Image: Artwork by Kathryn Fanelli, 2011
Image: Artwork by Kathryn Fanelli, 2011

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.

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