HOW NOT TO GET ANGRY
by Visu Teoh
(feedback, comments welcome to email@example.com)
“For every minute you are angry you have lost 60 seconds of happiness.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Just imagine how much pain and anguish we could remove and avoid if we could just remain calm and not give in to anger? Because every time we are angry we burn, we suffer, and we are also inflicting suffering on others.
It is a smart move to check anger as this effort will reduce suffering and consequently increase happiness. Nobody likes to be around an angry person but everybody enjoys to be in the company of a person with a friendly and pleasant disposition.
However, anger is a knee-jerk reaction. It is not that we want to get angry. Anger just flares up like a demon and the next thing we know we have already done or said something hurtful while being in the grip of the emotion.
A lot of energy is bursting to get out when we are angry but it is of the negative, violent and destructive kind. It rages like an ill wind that bodes no good for anybody.
If anger appears as an impulsive emotion that creeps up on us unawares, how then can we check it? It seems to surge up uncontrollably, overwhelming and taking us by surprise.
After the anger is spent, we shake our head and wonder, “How on earth did we lose it? How could we have not seen it coming? If only we had nipped the anger in the bud and prevented it from escalating? How can we do better next time?”
In order to gain the better of anger and overcome it, we need to understand its nature and dynamics, how it has been inbuilt into the mind.
According to science, anger is a natural emotion that serves as a survival function in our early evolutionary process. Under threat to their life, our early ancestors had to fight or flee. Emotions such as anger and fear trigger off the necessary chemicals and hormones that would prime them for either course of action.
Stress hormones are released that cause the heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure to go up. Our face may flush as increased blood flows into our limbs and extremities, preparing us for action.
However, we have come a long way since our ancestors’ time and nowadays we are mostly not under that kind of threat to our life that requires us to activate the fight or flight response. But the amygdala – that emotional part of our brain – still kicks in before we realise it and, again and again, we react towards any perceived provocation as if we were in a life threatening situation.
Our overreaction keeps our body in a high state of arousal and if this stressful pattern becomes habitual, researchers find that we are liable to fall prey to heart disease, stroke, impaired lung function, slower rate of healing from illnesses and a depressed immune system which, in turn, may cause us to become more susceptible to a variety of diseases, including cancer.
To check these unwarranted and undesirable amygdala reactions, we need to bring in our more recently developed rational prefrontal cortex of the brain to act on the amygdala, reassuring it that there is no need for such a hostile outburst as there is no real threat to our life - there is no tiger waiting to pounce on us and eat us up.
This is where mindfulness and wisdom which are functions related to the prefrontal cortex come into play. Our mindfulness will remind us: “Look, there’s no need to react in this manner. It’s your unskiful reaction that is causing you suffering. You can respond wisely and free yourself from unnecessary suffering. Be smart. Exercise equanimity. Don’t let this relatively small event upset you and spoil your whole day. Smile, cheer up! Cultivate the right attitude. Look on the bright side.”
Or you can tell yourself: “Look, if you are going to get all heated up when, say, someone cuts into your lane, does not give way, or drives in a way you perceived as inconsiderate (going too slow or too fast!), you are going to have a lot of amygdala attacks everyday. In fact, if your adrenalin keeps surging up every time you encounter an unpleasant situation, you’re going to have lots of volatility and tumult in your life which only causes you lots of anguish, tension and suffering.”
“What a fool you are if you continue to perpetuate this unskilful, painful and mindless way of behaviour!”
The Buddha called this kind of self wake-up talk “wise reflection, wise consideration or a wise way of paying attention (yoniso manasikāra).” If we keep talking to and reminding ourselves of the skilful and wise way of responding, in time our amygdala will get the message and will stop reacting in the old way as it realises there is no threat here that merits such a drastic reaction.
Then, lo and behold, we wake up one day to find that we have changed the old pattern. Now we can mostly remain calm and unruffled and act with patience, understanding, goodwill and kindness. Now we have gained a certain measure of mastery or control over the mind, able to restrain it when restraint is called for and able to spur it on when encouragement is what it needs.
However, the process of changing an old habitual pattern takes time, patience, persistence and determination. Everytime we react in the old way, we have to tell ourselves not to be discouraged but to try harder next time. With this type of attitude and determination, we are sure to succeed.
How not to get angry
In order to check anger it is important to form a strong prior intention to keep calm and not react with anger under any circumstances or provocations whatsoever. This strong prior intention is vital as it plays a crucial role in motivating the mind to stay calm and not to succumb to anger easily.
In order to form this strong intention or determination not to get angry, we must first be aware of the many dangers and disadvantages of anger and be utterly convinced of its undesirability, destructiveness and suffering-causing consequences.
Consider that the moment we are angry we are already suffering. Notice how we are suffering physically and mentally. Physically, our body is tense and hard. Our chest, heart area and stomach feel tight and cramped. We are breathing harder and our blood pressure shoots up. Adrenalin is pumping furiously into our system, producing cortisol, a hormone, which temporarily surpresses our immune system and constricts our blood vessels, preparing us for a fight or flight response. Frequent activation of this fight and flight response will render our body more susceptible to disease.
Our face may be flushed and contorted into a scowl or a frown. We are definitely not looking pretty when we are angry. If somebody were to snap a picture of us at that moment, we would be taken aback and embarrassed at how aggressive or ferocious we looked.
Mentally, our mind is reeling in pain. It is tense and hard. It is boiling. It is far from being peaceful and relaxed. We are hurt and because of our hurt, we are reacting with anger. Maybe we feel insulted, offended or threatened. Whatever may be the cause or provocation, anger is not a skilful response but we have no control over it. It is a knee-jerk reaction.
We feel like snapping, yelling or lashing out at the person we are angry with. The mind, in a state of anger, wants to destroy or hurt the other. Hence, we can say things which are very searing, cutting to the bone, sarcastic, harsh or hurtful – words which we would normally not express when we have presence of mind, words which we would often regret later uttering.
“Oh, if only we could have curbed our tongue and not uttered those words. Oh, what a terrible thing to say!” we may think in retrospect, being filled with sorrow and remorse. But we cannot take back what we have said. It is too late. The damage has been done. We may say sorry but the person may not find it so easy to forgive and forget. He or she is grievously wounded. Though the wound may heal with time, a scar will still remain. His or her perception of us may change. Our relationship with the person may never be the same again.
A moment of anger can destroy or seriously impair a relationship that has taken years to build up.
I remember a time many years ago when my late mother totally lost her temper with my brother. In a moment of rage, she spewed up some very uncharacteristically vulgar and harsh words. She was definitely not herself. In her fury, she even hit my brother with her fists. She was in pain. Anger is a form of mental pain.
I was stunned and did not know how to react. My brother did not retaliate. He looked shocked and horrified at my mother’s rage. Something he had said or done had deeply hurt and upset my mother. I could not remember what exactly he had said or done but it must have been something very provocative to have caused my mother to react in such a violent way.
At the time we were living in a flat and my brother, who was in his thirties, was visiting. He left and never returned for several years. My mother cried as my brother walked out of the door. By then her anger was spent. It was my sister who convinced my brother to forgive my mother and to call on her again.
Meeting my brother in town one day, my sister told him that my mother was sad and regretted the loss of her temper. She asked my brother to find it in his heart to forgive my mum. My brother was able to do do so. Putting the painful episode behind him, he returned and eventually resumed a cordial relationship with my mum. He remembered her goodness and the time she had helped him through a particularly difficult period in his life.
This was not the only time that my mother suffered severely from her anger. My late father and she both had a temper. Once during a not infrequent altercation, my mother slammed the rolling door of the room as she was storming out in anger. Her right forefinger got caught in the door. She was rushed in an ambulance to the hospital and had her finger amputated at the middle joint.
