How do we stay calm in a raging world? Most of us think that we need the world around us to change in order for us to change. We think that if the people in our life were more responsive to us or if politicians were thinking about things in the right way or doing the things we wanted we wouldn’t have to be so angry. But from the perspective of Buddhism, staying calm comes from healing our own anger. This is because as long as we’re meeting the world’s rage with our own rage, more rage is guaranteed.
We experience the world through the lens of our own habitual patterns: our cognitive mental patterns, our emotional patterns, and the legacy of all our interactions with other people. If we have intense habit patterns of anger, we become angry that much more easily. Even though we might appear happy or cheerful, it’s like the anger that we have within us all of the time is simmering right below the surface. It can be ignited in an instant—say, if we come across something that we’d rather avoid or that we find frustrating or that is the opposite of how we want things to be.
This is all the more so if we’ve developed a habit of not just experiencing our anger but acting out of it. Doing this reinforces the rage inside of us. Given that we’re in New York City, we have a prime example of this in front of us all the time: the subway. You can get on the subway in the morning in a perfectly fine mood, except maybe you’re a little bit more tired than usual and you really want to sit down on one of the seats. But then somebody shoves past you to get to the seat before you can, and suddenly you have this irrationally intense feeling of anger. If you regularly ride on the New York subway, chances are you will recognize this experience.
It’s not just that in that moment somebody’s entitlement and rudeness is producing anger in you. It’s actually igniting something that was already there. What has to happen from the perspective of Buddhism is not so much that we have to like everything that people are doing around us or find their behavior acceptable, but that we meet it with a different kind of reaction.
Before we get into the ways to change our anger, it’s really important as well as motivational to consider why it’s not beneficial to give into our anger on a regular basis. First of all, why is it that we tend to continue these habit patterns? Part of it is that we falsely believe that we’re entitled to act on our anger. There’s a very strong sense that we’re justified in doing so because we’ve been wronged—that feeling of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” As soon as you have that thought, you become angrier and angrier.’
Related: Don’t Worry, Be Angry
On a subtler level underneath “I’m right and you’re wrong” is “I’m good and you’re bad,” which exacerbates the rage further. We can see this very well right now in our political climate. It doesn’t matter whether you’re progressive or conservative. If you look online even for a minute, you can see that as soon as somebody states an opinion that someone else disagrees with—and most likely these days they’re not going to be stating it gently—things become intense and inflamed. There’s a very strong reaction and the next thing you know, name calling.
It’s remarkable the number of people who consider themselves Buddhist practitioners who have no problem going online and using really abusive language toward the current president, disregarding all the ideas from the tradition about right speech and equanimity. Why is it that we’re able to disregard those beliefs so easily? It’s this sense of righteous indignation that allows the anger to erupt, the belief that I am right. And if you think about it, it’s not just “I am right.” It’s “I am right.” “I am this person, this self who is in a state of rightness, and when you assert your opinion that is to me demonstrably incorrect or even morally wrong, it feels like a personal slight,” not a disagreement between two human beings.
Related: A Buddhist’s Call for a Middle Way in Politics
These days, in all fairness, because many things that people are fighting for arise from personal experiences of injustice or witnessing injustice occur, things do feel really, really personal. As soon as that feeling arises, the anger becomes extremely intense. Then all of a sudden we feel justified in acting all kinds of ways. If you examine that feeling of acting out of anger, of unloading online or in-person, there is a very subtle wish to destroy that thing we’re angry at. It could be directed at the opinion that you heard and not the person who said it, but regardless, the force of anger can be so overpowering that it generates a desire in you to annihilate.
