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7. Meeting our Anger

As rain cannot penetrate
a well-thatched roof,
so the passions
cannot invade a well-trained heart.

Dhammapada verse 14

The passion of anger is something that most of us are tripped up by, at least from time to time. For some of us it is a source of major struggle in our lives. It is useful to acknowledge that it is only when we have some degree of calmness, some perspective of coolness, that we are in a position to effectively reflect on such matters. When we are all fired up with passion, of whatever sort, we simply don’t have the perspective or the clarity. Of course, we are capable of some sort of thinking under such circumstances, but such thinking is likely to be driven in conditioned ways, desperate to find an escape from the pain of being caught up. Whether it is by anger, lust or fear, we can be driven in narrow, habitual directions in order to release ourselves from the agitation of being possessed. Let us take this opportunity to reflect on the nature of these passions.

Reconsidering the enemy

In late 1987 a hurricane raged across the south of England and France. Millions of trees were uprooted. In the forests belonging to our monastery at Chithurst about one third of the oak trees were brought down. It was a sad sight, one that caused everyone to feel disheartened. Yet a mere five years later the woods were welcomingly beautiful again, more open and brighter than before. Not only that, but here at Harnham we have benefited from the hurricane in that we have this lovely solid oak floor in our Meditation Hall.

The hurricane gives me an image of what tends to happen when we are faced with things we don’t like. We readily perceive such things as the enemy and tend to see them as evidence of something going wrong. Because we follow this initial perception, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to reconsider our assessment; the result is that we behave in ways that can have serious and often tragic consequences.

Nature can teach us to develop wisdom by encouraging us to reflect on our habitual initial reactions that make us feel threatened and judgemental. When we are feeling hurt or threatened by circumstances we can easily react in shortsighted ways. Our untrained and untamed passionate nature is such that when anger arises we get caught up in it and misperceive situations. This wild energy, if not wisely contained, moves us to want to cause harm and to hurt others. We may recall the Buddha’s words, ‘When we hold fast to such thoughts as, “They abused me, mistreated me, molested me, robbed me” we keep hatred alive.’ The heat comes up from our bellies so that the anger can possess our hearts and then go all the way up into our heads. If we are heedless, anger starts coming out through our mouth or through our limbs, or it can whirl around our heads and drive us crazy with ideas and fantasies. All this can go on until the energy has been spent.

Degrees of passionate distraction

How did the Buddha teach us to approach these things? Something he often encouraged is called in Pali yoniso manasikara – wise reflection, or wise contemplation. Moral restraint and wilful control have an important place in learning to transform our anger but to make them really effective, it helps to prepare ourselves more thoroughly. We are not to wait until we are caught up in anger before we contemplate it. Contemplating our moods or responses of anger is very different from being caught up in anger, when there is an ongoing proliferation of the angry feelings and thoughts. The difference between proliferation and contemplation is that when we contemplate, we can stop the thinking without struggle and comfortably return to silence – we can listen to silence. We are able to disengage from the momentum of mental activity. We come back to feeling what it feels like in our guts, in our heart, on our face. If it’s proliferation, we’re driven by anger, and we lose touch with the body.

In support of this skilful contemplation the Buddha gave a specific model of the different degrees of intensity of moods and mental disturbances. There are some obstructions, he said, that arise in the mind that are of little significance, such that by simply ignoring them they will go away. There is another sort of obstruction that will disappear, if after noticing them, we intentionally return to the meditation object. This type of disturbance has only a little energy in it.

There is a third sort of distraction of a higher level of intensity which we cannot effectively just turn away from. To try to do so doesn’t work – the distraction keeps returning. We therefore have to leave our meditation object and look directly at the phenomenon itself and generate a counterforce. If, for instance, the mind is caught up in anger, what can help is to generate the forces of loving kindness and compassion.

There is a further degree of obstruction in which we need to analyse the distraction before the mind is released from it. We have to ask, ‘What is going on here? What is the nature of this anger anyway?’ We have to really consider the passion and its energy, and bring to mind the contemplations on the three characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self.

Finally, there are some disturbances which come to us about which the Buddha said that all we can do is push our tongue up against the roof of our mouth, grit our teeth and endure until it passes. This level of intensity is such that we can’t deal with it at the time of its arising.

I have found it very helpful to become quite clear about these differing levels of intensity of distraction. It is not the case that we should be applying the same kind of effort towards every distraction that arises in meditation. To know that sometimes we can’t deal with a distraction right now is important. When strong passion arises, sometimes all we can do is endure it, not act on it. We don’t allow it to go up into our head and fuel compulsive thinking. Carefully and mindfully we hold the experience of anger as and where we first notice it, in our body and our mind. This is not repression – which is a blind reaction – so we don’t need to be afraid of this practice. This is a conscious choice to withhold our tendency to indulge. If we do indulge in it and act with body, speech or mind, we are creating kamma, which, like throwing a stone into a pond, creates ripples. We might think at the time that to release the tension will make us feel better, but the reality is altogether different, and so the Buddha’s encouragement was that we should do whatever it takes to endure it. We can consciously choose to meet our rage. We can choose not to act it out or repress it. We can choose to endure it.

