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On Anger (Talk 1 of 3)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Apr 05, 2006
In topic: Emotion
Introduction and Talk on Anger referring to Thich Nhat Hanh's book "Anger"
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On Anger (Talk 1 of 3)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Apr 05, 2006 

Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager 

We will be spending this month considering the practice of anger – how to practice with anger. Why anger?  We have probably spoken about this before many times, but there is something basic and compelling about anger. Somehow our anger seems to bring us right to the heart of the human condition.  It may be that deeply considering anger could be beneficial.  Anger might be a particularly good teacher. 

In Buddhism, anger is called a negative emotion.  There are teachings on how to cool anger down. Yes, it is a good idea to cool anger down, and certainly anger is not something pleasant or beneficial. At the same time, though, let’s be clear that we’re not talking about demonizing anger, or making it go away, or being ashamed of our anger, or getting into fights with our anger. 

Like all the so-called afflictive emotions, anger has its place, its advantage. Right now, if anger arises in me, there’s a reason: the whole history of everything, my own past thoughts and actions, as well as everything else in the universe that has conspired to produce this moment of anger in me.  So it’s got to be there! I don’t have to encourage it; I don’t have to act on it. But it is there for a reason, and if I can understand at least some of that reason, then I can actually become enlightened by my anger. I can understand myself and my world better, and then I can begin to become influenced in my thinking and inmy conduct by what I have understood. So anger can be a precious and valuable teacher, if we can be skillful and respectful in dealing with it. 

First of all, we have to ask, What is anger? In one sense, there is no need to ask this question. When we get angry, we don’t wonder whether what we are feeling is anger. We know anger when we feel it. There is no doubt about it. On the other hand, it may not be so clear, when you think about it.  I think I may feel anger, but when I look more closely, I might see that I am actually afraid, or I might feel angry at you, but if I look more closely, I can see that I am angry at myself. Or the reverse could be true. Sometimes anger might not be anger. It might be a mask for another feeling, and the object of anger, which might seem very clear in the moment, might, in fact, not be so clear. All this tells me that anger is a little more subtle and a little less clear than it seems at first. So there is room for investigation, room to become much more intimate with anger and to discover more. 

One reason that I think we aren’t intimate with anger is that we usually avoid feeling anger. Many of may be a lot more angry than we think we are. Maybe we mask our anger with an ideology of love or compassion or pity, or, maybe, fear. We are afraid of our anger, because we know how destructive it can be, so we can’t know that we are angry. We can’t let ourselves feel it, but, in fact, maybe we are quite angry, and it will come out in small, but unmistakable, ways. This is certainly possible. 

Even when we do feel anger, and we are really furious, we may think that we are feeling our anger, but we may not actually be feeling it. We pass over the really disturbing phenomenon of anger – that hot, passionate, irrational, lashing fury at our having been had by the universe, having been utterly defeated. The moment is gone forever, and there is nothing that we can possibly do about it. That is uncomfortable to feel. Our heart is beating, our eyes are bugging out, our breathing is rapid, our fists are clenched, every blood vessel in the body feels like it is about to burst. Nobody wants to feel that, so we all focus, instead, on the object of our wrath. She did this to me. He did this to me. They did this to me. Now we can forget about the actual feeling of anger and occupy ourselves instead with another person. What a horrible person she is.  It is clear all along how horrible she was. What am I going to say and what am I going to do to make her pay, so that I can get some satisfaction, and I can be powerful again? I won’t have to bear this horrible feeling of victimization, this hot, frustrating anger anymore. But to focus on the object of our anger, which may or may not actually be the object of our anger, is to jump over the actual anger. Blame is an avoidance mechanism. It is not anger. 

So, we have to come back to the question: What is anger really? After what I’ve said, it might be less clear to you what anger is. Actually, I doubt that it is possible to define anger perfectly. Although you can find definitions in the dictionary, they don’t really cover the territory. It might be better to see if it is possible to make a few statements about anger that seem to be true. 

First, anger isn’t rational, and it isn’t calm. It seems that when we are angry, we don’t have good judgment. We don’t do useful actions or say useful things.We are agitated, and, in a sense, at the mercy of some sort of powerful force that isn’t us, and which we would never choose –if we could choose. 

Second, anger is associated with a sense of fear or threat. I get angry when I feel physically or psychologically assaulted, or when it seems that I have been or will be assaulted. I seem to need the anger to defend myself or the group or the idea that I identify with, against insult or injury.   In this case, I might like my anger to be there, because it makes me stronger, it makes me braver. It enables me to take the strong actions of which I might not otherwise be capable. 

