An anger-eating demon

There is a curious sutta in which an unnamed, deformed demon challenges the followers of Sakka, the ruler of the devas, by brazenly taking Sakka’s seat. As Sakka’s subjects revile the demon, he becomes visibly less ugly and more attractive. How can this be? They report this strange phenomenon to Sakka, that an “anger-eating demon” has claimed his throne. So, Sakka kneels before the demon, presses his palms together in salutation and says, “I, dear sir, am Sakka, ruler of the devas!” Sakka repeats this phrase another two times and each time, the demon becomes visibly more deformed and ugly and then disappears. Sakka re-takes his seat and says:

“I am not one afflicted in mind,
nor easily drawn by anger’s whirl.
I never become angry for long,
nor does anger persist in me.

“When I’m angry I don’t speak harshly
and I don’t praise my virtues.
I keep myself well restrained
out of regard for my own good.”
— the full sutta is here: https://suttacentral.net/en/sn11.22

It’s almost as if the anger-eating demon is an embodiment of a negative quality, and clearly stating the present reality dissipates the “bogey man’s” power. It could be a parallel to when the Buddha is confronted by Mara, the embodiment of delusion, and simply says, “I see you, Mara”, which makes Mara withdraw.

An Australian artist named Sebastian Moody has produced a number of public works. One of them is displayed in an underpass I often drive through:

the-more-i-think-about-it-the-bigger-it-gets-1.png

Don’t we all experience this? If we are worried about something and keep on worrying, doesn’t it grow until it clouds our mental state? If we are planning a happy event and obsessing over the details, don’t we lose perspective? If we go over something (anything) in our minds again and again, doesn’t it become distorted?

Because Sakka is not prone to anger and not vulnerable to the worries of his followers, he is able to see clearly how to bring things back to reality.

The mindfulness technique of naming what is true right now, in a flow, can help us stay in balance.  For example: “tension in the stomach”, “feet on the earth”, “this in-breath”, “this out-breath”, “cool air on the skin”, “slumped posture”, “tense jaw”, etc. By taking this inventory of our direct physical experience as we become aware of it, we can interrupt the flights of fancy that take us out of our present reality. It could be as simple as noting “this body is sitting/standing/walking”, and experiencing that fully.

Another available technique is to shift our attention to the space we are moving through – not the apparently solid objects but the empty space in which everything we can experience exists.

Our minds are difficult to tame. All we can do is accept the challenge and persist in developing mindfulness of the body, feeling, mental states, and phenomena as we perceive them.

 

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Not my anger

On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Rājagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrel Sanctuary. The brahmin Akkosaka Bhāradvāja, Bhāradvāja the Abusive, heard: “It is said that another brahmin of the Bhāradvāja clan has gone forth from the household life into homelessness under the ascetic Gotama.” Angry and displeased, he approached the Blessed One and abused and reviled him with rude, harsh words.

When he had finished speaking, the Blessed One said to him: “What do you think, brahmin? Do your friends and colleagues, kinsmen and relatives, as well as guests come to visit you?” – “They do, Master Gotama.” – “Do you then offer them some food or a meal or a snack?” – “I do, Master Gotama.” – “But if they do not accept it from you, then to whom does the food belong?” – “If they do not accept it from me, then the food still belongs to us.”

“So too, brahmin, I do not abuse anyone, do not scold anyone, do not rail against anyone. I refuse to accept from you the abuse and scolding and tirade you let loose at me. It still belongs to you, brahmin! It still belongs to you, brahmin!

“Brahmin, one who abuses his own abuser, who scolds the one who scolds him, who rails against the one who rails at him – he is said to partake of the meal, to enter upon an exchange. But I do not partake of your meal; I do not enter upon an exchange. It still belongs to you, brahmin! It still belongs to you, brahmin!” (SN 7:2, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

This is a well-known sutta, probably because it is so often relevant. The question is, can we remember this story when we feel like engaging angrily with an angry person? It can be a mighty challenge.

If we stand back and observe from a distance, an angry person looks deranged. They are in the grip of an emotion that is overpowering their reason and their judgment; they can’t see the consequences of their actions. A wise person will not engage directly with someone in that state.

What quality in us makes it so difficult to allow another person to spew their anger and not have our own anger aroused? We can feel as if we’re being attacked, as if a war has already begun and we must stand and fight. Some of us are so sensitive that even an imagined slight, someone failing to say “Good morning”, can set us off. Others of us can handle anger directed at ourselves but explode if we think someone we care about is being treated unfairly.

