2016-06-30
This excerpt comes from "Finding a Joyful Life in the Heart of Pain," published by Shambhala Publications.

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.

I began to realize how complex anger is. In some of its forms, it's destructive to both the person expressing it and the person on the receiving end; this is violence. But in some other forms, it is extremely useful. When I was first crippled with arthritis, I often had wild, thrashing, sobbing temper tantrums that expressed my loss and grief at going from a competent young woman to a hobbled dependent. But as time passed and I sank into my life as just my life rather than as a living hell, my level of mundane suffering decreased enormously. So I expected my frequent short bursts of rage--my temper tantrums--to subside. After all, I was experiencing less rage and frustration, although my life was certainly still full of struggles with bedsheets and jar lids. At that time, I thought of my temper tantrums as indications of some basic inability to cope with my pain, so naturally I expected them to go away eventually.

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!

A woman said to me recently that she admired how accepting I am of my pain, that she, also in a lot of pain, could never be so accepting as I appear to be. She said dolefully, obviously yearning for my great wisdom, that instead of being serene like me, she's always angry at her pain. I laughed, recalling my oft-rendered shrieks and curses--and envisioning the woman's probable reaction if she could interview my family and discover my real behavior--and said to her that I thought a big part of "accepting your pain" (her words) is knowing for sure that you are entitled to be angry as hell! And that it seems really healthy and rejuvenating to find as many ways as you can to express that bitterness.

Thich Nhat Hanh deserves the last word: "Treat your anger with the utmost respect and tenderness, for it is no other than yourself. Do not suppress it--simply be aware of it. Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed. When you are aware that you are angry, your anger is transformed. If you destroy anger, you destroy the Buddha, for Buddha and Mara are of the same essence. Mindfully dealing with anger is like taking the hand of a little brother."

This excerpt comes from "Finding a Joyful Life in the Heart of Pain," by Darlene Cohen. Copyright 2000, Darlene Cohen, Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, www.shambhala.com.

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