Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.
– Dhammapada 5 (translated by Gil Fronsdal)
Anger is such a common obstacle to contentment that it merits a separate discussion. It is not explicitly part of the Buddha’s precepts for laypeople or the eight-fold path, but the Buddha did identify anger (also called hatred or aversion) as one of the three unwholesome roots (of action) for all humans. The other two are greed and delusion. Their opposites, the wholesome roots, which are also present in all people, are generosity, kindness and clarity or wisdom. All of our actions will spring from one of these six sources. The precepts and other instructions of the Buddha are designed to guide us towards drawing more of our actions from the wholesome roots rather than the unwholesome ones. The idea is that the wholesome roots are strengthened each time they are exercised, and likewise with the unwholesome. Eventually the unwholesome roots will wither from neglect, if we are diligent.
In many cases, we can recognize anger as a problem, and still somehow find it irresistible. More than any other emotion, anger makes us feel real, solid, and alive. It can make us feel as big as the world. What a rush! But, like all feelings, it passes; and often there is a bitter taste afterwards. Sometimes there are serious or even ruinous consequences, so the subject calls for a closer look.
The family of angry emotions includes everything from minor irritation to unbridled rage. Resentment, hatred, irritation and mild annoyance are all forms of anger. Every day there is an opportunity to become aware of anger within ourselves and to learn something about how it works. Controlling anger can seem an impossible assignment; but if we take things one event at a time, we can understand anger and apply its antidotes – patience, compassion and forgiveness.
If we want our life to be less controlled by anger, we’ve got to make a commitment to watching our angry feelings as they come up. Only by practicing this real-time reflection in our own life will we see positive results. Reading about anger, thinking about it in the abstract – well, you might as well read a good novel – it’s about somebody else. Knowing and taking responsibility for our actions and words, and for their consequences, is the only way to make a change.
No matter how good a reason you have for being angry, the anger is still yours to deal with; you can’t give it away. It’s not your mother’s fault, or your partner’s, or your boss’s. Really, there’s no fault to assign. It just happens because of habitual patterns established over many years, from many causes. The habits may be yours or someone else’s or both, but yours are the ones you can work on. Your patterns may include getting yourself into particularly aggravating situations (repeatedly) or reacting to ordinary situations with anger. Regardless of how the habits came into being, your anger is your own to work with. Only you can figure out how to escape from it or release it. When all else fails, look in the mirror. See your own situation, your actions and their consequences as clearly as possible.
It can also be helpful to observe anger in others, especially if you are not the object of the anger. How does it start? How does it progress? What ends it? What are its effects on the angry person and those around her?
Anger can be a natural response when you’re tired, sick, or stressed out — natural, but avoidable. It is a logical flaw to blame someone or something outside of yourself for your internal feelings. If you’re sick or tired, acknowledge to yourself that you are sick or tired. Let it be so without a lot of resistance. Try not to take out your bad mood on anyone else. Accommodate your energy level by slowing down, which is one way of practicing patience. The slowing down might reduce your feelings of stress or aggravation, and it could also help you see more clearly what is happening.
Hatred is a form of chronic anger. Hatred requires constant feeding, whether it is of low or high intensity. Unless refreshed with repeated thoughts about the initial aggravation, hatred fades on its own. Sadly, we tend to pick at scabs rather than let them heal. Similarly, we tend to feed anger with a steady stream of reminders about how unfairly we’ve been treated. We might even catch ourselves feeling good and then remember that we can’t feel good because we’re angry! If you recognize this process of feeding and enjoying hatred, you can gradually stop doing it. The more often you are able to experience the feeling arising, the sooner the mental habit can be broken. Negative feelings can wane from neglect, but only if you make the decision to apply honest awareness each time the negative feelings come up.
Most people love the idea of righteous anger. This way they can enjoy the delicious egotism of anger AND feel virtuous about it. I witnessed a charming moment once between a Buddhist teacher and student. The teacher said, in answer to a question, “There’s no such thing as righteous anger. It’s just anger.” The student said, “Did you say there’s no such thing as righteous anger?” “Yes,” replied the teacher. “I was afraid of that,” the student concluded. Laughter rang through the room. The student knew that righteous anger was just anger with an excuse, but found it hard to let it go.