My mother had a great capacity for forgiveness. She would tell me: “Your father was not a bad man. He was kind to me. But it was the hard knocks and disappointments in life that caused him to become bitter and bad tempered. On his deathbed, he expressed regret that he had not been a good husband to me. He thought he would go to hell but, nevertheless, he told me he would bless and protect me, even from hell!” I was touched when I heard this account from my mother. I reckon that was my father’s way of saying he was sorry to my mum for the unhappiness he gave her.
My father died when I was nine years old in 1962. I remember my mother taking me to see him for the last time in the hospital. My father was a musician. He played the saxaphone in a nightclub but as his health failed him (he had tuberculosis, diabetes and kidney failure) he could no longer work and became very depressed, angry and disillusioned with life.
He was kind to me and treated me well and lovingly. But unfortunately he was harsh to my elder sister and brother, who recalled his violent temper and the beatings he gave them. It was a terrible thing that his disillusionment with life led to anger and the display of violent behaviour, submerging his innate kindness and goodness. Looking back now, I can see that he also had no knowledge and training then on how to cope with life and sickness and manage his mind.
I hope he is in a good place now. And I am touched at the kind thought of his on his deathbed – that he wanted to bless and protect my mother, even if he would end up in hell. I pray, of course, that he is not there but rather in heaven and blessing us from there.
My mother died in 2012 at the age of 87. She took up the Buddha’s teachings, became a staunch Buddhist and meditated diligently at a Buddhist meditation centre in Penang where she lived with my sister for a good number of years when I was a Buddhist monk. She inspired many fellow meditators by her dedication in maintaining a meditation practice and the wise counsel and encouragement she gave them. Her temper too was well reined in by her vipassana (insight) and metta (lovingkindness) meditation practice and her observance of the Buddhist precepts.
The interesting case of the disappearance of Paul Ekman’s anger
Paul Ekman, 83, a renowned American psychologist and an expert on facial expressions and emotions, recounted in his writings his 48-year struggle with anger until the day he suddenly and miraculously overcame this scourge in his life during a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2000.
From the time he was 18 till the time he was 66 (on a day in March 2000 when he met the Dalai Lama at a Mind and Life conference in Dharamsala in India), Ekman said not a week of his life went by without him having “a couple of regrettable episodes of anger.” “Not a wonderful way to lead your life,” he added.
Ekman said overly intense anger had been a plague in his life until that memorable meeting with the Dalai Lama. He recalled that his anger problem began at the age of 18 shortly after the last time his father hit him.
“I warned him that if he hit me again, I would hit him back. He regarded this as a threat and called the police to arrest me for threatening his life. I had to flee my home forever. Since then, very few days would go by without my having an angry impulse on which I would act in a way that I regretted afterward (although I never hit anyone). I was constantly on guard, trying not to yield to such impulses and often failing.”
But from that moment of meeting the Dalai Lama, Ekman said he had “not one angry impulse for seven months.” “Not one. I was freed; it was a wonderful relief.”
Ekman said his anger did return over time but it was never as severe as before. He was better able to check it and even let it pass without acting on it. “I do have angry impulses, and I do sometimes act on them, but not all the time. Sometimes I recognize the impulse and just let it pass by me, even when provoked.”
Sometimes he would envision the anger as a rolling ball of cactus. “I simply step to the side and let it go past me so it does not seize me. With such awareness you have a choice to be emotional or not emotional, to say, ‘I am not going to respond.’ Or when you are aware of the impulse arising, you can choose to be emotional but guide how you are going to be emotional.”
Ekman recollected that his change after meeting the Dalai Lama was so dramatic that when he left Dharamsala and met his wife, who had flown in from America to New Delhi, so they could spend two weeks traveling in India, his wife said, “You are not the man I married.”
His wife said, “I had not asked for a change.” And the following day, she added, “Oh, I am glad. You are so much easier to be with.” Seven years later when Ekman met up again with the Dalai Lama, he said his wife reminded him, “Be sure to thank His Holiness, because the last seven years have been our happiest.”
Ekman observed amusingly that now when his wife got angry with him, he would tell her, “I can see you are angry. Let us talk about it when you are not angry. I do not want to talk now because your anger might get me angry. I do not want to get angry.”
Ekman said that before meeting the Dalai Lama, he had tried other approaches to ameliorate his problems with anger, including undergoing a course of psychoanalysis three times in his life, “in part to try to deal with this terrible problem of anger.”
“Yet, no change. I think the change that occurred within me started with that physical sensation whatever it was.” Ekman was referring to an experience he had when the Dalai Lama was holding his hand for about eight minutes while answering a question from Ekman’s daughter Eve during a break in the conference.
Ekman said he had a very strong physical sensation, “an intense, very unusual feeling, which felt very good; it felt as if it was radiating.” He could not find an English word to describe the sensation. “It comes closest to warmth but there was no heat. It certainly felt very good, and like nothing I have felt before or after.”
Ekman felt what he was feeling was “goodness.” He said he interviewed eight other people who reported a transformation of their lives - a change in the direction of their lives and a change in their emotional lives - after encountering the Dalai Lama.
He said these eight people “each had a severe emotional wound in their lives that had never healed.” They reported that after their meeting with the Dalai Lama, “the wound was enormously improved” though it did not completely disappear.
These eight people also said they felt “goodness” at the time of meeting the Dalai Lama. “They felt it radiating and felt the same kind of warmth that I did. I have no idea what it is or how it happens, but it is not in my imagination. Though we do not have the tools to understand it, that does not mean it does not exist.”
The Dalai Lama attributed Ekman’s healing in part to the latter’s innate good nature. Ekman’s dramatic change after meeting the Dalai Lama was remarkable and mysterious. We can speculate on the causes and factors that contributed towards Ekman’s change – one of which must be karmic - but we cannot know for sure what all these factors are and can only marvel at what has transpired.
However, for practically all of us, we cannot expect a miracle like Paul Ekman’s and have to work hard and painstakingly towards self transformation, towards diminishing anger and cultivating goodwill and lovingkindness.
The relationship between hatred and anger
Ekman also attributed his anger to his hatred for his father. Before this hatred was formed, he was not an angry person. “As a child and adolescent, I was known as someone who rarely got angry. I recall my parents telling me not to let my older sister be so mean to me, to hit her back. But I never fought.”
He began hating his father after his mother’s suicide when he was 14. “I blamed my father, which was unfair; he contributed to her death but he did not kill her. My belief that it was his fault fired the development of hatred.”
“Within three or four years, I became known not as someone who was always even-tempered but as someone who got angry easily.” And that went on in his life for 48 years, until he met the Dalai Lama.
Ekman said hatred poisoned his overall character, causing him to be angry whenever he was blocked by someone. Hatred made him into a person “easily angered toward anyone, about anything.”
“I want to speculate about how hatred actually poisons a person,” he said in a dialogue with the Dalai Lama. “It may be that if hatred develops and is maintained, that its maintenance reorganizes the brain in a way that facilitates anger. The consequence of sustained hatred is that you become, in general, ready to get angry. There must be a change in the brain generated by hatred. So we can now literally think of the brain having been poisoned in a way that makes you more likely to become angry than you would have been before. And that will last until the hatred goes way – if it goes away.”
Ekman said that after he forgave his father, he surprisingly remembered positive things about him that he had forgotten or suppressed for 50 years. Hatred, like an emotion, blocked his access to good memories about his father.
Now he recollected his father was a very good pediatrician, an excellent doctor, loved by his patients. “I remember him sitting at the kitchen table every night, reading the latest medical journals. He was a scholarly pediatrician.”
He also remembered for the first time in 50 years that his father had advocated for racial equality, being a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the United States.
(All the quotes and accounts above on Ekman are gleaned from his two books: “Nonverbal messages: Cracking the Code. My Life’s Pursuit” and “Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the obstacles to psychological balance” which he co-authored with the Dalai Lama.)
To recap on the dangers and disadvantages of anger: it causes suffering to oneself and others. It is destructive. Not only does it not promote harmonious and happy relationships, it destroys them. A person, whose anger is easily triggered, incurs a reputation of being bad tempered and people are wary and fearful when in his presence. This anger trait will cause him to perform violent actions that, according to Buddhism, could bring about a bad rebirth and if this person is reborn as a human being, they may be ugly and the tendency to anger will follow them.
