Anger: Dealing with Disturbing Emotions
Dr. Alexander Berzin
Anger is a strong repulsion toward something or someone we find threatening or do not like. As a disturbing emotion, it destroys our peace of mind and we lose self-control. With the various practices to develop patience, however, we can avoid anger and lead a happier life.
Problems in Life
Almost every one of us feels that we have certain problems in our lives. We want to be happy. We don’t want to have any problems, but we constantly have to face many different troubles. Sometimes we get depressed; we encounter difficulties and we feel frustrated in our work, frustrated with our social positions, our living conditions or family situations. We have problems of not getting what we want. We want to be successful. We want only good things to happen to our families and in our businesses, but this does not always happen. Then, when we have these problems, we become unhappy. Sometimes things happen to us that we do not want to happen, like getting sick or growing very weak when we get older, or losing our hearing or sight. Undeniably, nobody wants that to happen.
We have problems in our work. Sometimes things go badly and our business declines or fails. That is clearly something we do not want to happen, but it happens anyway. Sometimes harm befalls us, we hurt ourselves; we have accidents; we get sick. All these things keep occurring as problems that we face.
Besides these, we face many emotional and psychological problems as well. These might be things that we may not feel like discussing or revealing to others. But inside us, we find that there are certain things that are disturbing us in terms of our expectations with our children, our worries or our anxieties, giving us a lot of difficulties. These are what we call “uncontrollably recurring situations or problems, in Sanskrit: samsara.
Uncontrollably Recurring Problems Are Samsara
My background and training is as a translator, and as a translator I have traveled around the world to many different countries translating and also lecturing about Buddhism. I discovered that there is much misunderstanding about Buddhism. The misunderstanding about Buddhism seems to be, for the most part, due to the English words that were chosen to translate the original terms and ideas. Many of these words were chosen in the last century by Victorian missionaries and have quite strong connotations that are not the connotations or meanings that the original words in the Asian languages had. For instance, we have been talking about problems. That is usually translated as “suffering.” If we speak of suffering, then a lot of people get the idea that Buddhism is a very pessimistic religion, because it says that everybody’s life is full of suffering. It seems to say that we do not have the right to be happy. If we speak to somebody who is comfortable, well off and wealthy, and we say to them, “Your life is full of suffering,” then that person will get very defensive. They may argue and say: “What do you mean? I have a video recorder, I have a good car and I have a nice family. I'm not suffering.”
Their response is justified because of the word“suffering,” which is a very heavy word. If, instead, we translate the same Buddhist concept as “problems,” and then we say to somebody: “No matter who you are, how wealthy you are, how many children you have, everybody has certain problems in life,” this is something that everybody is willing to accept. Therefore, I shall discuss these Buddhist explanations from the Tibetan tradition in slightly different terms than those we normally use.
Uncontrollably recurring problems are samsara. In a loose sense, “samsara” refers to situations over which we have no control and which keep on recurring – like, for instance, always being frustrated or always having worries and anxieties. Now what are the true causes for them? Buddha spoke about how not only there are true problems that we face, but they have true causes and it is possible to stop them as well. The way to stop them, to achieve true stoppings of them, is to follow a true path, which means to develop true pathway minds, ways of understanding that eliminate the causes. Once we get rid of the causes, we have gotten rid of the problem.
The true cause of these uncontrollably recurring problems that we face in life is that we do not know reality. We are unaware of who we really are, who other people really are, what’s the meaning of life, what truly is going on in the world. I use “unawareness” rather then “ignorance.” “Ignorance” sounds as though somebody is saying that you're stupid and don’t understand. Rather than that, we are simply unaware, and because we are unaware, we experience this as insecurity on the psychological level. Because of this insecurity, we tend to grasp for some sort of solid identity, some type of “me”: “I don’t know who I am or how I exist and so I will grab on to something either true or maybe just a fantasy about myself and say this is me, this is who I really am.”
We can grasp on to an identity as being a father, for example: “This is who I am, I am the father, I must be respected in my family. My children must have a certain attitude of respect and obedience toward me.” If our entire orientation in life is in terms of being a father, then clearly this can get us into some difficulty. This is because if our children do not respect that, then there is a problem. If we are in an office, people do not look at us as being “father,” or someone worthy of such type of respect. That again can be very disturbing. What happens if I am the ruler in my family and yet when I go to the office, other people in the office look down on me, treat me as an inferior and I must show respect to them? If we grasp too tightly to the identity of being a father and having to command respect, then we can be very unhappy in the office when other people don’t treat us in that way.
We could have the identity of being a successful businessman: “I am a successful businessman. This is the way I am; this is the way that I must be.” However, if our business fails or if business becomes very bad, we are completely shattered. Some people might even commit suicide or do all sorts of horrible things if their business fails, because they can’t quite see life going on without this strong identity to which they have been grasping.