There is a popular idea that no one would press for social justice or other good causes without righteous anger. People get each other excited about this injustice or that need. While the needs and injustices are usually real, they are often distorted or taken out of context in order to get people worked up. The anger generated may be useful for getting attention on a particular problem, but few problems can be solved through anger. If you look at history, you’ll see that the lasting, beneficial social changes came through forgiveness, compassion, and persistence. Examples that come to mind are the arrival of democracy in South Africa and civil rights in America.
Anger is a vehicle for breaking things, not building things. Anger is difficult to sustain for long periods. In truth, anger is a poor motivation for helping others or for making the world a better place. The alternative is to find the care and compassion underneath the anger, and let them provide the motivation for helping. You can’t make peace out of angry emotions. You can make peace through love, acceptance, appropriate attention, and appropriate action.
Have a look at your own righteous anger. What sparks it? Who does it help? Who does it harm?
One morning I was drinking tea and reading the newspaper at home. A tension stirred my gut while I read about the actions and words of the (then) President of the United States, as reported in the Washington Post. I noticed when the tension started and how it grew. I noticed that it was connected with an unpleasant voice in my mind, “How can he..?!” The feeling enlarged as I kept my attention on it. I was starting to feel sick. Then there was an epiphany. The President is not feeling this anger — he is not affected by it. No one but me is affected by it. I am poisoning myself, to no purpose. The anger lifted like a cloud in a strong breeze; I felt free. I’m happy to report that since that time “I hate X” has departed from my vocabulary, both external and internal. The poor old (now ex-) President will get by in spite of my disapproval, but he’s no longer an excuse for me to have a tantrum, even within myself. And I’m a better citizen without the poison of hatred.
Let’s say that you’ve decided to work on anger in yourself. What are some ways to understand and tame anger?
Wait 30 seconds
I once met a Tibetan Buddhist nun who taught meditation to incarcerated adults. I asked her how she helped prisoners take responsibility for their actions when they were tempted to react harshly to other people. One technique she mentioned was teaching her students to wait 30 seconds before responding in anger. When you are gripped by anger, this 30-second timeout allows you to take control of your own thoughts. Taking control of your own thoughts is empowering. Amazingly, the rush of anger rarely lasts for 30 seconds if the light of awareness is shining on it. A 30-second pause is enough time for other thoughts to come up. One or two elements of the wider situation can come into focus; more than one perspective on the conflict may appear. The other person involved can start to seem like a human being rather than a demon; there’s even enough time for compassion to arise. Waiting 30 seconds is not a cure-all, but it is a beginning point for the essential practice of patience.
During the self-imposed 30-second wait a person might consider the consequences of responding without thinking. For a prisoner, the consequences could include disciplinary action, retribution from other prisoners, even physical injury. For any of us, possible consequences could be hurt feelings, damaged relationships, sometimes even violence. Isn’t it worth holding on for 30 seconds to avoid this sort of damage?
Non-reaction to anger is a viable option. It is a powerful gift you can give to yourself and to others. By non-reaction I mean not taking another person’s anger personally, even if it’s directed at you. You can see and acknowledge the energy of harsh words, and you can see them as belonging to the speaker, having little or nothing to do with you. Passive-aggressive reactions, like grinning or pretending not to feel hurt or afraid, are forms of anger. Cowering is a reactive response. Non-reactivity requires even more self-control (and self-understanding) than restraining your own angry response. It requires that you stand firm in your own non-anger and decline to become involved in an angry exchange.
There’s a useful story from the Buddha’s life about non-reactivity to anger. It goes like this:
… Angry and displeased, [Bharadvaja the Abusive] approached the Buddha [Gotama] and abused and reviled him with rude, harsh words.
When he had finished speaking, the Buddha said to him: “What do you think, Brahmin (Bharadvaja)? Do your friends and colleagues, kinsmen and relatives, as well as guests come to visit you?”
“Sometimes they come to visit, Master Gotama”
“Do you then offer them some food or a meal or a snack?”
“Sometimes 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, we – who do not abuse anyone, who do not scold anyone, who do not rail against anyone – refuse to accept from you the abuse and scolding and tirade you let loose at us. 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 we do not partake of your meal; we do not enter upon an exchange. It still belongs to you, Brahmin! It still belongs to you, Brahmin!”
