If you are angry and you meditate to get rid of your anger, you will only frustrate yourself. Meditate because you are angry, not to eliminate it. Thich Nhat Hanh says we must learn how to hold anger like a baby: we need to learn how to be angry, not how to express or repress it. Whenever we take any emotion and make it into an It (as in “I can’t stand it any longer” or “I have to get it out of my system”), we are in trouble.

The classic Buddhist psychological texts have a lot to say about working with anger. In the Visuddhimagga (the fifth-century Sinhalese “Path of Purification”), for instance, the mental factor of dosa, or hate, is described as follows: “Herein, by its means they hate, or it itself hates, or it is just mere hating, thus it is hate (dosa). It has the characteristic of savageness, like a provoked snake. Its function is to spread, like a drop of poison, or its function is to burn up its own support, like a forest fire.  It is manifested as persecuting (dusana), like an enemy who has got his chance. Its proximate cause is the grounds for annoyance. It should be regarded as like stale urine mixed with poison.”

Recognizing the character of anger, as described in this text, is a big help in learning to work with it skillfully. We feel righteous when we are angry, but more often than not we end up being self-destructive. The grounds for annoyance are there, but we respond in a way that is savage. Like a forest fire, anger tends to burn up its own support. If we jump down into the middle of such a fire, we will have little chance of putting it out, but if we create a clearing around the edges, the fire can burn itself out. This is the role of meditation: creating a clearing around the margins of anger. Ten years of meditation might be a good start, but it is actually very difficult to carve out that margin. Holding anger like a baby while at the same time regarding it like stale urine mixed with poison is a neat trick. The Dalai Lama implies something like this when he teaches us to offer gratitude to our enemies for teaching us patience.

still angry meditation
Image: Robert Beer from Tibetan Thangka Painting: Methods and Madness by David and Janice Jackson, courtesy of Snow Lion Publications.

The Buddhist teachings have another method of working with anger, one that the Dalai Lama always refers to. ”All human beings want happiness and don’t want suffering,” he often says. There are practices in which one deliberately changes places, in one’s mind, with another person, thinking,  “She wants happiness, she doesn’t want suffering just as I want happiness and do not want suffering.” These practices are usually done first with a person for whom one has loving feelings, then with a person for whom one has neutral feelings and finally, only after much practice, with a person for whom one has angry feelings.

So you’re still angry and you ‘re wondering what’s the matter with you? Probably nothing. Don’t compare the Bodhisattva path with being a Buddha and expect yourself to have purified every emotion.