Even when our anger is not being unloaded and stays stewing inside of us, the angry thoughts are still quite destructive. It’s very much like how a toddler feels when they throw a temper tantrum, like they would rip the world apart in that moment if they could. We feel that way too, though we’re adults. As long as we cling to the idea that we’re right and the other person is wrong, we’re good and the other person is bad, we’re likely to be able to justify all different manners of behavior that will continue the habit patterns we’ve already formed. Over time we’ll only increase and exacerbate our reactivity and our capacity for anger within us. It’s sort of like we’re meditating on anger every time we allow ourselves to act on it or stew on it. But instead of meditating on positive qualities, we’re meditating on destructiveness and rage.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have feelings about injustices being perpetrated. But the quality of this rage of “rightness” and “goodness” is ironic, because even though it feels good, it isn’t actually constructive for trying to change the world in the ways we want to. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. If you look at images of Martin Luther King and civil rights marches, you’ll be very struck by how calm and collected people are as they’re walking. They were being physically harmed, beaten and having hoses turned on them, but they’re dignified, they’re upright, they’re linking arms. Those people trained in order to be able to march like that. There was a lot of intentionality put behind that presence of nonviolence in this world—they are purposefully not meeting the violence being perpetrated against them with rage. Years later, when I look back on it, I’m filled with admiration for their dignity, because I truly don’t know if I would be capable of engaging in such a calm manner, considering the extent of the injustices being perpetrated against them.
We have a real respect for what those marchers did. This is the thing about learning how to work with our anger and not meeting the world with rage: not only do we feel better personally, but also we earn the respect of other people. Do we truly respect people who are acting totally crazy even though we agree with what they’re saying? No. Usually we have the most respect for people who are calm and collected, people who can communicate messages—even messages that others don’t want to hear—in a manner that is clear and comes from a place of wisdom.
Another part of the reason we really dig in and hold onto anger is a second false belief we have that our emotions are correct, that they are facts. It’s easy to confuse an emotional reaction with a fact. You hear idioms that tend toward this thought a lot, like, “Trust your gut.” “Follow your intuition.”
This isn’t to say that our emotions don’t carry really important sources of information. Our emotions can help us become more sensitive to other people and ourselves, more tuned into people’s suffering, including our own. They can also distort our perception of a situation completely. We’ve all had that moment where we’ve been angry at a loved one and then when we are able to talk to them we find out that the words they said didn’t actually convey what they were trying to tell us, and there was a total misunderstanding. In that moment where we were feeling misunderstood, it’s almost like you’re seeing the other person as monstrous. And then when the moment passes they’re kind of good again. So part of what has to happen in order for us to stay calm in a raging world is to treat our emotions more lightly. Not to disregard them as though they’re unimportant and not value them, but not to treat them as though they’re absolutely fundamentally correct at all times.
From there, how is it that we change our angry habit patterns and try and stay more calm? One of the most important concepts in Buddhism to this end is the idea of equanimity. When I talk about equanimity I don’t necessarily mean the kind of mental quiescence or calm abiding that arises through meditation. I’m talking about the equanimity we have when approaching all people and experiences with an even mind, trying not to embrace some and turn away from others. I realize that this is a lofty goal! But some of the ultimate goals of Buddhist practice are to be able to approach experience in this way. It’s not that we’re going to walk around in everyday life totally calm, like a robot, not being affected by anything and being exactly the same with everybody. Instead, we start to realize that there is no monolith of good people or bad people—good red staters or bad liberals (or vice versa)—and when we think about people as individuals, each with their own unique story, we have more capacity to realize that they’re like us. There’s something about being really angry where there is a sense that people we are angry at aren’t like us, that they’re totally different. We’re reacting to something “other.” When we can realize that people are the same as us—that they have a story, they have their own suffering, they’re coming out of a particular perspective—we can start to treat them with a little bit more equanimity.
One powerful example I saw on the internet recently involved the comedian Patton Oswalt, who was was putting out some very liberal progressive ideas on Twitter. He was trolled by a very conservative person who verbally abused him and said some negative things. At first, Oswalt responded in kind, but then he went to the Twitter page of the guy who’d trolled him and discovered that the person had had a major surgery that had financially devastated him and ruined his life. Oswalt’s response was, “God, if that had happened to me, I’d be angry, too.” He started a GoFundMe page for this man who had trolled him and personally donated $2000.
Then what happened? The man responded publicly on social media that he was so grateful; that he realized the comedian was a kind person and that he had been totally wrong in his behavior toward him; that he needed to take a look at his rage and how he was acting out. I found this story totally and completely moving not only because of the generous and kind behavior involved but also because of how it showcased our capacity to look past being wounded or hurt by someone and to take in their suffering and where they are coming from. And on top of that, the fact that the suffering person actually received the kindness, which motivated him to change how they’re operating and what he put out in the world.