If we are easily angered, we strengthen the root of anger in us. It becomes easier and easier to lose our cool and more and more difficult to check anger because we have been building up and strengthening the ‘anger muscle’ in our brain. Our neurons will tend to fire down the anger route – a route that is familiar and well known to them.
It takes a lot of effort and a strong determination to change the anger habit. We need not just one but a variety of techniques, approaches and strategies to replace anger with goodwill.
Prevention is better than cure. It is better not to get angry in the first place because then we don’t suffer at all from the pain that we inflict on ourselves and others when we are angry. Once the anger has erupted, our whole day may be spoiled. It adversely affects our mood and it is difficult to get back to the cheerful state we were in before the anger set in.
How can we not get angry? Form that strong intention not to get angry and cultivate the mental factors of patience, tolerance, understanding, wisdom, forgiveness, mindfulness, goodwill, lovingkindness, friendliness, calmness, peacefulness, equanimity, and cheerfulness. Let us explore these mental factors in more detail.
Metta is the Pali word for lovingkindness, goodwill and friendliness. It is the opposite of ill-will, anger and hatred. The Buddha prescribed lovingkindness as the antidote against anger. If we do lots of lovingkindness practice we will greatly weaken the root of anger in us.
Hence the Buddha said, “Monks, I do not see even one other thing on account of which unarisen ill will does not arise and arisen ill will is abandoned so much as the liberation of the mind by loving-kindness. For one who attends carefully to the liberation of the mind by loving-kindness, unarisen ill will does not arise and arisen ill will is abandoned.” [Anguttara Nikaya, Book of One 17 (7)]
“It is impossible and inconceivable, friend, that one might develop and cultivate the liberation of the mind by loving-kindness, make it one’s vehicle and basis, carry it out, consolidate it, and properly undertake it, yet ill will could still obsess one’s mind. There is no such possibility. For this, friend, is the escape from ill will, namely, the liberation of the mind by loving-kindness.” [Anguttara Nikaya, Book of Six 13 (3)]
One who does lots of metta practice is disinclined towards anger. She finds anger a pain and a thorn. Her preference is for lovingkindness, goodwill, amiability and friendliness. Thus, even when provoked, her anger is not aroused; she does no react with anger. On the contrary, she remains calm, serene and equanimous. At times, she can even maintain her cheerful disposition in the face of provocation because, being steeped for a long time in the practice of lovingkindness and friendliness, her composure is not easily shaken. Instead, her cheerful presence is likely to have a calming and relaxing influence on the angry person and the environment.
However, should anger arise in the metta practitioner in a moment of unguardedness, she is quick to notice and check it. That little spark of anger or irritation will not become a big flame; it is promptly put out by a sprinkling of the cooling waters of metta.
Much has been written about the wonderful practice of metta. Instructions on metta meditation can also be found (here) on this website. In addition, it is important to make it a habit to radiate metta while going about our everyday life. I have given many suggestions on how to do this in my essay, “Metta in Everyday Life.”
I am confident that a person, who takes up metta practice in earnest, will find a big and welcome change in her life. This is because metta practice diminishes anger and increases lovingkindness, uplifting and creating much joy and happiness in the mind and heart. I speak of this from personal experience and from much positive feedback I received from meditators in the metta retreats I have led over the years.
I started with vipassana (insight) meditation in 1982 while in later years I supplemented my vipassana with a lot more metta practice. With metta I see a marked and further change in my personality which I will describe in more detail below. Essentially, my vipassana was enriched by metta practice.
Vipassana is an ‘impersonal’ practice in that its very purpose is to break down the notion of an intrinsic selfhood in us. We see the three marks of impermanence (anicca), suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and not-self or insubstantiality (anatta) in this being that we called a self.
In vipassana meditation, we don’t see persons – we see only the five aggregates – material form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness - that are to be regarded as not-self. The Buddha taught us vipassana to help us detach from our erroneous view of a self so we can let go of our attachment to it and make an end of samsara – the cycle of birth and death. The Buddha taught the Dhamma and vipassana to make an end of rebirth and suffering.
Dis-identifying from the self has its benefits – seeing that there is no fixed and unchanging self here but only impermanent aggregates that are continuously arising and passing away, we can loosen our tight grasp on them and live more lightly and skilfully. Seeing the aggregates’ fundamentally unsatisfactory nature we can appreciate the Buddha’s rationale in wanting to make an end of conditioned existence.
Furthermore, we see clearly the need for developing and strengthening wholesome mental factors so that while we are still sojourning in samsara we can live meaningful and beautiful lives steeped in lovingkindness and compassion. However, before we reach the final goal of Nibbana, if we practise vipassana exclusively and neglect to balance the detachment of vipassana with the connection and moisture of metta, we may become too detached and aloof from society and even from our loved ones.
This is because in vipassana meditation we are not ‘seeing’ people or connecting with people. By ‘seeing’ I mean that we are not taking people as meditation objects in vipassana meditation. We are not perceiving people, beings or selves. Instead we are perceiving aggregates or phenomena that are devoid of intrinsic selfhood.
However, in metta meditation, we see beings, we connect with beings, and we wish them well. “May I, may you, may he, may she, may they, may all beings be happy. May they be safe, be peaceful, be healthy and take care of themselves happily.”
In vipassana meditation we see emptiness – we see a world empty of permanence, satisfactoriness and selfhood. We need, however, to be able to see from both sides, to go back and forth from the world of ultimate reality of not-self to the world of conventional reality of selves and beings.
I believe the Buddha taught metta meditation because he saw the need to balance vipassana with metta. He put metta at the head of the four brahmaviharas (divine abidings) practice of lovingkindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. Lovingkindness and compassion are sister qualities. They are close to each other. Compassion, too, connects us with beings. We feel compassion for beings who are suffering. We wish that they may be free from suffering.
As suffering is so trenchant and pervasive in life, it is also important to cultivate joy and happiness to counter the danger of slipping into depression. The Buddha taught us how to uplift the mind by cultivating wholesome and positive mental states. The practice of appreciative joy, in particular, arouses joy by making us appreciate the many blessings and good fortune in our lives that we often take for granted. (See Mudita – the Practice of Appreciative Joy).
Lastly, equanimity plays a balancing role in the four divine abidings. We also develop a lot of equanimity when we do vipassana meditation and see the not-self nature of phenomena.
What needs to be pointed out here is that the Buddha did not teach exclusively vipassana. He also emphasized metta and the other three divine abidings. Thus it is important for us to cultivate lovingkindness and compassion so that we will stay connected with beings, appreciative joy to uplift the mind, and equanimity as a balancing factor.
It is important to take note of a discourse in the Samyutta Nikaya [SN Chapter 10 (4)] where the Buddha implies that just being mindful alone is not enough; we need to also cultivate metta to overcome illwill. The revelant verses uttered by the Buddha are as follows:
“It is always good for the mindful,
The mindful one thrives in bliss.
It is better each day for the mindful one,
But he is not released from enmity.
One whose mind all day and night
Takes delight in harmlessness,
Who has lovingkindness for all living beings –
For him there is enmity with none.”
It is evident that we need to cultivate both mindfulness and lovingkindness – we need to be skilled in both vipassana and metta meditation. These days I see a lack of balance – there are, for example, very few intensive metta retreats compared to vipassana ones. This could be because there are fewer teachers offering metta retreats and also perhaps a stronger predisposition and gravitation by meditators and teachers towards vipassana, again because of a lack of emphasis on and insufficient appreciation of metta practice.
For me as I did a lot more metta practice I find myself becoming lighter and more cheerful. The habit to connect with beings and wishing them well every now and then has an amazing uplifting effect on the mind. We become more warm and friendly in our interaction with others and this, in turn, puts us in a good mood.
