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta
The facts of life according to the Buddha are: Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta.
Anicca or impermanence refers to the rather obvious fact that everything changes and nothing lasts. Everything I look to for security and happiness – for example, physical and mental health; relationships; career; material possessions… etc. will one day change or cease to be. I can’t rely upon them, therefore, because ultimately they’re impermanent – they’re just like castles made of sand!
Dukkha or dissatisfaction is the second fact of life. Whatever situation I enter into there’s always someone or something that I dislike. Even when blissfully happy, my joy eventually fades as I become bored or distracted or separated from whatever it is I believe to be a source of happiness. And when life doesn’t bring me what I want, I get angry and frustrated and I blame my unhappiness on poor circumstances or disagreeable people. Inevitably I’m drawn into conflict with others (who are also searching for happiness while hoping to avoid any unpleasantness).
Anatta or selflessness is the third fact of life. And what this basically means is, everything that I perceive to be “out there” is mere appearance – the product of an ignorant mind that’s always comparing, judging and labelling what it sees. If observable phenomena really do possess inherent qualities independently of my own mind then, logically, they ought to appear exactly the same to everyone. But I know from experience that this isn’t the case. For example, I might consider someone to be a nice person but their ex-partner is likely to disagree with me. I might feel threatened by the prospect of retirement or redundancy, but a more optimistic person is likely to regard these life-changing situations as opportunities rather than threats. The reality is that no two persons experience the exact same object or situation in exactly the same way; everyone experiences the sensory world through a veil of conditioned ideas and expectations about what is true and real.
Getting to know how the Buddha saw reality is enabling me to deal with anger much more effectively than I used to.
So what exactly is anger? Seems to me that anger is the response of a deluded personality who’s repulsed by an object or a person or a situation. The angry mind sees a problem to be avoided or fixed or eliminated; “faults” are exaggerated, “virtues” are ignored, and from this position of ignorance I act accordingly. I might make critical or disparaging remarks, for example. But if the delusions are particularly strong they’re likely to be expressed more violently.
Anger is habitual, and like most habits it’s often triggered by a particular word or event. Guaranteed to set me off regular as clockwork are “careless” drivers and other “offensive” persons. Arriving late for an “urgent” meeting, being unable to remember what I “need” to remember, and losing “precious” items are also likely spark feelings of anger. In fact there are many things that push my buttons, and if I asked all my closest associates to write down what they think is most likely to infuriate me I’m sure they would each produce a similar list.
Normally when I’m in pain I’ll do whatever it takes to get rid of it. But when it comes to anger I hold onto it because I’m attached to having whatever I want from life despite the insubstantial and transitory nature of events. Recently, for example, I argued over something fairly trivial with my wife as we sat at the breakfast table. I carried on stewing and fuming about it at work, only to find that she had forgotten all about it when I got home again in the evening.
It’s often said that anger can sometimes be useful in motivating people to fight against injustice, but I don’t recall anger ever having served me well. If a problem can be remedied why get angry about it? And if it can’t be remedied there’s still no point in getting angry. Anger merely reinforces my selfish delusions. It stops me empathising with and acting compassionately towards those whom I wrongly blame for causing me and others to suffer. My “enemies” get all defensive and they stop listening to me when I’m angry.
Some Buddhists make a distinction between anger and “wrathful compassion”. A good example of wrathful compassion that’s still strong in my memory was Bob Geldof’s Live Aid campaign in the 1980’s. Geldof may have looked and sounded angry at times, but being motivated by compassion he saw very clearly what needed to be done to help alleviate suffering in Africa. He was in control of his emotions for the most part, I’d say. Strongly-felt compassion of this sort strikes me as being very different from actual anger.
The main problem with anger for me is, it robs me of any good sense and exposes me to all kinds of dangers. Buddha likened anger to picking up red hot coals in order to throw them at someone. Reality becomes distorted when I’m angry, so my behaviour tends to be inappropriate and inflammatory. In the heat of anger I risk my reputation, my career, my relationships, perhaps even my life (or the lives of my nearest and dearest) when I retaliate against those who offend me.
Anger is also a very painful state of mind. When I’m angry, my peace of mind is destroyed and even my body becomes tense and uncomfortable. My behaviour is so unreasonable that no one wants to be around me. I have difficulty sleeping and even my favourite food is indigestible. In fact it’s impossible to enjoy anything when I’m angry.