Or we can base our identity on being virile: “This is who I am; I am a virile, handsome, attractive man.” But once we start growing old and lose our virility, this could drive us crazy. Some people could be completely crushed if that’s their self-identity. They are not willing to see that everything changes in life and this identity is not permanent.
We could also feel that we are a traditional person and so everything must be done according to traditional ways. When society changes and young people no longer follow the traditions on which we base our identity, we can become very angry, very upset, very hurt. We cannot really imagine how we could possibly live in a world that is not following our traditional Chinese customs, the traditional way in which we were brought up.
On the other hand, as a young person we could base our identity on being a modern person: “I am a modern person of the world; I do not need these traditional values.” If we grasp on to this very tightly and then our parents start to be very insistent that we follow the traditional values and treat them in the traditional ways, again, as a modern young person, we can feel very hostile, very angry. We might not express it, but inside we would feel that because our identity is as a modern person, we don’t need to visit our parents on Chinese New Year’s Day; we don’t need to do all these traditional things, and again we will get a lot of problems.
We can also identify with our profession. Then if our business fails and we only think of ourselves in terms of only this one profession we had, we will not be flexible. When we cannot do that work that we did before, we feel that our world ends. We do not see that it is possibly to enter a different profession and we don’t always have to practice only one kind of profession.
We grasp for these different types of identities as a way to make us feel secure. We hold some ideas about who we are, what type of rules we follow, what type of things we want in life. We tend to think that this is permanent, that this is all concrete, that this is really me. What happens is that, based on this conception of ourselves, this self-image, we have all sorts of disturbing emotions that come up as ways to support that identity. This is because we still feel insecure about that identity, so we feel that we have to prove and assert it.
For example, if we feel, “I am the father in the family,” then it is not enough for us simply to feel that we are the father in the family; we must also assert that authority. We must assert our power over the family and make sure that everyone kowtows to us, because we have to prove to everybody that we are still the father. It is not enough for us to just know that. If we feel that this identity is threatened, we can get very defensive, or we can become very offensive and aggressive in order to prove something. “I have to prove who I am. I have to prove that I am still virile and attractive,” and so we have to go out and take another wife, or have a love affair with a young woman to prove that this is who we are, this is how we exist. Disturbing Emotions and Attitudes
Disturbing emotions and attitudes are states of mind that arise, with which we try to prove or maintain a solid identity. These disturbing emotions can be of several types, for instance attraction and longing desire. Longing desire arises when we need to get something to us, around us, in order to make that identity secure. For instance, if my identity is as the father or the patriarch of my family, then I may think: “I must get respect; I must have the children come at New Year and must have them obey everything that I say.” Somehow I feel that if I can get enough respect, this is going to make me feel very secure. And obviously when I don’t get that respect I feel hurt and could become very angry.
Also I can think my identity is that I am a lucky person: “I must always have good fortune and good luck and I must always win at mahjong.” If this is my identity, then I feel that if I always win at mahjong, always win at different types of gambling, that makes me feel secure. Or I may always have to go to the fortune teller or throw the fortune sticks at the Chinese Buddhist temple to come up with the proper answers, reaffirming to me that I am successful, that I am OK. I am too insecure in my own business abilities to feel that I am going to be successful. I always have to get more signs, more signs from the gods, or more signs from whomever to make me feel secure, and so I always compulsively have to try this.
I could also feel that “I am the person in authority in my business. I am attracted to power, and power is going to make me feel secure.” That attitude could be arising from several different psychological frameworks. It may be based on feeling that I am a powerful person, or on feeling that I am not really a powerful person but I need that power to support me. We then feel that “If I can make everybody in my office obey me, do things the way that I want them to, that will make me secure.” Or, if we have servants in the house, in order to prove that I am in the position of authority, I am always attracted to the idea that they should do things the way that I want, and I may even start ordering them to do things that are unnecessary, just to prove to them who is in control.
One can also be infatuated with attention. As a young person, we might feel that: “My identity is as a modern, young fashionable dresser, and if I could always keep up with the latest fashions, the latest videos, the latest CDs, the latest things that are going on in all the fashion magazines, that is going to make my identity secure.”
There are many different ways, many different things that we could focus on and feel that if I could just get all that around me and build up enough of it, enough money, enough possessions, enough power, enough attention or enough love, that will make me secure. Of course it does not work. In actuality if it ever worked, we would at some point feel that we have enough and we are fully satisfied. But we never feel that we have enough and we always want more, and when we don’t get it we become angry. Anger comes up in so many different ways.
