In my many years of associating with high-minded people who declare their most honored value to be that of doing no harm to others, I would have to say that the most confusing issue in actualizing such a life is how we handle our anger. I think this confusion comes from many sources. One of them is, of course, the conflicting messages about how to express emotion in our culture. But another huge source of confusion is our idea of spiritual maturity itself and how we interpret the admonitions of our religious teachers.
Many interpretations of spiritual practice definitely seem to imply that we should be trying to suppress anger altogether. Jesus meekly turns his other cheek rather than strike back. In the Abhidhama,one of the oldest texts in Buddhism, anger "has the function of causing oneself not to remain in contact with happiness and serves as a basis for misconduct. Through anger, one does not abide in happiness in this lifetime, and immeasurable suffering is induced in the future."
|We expect our religious leaders to be serene and sunny, efficient and helpful, some variant of Mary Poppins or Smokey the Bear.|
As a culture, we idealize equanimity, certainly. We think either consciously or unconsciously that a "spiritual" person, or a developmentally mature person, is not supposed to get visibly upset over anything. We expect our religious leaders to be serene and sunny, efficient and helpful, some variant of Mary Poppins or Smokey the Bear.
For many years, I flatly denied that I felt my anger and struggled with the various forms it took when it was denied, like passive-aggressive behavior, sarcasm, and negativism. As I practiced meditation and my foibles became less threatening to me, I finally came to recognize anger in myself. Then I had the problem of how to best handle this feeling, whether to express it or suppress it.
As the years have passed, my anger has become a welcome friend to me. In the process, I have come to understand that neither suppression nor explosive expression nor even peaceful expression is my only option in dealing with anger. We can hold feelings in the "balance of meditative equipoise," as Mark Epstein calls it in "Thoughts Without a Thinker," "so that they can be seen in a clear light." When I began to try to be aware of my anger, I had to start at the beginning, with the mind that got woolheaded when I was hurt and childishly kept track of other people's slights. Only by paying precise attention to those states of mind every time I was quick enough to notice them, trying to discern exactly what I was experiencing, moment after moment, could I finally locate my true feeling, hidden beneath layers of protection.
My current view is absolutely the opposite. I've come to think over the years that opting to have a temper tantrum is one of the healthiest things I do. Short bursts of rage can be extremely restorative if we live with the constant frustration of chronic pain or extreme stress. We must give vent to these feelings as often as we feel comfortable doing so. It's very hard to value these feelings because we've been taught so consistently that we must never lose control in such an extreme way, but I say if we take certain precautions--that there is never any danger of hurting ourselves or anyone else--let 'er rip!