Why did you write Working with Anger, and why now?
Because I’ve had difficulty with anger throughout my own life. I learned the techniques that the Buddha taught, I practiced them, they helped me, and so I thought to share these techniques with other people. And also because when I teach, people frequently ask, “How do I deal with emotion, with anger?” It’s a critical question for many of us.
And what are the origins of anger, from a Buddhist point of view?
Anger begins with a wrong conception of the self, of who we are. From there, we start craving things, becoming attached to them, thinking that they are going to make us happy. And when that process is interfered with, when we don’t get what we want, when, instead, we get what we don’t want, our reaction is anger. We either want to strike back or run away. The origin of anger is our own mind of misconception.
So then what is the solution?
But is the point to rid ourselves of angry emotions, or to learn how to relate to those emotions in a different way?
Actually, in the state of complete enlightenment we are free from the angry emotions altogether. Some Buddhist teachers say, Well, you will always have these emotions, even in the enlightened state, but you will become mindful of them. From a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, at the state of full enlightenment, the anger, the jealousy, the attachment—they don’t arise at all. While we are on the path, of course, they still arise, and there we need to learn how to relate to them in a different way and to subdue them. But the final goal is to eliminate them. And eliminating them is entirely different from suppressing them.
Given that most of us are still on the path, what are a few techniques that we can use?
There are numerous practices. The idea is to familiarize ourselves with a variety of methods and to use the one that will work the best in each situation that arises. One technique, for instance, might be to consciously see the situation from another person’s point of view. Another technique is to witness how we’re seeing the situation through the viewpoint of me, I, my, and mine, and to recognize that we’ve lost the larger perspective. We think we’re seeing an objective reality when, in fact, we’re seeing the conflict through our own filter. Other methods include seeing each situation through the perspective of karma and seeing each as an opportunity to develop compassion.
One of the things that I find helpful in my own life when I get angry, is to say to myself: This is cyclic existence. What do I expect out of cyclic existence? Why am I expecting that external things are going to bring me happiness? This is one of the basic Buddhist premises: External things don’t bring happiness. Why then do I continue to think that they will, and why am I getting angry when they don’t? I find that this method helps. It allows me to lower my expectations—often when I become angry, I do so because I have certain expectations of a person or a situation, and these are not met. So I ask myself, what are my expectations in this situation? Well, what do you expect out of samsara!
Anger is often experienced as immediate and overpowering—at times we seem to have no control over it. What are we to do in this situation, when anger manifests before we even have a chance to consider it? Well, this is our American mind. We want an immediate solution. But the Buddhist path is one of gradual transformation. The situation you describe is precisely why we need to practice. We practice on a daily basis to make our minds familiar with these techniques, so that when a problem occurs we have some familiarity with another way of relating to our anger. But if we don’t have that practice beforehand, there is simply no way that we can call it to mind when the situation arises.
Some would argue that anger can be a useful emotion—say in a situation of social protest: anger can be energizing, inspiring, forceful, and so on. What do you say to this?
People often think that only with anger can you correct social injustice or prevent harm. But in truth anger clouds our minds. We cannot think clearly. In fact, our mind becomes exactly like the mind of the person that we are protesting—it’s full of me and them; I’m right and they’re wrong. We have the same attitude as those we are objecting to. When you protest with a compassionate attitude, you’re more effective because you can see the whole picture and you care about the people you are protesting against instead of trying to harm them. Can you imagine what would happen in the Middle East if the Israelis thought, “We want to take care of the Palestinians. We want to help them have a state”? And if the Palestinians had that feeling about the Israelis? The whole dynamic would change. Basically, I think the fundamentalists of the world could have a conference and they would agree on most things! Because the way of thinking is the same—the positions are different, of course, but the mind is the same. Sure, anger is an energizing force, but there are other things that we can do that will energize us yet allow our minds to be clear. When we are energized with anger we often do things that worsen our situation. Being compassionate does not mean being passive. We can actively work to counteract injustice and harm, but we do so with compassion, not self-righteous anger. With compassion, our positive efforts can be sustained for a long time and will be effective. It is important to recognize that anger does not always manifest as aggressive behavior. It can present itself as being very passive or as escaping or running away from the situation. A lot of people in our culture, particularly women, are taught that this is how to deal with anger. And so many people think, Well, I don’t have anger because I don’t yell and scream. And that’s not the case. Inside, of course, you’re burning up, but you present to the world a calm demeanor. And as you begin to look inward, you see this. ▼
An excerpt from:
Working With Anger
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Snow Lion Publications: Ithaca, 2001;
156 pp.; $12.95 (paper)
Under the influence of anger, we say and do things that we later regret. Years of trust built with great effort can be quickly damaged by a few moments of uncontrolled anger. In a bout of anger, we treat the people we love most in a way that we would never treat a stranger, saying horribly cruel things or even physically striking those dearest to us. This harms not only our loved ones, but also ourselves, as we sit aghast as the family we cherish disintegrates. This, in turn, breeds guilt and self-hatred, which immobilize us and further harm our relationships and ourselves. If we could tame our anger, such painful consequences could be avoided.
Further, anger can result in people shunning us. Here, thinking back to a situation in which we were angry can be helpful. When we step out of our shoes and look at ourselves from the other person’s viewpoint, our words and actions appear differently. We can understand why the other was hurt by what we said. While we need not feel guilty about such incidents, we do need to recognize the harmful effects of our uncontrolled hostility and, for the sake of ourselves and others, apply antidotes to calm it.
Some people interpret Buddhist teachings on the disadvantages of anger to mean that we’re not supposed to become angry, or are bad and sinful if we do. The Buddha never said this. No judgment is involved. When we’re angry, the anger is just what is at that moment. Telling ourselves we should not be angry doesn’t work, for anger is already present. Further, beating up on ourselves emotionally is not beneficial. The fact that we became angry doesn’t mean we’re bad people. It just means that a harmful emotion temporarily overwhelmed us. Anger, cruel words, and violent actions are not our identity. They are clouds on the pure nature of our mind, and they can be removed or prevented. Although we are not yet well-trained in patience, we can gradually develop this quality when we try. ▼
Reprinted with permission from Snow Lion publcations.
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.