As we emphasise metta we naturally shun anger. We do not want to get angry and, if anger arises, we are quick to nip it in the bud. Even if we do not have a strong anger temperament, we would still have some anger and the practice of metta will further reduce the anger in us.
In my case, I find that I also started to smile a lot. In my early years as a monk, I notice that, as monks, we tend to equate mindfulness with seriousness so we put on a stern countenance. This is especially evident when we took photographs. Following the example of our teachers, we would look rather seriously or even grimly
into the camera as if to accentuate the Buddha’s first noble truth of suffering. Perhaps we were subconsciously thinking that there is nothing to smile about since life is full of suffering.
These days I emphasise that precisely because life is fraught with suffering, we must smile to lighten up the journey – we must be brave and face all the challenges and difficulties in life with a smile. We can smile even at the suffering because we know that most times our suffering is caused by our ignorance and our attachments and expectations. Things start to get better when we let go, loosen up and learn how to create happiness through our way of being, our way of living lightly, peacefully and cheerfully, and leading a value oriented rather than a material oriented life.
Thus, as I did, in addition to vipassana, more and more metta and mudita (appreciative joy) practice and the other brahmaviharas, and cultivated skilful attitudes, I became less melancholic and more positive and joyful while not denying the suffering in life. Aware of the suffering, I know how to alleviate it by promoting, increasing and spreading joy and happiness.
I trust my readers have by now no doubt as regards the importance of metta practice and the brahmaviharas (divine abidings). May more people take up lovingkindness, compassion, joy and equanimity practice and discover and experience their invaluable benefits.
What is the role of mindfulness in checking anger?
Firstly, it is important to bear in mind our intention and resolution not to get angry. Remembering or bringing to mind is one of the functions of mindfulness. As the Dalai Lama well put it in his discussion with Paul Ekman regarding the importance of reflecting on the danger of anger, “Because the more you have a conviction regarding the destructiveness of intense anger, and the more you have an appreciation of the value and advantages of lovingkindness and emotions of that kind, it will have more of an impact upon the actual experience of the emotions.”
This means we are less likely to get angry and more able to respond with patience, goodwill, friendliness and kindness. Nevertheless, as we are still trainees and far from perfect, there will be occasions when anger will arise in us. But as we have developed this strong intention and resolution not to succumb to anger, the moment anger arises, our mindfulness will sound the ‘red alert’ alarm. We will be extra cautious, restraint and circumspect.
Our mindfulness will take note of the anger, wanting to contain and snuff out that spark of annoyance before it becomes full blown anger. Just by being mindful of the anger (perhaps still only an irritation at this stage) acts on the anger itself, weakening and dampening it. This is because as we are aware of the anger, our presence of mind will prevent us from being carried away by it.
Sometimes this mindfulness alone may be able to break the train of angry thoughts and emotion and dissolve the anger. Most times, however, we can notice a little struggle going on inside ourselves. We can notice our inner tension, how our body is tensed and our chest and stomach constricted. Simply being mindful of these sensations can help to calm us down as we divert our attention from the person we are angry with to the sensations that are occurring in the body.
Our mindfulness will then summon up our wisdom faculty. In brain science parlance, our more advanced prefrontal brain cortex will reflect wisely, reassuring the amygdala that there is no life threatening scenario here that requires us to turn on the fight or flight response. It is not worth it - we will only endanger our health and destroy our happiness by getting all riled up.
From the Buddhist point of view, it is the mind that is reflecting wisely and this intelligent movement can be inferred from the activity which scientists can observe going on in the prefrontal cortex through their brain measuring instruments. These days scientists, too, are convinced of neuroplasticity - that our thoughts can change our habits and thereby our brains. Neurons that fire together are known to wire together; therefore, whether we are strengthening wholesome or unwholesome circuits, trajectories and patterns in the brain depends on whether we are firing positive or negative type neurons.
Our mindfulness chooses to trigger the wholesome or positive neurons. It activates our wisdom faculty to act on and dissipate our anger. We tell ourselves, “Whoa…Hold on there! Calm down! Now is the time to exercise restraint and wisdom. It may be wise not to say anything when we are in crabby state of mind. If we feel compelled to say something, we must be circumspect and careful about what we say. We don’t want to say anything in anger that we will regret later. If there is something to communicate, maybe it’s prudent to do so at another time when we are in a calmer state.”
We can mindfully take a few deep breaths to help us to calm down. We can smile internally to ourselves, remembering our resolve to live peacefully and cheerfully. Incidentally, can we see a funny side to all this? A sense of humour helps. Remember the Brian character in Monty Pyton singing, “Always look on the bright side of life” even when he was hanging on the cross. “Cheer up,” he said to all the many other similarly condemned guys strung up on crosses, “Worse things happen at sea, you know.” Of course, we know this is only a movie but the underlying message is that humour, even ironic, can provide comic relief in real life. In this case we can interpret Brian’s nonchalance and defiance in the face of crucifixion as his statement of fearlessness and refusal to be cowed by whatever blows fate may rain on him.
Life is short. Even if we live a hundred years, it is just a blip in eternity. We don’t want to spend the limited time we have on earth in anger or misery. Better to let go and be at peace with oneself and the world. Happiness is an inside job. The peace from within is founded on wisdom which understands the true nature of existence, having penetrated the three marks of impermanence, suffering and not-self. This peace is always accessible. We just have to reflect on the teachings or return to our meditation seat and regain our mental equilibrium.
The ancient Buddhist meditation manual, the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) has suggested many ways of reflecting in order to overcome anger. It quotes, for example, a verse from the Samyutta Nikaya (Connected Discourses of the Buddha):
“One who repays an angry man in kind,
Is worse than the angry man himself.
Not returning anger with anger,
One wins a battle hard to win.
"One practises for the welfare of both -
One's own and the other’s -
When, knowing that the other is angry,
One mindfully maintains one's peace.
“When one is the healer of both -
His own and the other’s -
Those who think he is a fool,
Are unskilled in the Dhamma.” [SN7, 2 (2)]
If there is one thing that the Buddha praised killing, it is the slaying of anger:
“Having slain anger, one sleeps soundly;
Having slain anger, one does not sorrow;
The killing of anger, O brahmin,
With its poisoned root and honeyed tip:
This is the killing the noble ones praise,
For having slain that, one does not sorrow.” [SN8, 71(1)]
For one who has become a sage, the Buddha said no anger can arise in him:
“How can anger arise in one who is angerless,
In the tamed one who lives righteously,
In one who is liberated by perfect knowledge,
Who is stable and abides in peace?” [SN7, 2 (2)]
More from the Visuddhimagga:
“This anger that you entertain
Is gnawing at the very roots
Of all the virtues that you guard -
Who is there such a fool as you?
Another does ignoble deeds,
So you are angry – how is this?
Do you then want to copy too
The sort of acts that he commits?
Suppose another, to annoy,
Provokes you with some odious act,
Why suffer anger to spring up,
And do as he would have you do?
If you get angry, then maybe
You make him suffer, maybe not;
Though with the hurt that anger brings
You certainly are punished now.
If anger-blinded enemies
Set out to tread the path of woe,
Do you by getting angry too
Intend to follow head to toe?”
Furthermore, by retorting with anger, one is “like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.”
Being angry is likened to taking poison and expecting the other person to die.
We can also reflect on the law of kamma, that our deeds will have consequences. “Now what is the point of your getting angry with him? Will not this kamma of yours that has anger as its source lead to your own harm? For you are the owner of your deeds, heir of your deeds, born of your deeds, related to your deeds and have deeds as your refuge; you will become the heir of whatever deeds you do. And this is not the kind of deed that is praised by the wise and that will bring you to awakening.”
Another interesting, somewhat amusing, approach is the Buddhist strategy of ‘dissecting’ a person into parts. “Now what is it you are angry with? Is it head hairs you are angry with? Or body hairs? Or nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bone, bone marrow, kidneys….?” (There is a list of 32 parts in the traditional Buddhist way of reckoning.)