In the case of coping with truly overwhelming passion, a simile that the Buddha used was that of a strong man pushing down a weaker man in a fight. We are actually holding something down. It’s as though we were dealing with someone who is deranged. Imagine you are in a public place where everybody is calmly going about their normal business, but a mad person turns up, drunk or unhinged, behaving in a dangerous manner – someone really out of control. In such a situation we just pin them down to the floor and hold them there. We don’t introduce ourselves and say, ‘Shall we share our feelings? Let’s talk about it together.’ What is called for is to restrain them and hold them until they recover their senses. Only then can we relate in a more civil manner.

So mindful restraint is the first line of defence against an attack by wild anger. We don’t make it worse by following it. Although it may test our ability to the point of feeling like we might crack, it will eventually pass.

Believing in anger

Another aspect of wisely reflecting on our anger is to consider whether it is really the case – as we can believe when we are fired up – that following such passion will make things better. One evening after giving a talk on anger at the monastery somebody asked the question, “How can I let go of anger when it feels so good to follow it?” They said, “I just love having a go at one particular person who I think is really stupid.” I didn’t know what to reply to them. If we are convinced that it is good to indulge in aggression, then there is little that we can change. However, if we are committed to meditation practice and have some access to the peaceful heart, we can know how beautiful a heart free from anger is. It is because we don’t know about this possibility that we become caught up. From the perspective of identifying with our bodily senses we experience the passions as who and what we are. On that level it can feel good to feel this power of anger. When we get passionately righteous and indignant, our rage feels so energising. Our sense of self is potentised and this leads us to conclude that anger is good. We believe that we are going to get something out of following it. So long as we haven’t deeply investigated this aspect of ourselves we can be fooled into thinking that acting out our anger is somehow going to benefit us.

Sitting here now talking about it, it sounds crazy, doesn’t it, but this is what happens. This is why people commit the most awful atrocities that, from the perspective of those of us who have never been in a war situation, are utterly incomprehensible. If we were not there in the former Yugoslavia a few years ago, or in Rwanda before that – or who knows where next – and we hear of all the slaughter, the rape and torture, the unbelievable horror, it is very difficult to take any of it in and make sense of it. However, the reality of such atrocities becomes at least conceivable if we have enquired into our own experience of getting caught up in passion to the point that that passion possesses us. We can see how, when this happens, when we become possessed by hatred, when we allow ourselves to be convinced that acting out this hatred will solve the problem, how then we are capable of absolutely anything.

Facing the consequences

Sometimes, after we have experienced an up-thrust or even an outburst of passionate rage, and the fires have subsided, we just go on to distract ourselves, trying not to think about it any more. That approach to dealing with our faults does not work. The reason we have become caught up in anger in the first place is because there is something in us we have not yet recognised.

At such times we can also go against the inclination to avoid what we are feeling and instead turn towards it and fully receive it. Something within us might fear that to do so will involve the risk of being taken over by it. It is true that we need to approach this task sensitively and skilfully, but with right practice we can equip ourselves with the ability to fully face the consequences of our heedlessness. Those consequences are painful. If we are consistent and non-judgemental, these same painful feelings gradually give us the message that to allow ourselves to follow this energy, no matter how tempting it appears, leads to making things worse. We are losing out. When we begin to get a feeling for the integrity of this practice we become more willing to open to our weakness. Having survived the humiliation of losing our composure, we can afterwards stop and reflect and get to the point of acknowledging with humility, ‘I actually lost it there, didn’t I? – I got caught up in the heat’

It can be helpful at this point to mentally rerun the drama. I might notice that the fire gets stirred up in the belly, and because I miss it there, it continues upward and invades my heart, then my head and then starts coming out through the mouth. Just this kind of contemplation can prepare us, so that next time we are about to be swept away in a firestorm, we remember ourselves. We can recall what happened the last time we followed the passion, and this time around find other ways of channelling it. Go jogging – jog until you are exhausted. Take a cold shower; do some yoga; do walking meditation – quickly if necessary; do anything rather than acting on the anger, letting it control you, letting it drive you into making more unskilful kamma. If we try to contemplate what is happening before we have cooled down properly, then we might become caught up again and continue to dwell on the event, thinking, ‘I was in the right, I was perfectly justified!’ and so on. But even that is something we can learn from, if we are willing. Some physical activity might be necessary initially as a way of dissipating the energy so that we can be in a suitable state to consider what happened.

The benefits of consistent effort

Another useful way of viewing anger is to see it simply as energy. This is energy that is to be purified and transformed. It is not something just to get rid of or to vent. This is something to be understood, and in order to do this our relationship with it also needs to be purified.

The first level of purification is containment or restraint. We restrain ourselves from acting out the motive forces that are gaining momentum within us, no matter how uncomfortable that experience is for us. There is power in such mindful restraint and this leads us to being able to engage the energy intelligently and creatively.