Another mechanism that we use to try to make a seemingly solid identity secure is repulsion, hostility, and anger: “If I can just get away from me certain things that I don’t like, that are threatening my identity, that is going to make me secure.” So if I base my identity on my political views or on my race or my culture: “If I just get anybody who is of a different view, a different colored skin, a different religion away, that’s going to make me secure.” Or if my servants are doing things slightly differently from the way that I want them to, or those who work in my office are doing things a little bit different from the way that I want them, we feel, “If I could just correct them, if I could just change that, that’s going to make me secure.” I like my papers arranged on the desk in a certain way, but that other person in my office is arranging them in a different way. Somehow we feel this is threatening us: “If I can just make them do it my way, that’s going to make me feel secure.” What difference does it make? In this way, we direct our hostility at others in an effort to get everything that is threatening us away from us.
Or, when we base our identity on being someone who is always correct, then when someone disapproves or criticizes us, we become very defensive, hostile and angry. Rather than accepting with gratitude this person’s criticism so that we can grow and improve ourselves – or even if their criticism is unjust, using the opportunity to check up on ourselves and making sure that we are not lax or at fault – we lash out at the person with harsh words, or we act in a hostile manner in a passive way by ignoring that person and not speaking to them. We act in this way because we feel rather insecure and threatened. We think the person is rejecting “me,” who is always right, and so to protect this solid “me,” we reject that person.
Another mechanism is closed-minded naivety, which is essentially building walls around us: “If something is threatening me, threatening my identity, well I just pretend that it doesn’t exist.” We have difficulties with our family, difficulties at work and we come home, with a stone face, as if nothing was bothering us. We don’t want to discuss it; we just turn on the television and pretend the problem does not exist. This is a closed-minded attitude. Our children want to discuss the problems that they have and we just push them away. “My identity is that our family has no problems; our family is perfect; it is following all the traditional values. How can you suggest that there is a problem and upset the balance, upset the harmony?” We feel that the only way to deal with the problem is to pretend that it does not exist. This type of attitude is called closed-minded naivety.
When we have these different types of disturbing emotions, the next thing that happens is that various impulses come to our minds. This is what karma refers to. “Karma” does not mean fate or destiny. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to think that it does mean that. If somebody’s business fails or somebody is hit by a car, we may say, “Well, tough luck, that’s their karma.” This is almost the same as saying “That’s God’s will.”
We are not talking about God’s will or destiny here in the discussion of karma. We are talking about impulses, the various impulses that come to our minds that lead us to do things. For instance, the impulse that came to our minds to make a certain decision in our business, which turned out to be a bad decision. Or the impulse to make a demand on my children, that they show me respect. Or the impulse to yell at my office workers, that they must do things not in their own way but in my way. Another impulse may come to my mind to show a stone face, turn on the television and not even listen to anybody else. These sorts of impulses, karma, come to our minds, we act them out compulsively and that produces our uncontrollably recurring problems. That is the mechanism.
We may have the problem of always feeling anxious and worried about our position at work, or about the problems in our family. Based on grasping for the solid identity that “I must be successful and please my parents or society by being successful,” we try to defend that identity by denying that the problem of anxiety exists. We become closed-minded and closed-hearted. Then, although all sorts of difficulties might be going on in our family or at work, these stay under the surface and everybody just puts on a nice face. Inside, though, there are all these worries and tensions, which later might just explode into an impulse that leads to a scene of violence, often directed at someone in our family or at work who is not even involved in the issue. This then leads to enormous problems.
These are the different mechanisms that produce our uncontrollably recurring problems. We can see that this is dealing with our various emotions and of course the question comes up, are all emotions troublemakers? Are all emotions things that give us problems?
We have to differentiate between certain emotions that are very positive and constructive – like love, warmth, affection, tolerance, patience, and kindness – and negative or destructive emotions like longing desire, hostility, closed mindedness, pride, arrogance, jealousy and so on. There is no word for emotions in the Pali, Sanskrit or Tibetan languages. We can talk about the positive ones or the negative ones, but there is no general word covering both of them as we have in English.
When we speak about certain emotions or attitudes that when generated make us feel uncomfortable or uneasy, those would be disturbing emotions or disturbing attitudes. For instance, we may have an infatuation or obsession with something or someone and that makes us feel very uneasy. We may be very anxious to receive respect, or we grasp for love, attention or approval from somebody because we are attached to this person and grasp to his or her approval and so on to make us feel worthy and secure – these are all difficulties that come up in terms of the disturbing emotion attitude of longing desire. Whenever we are hostile we feel very uneasy; or if we are closed-minded, that also is an uneasy feeling. All these attitudes are the troublemakers. Therefore we must differentiate negative from positive emotions, for instance love.
Love, in the Buddhist tradition, is defined as the positive emotion with which we wish for others to have happiness and the causes for happiness. This bases itself on the reasoning that we are all equal and that everybody equally wants to be happy, and nobody wants to have any problems. Everybody has an equal right to be happy. Caring for and cherishing others the same as we would ourselves is love. It is a concern for others to be happy that is not dependent on what they do. It is like the love of a mother, who still loves her baby even when the baby has soiled her clothing or vomited on her. That doesn’t matter, the mother doesn’t stop loving the baby, just because the baby got sick and threw up on her clothes. The mother still has the same concern, the same wish for the child to be happy. Whereas what we often call love is an expression of dependency or need. “I love you” means “I need you, don’t ever leave me, I can’t live without you, and you better do this and that, be a good wife or a good husband, always give me flowers on Valentine’s day and do only what pleases me. If you don’t, well now I hate you because you did not do what I wanted, you weren’t there when I needed you.”