If I allow room in my mind for anger then I’m always going to encounter problems of my own making. There will always be someone I dislike, always some situation to be avoided, always something to be fixed. So I have resolved to remove anger from my life. This doesn’t mean that I now punch pillows or scream to “get it all out.” Neither do I insulate myself from the world.
Any unpleasantness is an opportunity for me to practice patient acceptance, which is the antidote to anger. Whenever anger arises I don’t lie to myself or pretend to others that everything’s fine (if I try to repress angry feelings they just seethe away in my mind; sooner or later I boil with rage and lose control!). I just acknowledge the anger and try not to grasp at it. Grasping is thinking, for example, “I’m angry and it’s your fault!” I try to observe the anger instead of grasping at it – I try to see its presence in my mind as something impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial. The bad feelings are more likely to fade instead of growing stronger.
I keep asking myself, “Why do I react angrily in certain situations but other people don’t get angry in the exact same situations?” By honestly examining my attitude and behaviour towards whatever I find distressing or annoying, I’m gradually uncovering the underlying beliefs I have about self and the world I see “out there.” Recalling the many problems that anger has caused me in the past also helps. Meditating on the breath is very useful for relaxing body and mind temporarily (it can be done anywhere at any time). Longer lasting benefits come from meditating daily on the Four Noble Truths and other Buddhist teachings that inspire me to be wiser and more compassionate in adversity.
Ordinarily I see disagreeable people or poor circumstances or unpleasant environments as problems and I blame them for my unhappiness. The sense of “my problem” or “my suffering” leads very easily to judgements and criticisms and feelings of anger and resentment, which may or may not be suppressed. From the Buddha’s perspective, the real problem isn’t the environment or circumstances or other people – it’s my habitual ignorance, my judgemental attitudes, and my knee-jerk responses to whatever life brings.
In order to effectively resolve an apparent problem it’s often necessary to change how I think about it. More importantly, I have to change how I think of myself. When I can remain calm in adversity rather than reacting through panic, when I can stop demanding that other people change their behaviour, and when I can stop wishing for a more favourable set of circumstances, more often than not the “problem” ceases to be a problem!
So I try to cultivate a realistic attitude of non-attachment to self and to worldly concerns. This doesn’t mean that I abandon essential activities or stop trying to alleviate other people’s sufferings. Rather, I try to be mindful of my motivations and not allow myself to be led astray by irrational cravings. It requires courage to change what can be changed, patience to accept what cannot be changed, and wisdom to know the difference.
Ultimate wisdom is the realisation of impermanence, dissatisfaction and selflessness – the ‘Three Signs of Being’. Practicing what the Buddha taught is leading me naturally and gradually towards longer-lasting peace of mind. Yes, I do still manifest as an angry person on occasions despite having practiced sincerely to the best of my ability for almost a decade. But the more I meditate, the more I realise that all appearances are mind-induced. There’s no real basis for feeling desire, hatred or indifference towards other people or life in general. There’s nothing or no one “out there” that I can rely on for happiness, or blame for the sufferings I experience. Understanding all of this removes at a stroke any justification for my feelings of anger or resentment at the way things are.
Suggested Further Reading
How to Solve Our Human Problems: The Four Noble Truths, by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Tharpa Publications: Ulverston, 2005.
Transform Your Life: A Blissful Journey, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Tharpa Publications: Ulverston, 2001.
‘Uprooting the Seeds of Anger’, by Jules Shuzen Harris, Sensai, Tricycle Magazine, Summer 2012.
‘Aren’t We Right to be Angry? How to Respond to Social Injustice: An interview with Buddhist scholar John Makransky’, in Tricycle Magazine, Summer 2012.
‘The Elimination of Anger: With two stories retold from the Buddhist texts‘, by Ven. K. Piyatissa Thera, Access to Insight, 2010.
‘The Five Mental Hindrances and Their Conquest: Selected Texts from the Pali Canon and the Commentaries‘, compiled and translated by Nyanaponika Thera, Access to Insight, 2010.
Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior by Shantideva, translated from the Tibetan, as clarified by the Sanskrit, by Alexander Berzin, The Berzin Archives, 2004.
The Four Noble Truths by Ven. Ajahn Sumedho, Amaravati Publications, 1992.