Buddha Faces, Chris Rainier, Wat Phra Maha That, Ayuthaya, Thailand. Courtesy Chris Rainier
Buddha Faces, Chris Rainier, Wat Phra Maha That, Ayuthaya, Thailand. Courtesy Chris Rainier

I remember once, not so many years ago, sitting in my therapist’s office, telling him of an argument that I had had with someone close to me. I can no longer bring back the details, but I had done something to get my friend upset with me, and she had become quite angry, unjustifiably and disproportionately in my view. I remember feeling upset and frustrated as I recounted the events.

“All I can do is love her more strongly at those times,” I insisted somewhat plaintively, drawing on my years of meditation practice and the sincerity of my deeper feelings.

“That will never work,” he snapped, and it was like being hit with a Zen master’s stick. He looked at me somewhat quizzically, as if amazed at my foolishness. “What’s wrong with being angry?” he said.

This interaction has stayed with me for years because, in some way, it crystallizes the difficulties that we face in trying to integrate Buddhist and Western psychological approaches. Buddhism gives us a mixed message about the emotions, on the one hand supporting the notion that we must strive to eliminate them, and on the other hand teaching acceptance of whatever arises. Is there something wrong with being angry?Can we get rid of it? What does it mean to work it through? I have to address questions like this over and over again in my work as a therapist, where it has become clear to me that working through an emotion like anger often means something different than merely eliminating it. For, as the Buddhist view has consistently demonstrated, it is the perspective of the sufferer that determines whether a given experience perpetuates suffering or is a vehicle for awakening. To work something through means to change one’s view; if we try instead to change the emotion, we may achieve some short-term success, but we remain bound by forces of attachment and an aversion to the very feelings from which we are struggling to be free.

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