“Or are you angry with the earth element, water element, fire element or air element?” (In the ancient Indian tradition the body is said to be made up of these four main elements.) “Or are you angry with his material form aggregate, feeling aggregate, perception aggregate, mental formations aggregate or consciousness aggregate?” (Buddhist psychology analyses a person as being made up of these five aggregates). And so on and on it goes…..The idea is to dissipate the anger by breaking up the concept of a person. For when one resolves the person into parts, elements, aggregates, etc., “one’s anger finds no foothold, like a mustard seed on the point of an awl or a painting in the sky.”
Another way of reflecting is to regard the mind as your domain. By getting angry you are allowing the provoker to intrude into and cause chaos in your domain. Alternatively, you are hurting yourself in your own domain. The Buddha said it is better to conquer oneself than to other others. “He who conquers himself is the greater conqueror.” - (Dhammapada 103) One is not weak by not showing anger. On the contrary, it is a mark of strength and wisdom to be able to restrain one’s anger and keep calm.
Another approach is to think of the good qualities of the person. Perhaps this person has done us some acts of kindness before or did so for others. Thinking in this way, we may soften towards the person. If we can’t think of any redeeming qualities in the person, we can still feel compassion for him. “Where will he end up? A person devoid of good qualities can’t be truly happy and can only have a bad ending.”
We are also encouraged to draw inspiration from the Buddha’s example. On attaining enlightenment at the age of 35, he completely eradicated the three roots of greed, hatred and delusion. Even in his previous lives, when he was still a bodhisatta (a being striving to attain Buddhahood) he was said to have practised extreme patience, tolerance, forgiveness and kindness, even in the face of great betrayal and torture.
He said he had no regrets undergoing all those trials and tribulations in the course of his quest for Buddhahood. “The brave aspire, the wise will not lose heart. I see myself as I wished to be,” he declared. (Jataka III, 39)
The Simile of the Saw
One of the most striking and memorable similes given by the Buddha in his discourses, admonishing against anger, is the Simile of the Saw. In this simile, the Buddha said, even if bandits were to capture and dismember us with a saw, we should not form any mind of hate towards our cruel torturers and killers. We should utter no evil words against them. Our minds should remain unaffected. We should instead arouse compassion for and radiate lovingkindness towards those brutal bandits, harbouring no hate in us. And starting with them, we should extend our lovingkindness towards the whole wide world, wishing for the welfare and happiness of all beings.
The literal translation of the simile from the Pali goes as follows: "Monks, even if bandits were to sever you savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching. Herein, monks, you should train thus: 'Our minds will remain unaffected, and we will utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of lovingkindness, without inner hate. We shall abide pervading them with a mind imbued with lovingkindness; and starting with them, we shall abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with lovingkindness, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill will.” That is how you should train, monks.” (from the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Sutta 21)
This sounds like a very tall and impossible order! How could anyone do this? Yet the Buddha was adamant and asserted that anyone who gave rise to a mind of hate, even under those terrifying circumstances, would not be carrying out his teaching.
However, we should bear in mind the context in which the Buddha gave this simile. There was a monk who was getting upset and annoyed with other monks who had criticised him. The Buddha wanted to impress upon the monks the need to stay calm even when they heard something they did not like or when they are assailed with harsh and offensive speech.
“When others address you, their speech may be timely or untimely, true or untrue, gentle or harsh, beneficial or unbeneficial, spoken with a mind of goodwill or with inner hate. Herein, monks, you should train thus: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected, and we shall utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate.
“We shall abide pervading that person with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, and starting with him, we shall abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill will.’ That is how you should train, monks.”
It was then that the Buddha introduced the simile of the saw to drive home his message of staying calm when confronted with unpleasant or harsh speech.
"Monks, if you keep this advice on the simile of the saw constantly in mind, do you see any course of speech, trivial or gross, that you could not endure?”
“No, venerable sir,” the monks replied.
“Therefore, monks, you should keep this advice on the simile of the saw constantly in mind. That will lead to your welfare and happiness for a long time.”
I can fully resonate with the Buddha’s instruction not to harbour any hatred or anger even if one is tortured and killed by bandits, kidnappers, murderers and, in this modern times, terrorists whose minds are filled with hatred, anger and delusion.
Here greed is also involved. Besides being motivated by hatred and anger, a terrorist may demand a hefty ransom from the loved ones of the victim or imagine that his cruel and senseless act of killing will bring him some heavenly reward, such as sleeping with seven virgins in paradise.
If we were to give rise to a mind of hatred or anger, we would be falling into that very state of mind which is compelling or motivating the terrorist or terrorists to commit his or their heinous deed.
If I were to imagine myself in such a predicament, I could initiate the following reflection: “Now these my captors want to torture and kill me. If I were to generate a thought of hatred or anger, I would fall into the same unwholesome state of mind they are in. I would not be following the exhortation of the Great Teacher, the Buddha, the Awakened One.
“Hatred and anger are a poison, a toxin. Following the Buddha’s teachings, I want to extirpate the three roots of greed, hatred and delusion from my mind stream. Now is the time for me to put into practice the teaching.
“Now I, Visu, have to let go of my attachment to my very self, my body, my life, and my loved ones. I have to let go of hatred and anger. The Buddha teaches that there is ultimately no self here. Only the five aggregates are destroyed. I must, therefore, see in accordance with this truth.
“Great physical pain will arise when I am tortured and killed. Can I bear it with stoical calm and equanimity? This will be extremely difficult. But now that I am placed in this situation, what choice have I but to try my best to remain equanimous? Who knows what extraordinary feat of endurance the mind may be capable of in such a desperate situation?
“These my torturers and murderers are highly deluded and full of hatred and anger. Overwhelmed by their wrong views and beliefs, they are unable to see reason and sense. One just cannot reason or rationalise with them. However, they are not to be hated but to be regarded with compassion. They are heaping up much bad kamma for themselves that will lead them to painful results, even to hell. Instead of hatred or anger, I must summon up compassion for them.
“May they be healed. May they realise the evilness of their deed. May they find true happiness by being kind and compassionate to all beings. I forgive my torturers and killers because they are deluded and do not realise how wrong their actions are. I forgive them because I do not want to harbour any hatred or anger in my heart, because I want to liberate my heart from such unwholesome mental states.
“May my killers be happy. (Again, not by this act of killing but through reforming and performing kind and good deeds.) May my loved ones be happy. May all beings be happy. May all beings be liberated from greed, hatred and delusion which are the root causes of suffering.
“As for the pain and suffering I am undergoing now, if I were to accept the law of kamma, this may well be the ripening of some misdeed I have done in a previous life. If so, I accept the result of my past kamma. In any case, even if one were to discount the law of kamma, I would still want to harbour no hatred or anger against anybody in my life. This is my practice, the choice I have made in life.”
So this I is how I might reflect on the Buddha’s teachings to free myself from fear, hatred, anger, attachment and delusion.
Anger with oneself
Interestingly, if not strangely, anger can be directed towards oneself. It is not enough that we have lost our temper, we then become angry with ourselves for being angry. So this is anger upon anger or double anger. In this way we burn doubly.
Again we need to exercise wisdom and kindness towards ourselves. There is no need to be so harsh on ourselves. Everybody makes mistakes and nobody is perfect. We need to acknowledge our goodness, our many good qualities and kind deeds, and simply resolve to try harder next time.
This is not to say we are letting off ourselves lightly but simply that it is unwise and pointless to heap up anger upon anger. It is more skilful and prudent to calm down and realise that spiritual practice is an ongoing process and no matter how many times we may slip and fall, we just have to get up and start all over again. There is a Japanese saying, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” This means being resilient, bouncing back every time we fall and never giving up.
Besides being angry over our anger, we can be angry with ourselves for a variety of reasons, for example, perceiving ourselves as being not good enough, for lacking discipline and resolve, and for our failings, shortcomings and weaknesses. Again we have to practise self-acceptance, patience and understanding. We are a work-in-progress and not a finished project as yet. In the Buddhist world view it takes not just one life but many life times to become an arahant, a perfect being that is free from all mental defilements and impurities.