What can we do? Best would be to understand that others’ anger belongs to them and that we can choose whether to respond in kind or to take another path of action. For this to be so, we would need to know what our triggers are and try to correct for them when necessary. Can we raise our self-awareness to this level when under duress?

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Patience with others’ anger

There’s a story in the Pali canon about a battle between the devas (heavenly beings) and the titans (lower-ranking demi-gods) and how the victor treats the vanquished leader. [The full sutta is here: https://suttacentral.net/en/sn11.4.] Here’s an excerpt in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation:

“One who repays an angry man with anger
thereby makes things worse for himself.
Not repaying an angry man with anger,
one wins a battle hard to win.

“He practices for the welfare of both –
his own and the other’s –
when, knowing that his foe is angry,
he mindfully maintains his peace.

In this case, Sakka, king of the devas, is enduring the rage of the captured Vepacitti, leader of the titans. Sakka’s advisors encourage him to deal with Vepacitti harshly, but Sakka demonstrates how his patience prevents Vepacitti’s fury from harming him. Sakka even says that this is an opportunity to develop mindfulness, to show how awareness helps us to see clearly and to know our own strength.

Patience is a primary remedy for anger, our own and others’. On the surface, it may seem a passive response to a difficult situation; but below the surface, patience has potentially unlimited power. If we can learn to see the range of choices we have when others’ actions provoke us, we can be protected from our own mercurial responses.

We are not victorious kings dealing with angry, vanquished leaders. However, sometimes we are confronted with someone who is in a position of lesser power, in a work or domestic situation, and that person is behaving badly. We may feel like crushing them, putting them in their place, setting them straight – but is that the best way to handle things? Or is this a moment with potential for training? If we can resist our own enjoyment of power and have patience, others may notice our strength, and we ourselves will know that we are free in a way that others who wield their power carelessly are not.

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Mindfulness tips

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming (more on anger in upcoming posts) to provide some practical tips on how to bring mindfulness to bear when difficult states of mind – including worry, anger, and anxiety – come up.

This seven-slide set titled “How to Stop Worrying” appeared in an on-line newsletter called Next Avenue, which is offered by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the USA and targets an over-50 audience.

Regardless of your age, I hope you find the link helpful (please ignore the final slide):

http://www.nextavenue.org/slideshow/how-to-stop-worrying/

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Persistent anger (or not)

Monks, there are these three kinds of persons found existing in the world. What three? The person who is like a line etched in stone; the person who is like a line etched in the ground; and the person who is like a line etched in water.

(1) And what kind of person is like a line etched in stone? Here, some person often gets angry, and his anger persists for a long time. Just as a line in stone is not quickly erased by the wind and  water but persists for a long time, so too, some person often gets angry and his anger persists for a long time. …

(2) And what kind of person is like a line etched in the ground? Here, some person often gets angry, but his anger does not persist for a long time…

(3) And what kind of person is like a line etched in water? Here, some person, even when spoken to roughly and harshly, in disagreeable ways, remains on friendly terms with his antagonist, mingles with him, and greets him. Just as a line etched in water quickly disappears and does not persist for a long time, some person, even when…

(from AN 3:132, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

There are several qualities in this short sutta that make it memorable. We can recognize anger as a state that we all experience, and that some of us handle better than others. There is also the metaphor of wind and water eventually erasing whatever lines we can draw; so the rise and fall of anger is set within the natural world.

People at the extremes – those who always seem angry and those who never seem to anger – are easy to identify, but most of us inhabit the middle ground. We get angry to a greater or lesser degree, and the burning sensations last a longer or shorter time. But we can think about these three categories and choose to aim at a less discomfiting one. When we are in a rage, we are likely to be causing pain to ourselves (primarily) and to anyone who comes into contact with us. If we can take a few deep breaths and let ourselves be more liquid than rigid, we have a better chance of causing less harm.

How might we become less vulnerable to our own tendency towards anger? One strategy is to take things less personally. When someone’s being obnoxious or difficult, it is most likely caused by their nature or personality. Only rarely is it intentionally directed at us. Remembering this can allow us to get out of the way and not take on the negative feelings coming towards us. Another strategy is to lengthen the timeline of our perception. How much will this incident matter in a week? A month? Is it worth getting stuck into?