Such an attitude is a disturbing emotion and not the Buddhist idea of love. Love is a concern for someone whether they send us flowers or not, whether they listen to us or not, whether they are kind and pleasant to us or acting horribly toward us and even rejecting us. It is the concern for them to be happy. We should realize that when we talk about love and similar emotions, there can be a positive as well as a disturbing type.
Now we come at last to discuss anger. What is going on with anger? Anger is something that is always disturbing. Nobody is made happier by being angry. It does not make us feel better to be angry. It does not make our food taste better. When we are angry and upset, we do not feel comfortable and we cannot sleep. We don’t have to make a big scene, screaming and yelling, but if inside we are very angry about what is going on in our office or in our family, it can start to give us bad digestion or an ulcer, or we can’t sleep at night. We experience many difficulties that come up because of holding the anger back, and if we actually express that anger and give very hostile looks and hostile vibrations to others, even cats and dogs are not going to want to stay around us. They will slowly creep away because they are made uncomfortable by our presence, by our anger.
Anger is something that has no real benefits at all. If our anger gets so strong or frustrated that we have to somehow vent it and we explode and send a curse on somebody, or throw some evil charm against them, does this really make us feel better? Does it make us feel better to see somebody else hurt and upset? Or we get so angry that we feel we have to punch the wall. Does punching the wall really make us feel better? No, obviously not, it hurts. Indeed anger does not help us in any way. If we are caught in traffic and we were to get so angry that we start to beep our horn, and scream and curse at everybody, what good is that? Did that make us feel better? Did that make the cars go any faster? No, it just made us lose face in front of everybody else because they will say, “Who is this idiot beeping the horn?” This is clearly not going to help that situation.
If disturbing emotions like anger and impulsive types of behavior based on them, like screaming and yelling at someone or, with hostility shutting ourselves off from someone or rejecting him or her, are the causes of our problems, will we always have trouble with them? Is this something that we always have to experience? No, that is not the case, because disturbing emotions are not part of the nature of the mind. If they were, then our minds would always have to be disturbed. Even with those who are the most severe cases, there are moments when we are not disturbed by anger. For instance, when we finally do fall asleep we are not experiencing anger.
It is therefore possible that there are certain moments when disturbing emotions such as anger, hostility and resentment are not present. This proves that these destructive emotions are not permanent; they are not part of the nature of our minds and therefore they are things that can be gotten rid of. If we stop the causes of our anger – and not just superficially, but on the deepest level – it is definitely possible to overcome resentment and have peace of mind.
This doesn’t mean that we should get rid of all emotions and feelings and become just like Spock in Star Trek, become someone who is just like a robot or a computer with no emotions. Rather, what we want is to get rid of our disturbing emotions, our disturbing attitudes that are based on confusion, and our lack of awareness about the reality of who we are. The Buddhist teachings are very rich in methods for doing this.
First, we need to have a certain motivation or basis that motivates us to work on ourselves to get rid of our anger and all our disturbing emotions and attitudes. If we have no reason to do it, why should we do it? Therefore it is important to have a motivation.
We can start to develop such a motivation by thinking: “I want to be happy and not have any problems. I want to improve the quality of my life. My life is not very pleasant because I always feel resentment and hostility inside me. Often, I am getting angry. Maybe I do not express it, but it is there and it is making me feel very miserable, very upset all the time and it is not a very good quality of life. Besides, it is giving me bad digestion and that makes me feel sick. I cannot even enjoy the food that I like.”
After all, the quality of our life is something that is in our own hands. One of the biggest messages that the Buddha taught is that we can do something about the quality of our life. We are not condemned to have to live our life in misery all the time. We can do something about it.
Then we would think, “Not only do I want to improve the quality of my life now, or for this moment, on a short term basis, but also on a long term basis. I do not want to let things get so bad that they get even worse. Because, for instance, if I do not get rid of my hostility and resentment now and if I keep it inside, it is going to get worse and I might develop an ulcer. I might explode and do something terrible, like putting some curse or a charm on somebody, and indeed try to destroy them. That could lead to the other person retaliating by putting a curse on me and my family and, all of a sudden, we have the perfect script for a new video or movie.”
If we think ahead that this is something we would not want to happen, we will work on it and try to get rid of our anger so that the problems will not escalate. Further, we may aspire to not only minimize our problems, but, better still, to get rid of all problems altogether because feeling even a small amount of hostility and resentment is no fun: “I must develop a strong determination to be free from all problems.”