Is there a place for anger in our life?
Is there a place for anger in our life? Can it be constructive? Is not injustice corrected because of anger as people, who are angry with such injustices, agitate against them and bring about change?
If we do not show anger, would not others think we are weak and take advantage of our good nature and trample all over us, like a doormat? Would not our show of anger ward off a person who would otherwise continue to abuse and exploit us?
Would not a child, seeing a parent or a teacher being angry, not continue with the bad behaviour that brought about the anger of the adult? Similarly, would not a worker change his bad habits and attitudes when given a dose of his boss’s anger?
If we do not express our anger but suppress or bottle it up, won’t it manifest in other ways, such as causing us to fall sick?
Would you agree that anger is not all bad and has a constructive side to it?
First, I would like to address the mistaken assumption that anger, when suppressed, would cause us to fall sick. Scientific studies have shown that it actually goes the other way – those who express anger are more likely to fall sick than those who suppress it.
In his book, "Authentic Happiness", the highly respected psychologist Martin Seligman said the theory that venting anger is healthy is false. "In fact, the reverse is true. Dwelling on trespass and the expression of anger produces more cardiac disease and more anger."
Seligman cited a study in which 255 medical students took a personality test that measured overt hostility. "As physicians twenty-five years later, the angriest had roughly five times as much heart disease as the least angry ones." Seligman pointed out that it was not time urgency, competitiveness, and the suppression of anger that put them at risk of getting heart disease but rather the overt expression of anger and hostility.
"In another study," he said, "men who had the highest risk of later heart attacks were just the ones with more explosive voices, more irritation when forced to wait, and more outwardly directed anger."
Interestingly, he pointed out, that in experimental studies, when male students "bottle up their anger, blood pressure goes down, and it goes up if they decide to express their feelings. Anger expression raises blood pressure for women as well. In contrast, friendliness in reaction to trespass lowers it."
Seligman opined that negative emotions, if left to themselves and not acted upon, will naturally dissipate and the person's mood will return to its normal set range. Expressed and dwelt upon, though, those emotions will "multiply and imprison you in a vicious cycle of dealing fruitlessly with past wrongs."
From the Buddhist point of view, venting anger is not a good idea because it predisposes and conditions the mind to react in the same manner when provoked again in the future. As we have mentioned above, it is better to apply mindfulness and wise reflection to dissolve the anger. In this way, we are not bottling up the anger in the sense of keeping and nursing it but we are dissolving it through our wise intervention.
If we find that we are still keeping feelings of anger and hatred inside us though we may not have expressed the anger outwardly, then we have to continue applying mindfulness and wise reflection till we have completely let go of the anger. And should the internal anger or resentment rear up again from time to time, we have to apply the same remedial technique. In this way, we are not keeping or nursing any anger in us and are always mindful to spot any internal or remnant anger and dissolve it.
As regards the question of correcting injustice in the world, no doubt the initial anger may act as a catalyst for one to act against such injustice. However, if we continue to act from a state of anger, our actions are unlikely to be skilful or productive. We need to calm down in order to take wise and skilful actions to bring about effective change in the world.
On the other hand, a violent course of action may provoke a counter violence from the opposing party and cause irreparable harm and damage. It is best if we do not need that first instance of anger to spur us to action. It is preferable if we can train ourselves to remain calm and act from that state of calm. In this way we won’t put ourselves on the trajectory to developing an angry temperament.
Of course, there may be exceptional situations where we have to react forcefully such as in the case of self-defence or to save the lives of others. Even then, our urgent and necessary action need not be motivated by anger but by the compassionate intention to save oneself or others.
As regards the fear of being taken advantage of and trampled upon like a doormat if we don’t react with anger, we must remember that we will never allow this to happen as our compassion is practised with wisdom and, hence, we know how to take the appropriate measures to safeguard and protect ourselves from exploitation and abuse. This means we are no fool, practising idiotic compassion, and no pushover.
We choose to remain calm because we see the danger of succumbing to anger, fortifying the anger habit and developing an angry temperament. We remain calm because we see the pain and suffering that anger engenders. We remain calm because this is how we choose to be: We want to act from a mental state of calm, dignity, composure, clarity and wisdom. We know it is difficult and a challenge to remain calm and respond wisely and skilfully when provoked but we can do it because we have made this our practice.
We don’t want our children, subordinates, colleagues, friends or anybody to be cowed or compelled into compliance or obedience by our anger, out of fear or wanting to keep the peace. Such kind of compliance from them may not be genuine as they may secretly harbour inner resentment against us which will lead to negative outcomes in the long run.
There are skilful and appropriate measures we can take without having to resort to anger or violence to solicit their understanding and cooperation. In the final analysis they, too, have to take responsibility for and accept the consequences of their actions and attitudes.
Whatever constructive value anger may have, I believe its dangers and destructiveness far outweigh that value and, moroever, we are much better off acting from a calm and composed state of mind.
The many shades and nuances of anger
Anger can take many forms and shades, ranging in intensity from a slight irritation or annoyance to full blown rage. It is an exercise in mindfulness to recognize and label the various forms of anger.
Minor anger can manifest as one being peeved and vexed by somebody's behaviour. We can become disgruntled, testy, crossed, displeased, annoyed, and fed-up.
We may fall into an irritable and foul mood, brooding, touchy, crabby or cantankerous, full of ill humour. No one wants to get too close to us when we are in such a mood. They tip toe gingerly around us, afraid of saying or doing anything that can rouse our ire.
Indignation is anger felt on account of some perceived injustice and unfair treatment. "How can you do this to me? It is not right or fair! I will not tolerate this." We can be indignant at an individual's behaviour or, more generally, at injustice, corruption, abuse, oppression and exploitation we see happening in the world.
Exasperation is when we are at our wit's end and unable to maintain our patience with somebody. We can't tolerate anymore what we perceived as, say, somebody's stupidity, stubborness, ineptitude, slowness or repeatedly doing something we have advised or warned against.
Impatience: Be careful there. If there is not already a little annoyance present in the impatience, it will soon lead there.
Sulking is a form of quiet, sullen or passive anger, a stance we may sometimes adopt towards a loved one. "I am angry with you about something but I will not tell you. You should know why I am angry. You should know what to do to make up and make me feel better." But the other person may not be able to read our mind. He may ask us what is wrong but we won't tell him. Or perhaps we are unable to express our feelings because we feel it is pointless – we think the other person will not be receptive or understanding. So we can only sulk in inner frustration. We are punishing both ourselves and the other by our unhelpful behaviour. It is better to let go of our inner anger and move on or communicate with the other in the hope of bringing out about some positive reconciliation and outcome. To continue to sulk is counter productive and will not help to improve the situation.
Resentment is the harbouring of a bitter or ill feeling towards somebody for treating us unfairly or hurtfully. The feeling can be enduring and persistent, lasting a long time. It can form into a grudge towards the person. It is best to bring to mind the Buddha's Simile of the Saw and wish this person well so as to free ourselves from this insidious feeling of resentment.
Rancour is akin to resentment, a bitter feeling of hate or continuing anger towards somebody over something that had happened in the past.
Bitterness: this, too, is an unpleasant feeling eating into us. We cannot get over a past hurt. We are still nursing resentment and inner anger. We don't want to become bitter persons, growing more and more bitter and unhappy with each passing day. We don't want to grow old in this way, living on past toxic, bitter and unhappy memories. Better to let go of bitterness and not let it ferment and destroy our life and happiness. Better to look on the positive side, count our many blessings, think of all the things that have gone right; think happy thoughts, recollect good memories and leave behind the unhappy ones and move on, having already learnt our lessons.
Sarcasm: this is a way of venting anger through the speech door. If we are very good at words we can use our verbal dexterity to hurt. We can be caustic, acerbic and biting with our words, cutting to the bone. As the saying goes, "Sticks and stones can break your bones but words will break your heart." It is better to restrain ourselves and hold our tongue when angry so we won't regret later what we have said. Relationships have been destroyed or seriously damaged through hurtful and vindictive speech.