There’s no easy way to defuse or set aside our own anger, but by examining it closely, by considering what’s actually happening and what consequences will likely follow from different attitudes and actions, we may discover ways to ease anger’s grip on us.

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Anger

Among the mental defilements disruptive to social harmony, probably the most pernicious is anger. Since virtually all communities, including Buddhist monasteries, consist of people still prone to egotistical desires, they are in constant danger of being riven by anger, resentment, and vindictiveness among their members. For this reason, the control of anger is critical to communal harmony. The Buddha recognizes that while giving vent to anger brings a certain degree of satisfaction, he points out that angry outbursts ultimately bounce back upon oneself, entailing direct harm for oneself and entangling one in conflict with others. Hence…he describes anger as having a “poisoned root and a honeyed tip.”

– from the Introduction to chapter “Dealing with Anger” in The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Is there no safe haven from anger? Probably not from other peoples’ anger, but perhaps we can start with our own.

In our everyday life, what are the things that annoy or anger us? Recently I learned that, for a number of family members, traffic lights (while driving) can stimulate powerful anger. We talked about the fact that having this reaction guarantees that every time we get into a car we’ll become irate. We could all see that this was unhelpful and probably bad for our immune systems, but NOT getting angry seemed a remote possibility.

Later, sitting in very slow traffic, I felt frustration rising. Then I thought, “Exactly which one of these drivers in front of me am I angry at?” Everyone I could see was also stuck in the traffic jam, and was probably feeling some degree of frustration. There was no one to blame; everyone on the scene was deserving of compassion, including me. The anger that had been leaking into my body subsided. I recognised this as a breakthrough in patience.

There’s an old tale of a couple of people in a small boat at night. They navigate carefully through a narrow passageway and become aware of another small boat coming towards them. Since it’s nighttime, all they can see is a dim light in the bow of the other boat. As the second boat approaches, the passengers in the first boat call out – “Hey there!” When they get no response, they call more loudly, more insistently, more angrily. Finally, the boats meet and gently bump into each other, and the passengers see that the other boat is empty. They were furious with someone who wasn’t there. This seems an apt analogy for many of our experiences of anger. There’s no one there trying to harm us and no one to blame. Perhaps if we can remember this feature of experience we’ll spend less of our time fuming.

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Protecting ourselves and others

‘I will protect myself’: thus should the establishments of mindfulness be practiced. ‘I will protect others’: thus should the establishments of mindfulness be practiced. Protecting oneself, one protects others; protecting others, one protects oneself.

And how is it, monks, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation [of the four establishments of mindfulness]. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

And how is it, monks, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, loving-kindness, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.

‘I will protect myself’: thus should the establishments of mindfulness be practiced. ‘I will protect others’: thus should the establishments of mindfulness be practiced. Protecting oneself, one protects others; protecting others, one protects oneself. (from SN47:19, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

We’ve been thinking about how social and communal harmony come to be, and addressing the factors that WE can bring to bear to support and promote harmony. Safety is an important element of harmony; without safety, there is no peace. If we feel confident that we’re doing all we can to create safe spaces wherever we go, we can be contented with our actions.

The establishments of mindfulness are sometimes called the four foundations of mindfulness. They describe a system of directing our mindful attention inward, to (1) our bodies, (2) our feelings, (3) our mind states, and (4) dhammas (phenomena) or what we see going on around us. As part of these reflections, we also notice these four things about others and can see that as it is for them, so it is for us, and vice versa. Sometimes each of us is affected by bodily comfort or discomfort, painful or happy feelings, confused or clear mind states, and points of view that are helpful or unhelpful.  By cultivating these mindful reflections, our understanding matures and we become more naturally inclined to be kind to ourselves and others.

The third section refers to patience, harmlessness, loving-kindness, and sympathy as ways to protect others and thereby protect ourselves. This list is similar to, but not exactly the same as, the list of brahmaviharas or divine (mental) states. By developing an increasingly sustained mindfulness, we are deepening our patience and extending our loving-kindness and sympathy to an ever-widening circle of beings, all of which inclines us to avoid harmful behaviors.

The lines quoted above from the Samyutta Nikaya can serve as a motivating factor. We could remind ourselves repeatedly: “By protecting ourselves, we protect others. By protecting others, we protect ourselves.” Any other practices we might do could fall under this umbrella.

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