Determination to Be Free
Usually what I call a “determination to be free” is translated as “renunciation,” which is a rather misleading translation. It tends to give the impression that we should give up everything and go live in a cave. This is not at all what is being called for here. What is being discussed is to look at our problems honestly and bravely and, seeing how ridiculous it is to keep living with them, to decide: “I don’t want to continue like this. I have had enough. I am bored with them; I am fed up with them. I must get out.”
The attitude to develop here is the determination to be free and, with that, the willingness to give up our old, disturbing patterns of thought, speech and behavior. This is most important. Unless we have made up our minds very strongly, we will not put all our energy into it. Until we put all our energy into it, our effort to be free will only be halfhearted and we will never get anywhere. We will want to gain happiness, but not to give up anything, like our negative habits and emotions. That never succeeds. Therefore, it is very important to have this very strong determination to make up one’s mind that one must stop one’s problems and be willing to give up them and their causes.
On the next higher level we need to think: “I must get rid of my anger not just to find happiness for myself, but also for the sake of everybody else around me. For the sake of my family, friends, co-workers and society, I must get rid of my anger. I have to overcome this, out of consideration for others. I do not want to cause them trouble and make them unhappy. Not only would it cause me to lose face if I were to express my anger, but it would also bring shame upon my entire family. It would bring shame on all my associates and so on. So, out consideration for them, I must learn to be able to control and deal with my temper and get rid of it.”
An even stronger motivation is produced by reflecting: “I must get rid of this anger because it prevents me from helping others. If others are in need of my help, like my children or the people at work or my parents, and if I am completely upset or disturbed by anger or by hostility, how can I help them?” That is a major obstacle and so it is very important to work on ourselves to sincerely develop these various levels of motivation.
No matter how sophisticated the method might be for dealing with anger, if we do not have a strong motivation to apply it, we are not going to do it. And, if we do not apply the methods we learn, then what is the point? Therefore, the first step is to think in terms of the motivation.
What are the actual methods that we can use to overcome anger? Anger is defined as an agitated state of mind that wants to generate violence against something, either animate or inanimate. If we focus on a person, an animal, a situation or some object and do not like it, and we want to express some violence and agitation toward it, to make it change in a violent way, this is anger. So, anger is a state of intolerance and a lack of patience, combined with the wish to harm whatever it is that we cannot endure. Its opposite, on one hand, is patience, which is the opposite of intolerance and, on the other hand, love. Because love is the wish for someone else to be happy, love is the opposite of wishing them harm.
Often we get angry at situations in which something happens to us that we do not like to happen. People are not acting in the way that we want them to act. For example, they are not showing us respect, they are not following our orders at work, or they promised to do something for us in business and they do not do it. Since they do not do as we expect them to do, we get very angry with them. As another example, somebody might step on our toe, and we get angry with him as that is something that we do not like to occur. But, there are various ways in which we can deal with such circumstances, without getting angry. Shantideva’s Advice for Cultivating Patience
A great eighth century Indian Buddhist master, Shantideva, gave many lines of thought to help. If I may paraphrase what he wrote, he said: “If in a difficult situation there is something we can do to change it, then why worry and get angry, just change it. If there is nothing that we can do, then why worry and get angry? If it cannot be changed, anger is not going to help.”
For example, we want to take a flight from here in Penang to Singapore, but when we arrive at the airport the flight is overbooked and already full. There is no point getting angry. Anger it is not going to help us get on the plane. However, there is something that we can do to change the situation – we can take the next flight. Why get angry? Make the booking for the next flight, telephone friends in Singapore and inform them that we are coming later; then it is finished. This is something we can do to handle the problem. If our television doesn’t work, then why get angry and kick it and curse? Just fix it. This is something very obvious. If there is a situation that we can change; then no need to get angry, just change it.
If there is nothing we can do to change the situation, like for instance if we are caught in the rush hour traffic, then we have to just accept it. We do not have a laser beam gun on the front of our car to zap all the cars in front of us or fly off above the traffic like in some Japanese cartoon. Therefore, we have to accept it gracefully, by thinking: “Okay I am in the traffic, I will put on the radio, or I will put on the cassette recorder and listen to some Buddhist teachings, or some beautiful music.” Most of the time, we know when we will get caught in the rush hour traffic and therefore we can prepare ourselves by taking a tape along to listen to. If we know that we have to drive in such traffic, we can make the best use of that time. We can think about some problems in our office or with our family or whatever and try to come up with a good solution for them.
If there is nothing we can do to change a difficult situation, then just try to make the best of it. If we hurt our toe in the dark, well, if we jump up and down and scream and yell, is that going to make it feel any better? In American slang we call that “doing a hurt dance.” You get so hurt that you dance up and down, jump up and down; but that is not going to make it feel better. There is little we can do about it. The only thing to do is just to go on with whatever we are doing. The pain is impermanent. It is something that will pass. It is not going to last forever and jumping up and down and screaming and yelling is not going to make us feel better. What do we want? Do we want everybody to come and say: “Oh poor you, you have hurt your toe.” If a baby or a child hurts himself, then his mother comes over and kisses it and makes it feel better. So do we expect that people treat us in a similar way, like a baby?