A good friend once suggested to me that home visits were the best barometer for practice in this area. I think he was right. I know that whenever I used to go back to New Zealand to see my family there couldn’t be a more fertile source of opportunity for restraining my emotional reactions. There were seemingly endless opportunities for becoming indignant. While other family members, who were having more children or earning more money, received praise and recognition, the fact that I had been enthusiastically and consistently committed to the life of a renunciate monk for twenty-odd years received no appreciation. When I was younger, this stony indifference to my spiritual orientation was a cause of considerable upset and hot-temperedness on my part. Of course my reason came up with rational explanations for my family’s behaviour, but inside I could hear the voice of my indignation, saying, “But what about me? Doesn’t it count for something that I have been getting up every morning rededicating my life to all sentient beings and working hard to help others? And, and...” I would regularly come down with a sore throat, an eye infection or some disease that was symptomatic of the inner struggle I was having with my rage. As I grew older, both physically and in the training, those inner voices became much quieter. I have learned how good it feels to not have to react, so that I can go away with my dignity intact. I cannot say that the voices are never there but the relationship I have with them is very different from what it was. I find I can respect them. At the very least I can endure them! With this inner shift, home visits have become more harmonious.

With this practice I learn to see such thoughts as, ‘what about me?’ as expressions of our heart’s precious energy. We are free to allow that energy to be kidnapped by the deluded conditioning of our minds and be wasted on indignation and blame if we wish, but we are also free to engage that same energy in the cultivation of strength of heart. Patience is nourishing; compassion is nourishing; and ill will, anger and resentment are not the enemies of these virtues. This raw energy is an indicator of where our heart is.

At times I stand by the monastery compost heap and consciously register how thoroughly unattractive it smells. I then go on to reflect how this bad-smelling muck will soon be giving nourishment and beauty to the garden. Just because our hearts manifest in unrefined and unattractive ways, it does not mean we are bad people or that the energy itself should be disposed of. We would be wise to withhold our initial reactions and look deeper.

This cultivation is hard at times but it does bring benefits. When I was a young monk someone once threw a tomato at me, and it took several days for me to recover from the hurt feelings. What I can say now, some years later, is that it takes less time. Not that tomatoes are thrown at me every day, but occasionally a little abuse is hurled my way. I mention this as an example of what changes. I am not so interested in never feeling anger. What is more interesting is being free to own up to the energy in my reactions and take full responsibility for them – not to be driven by them. This is the only energy we have. This is the energy of practice. Our task is to train so as to be able to recognise this passionate energy for what it is, not mistaking it as our enemy.

To view our passionate nature as something we have to either indulge in or project out limits the possibilities in life. If, for instance, we have suffered abuse and remain locked into the state of resentment, feeling unable to forgive, we sooner or later need to recognise that it is we who are doing the resentment. One reason we continue to do it is that we believe that to do so will be beneficial to us. But there is no benefit, only increased suffering for all involved. By reviewing this way of approaching resentment with mindfulness and wise contemplation, we can learn to withdraw our investment of energy in it and uncover the first seeds of forgiveness. To forgive, as we have often heard, does not mean to forget. But it can mean to be free from wasting our heart’s energy on negativity. We are not obliged to invest our energy negatively. It is a choice. If we wish, we can direct it in ways that lead to increased freedom from suffering.

From the perspective of Buddhist practice there is nothing wrong with feeling anger. In the discourses the Buddha gave on mindfulness of breathing, he teaches us to feel whatever we feel, but to feel it mindfully. If we feel pleasure – it is just so. So likewise, if we feel anger, we feel anger – it is just so. We are not going to see our anger transformed overnight, but as we become more familiar with it, we will experience the freedom that comes from not fighting it.

This change will not, however, always feel good. There will be times when it will feel wonderful not to get so regularly burned, and there will be times when it will feel like we are dying. We have been feeding on this wild energy, either by indulgence or repression, for a long time. Coming off our addictions takes its toll. The process of going against our habitual reactions to the passions is challenging and should not be underestimated. For this reason there are all the instructions in the spiritual traditions and the support of good companions on the path to encourage us in releasing out of our habits until we grow in confidence. This confidence emerges out of finding our sense of who we are in awareness, instead of in the limited identification with the tumultuous conditions of the body and mind.

This natural emergence leads to the insight that sees ‘the false as the false’ as the Buddha put it. When we see the false as the false we can then see the real as the real. As we renounce the various false ways of getting energy, like indulging in anger and greed, we move naturally into a new relationship with life – a more real relationship with life. The focus of our attention will not be so outward. What we will be feeling for is our own inner motivation – whether we are coming from a place that is intending to cause harm to others or not. In that knowing we can have strength and confidence.

The Buddha himself said that he didn’t have any enemies. How could that be, since even a relative of his, Devadatta, had someone try to kill him? Not to mention all those monks who sided with Devadatta’s attempt to take over leadership of the Sangha. The Buddha said that he didn’t have enemies because he was speaking from his inner experience of being fully at one with his own heart. Since he didn’t allow his heart energy to flow into heedlessness, thoughts of ill will never occurred to him. For him everyone, even someone who tried to kill him, was a friend. It was from this understanding that the Buddha said, ‘As rain cannot penetrate a well-thatched roof, so the passions cannot invade a well-trained heart.’

Thank you for your attention.



© 2005 Aruna Publications