Third, anger isn’t intentional. Anger seems to happen to us. We don’t seem to decide to be angry at a certain time, and then when that time comes on schedule, to fly into a rage.  I think that is why legally there is a difference between what they call a “crime of passion” and “a premeditated crime.” That is an interesting use of language.  When we meditate on our crime in advance, and then we do it, the penalty is stiffer than if we fly into a rage in the moment and commit a crime. This means that we ought to be very forgiving of ourselves when we get angry. And also of others. It’s not really our fault, in the sense that we didn’t intend it. On the other hand, though the arising of anger in the moment isn’t intentional, the thoughts and deeds that precede that moment may be. For example, if I love to be angry and feel justified and powerful in my anger, then this attitude is going to encourage the arising of anger in me. In contrast, if I see anger as something that I don’t want to encourage, and if I am actively practicing with my anger, then it is certainly less likely to arise in me.  Thich Nhat Hanh calls “seeds” the thoughts and attitudes that precede an unintentional arising of the moment of anger.  He talks about, “Watering the seeds of anger,” or “Not watering the seeds of anger.” So that is intentional on our part, one way or the other, and we are responsible for that. But at that moment when anger arises, when the seedling pops up out of the earth, I think that we could really say, that in that moment, it is not our fault, and there is nothing that we can do about it.

 Four, anger has powerful physical dimensions, and these are the things that I was mentioning before: the heart is racing, the body is clenched up, and so on. It would be interesting to compare the physical dimensions of anger to anxiety, or what we now call these days, stress. Probably these two things are almost the same. This tells us that anger is actually toxic. Anger can literally kill us. When I was a boy, I had a friend whose father used to get angry all the time, all the time flying into a rage over the littlest thing. When we were only ten or twelve years old, my friend’s father died of a heart attack, and dropped dead in his early forties, no doubt literally killed by his anger. This happens a little less these days, just because people recognize the excessive danger that anger can provide to our health.  It is really a problem, so people view it and treat it as a health hazard. 

Fifth, actions or words taken in anger usually are not productive. This is putting it mildly. We are capable of saying and doing some fairly consequential things in anger, things that can wreck lives and relationships, sometimes beyond repair. Of course, if we do this, we can apologize; we can make amends, but sometimes, depending on what we have said or done and to whom, we may never repair the damage that is done in a moment of anger. 

Sixth, anger can’t be denied or suppressed. When we are angry, we just have to be angry. We can’t make it go away, and even if it seems that we can, it will only come back, after having festered for a while, stronger and more toxic than before. The precept about anger and ill will doesn’t say that we shouldn’t be angry. It says that we shouldn’t harbor anger. This means that we commit ourselves to acknowledge and feel the anger without encouraging it, without validating it, or without blame. Certainly it means that we try not to act on it. 

There is an important relationship between meditation practice and our ability to sustain the practice of anger. Without meditation, it might seem as if there are only two possibilities: either we suppress our anger, or we express it. Both are problematic, and neither one works very well. With meditation practice, and with mindfulness that the meditation practice supports, we can create a large enough and supportive enough inner space to sustain and calm anger down. Not suppress it, not to deny it, but to practice with it, investigate it, be willing to be with it. When we can do this, the anger will change. That is the point that Thich Nhat Hanh makes over and over in his book called Anger. Mindfulness can tame and transform anger into understanding and love – which  I think is actually possible. 

This leads me to my final statement about anger. Anger requires a certain blindness and inner confinement in order to exist. It will fizzle out naturally when there is insight and spaciousness of mind. Anger feels hot in the body. It is compared to a fire. When anger gets going very strongly, it is as if a fire is burning in a very confined space, blasting everything in the vicinity. Anger rapidly hurls fresh logs onto the fire, so that it will burn ever hotter. When there is insight and some clarity about what anger is, some ability to be aware of it and be with it, to know the nature of anger and where it leads us, then mindfulness will create a much larger space in which the fire of anger can burn. When there is more space, the fire doesn’t feel so hot. Even though the fire might continue to burn for awhile – consuming the fuel from the past – eventually it will burn out. There may be some embers left, from which a new fire could flare up, but that fire won’t be as large or as hot as it would have been. So, if we don’t actively make our anger worse, and if we practice mindfulness with it, little by little, with patience, it dies down. 

So as a meditation practice, look at instances of anger in your life, during the days of your week ahead. When anger arises, instead of doing what you usually do, whatever that is, take a look. Breathe, apply awareness to the anger, and study the anger. What is it? What is its nature? How will that awareness change the experience of anger?