Transforming Anger

Even the Dalai Lama gets angry. The trick is what you do with it.

BY: Lama Surya Das

 

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In Tibetan tantric iconography, moreover, not all the Buddhas and meditational deities are pacific. Some are surrounded by flames and wear fierce masks symbolizing the shadow side of our psyches. Yet it is always taught that the wrathful buddhas and "dharma protectors" have peaceful Buddha at their hearts. Perhaps this is connected to the modern, Western notion that righteous anger can help drive compassionate action to redress injustices in the world.

Sadly, in our increasingly uncivil, fast-paced, and competitive society, there are plenty of contributing causes of anger. Violence in the media, permissiveness about expressing oneself, accelerating change, and lack of an ethos of personal responsibility are coupled with a growing sense of entitlement and dearth of family and community connection.

But the Buddha said that no one can make us angry if the seed of anger is not in our hearts. The truth is, we all have some anger in us. Even the Dalai Lama says he gets angry as does the Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat HanhThe difference is that these two sages know what to do with their anger. Intense angry feelings don't automatically become unhealthy or destructive or drive negative actions.

The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, I believe, have learned to constructively channel the energy that can turn into anger. Through opening the heart to that energy rather than repressing and suppressing it they have learned how to recognize its essential emptiness and transitory nature, and then transform and release it, or direct it creatively.

"The ghosts of the past which follow us into the present also belong to the present moment," says Thich Nhat Hanh. "To observe them deeply, recognize their nature and transform them, is to transform the past."

Ultimately, I believe that anger is just an emotion. We needn't be afraid of it or judge it too harshly. Emotions occur quickly; moods linger longer. These temporary states of mind are conditioned, and therefore can be reconditioned. Through self-discipline and practice, negativity can be transformed into positivity and freedom and self-mastery achieved.

A clue to anger is that a lot of it stems from fear, and it manifests in the primitive "fight or flight" response. I have noticed that when I am feeling angry, asking myself, "Where and how do I hurt? What am I afraid of?" helps clarify things and mitigate my tempestuous reaction. After cooling down, I ask myself, "What would Buddha do; What would Love do in this situation?" This helps me soothe my passions, be more creative and proactive instead of reactive. In that state, I can transcend blame, resentment, and bitterness.

As Thich Nhat Hanh has written, "Our attitude is to take care of anger. We don't suppress or hate it, or run away from it. We just breathe gently and cradle our anger in our arms with the utmost tenderness."

This "embracing" of our anger is an important part of the practice of lovingkindness: learning to accept and love even what we don't like. The Dalai Lama has said: "My religion is kindness." The cultivation of lovingkindness is an inner attitude that embraces all in a way that allows no separation between self, events, and others, and honors the Buddha-nature or core of goodness at the heart of one and all. Lovingkindness is the root of nonviolence, the antidote to anger and aggression, and the root of mindfulness practice, in that it requires the same non-judging, non-grasping calmness and clarity that is at the heart of Buddhist meditation practice.

When anger surges up in you, try cultivating patience, lovingkindness, and forbearance. When hatred rears its head, cultivate forgiveness and equanimity, try to empathize with the other and see things through there eyes for a moment. If you are moved towards aggression, try to breathe, relax, and quiet the agitated mind and strive for restraint and moderation, remembering that others are just like you. They want and need happiness; they are trying to avoid pain, harm, and suffering, too.

The following is a very simple strategy to apply in the moment that anger arises:

1. First, "I know that I'm angry--furious, livid, etc."
2. Breathe in deeply, and while breathing out say, "I send compassion towards my anger."

Practice this mantra, and observe how it magically interrupts the habitual pattern of unskillful, thoughtless reactivity. This practice can provide--on the spot--a moment of mindfulness and sanity. It helps us take better care of ourselves and heads off negative behaviors we know we don't want to perpetuate.

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