I think we should use this story as the model for how to stay calm in a raging world. It’s not that we are always going to have the capacity to engage in tremendous acts of generosity and kindness. It’s that we’re open and available to realizing that things are different than they seem—that people are different than we think they are, that emotions are different than we think we are. And even that our friends are primarily people we feel have benefited us, strangers are people we don’t realize we have a connection to, and enemies are people that we feel have harmed us. What do I mean by that? I don’t mean that these events haven’t happened, that people haven’t benefited us and people haven’t harmed us, or that there are people we don’t know. It’s not that. It’s that through the ignorance that we’re trying to clear up in Buddhism we think that stranger equals a blank, an enemy equals bad, and friend equals good. We go through the world with that misperception, and then there’s all sorts of confusion and reactivity. By changing our perception—by relating to people as unique individuals—we can create a little bit more space to act differently toward other human beings as well as ourselves.
The other thing that’s very important in this vein is thinking is the Buddhist concept of emptiness, which means that things are empty of inherent existence and that phenomena are labeled by the mind. This means that there’s nothing real that exists independently, including this independently existing bad person who is inherently bad. Instead what we have are collections of moments that come together through a variety of causes and conditions. For example, this man who trolled the comedian online had the causes and conditions of physical pain and suffering, being financially devastated, probably feeling humiliated by how this had impacted his life, and so on. Then all of these causes and conditions came together in a particular moment when he read something online and exploded into reactivity.
When the circumstances changed and he received kindness, he also changed. In a different moment he was spacious and open and kind. There was no inherently existing bad person at any point in this process. The more that we can embrace this idea that things are in flux, that nothing is exactly the way we think it is, that things are changing, that we’re changing, the more we can be open to relating to things differently. When it comes to thinking about what we need to do on a day-to-day basis in order to cultivate these changes, certainly we could sit on a meditation cushion and concentrate. That is definitely beneficial and absolutely recommended. We could also start to do the kind of meditation where we’re watching our minds, noticing our minds and our reactions to things.
Related: Five Practices to Change Your Mind
As an example, I experienced something just this morning when I opened the fridge. Inside I had a container of berries. Somehow when the door opened the container turned over and spilled all over the floor, and I felt this intense flash of anger that was clearly disproportionate. I mean, it’s annoying when things drop on the floor. But there was no need for me to be angry. I was really surprised. I’d been meditating for a week on giving a talk on staying calm in a raging world and here was my own moment of rage. It struck me. I realized that underneath the rage there was a lot of anxiety about giving this talk. There was a lot of worry about providing information that was helpful to people, and accurate. All of that worry had put me on edge and made me ripe for something to happen that provoked an emotional reaction.
The thing that comforts me is recognizing that there was a moment of sanity in which I could actually observe my behavior and not act on it. I’m not that particularly unique, so I think the kind of meditation that’s most needed for all of us right now is to be more and more engaged with our observations of our thoughts and feelings on a daily basis toward ourselves and others, and then to truly wonder about what’s going on. To become curious about what’s driving our reactions. When we get angry at a person on the subway instead of just lashing out as New Yorkers are prone to do, we can take a minute. If you can’t wonder about it, just don’t act. If you can, later you can ask, “Why am I angry? Why is this bothering me today? On a different day it might not have bothered me so much that someone had done this on the subway but today for some reason it really did.”
We, just like everything else, are not inherently anything, and that moment of our anger was a set of causes and conditions that came together, many of which we can understand. If we take the opportunity to reflect on why it is that I got angry in this moment, we might actually have important insights into what’s happening in ourselves and our lives. Noticing the flash of anger I had this morning opened up a moment of real self-compassion, of thinking about how hard it is, this thing that I’m trying to do today, and how much it matters to me that it’s done well and correctly and from a place of integrity and authenticity. That’s a wonderful thing. This moment that was annoying became a gateway for a better understanding of myself. I think that’s something that we’re all truly capable of.
This is, I think, ultimately the answer to how to keep calm in a raging world: to examine ourselves deeply, to remember that everything is temporary, and to try and cultivate compassion for ourselves and others. Thank you.
This article was adapted from psychotherapist and meditation instructor Mindy Newman’s lecture at the Night of Philosophy and Ideas, a dusk-to-dawn marathon of philosophical discussions and events at the Brooklyn Public Library on February 2, 2019. Newman’s talk was part of a Tricycle series that presented perspectives from Buddhist thinkers and scholars.
[This article was originally published in 2019.]
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