… 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…
As is often the way in these stories, in the end Bharadvaja is transformed by his encounter with the Buddha, becomes a monk, and, under the Buddha’s guidance, eventually achieves complete awakening. (From SN VII.2, tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi)
If you’ve ever witnessed anyone responding to anger without becoming angry, you know it’s an extraordinary experience. It’s a way of holding a mirror up to angry feelings; it provides the angry person with an opportunity to see herself more clearly. At base, it is a compassionate act. I admit that it is rarely easy to do. Habits and instincts are drawn from a deep “fight or flight” response. However, often when this behavior pattern arises, it is truly not necessary. If you can see when a combative reaction to anger is counter-productive, you can start to free yourself from anger.
After you “lose it”
As the Buddha said (in MN21.11), people might speak to you in ways that are “timely or untimely, true or untrue, gentle or harsh, connected with good or with harm”. Words may be spoken with kind intentions or from hateful feelings. You don’t know what will come at you. You can’t expect it always to be nice.
Inevitably, there will be occasions when you become angry. Some event or act will strike you as outrageous, unfair and totally unacceptable. You’ll let fly with words or actions that, even in the moment, you might know are not good. Now what?
Reflect on what happened. What was the immediate trigger for anger arising, and what happened next? Try to assess your own thoughts and emotions honestly. Try to guess what the other party or parties to the encounter were feeling. Put yourself into their shoes. Take the time to see the initial rumbling, gradual growth, and eventual eruption of the angry exchange. What were the essential ingredients, on both sides?
Then reflect on the results for all concerned. What did you do afterwards? Did you take the time to calm down, or did you strike out at the next person you met? Are you still carrying the encounter, replaying it in your mind? Are you looking for an opportunity to restart and continue the argument? And what of the other person? It’s easy to think that her feelings don’t matter, but for everyone, feelings lead to thoughts and actions; so who knows what seeds of future acts, or justifications for future acts, may have been spawned by an angry outburst? Consider the potential harm, present and possibly future, to all concerned.
Next you might try to imagine how a “wise person” would have responded in the situation. If you have a wise person in your life, think of describing the situation to her. What would she have done?
Focus on any aspect you might do better with in the future. Can you imagine managing the situation in a different way if it comes up again? Think it through. Is there at least one incendiary word you could remove from your vocabulary? Is there some expectation you held that you can see, in retrospect, was unreasonable in the situation? Did you misunderstand each other? Can you feel any compassion for the other party to the encounter? Is she, or you, or both of you, stuck in some way that makes this happen repeatedly? Make a study of your own experience, and cultivate small improvements in your responses. Strong habits can be broken, but usually by degrees rather than with one sweeping resolution.
Compassion and forgiveness
One approach that many people find useful in defusing confrontations is summed up by the phrase: “Put yourself into her shoes”. Perhaps the annoying person doesn’t have your mental abilities. Perhaps she is emotionally strung out, or is particularly sensitive to criticism, or envious of something you have. Maybe she feels chronically guilty. Could some of these possibilities be applied to you? It is often the case that the people we find the most upsetting are the ones that reflect back to us our own most bothersome flaws.
To make any progress in breaking free from anger, it is important to practice forgiveness. If you step back from the intensity of a particular wrangle and look at your (temporary) opponent with compassion, you will start to see her suffering. It’s my personal policy to assume that everyone I encounter is doing the best they can. There is blindness and unkindness everywhere, but we can alter how we see our situation. Look at the people you’re dealing with through compassionate eyes. If they are not meeting your expectations, forgive them and then perhaps review your expectations.
This is not to say that you have an obligation to repeatedly put yourself into situations where more aggravation than you can tolerate (or work with) comes up regularly. If your job is making you sick, find another job. If your living situation is beyond repair, take a break from it. Take care of yourself first. Just as in an airplane emergency, you must put your own oxygen mask on first and then help the others near you, you can’t improve a bad situation if you’re overwhelmed. First, back away to a safe place from which you can assess what’s happening. Forgive yourself. Forgive everyone involved, and then make some decisions based on how you perceive the overall situation.
Forgiveness is patience with understanding. Assume that you have a lot to learn, and try to learn something every day. Don’t shy away from the hard lessons.
Greater in combat
Than a person who conquers
A thousand times a thousand people
Is the person who conquers herself.
– Dhammapada 103 (Fronsdal)
The main tools that we have at our disposal to conquer our anger are patience, compassion and forgiveness, for ourselves and everyone. I encourage you to find a way to develop these qualities which occur naturally in your heart.