Seething: this is intense but suppressed or unexpressed anger. We are trying our best to put a lid on our anger but it is taking a big effort. People may notice how we are struggling to contain our anger. Perhaps we are clenching our fists and teeth and our chests are heaving. We have to apply mindfulness and wise reflection in the various ways mentioned above to calm ourselves down.
Vengefulness: this is the kind anger that is accompanied with hatred and malice. We plot all kinds of harm or suffering we can inflict on the person by way of revenge. This is a sick mind poisoned by the unwholesome mental factor of hatred. As mentioned above, a saying goes, "Hatred is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die." We should quickly drop such vengeful thoughts from our mind, become wise and cultivate metta, goodwill, towards the person.
And finally we have full-blown anger. We are incensed, livid, inflamed, fuming, boiling, raging, furious and mad with anger. This is when we explode. At this stage, we have completely lost it. We are no more in control. The fury and demon of rage has taken over our being. After its force is spent, we may have a sick feeling in our stomach as we survey the violence we have unleashed and the damage we have caused.
It is interesting how the word, 'mad' is equated with anger. We have lost all our sanity when we are in the grip of strong anger. Someone observing us may quite aptly remark, "He is mad." At that point, no one can argue or reason with us - we have lost all our mindfulness and rationality. We are unable to note the anger, unable to step back and observe, "Mind is angry. Mind is exploding." Whatever mindfulness we may have has all but vanished. After the anger is spent, the madness over and our sanity returns, we realise, "I have totally lost it! How could I have not seen it coming? If only I had controlled myself. Now it’s too late and the damage is done." That is when our mindfulness has returned. There is no point in further beating up ourselves. We have learned our lesson yet again the hard way. We are humbled. We realise what a lot of work we still have to do with regard to taming the mind. Let us make whatever amends we can and let us resolve to try better and harder next time. Let us not lose heart but be more determined than ever to work on our mental development and liberation from all unwholesome states of mind.
Hatred is a close cousin of anger. Hatred is more than just anger. In hatred, there is an element of malice and vindictiveness. We want to inflict harm on our enemy or the hated person. We wish harm to befall the person. It is the opposite of metta, lovingkindness. In metta, we wish, "May you be happy. May you be safe...." but in hate, we wish, "May you suffer. May you burn in hell forever." See what terrible thoughts hatred can give rise to! Then we wish all the worst things we can think of for our enemy.
Hatred and anger can co-exist. We may feel both hatred and anger at the same time. We may say in anger "I hate you. I wish you will just go and get out of my life. I wish I had never met you." But after our anger passes, our mindfulness and goodwill return. We think, "We don't want to hate you or anybody. We wish you well. We forgive you. May you be happy."
In the case of a loved one, we often make up and find that our love returns. We regret our altercation. We love each other again and we want to love each other more and more and better and better with each passing day.
Anger may also arise without hatred. We may be angry with a person but there is no hatred there. We don't wish ill for the person. We were just angry and unable to control our emotion at the time. We may say some harsh and hurtful words in anger but not to the extent of wishing harm for the person.
Hatred can exist without anger being overtly expressed. We may quietly harbour hatred against a person. Our anger towards the person may have subsided but hatred remains in us. We may be nursing the hatred, having vengeful thoughts towards the person. Sometimes we may even pretend to like the person, to smile and act like we are on good terms with the person but inside us we may be quietly plotting the person's downfall and destruction. What a heinous state of mind hatred is! We should see its evil and devious nature and not want to harbour an iota of hate towards anybody. Instead we want to cultivate a mind of goodwill towards all beings.
Looking up the meaning of hatred and anger in the dictionary, I find that hatred is defined as an intense feeling of dislike or loathing towards a person while anger is defined as a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure and hostility.
I think hatred should be defined as more than an intense feeling of dislike. Commonly one finds also the element of malice, the wishing for some harm to befall the other or even plotting some mischief against him.
In metta meditation when we send good wishes to a difficult person, it does not mean that we have to like them. How could we possibly like a person who is mean and cruel towards us? But the thing is that although we don't like him, we don't harbour any ill will, malice, hatred or anger towards him. We don't wish him him anything bad. That's the beauty of metta. We still wish him well, that he may enjoy a healthy wellbeing and happiness without harming or hurting others. We wish he may be a better and kinder person. Metta is fundamentally this unconditional goodwill that we have towards all beings and which is expressed through our wishing well for them.
We forgive because we want to free ourselves from hatred and anger which are toxic and a cause of suffering for both ourselves and others. In forgiving we are only freeing ourselves from suffering, from the poison of hatred and anger which are gnawing away at the very core of our being, giving us no respite or peace of mind. In hating, we are actually a slave to the emotion, being subject to its dictates and imprisoned by a violent and pernicious state of mind.
If we return hatred with hatred, we perpetuate the cycle of hatred. To break the cycle, one of us has to forgive and stop hating. Hence, the Buddha said in the Dhammapada, “Hatred never ceases through hatred. Only through non-hatred does it cease. This is an ancient law.”
The Buddha said if we keep thinking about how the other person has hurt or harmed us, then we cannot let go of our hatred and anger. We should not dwell on those thoughts. Instead, the Buddha advises us to reflect on death. If we consider the brevity of life, we wouldn’t want to spend our limited and precious time hating, filled with loathing and aversion, bitter and unhappy.
When we forgive, it does not mean that we condone the action of those who have wronged us. It does not mean that we have to continue to associate with our oppressor and suffer further hurt and abuse. No, we can and must take proactive steps to protect ourselves or others from being further harmed and abused. We can distance ourselves from the abuser and have nothing further to do with him. But we can still send metta and wish him well from a distance. Of course, where reconciliation is feasible, we are prepared to give a person a second chance to make amends. But if the person persistently repeats his hurtful behaviour and actions, we are wise to distance ourselves and preserve our inner peace, dignity, integrity and happiness. Again kindness and compassion must always be exercised with wisdom and discernment. Above all, we must not forget to be kind to ourselves, too, and not allow ourselves to suffer further abuse.
Our forgiveness is unconditional. We forgive even if the other party is not sorry or remorseful. We forgive because we see the futility and toxicity of hatred, anger, resentment and all associated mental states. We forgive for our own sake, to preserve our mental well being and happiness. Our forgiveness is beneficial for both ourselves and the other.
Where patience is, anger is not. When anger arises, patience is lost. Hence, the more patience we have, the better. Cultivate patience – an eminent virtue which supports calm and inhibits anger.
Whenever you are about to go off the handle, quickly tell yourself, “Patience, Patience, Patience.” We can never have enough patience. It is a noble quality which we should continuously foster and nurture.
The Buddha describes patience as a supreme practice and the mark of a sage. A spiritual practitioner is one who maintains patience and does not, through anger, oppress or harm another. (Dhammapada 183/184).
There are many occasions which call for patience. When we notice our irritation arising towards somebody (e.g., somebody we perceive as slow, stupid, difficult or impudent), something (e.g., our computer, phone or something not working well) or a situation (e.g., a traffic jam, a traffic light that seems to take an eternity to turn green, a stressful or unpleasant situation) that’s the time when we need patience most.
There are skilful means of aborting irritation. In a traffic jam, for example, we can wish, “May all of us who are stuck here in this jam be patient,” followed by our usual metta phrases, “May we all be happy…” We can reflect that what is important is that we get to reach home or our destination safely, even though late.
At the red light, we can use the opportunity to take a breather, come back to the moment and radiate metta, “May all beings be happy,” or think wholesome, happy, positive, motivating thoughts.
It is especially easy to lose patience with our loved ones, familiar persons or those we tend to take for granted. Therefore, it is important to be extra mindful, loving, kind, friendly, warm, helpful and patient in our daily interactions with them.