While waiting for our turn in a queue or for a bus, if we think of impermanence – that I am not always going to be number 32 or number 9 in the queue, but eventually my turn will come, that will help us to be able to tolerate the situation and we could use that time in a different way. There is a saying in India: “Waiting has a certain pleasure of its own.” This is true, because if we have to wait for our turn in a queue or for a bus, we could use that time to become aware of the other people in the queue or at the bus stop, the things that are going on in the office, or whatever. It helps us to develop a sense of concern about others and compassion. If we are there, we might as well use the time constructively rather than spending the half hour cursing.
Another line of advice by Shantideva tells us: “If somebody hits us with a stick, with whom do we get angry? Do we get angry with the person or do we get angry with the stick?” If we think about it logically, it should be the stick we get angry with, because it was the stick that hurt us! But, that is silly. Nobody gets angry with a stick; we get angry with the person. Why do we get angry with the person? This is because the stick was manipulated by the person. Likewise, if we think further, the person was manipulated by his or her disturbing emotions. So if we are going to get angry, we should get angry with this person’s disturbing emotions that made him or her hit us with the stick.
Then we think: “Where did this disturbing emotion come from? It did not arise from nowhere. I must have done something to trigger it off. I must have done something that made the other person get angry with me and then hit me with the stick. Like that, I might have asked somebody to do me a favor and when he or she refused, I got angry. I got hurt because of that. Well, if I think about it, it was in fact my own fault. I was too lazy and did not do it myself. I asked this other person to do me a favor and when he or she refused I got angry. If I would not have been so lazy myself, then I would never have asked this person, and the whole problem would never have arisen. If I am going to get angry at all, I should get angry with myself for being so stupid and lazy to ask this person to do me a favor.”
Even when it was partly not our fault, we need to look to see if we ourselves are free from this disturbing emotion that is manipulating the other person, like for instance, selfishness: “He refused to do me a favor. Well, do I always do others a favor? Am I somebody who always agrees to help others, and does so immediately? If I am not, then why should I expect other people to always go out of their way for me?” This is another way of dealing with anger.
I mentioned before that anger does not always have to be expressed through yelling, screaming or hitting another person. Anger is a disturbing emotion that, by definition, when it arises makes us feel uncomfortable. So even if we are keeping it inside and never express it, anger will act very destructively inside us and will make us very upset. Later it is going to come out in a very destructive way. We need to apply the same methods that I just explained in order to be able also to handle the anger kept unexpressed within us. We must change our attitude. We must develop patience.
Different Types of Patience
Target Type of Patience
There are many different types of patience. First is the target type of patience. The idea is that if you did not set up a target, nobody would have shot at it. In America, children have a little game. They pin or paste a piece of paper onto the seat of their friend’s pants. On the paper they write “kick me” and this is called the “kick me” sign. Then whoever sees this “kick me” on this little child’s behind will kick the child. Like that, with this type of patience, we think how we have pinned such a “kick me” sign onto our own behinds through our own negative and destructive actions in the past, and this is what is causing all sorts of problems to happen to us now.
For example, suppose we are mugged on the street. We would think, “If I had not set up the target by acting negatively and destructively in the past or in previous lives, then the impulse could not have arisen on my mind to go down that dark street at just that time when there was a mugger waiting to rob me and beat me up. Usually I do not go there, but that night I thought, I will go down that dark street. Usually I go home much earlier, but that night the impulse came to me to stay with my friends a little longer. In addition, I also went down that street at just that time when there was a robber waiting there for somebody to come. Why did that impulse come to my head? It must have been that in the past I have done something that hurt this person and that is now ripening in terms of cause and effect.”
Impulses come to our minds as the expression of karma. So we can think: “I am depleting my past negative karma. I should be very happy that I am getting off so lightly, because it could have been much worse. This person simply robbed me, but he could also have shot me. Therefore, I should feel very relieved that now this negativity has ripened so lightly and I am finished with it. It was not so bad after all and it is good to be rid of it, to get it off my back. I no longer have this karmic debt.”
This type of thinking is very helpful. I remember once I was going on a weekend holiday to the beach with a friend. We were driving for many hours. It was a long drive from the city. After we had driven for about an hour and a half, we heard a funny noise from the car. We pulled over to a mechanic in a station on the roadside. The mechanic took a look at the car and said there was a crack in the axle and we could not continue; we had to get a tow truck to tow us back to the big city. My friend and I could have gotten very angry and upset because we wanted to go to this lovely beach resort for a weekend rest. But with a different attitude we looked at it completely differently: “Wow, this is wonderful! How great it is that this happened, because if we had continued, the axle could have broken while we were driving. We could have had a terrible accident and both been killed. So how wonderful it is that it has ripened in this way. We got off very easy.” So, with our minds at ease, we took the tow truck back to the city and, once there, we borrowed another car and then went on a different plan.
