Why do we get angry? What— exactly—happens when we act with greed, with hatred, or with delusion? If we understood the mechanisms involved with constructing and perpetuating these toxic behaviors, it would help us to avoid, abandon, or transform them, and would contribute greatly to our learning to be generous, kind, and wise instead. The matter is explained quite succinctly in the Abhidharma-samuccaya (2.1.2), a Sanskrit text attributed to the Yogacara teacher Asanga.
Three conditions need to co-arise in the same moment for an unwholesome event, a kilesa, to occur in the mind. The first is the presence of underlying tendencies (anusaya), dormant dispositions toward various negative and harmful emotions, such as anger. Each of us consists of a bundle of dispositions or habits, some of which are basic instincts inherited genetically from our ancestors, some of which have been laid down in early childhood, and some of which are taken up and modified each and every moment as we respond to the world. As choices are made and actions are performed, the residue or consequences of these are accumulated as latent tendencies. Modern psychologists consider these to be residing in the unconscious mind, and identify them with terms such as “character” or “personality traits,” “habits,” “learned behaviors,” “conditioned responses,” and the like. They build up naturally as a consequence of experience and provide a record of that experience, almost in the way that sedimentary rocks retain information from eras long past.
One of the reasons a person gets angry is because he or she has a disposition toward anger. This disposition may originate as one common to all humans, but in each individual, depending on the particular circumstances of their life, it has become strengthened or weakened by practice. Some people are thus more disposed to anger than others, not because of fate or chance, but because they have regularly called forth and reinforced the underlying tendency toward anger by becoming angry.
The second condition for the arising of a toxic behavior is the appearance of an object conducive to the establishment of a toxin. Every moment of consciousness will manifest as consciousness of a particular object, which may be a sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or thought. In the case of anger, this might be hearing a sound that is interpreted as an insult, for example. The object’s ability to provoke anger is not an intrinsic quality of the object itself, but a matter of how it is construed by the person seeing, hearing, or thinking it. Almost anything can act as an object conducive to anger, especially for someone who has a strong disposition toward anger.
An episode of anger is thus an interaction between these two factors: a proclivity towards anger on one hand, and the arising of a triggering input on the other. If either one of these conditions is not present, the anger will not occur. A calm and forgiving person, for example, without a strong disposition toward anger, might tolerate an insulting remark without getting angry, while the anger of even a habitually angry person will lie dormant until it is provoked by a particular incident. In extreme cases in either direction, some people will almost never get angry, while others seem to be continually angry.
There is a third condition for the manifestation of a toxin, namely the presence of unwise or careless attention. This has to do with the quality of the mind in the present moment, with how much attention is brought to bear upon the awareness of the object. If attention is weak or lacking, then there is little or no conscious awareness and one is acting automatically or reflexively. The toxin surges from latency and is acted out in behavior without even being noticed by the mind. You may have experienced this, becoming angry without being aware of consciously choosing to do so.
In moments when attention is strong, because we deliberately cultivate awareness of inner states as they arise and pass away in the mind with wise or careful attention, we are far more able to notice what is going on and thereby to influence what unfolds by the exercise of volition. We may still get angry, but the experience is different when we are aware that we are angry compared to when we are not. Refining the attention further, by bringing mindfulness to bear on the situation, renders the anger an object of investigation and has the effect of neutralizing it as an emotion enacted in the moment.
All three of these conditions work together to bring about an unwholesome moment, and all three storms rage in concert with one another to wreak havoc on the quality of our inner lives and to the detriment of the world as a whole. The Buddhist tradition offers a threefold approach to reducing their strength, and possibly even calming them once and for all:
1. The practice of integrity (sila) works to restrain or prevent triggering objects from arising in experience. If we are trying to manage our anger, for example, it might be good to steer clear of the company of others who are easily angered or to avoid situations likely to provoke anger.
2. The practice of concentration (samadhi) trains the mind’s capacity for being present in the moment, thus augmenting our ability to bring wise attention to bear as much as possible on the experience. When the powers of the mind are focused, one can better see anger as it arises internally, and with such heightened awareness one can more easily remain calm even in the presence of strong provocation.
3. The practice of wisdom (panna) has to do with gradually diminishing the underlying tendencies themselves in the unconscious mind. There is no need either for an act of will to restrain anger, or for behavioral changes to avoid its provocation, if the habitual disposition toward anger is itself eradicated. It may be that some deeply-seated habits never entirely go away, like the urge to drink in some alcoholics, but many of the inclinations we might have felt strongly at one stage of life can entirely wither away at another. Wisdom involves such deep transformation.
While emotion generally serves a useful purpose and is central to our humanity, the Buddha has demonstrated that the most harmful of these emotions, those rooted in greed, hatred and delusion, can be attenuated and even eliminated from experience in a process of gradual but profound purification. Understanding the conditions that conspire to feed these tempests goes a long way toward helping us calm their raging waters and sail through life upon more tranquil seas.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.