In stressful situations, we need to remind ourselves to maintain our composure, equanimity and cheerfulness. I can do no better here than to reproduce the excellent advice given by the sixth century Christian monk St Abba Dorotheus: “Over whatever you have to do, even if it be very urgent and demands great care, I would not have you argue or be agitated. For rest assured, everything you do, be it great or small, is but one-eighth of the problem, whereas to keep one’s state undisturbed even if thereby one should fail to accomplish the task, is the other seven-eights. So if you are busy at some task and wish to do it perfectly, try to accomplish it – which, as I said would be one-eighth of the problem, and at the same time to preserve your state unharmed – which constitutes seven-eights. If, however, in order to accomplish your task you would inevitably be carried away and harm yourself or another by arguing with him, you should not lose seven for the sake of preserving one-eighth.”
Tolerance is a companion of patience. We tolerate diverse views and opinions. We can listen to an opposing view respectfully and calmly express our own point of view and perceptions.
We respect the right of others to practise their religions or way of life so long as they do not harm others or infringe on others' rights. It is the principle of live and let live.
The ingredients for a successful relationship in life include understanding, compromise, give-and-take and a great measure of tolerance of each other’s idiosyncratic behaviour and habits.
Equanimity is unshakeability. It is mental composure. We are unruffled by all the ups and downs of life. When something goes wrong, we remain calm and see how we can respond in a wise, skilful and constructive manner.
We understand life only too well. We can’t expect things to go smoothly all the time. By remaining calm, we don’t make things worse. We actually avoid or avert a lot of suffering and promote happiness and peace through our skilful response.
Equanimity is peace. Through understanding, we know how to live - at peace with others and the world. Each one of us has to take responsibility for our actions and happiness. We try to do our part and if others don’t, they have to bear the consequences of their actions. We maintain our inner peace and composure while living in an imperfect world.
Wisdom is what guides and directs us. It is wisdom that sees the bigger picture, that sees things in perspective. We know how to reflect wisely and steer ourselves along the right course, not giving in to anger and unwholesome states of mind but cultivating peacefulness and cheerfulness and wholesome states.
With wisdom, we know how to cultivate all the beautiful values and attitudes that are conducive to peace and happiness. We know how to diminish suffering and increase happiness. We know how to live lightly, peacefully and joyfully.
Can one be completely free from anger?
Is it possible to be completely free of anger, to simply not be able to get angry? Although difficult, according to Buddhism, this is possible. In fact, that is the purpose of the practice – to become totally free from anger and all unwholesome states of mind.
There are four stages of sainthood or spiritual attainments in the Buddhist path. The first is a stream-winner (sotāpanna), one who has entered the stream that will lead to Nibbana, the extinguishing of greed, hatred and delusion.
The stream-winner has eradicated three out of ten fetters, i.e., (1) the erroneous view of a permanent self or soul, (2) the attachment to precepts and observances, thinking that these in and by themselves, without the penetration of insight into the true nature of phenomena, are enough for one to be liberated from suffering, and (3) sceptical doubt with regard to the true teaching.
Furthermore, the stream-winner has weakened greed and hatred, will naturally be virtuous and, according to the Buddha, has, at most, seven lives to go before she makes an end of rebirth and samsaric existence.
The second stage of sainthood is that of the once-returner (sakadāgāmi) who has further attenuated the mental defilements of greed and hatred. It is said that she will return to the sensual world one more time before she attains final liberation.
The third stage of sainthood is that of the non-returner (anāgāmi) who has removed the fetters of sensual desire and hatred. She has no more craving for or attachment to sensual pleasures. She has also completely removed hatred together with anger and sorrow.
The Pali word which has been translated as ‘hatred’ here is ‘dosa.’ Dosa actually has a wider connotation of meaning than just hatred. It is also translated as aversion which will then encompass hatred, anger, sorrow, worry, anxiety and envy.
Thus, the non-returner is a very peaceful person, being free of the above mental afflictions. However, she still has five higher fetters to remove before she can become an arahant, a fully accomplished spiritual practitioner.
These five higher fetters are (1) craving for rebirth in a fine material realm, (2) craving for rebirth in an immaterial realm, (3) restlessness, (4) conceit, and (5) ignorance.
Where there is still a residue of craving, there will be restlessness as there is the absence of perfect contentment. Conceit means there is still a subtle sense of conceiving of an “I” even though the wrong view of self has been extirpated. It means there is still a subtle attachment to the “I” or the five aggregates (body, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness) that constitute the personhood and, hence, there is still a subtle trace of ignorance and the lack of perfect wisdom.
An arahant (fully accomplished one) removes all these five higher fetters. She has attained the fourth and final stage of sainthood. Her mind is fully liberated from greed (all forms of craving and attachment), aversion and delusion. She has done what had to be done and made an end of rebirth and suffering.
In the scriptures, we often come across this declaration of a practitioner when she attains the final goal. “Destroyed is birth. The holy life has been lived. What had to be done has been done. The goal has been achieved. A heavy burden has been laid down. There is no more coming back to any form of being.”
Perfectly content and at peace, the arahant lives the remainder of her last life with compassion and lovingkindness towards all beings, incapable of harming any living being and seeking only beings’ welfare and happiness.
So, yes, at the third stage of sainthood, not only hatred and anger but also sorrow, worry, anxiety and envy are all completely extirpated from the mind. Buddhists believe this is possible even though it may take many lives to succeed.
But even before reaching the final goal, the Buddha said the Dhamma is “visible here and now” (sanditthiko). We can experience the fruit of the practice, which is the attenuation of greed, hatred and delusion, even though we may be unable to completely uproot them as yet. We attain relief according to the extent that we have attenuated or weakened those deep rooted mental defilements.
The spiritual work of mental purification is to be done by each one for himself or herself. No one can do it for another. The Buddha said he could only show us the way but we, ourselves, have to walk the path.
The path is a noble and joyful one that leads us towards happiness and away from suffering. May we walk it to the very end and attain total liberation from suffering which is the realization of the perfect peace and happiness.
To recap, it is extremely important to realize the danger and disadvantages of anger and to form or crystallise a strong intention to overcome it and to remain calm and unperturbed at all times, especially on those occasions when we are prone to or in danger of losing our mental composure.
We should cultivate all the mental qualities that are supportive of non anger or which are in opposition to anger, qualities such as lovingkindness, friendliness, cheerfulness, joy, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, magnanimity, equanimity, calmness, peacefulness, serenity, generosity, gratitude, mindfulness, understanding and wisdom.
It is important to frequently exercise wise reflection (yoniso manasikāra) so we can remind ourselves of the many reasons why we should not get angry and to quickly let go of anger when it has arisen. This reflection can be done at all times – well before anger has arisen so we can prevent it from arising; while it has arisen so we can bring about its subsidence; after it has subsided so it will not arise again in the future.
Mindfulness plays an important and crucial role as it is like a sentry standing guard at the door of our mind, letting in wholesome states and keeping out unwholesome ones. So should anger slip in, mindfulness is quick to step in and evict it.
May we all cultivate lovingkindness and diminish anger, striving always to act from a calm and wise frame of mind. May we all purify our minds from all mental impurities and attain perfect and lasting happiness.
““One who repays an angry man in kind,
Is worse than the angry man himself.
Not returning anger with anger,
One wins a battle hard to win.
"One practises for the welfare of both -
One's own and the other’s -
When, knowing that the other is angry,
One mindfully maintains one's peace.
“When one is the healer of both -
His own and the other’s -
Those who think he is a fool,
Are unskilled in the Dhamma.”
- Buddha, Samyutta Nikaya
“Having slain anger, one sleeps soundly;
Having slain anger, one does not sorrow;
The killing of anger, O brahmin,
With its poisoned root and honeyed tip:
This is the killing the noble ones praise,
For having slain that, one does not sorrow.” - Buddha, Samyutta Nikaya
“How can anger arise in one who is angerless,
In the tamed one who lives righteously,
In one who is liberated by perfect knowledge,
Who is stable and abides in peace?”
- Buddha, Samyutta Nikaya