You can see that there are many ways that we could have experienced that type of situation. To have gotten angry and upset would not have helped at all. If we can look at it in terms of: “This is depleting my past negative karma. This karmic debt has ripened now. Wonderful, it is finished. It could have been much worse,” this is a much saner way of handling it.
There is also the type of patience called “love and compassion patience.” With this patience, we regard anybody who becomes angry with us or yells and screams at us as a crazy person, somebody mentally disturbed. This type of patience can also be applied for somebody who embarrasses or criticizes us in front of others, which would make us lose face and we would get angry with them. If, for instance, a parrot were to call us names in front of others; that would not make us lose face, would it? There is no reason to get angry with the bird. It would be a stupid reaction. Similarly, if a crazy person starts yelling and screaming at us, we do not actually lose face from that. Everybody knows that children occasionally throw temper tantrums. Also a psychiatrist does not become angry with a patient when the patient is angry, but rather feels compassion for the patient.
Likewise, we would try to feel compassion for whoever it is that makes us upset, gets angry with us or embarrasses us. We need to realize that, in fact, they are the one that is losing face, aren’t they? We are not the ones who are losing face. Everybody sees that this person is the one who is making a complete idiot out of himself or herself. We should feel compassion for the person, then, instead of anger.
This does not mean that if somebody is trying to hit us, we don’t try to stop him. If our child is screaming, we do try to quiet him or her down. We want to stop him from causing harm to us or others and harming himself. The point is not to do it out of anger. If our child is acting naughty, we discipline him or her not out of anger, but for the sake of the child himself. We want to help the child not to lose face, and do not want people to think badly of our child. We want to discipline the child out of concern, not out of anger.
Guru-Disciple Type of Patience
Then there is the “Guru-disciple type of patience.” This is based on the fact that a disciple cannot learn without a teacher, and so, if nobody tested us, we could not develop patience. In the tenth century, the great Indian master Atisha was invited to Tibet to help revive Buddhism there. This Indian master brought with him an Indian cook. The Indian cook never did anything correctly or respectfully; he was completely obnoxious and very unpleasant. The Tibetan people respected Atisha very much and therefore asked him: “Teacher, why did you bring this obnoxious cook with you from India? Why don’t you send him back? We can cook for you; we can cook very well.” Atisha replied to them: “Oh, he is not just my cook. I brought him along because he’s my teacher of patience!”
Similarly, if there is somebody in our office who is obnoxious, who is always saying things that are annoying to us, we can look at this person as our teacher of patience. There are some people with very irritating habits, like always drumming their fingers. If nobody tested us, how could we develop ourselves? If we encounter difficult situations like a long delay at the airport or bus station, we can use this as a golden opportunity to practice patience: “Ah! I’ve been training to do this. I’ve been training to cultivate patience, and now here is my chance to see if I can actually do it.” Or if we are having difficulties in getting some bureaucratic forms from an office, we take this as our challenge. “This is like when I have been training in martial arts for some time and when I at last get a chance to use my skills. I am delighted.” Likewise, if we have been training ourselves to be patient and tolerant, then when we are faced with an obnoxious situation like this, we will look at it with great joy: “Ah! Here is a challenge. Let’s see if I can handle it and not lose my temper, not become angry, not even feel badly inside.”
Not losing our patience is a much greater challenge than an encounter in martial arts. This is because we must meet the challenge with our minds, with our feelings, not just with our body and physical control. If others criticize us, we need to try to look at this criticism as a chance to see where we are at in our development, instead of feeling angry about it. “This person who is criticizing me may be pointing out certain things about me that perhaps I could learn from.” In this sense, we must try to tolerate criticism and learn how to handle it by changing our attitude. If we get very upset, it may cause us to lose more face than if some crazy person just criticizes and yells at us.
Another way of dealing with anger and developing patience is “patience with the nature of things.” It is the nature of childish people to act badly and rudely. If there is a fire, its nature is to be hot and to burn. If we stick our hand in this fire and get burned, well, what do we expect? The fire is hot; that is why fire burns. If we drive across town during lunch hour, well, what do we expect? It is lunch hour and there will be heavy traffic – that’s the nature of things. If we ask a small child to carry a tray or a cupful of hot tea and he spills it, well, what do we expect? He is a child and we cannot expect the child not to spill anything. Likewise, if we ask other people to do us a favor or to do something for our business, we make an agreement, and then they let us down, well, what did we expect? People are childish; we cannot count on others. Shantideva, the great Indian master said: “If you want to do something positive and constructive, do it yourself. Don’t rely on anybody else. This is because if you rely on somebody else, there is no certainty that he or she will not let you down and disappoint you.” This is how we can look at such situations: “Well, what did I expect? If it is the nature of people to let others down, there is no reason for me to get angry.”
