Perhaps it is the insidious nature of the emotion. Anger is like a worm that tunnels under the skin and stays hidden, tending to dig itself ever deeper, sometimes staying burrowed for years and years.
Or maybe it is the contradiction of anger--we, for the most part, can easily recognize the futility of our angry feelings, yet we return to them again and again. Like a very bad habit or addiction, long after we have denounced the penchant for anger, the urge is still there and all too easy to satisfy.
What ticks me off most about anger is that at the very start of my attempts to read and study Buddhism, when my understanding was at the most elementary level, I was able to quickly grasp how anger was brought on by my own attachments. Whereas I once thought particular people or events could "drive me up a wall," it seemed like only moments after reading my first dharma book that I realized it was me driving myself up the wall, and the wall was a construct of my own making.
Sometime later, I came to understand that the very idea that there is "me" and that there are "others" is at the heart of this illusion--we imagine ourselves separate from other people and too often zealously guard this imagined barrier we have put around ourselves. Our anger is likely the result of our feeling that someone has breached that barrier.
But in Buddhist terms, this is all just a lot of silliness, for we are not separate, there is no "one" to be angry, and the barrier is all an illusion, so how could it be breached?
I realized this some time ago, yet here I am many years later still acting the angry fool, still tripping myself up.
Perhaps one of the most perplexing aspects of attempting to be a Buddhist is that so much of what seems clear and wonderful upon discovery quickly becomes frustrating and seemingly unachievable in practice. Case in point: anger.
I don't know many people who have honestly solved the riddle. I know some who have come to realize on a deep level what I have said above--that there is no self, and thus no self to be angry--but understanding the absence of self and ending the habit of ego-clinging are two very different accomplishments.
Yet back in January, a colleague and I disagreed pretty strenuously on a matter of where our department should be headed. I staked my ground. My colleague staked his ground. We made our cases to the various parties who had a say in the matter, and alas, I won.
My colleague was none too pleased and let me know that in his opinion, I had won the fight unfairly, had embarrassed him in public, and was guilty of stretching the truth. He offered his assessment to some others in the office as well, and of course, inevitably, his words found their way back to my ears.
In no time at all, I was livid.
I won, remember. The action I championed was the action taken. The colleague on the losing side was not happy with the result, but why should he be? It wasn't what he wanted. He said some harsh things afterward, but for the most part he said them to my face. Although he still won't discuss the matter on which we so strenuously differed, we are working together on other matters, and he has tried in many ways to be reasonable and receptive. Some of the things said about me were probably true. I felt deeply, fought hard for my position, perhaps was boorish at times. I'm sure that I am not perfect.
So I won the day, my colleague reacted with less than perfect equanimity but kept his reaction in reasonable check, day-to-day office life is going forward, and all should be well. Except, I can barely count the hours I have lost over the past months, stewing, laying awake, plotting, engaging in angst-ridden self-dialogue:
How could he say that? He's the one who is stretching the truth! The nerve of him. I've always tried to be friendly, helpful in the past. What an ingrate! Why won't he admit that I was right all along? This can't be left alone. I'll show him!
I was driving myself up that wall again, a wall that I had laboriously constructed from alternating bricks of outrage and hurt feelings. But instead of recognizing what I had done, or focusing on what I felt, feeling the anger and the hurt, sitting with it as I should, I was insisting, still, that the other person, my colleague, was "making me angry." It was as if I had never heard a single word of the Buddha's teachings.
So I returned to my source, that very first clear dharma book that set me on my path. Thich Nhat Hanh's "Being Peace" is so simple, it almost seems like a children's book, but it is nonetheless beautiful and wise.
I hadn't dipped into the book for years, until last week. What I found was one of Hanh's lucid stories:
A man was rowing a boat up-river on a misty morning when he saw another boat coming his way. He shouted and motioned so that the other boat would not hit him, but sure enough the boat came right downstream, striking his boat a brisk blow. The man was angry and shouted at the captain of the other boat for his carelessness, for not listening, for being a lousy captain, until the man finally calmed enough to see that there was, in fact, no captain at all in the other boat. The other boat had come loose from the dock somewhere, was empty, and was being pulled downstream by the current. The man in the first boat had to laugh. Who could he be angry at now?
There has been a boat striking briskly against my hull for months now, and it was my mistake to think my colleague was at the helm. He isn't in the boat. He isn't even on my river. He has his own river to tend.
But in a bout of foolish ego-clinging, I have been holding on to that other boat, the boat I think is being captained by my colleague, and I have been insisting that it bang against my imagined hull, again and again and again. I became the captain of the offending boat.
What I should have done was notice my own feelings, my own reactions, and focus on them. Be with them. Let them be, then let them pass. Had I done that, these unpleasant feelings no doubt would have floated downstream.
But still, they haven't.
It all sounded so clear, so simple, so easy, when I read my first dharma book. Sometimes the simplest truths are the most difficult to realize.