The last method to use against anger is called “sphere of reality patience,” seeing what is actually going on. We tend to label ourselves, others and objects with some solid identity. It is like drawing in our imagination a big solid line around some aspect of ourselves, and projecting onto this aspect that it is our solid identity: “This is who I am; this is how I must always be. For example, “I am God’s gift to the world,” or “I am a loser, a failure.” Or we put a big solid line around somebody else and say: “He is obnoxious. He is no good, he’s a trouble maker.” However, if that were this person’s true, solid identity, he would always have to exist in this way. He would have had to exist in this way also as a small child. He would also have to be obnoxious to everybody, to his wife, his dog, his cat and to his parents, because he is truly an obnoxious individual.
If we can see that people do not exist with a big solid line around them delineating their concrete, true identity or nature, that again allows us to ease off and we will not be so angry with them. We see that this person’s acting obnoxiously was just a passing occurrence – even if it is a frequent one – and does not constitute the way he always must be.
Developing Beneficial Habits
In difficult situations, it might not be so easy to apply all these points. All these various ways of reasoning are known as “preventive measures.” This is how I translate the word “Dharma.” “Dharma” is a measure we take in order to prevent problems. We want to safeguard against getting angry by trying to build up these different types of patience as beneficial habits. That is what “meditation” is. The Tibetan word for meditation comes from the word “to make something a habit,” to habituate ourselves to something beneficial.
First, we need to listen to these various explanations about the different types of patience. Then, we need to think about them so that we understand them and see whether they make sense. If they make sense and we understand them, and we also have a motivation to want to apply them, then we will try to build them up as a beneficial habit by rehearsing and practicing them.
This is done by first reviewing these points. After we have reviewed these points, we have to try to see and feel things in that way. We have to picture situations in our minds using our imagination. We can imagine a situation in which we usually become angry and upset. For instance, someone in our office may do things in a way we do not like. First, try to see this person as he or she is, as a human being who wants to be happy and not unhappy. Although he is trying his best, still he is like a child and does not really know what he is doing. If we try to see and feel this way toward him and we rehearse that in our mind when sitting quietly at home, then the more we have done this, the more easily we will respond in a more positive way when we are in the office and he starts to act obnoxiously. Instead of the impulse to get angry with him, a new impulse will come to our mind – the impulse to be more patient, to be more tolerant.
Having practiced seeing him as being like a child so as to develop patience with his naughty behavior, then we can go a step further. We can see that when he acts in this obnoxious way, he is the one that is losing face. Thus, we develop compassion for him. We can build up the habit to see and feel this way through meditation. When looking and feeling with patience becomes a beneficial habit, it becomes more and more a part of us. It becomes our natural way of responding to difficult situations we have to face. When an impulse comes up in our minds to get angry, there will be a space. We won’t act it out immediately and more positive impulses will arise to act in a more beneficial way.
At lectures on Buddhism, we usually focus on the sensation of breathing and count our breath up to twenty-one at the start of each talk. This practice is also very helpful when we first notice ourselves about to become angry. It creates a space in which we do not immediately act out the negative impulse to say something cruel, for instance, and it gives some space in which to reconsider if we want to get angry and upset. We think, “Do I really want to make a scene or is there a better way of handling this situation?” As a result of meditation and the building up of more beneficial habits, we will see situations with more patience and will feel more tolerant toward them. More positive alternatives will come to our heads and we will naturally choose them, since we want to be happy and we know that these alternative ways will bring us that result.
In order to do this, we need concentration. That is why there are so many different meditation methods in Buddhism for developing concentration. These methods are not just learned as an abstract exercise; they are done in order to be used and applied. When do we apply them? We apply them in difficult situations, when we are dealing with obnoxious people or obnoxious conditions. They help us to concentrate on keeping our minds patient.
We do not restrain ourselves from negative, destructive behavior by just using self-control and discipline. If we do this simply with self-control and discipline, then the anger stays inside us. We are just putting on a very strong face on the outside, but inside the anger burns and it causes us to develop an ulcer. But, on the contrary, when we use these methods correctly, anger does not even arise. It is not a matter of controlling anger and keeping it all inside; it is a matter of replacing the impulses that come to our head. Rather than having negative impulses arising which we may have to deal with by keeping them all inside, positive impulses will come up.
Once we can do this, then, depending on our motivation, we can rid ourselves of our problems now and things will not get worse in the future. Or, we will not have any problems whatsoever, or, with the strongest and most advanced motivation, we will not be causing problems to our family, to our friends, to the people around us and we will be able to help others the fullest. We will be able to do so because we will not be limited by our disturbing emotions and problems. Thus we will be able to realize all our potentials.