How to get rid of resentment
Ann Lamott, in her novel Crooked Little Heart, says that holding onto resentment is like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.
Resentment is seductive. We assume on some level that it’s going to help us, but it doesn’t. It just causes us pain.
This is something that just about all of us need help with.
1600 years ago, a compiler and commenter of Buddhist texts called Buddhaghosa put together an extraordinary “tool kit” of ways to deal with resentment. I was recently looking at this guidance, which is part of Buddhaghosa’s encyclopedic work on meditation, The Visuddhi Magga, or Path of Purity, and thought it was so fresh, well thought-out, and relevant that it was worth restating some of what he had to say.
Twelve techniques for getting rid of resentment
1. Lovingkindness practice
This one’s pretty obvious — if you’re a meditator at least. You can simply call to mind the person you’re resentful of, and cultivate good will toward them. We have a whole section of this site devoted to teaching the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice, so I won’t say much about that here, except that it does work! When I first started practicing meditation I had a lot of problems with resentment, and I was often surprised by how quickly my anger and resentment toward someone would just vanish.
2. Reflect that resentment is never justified
Buddhaghosa suggests that we “reflect upon the saw.”
This one needs a bit of unpacking. There’s a “Simile of the Saw” in the early Buddhist scriptures, where the Buddha says that even if bandits brutally sawed a person limb from limb, “he who entertained hate in his heart would not be one that carried out my teaching.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what the provocation is, hatred is never justified. The mind can go “but … but …” as much as it likes, but hatred remains a negative emotion that destroys our happiness, causes suffering for others, and prevents us from experiencing peace.
Pretty much all of us, though, carry around the idea that there’s such a thing as “righteous resentment.” And we assume that hatred is justified. We tell ourselves stories about how bad the other person is, and this seems to make it natural for us to hate them. What we’re not doing is taking responsibility for our ill will. It’s our interpretation of other people’s actions that makes us hate them. We cause our own hate.
Don’t take the parable of the saw literally. Of course (unless you’re an advanced practitioner of superhuman stature) you’d experience hatred toward an aggressor who was torturing you. That wouldn’t mean that you weren’t a Buddhist — but it would mean that in the moment of hatred you would not “be one that carried out [the Buddha’s] teaching.” The point of the parable is simply to undermine the idea of “righteous resentment.”
Incidentally, some Tibetan monks and nuns who have been brutally tortured by Chinese security forces have avoided developing hatred toward their tormentors by means of compassion — reflecting that their torturers are building up bad karma for themselves.
3. Winning the real battle
Hot on the heels of the advice to reflect on the parable of the saw is an admonition to reflect that in developing hatred you’re actually giving a person who hates you what they want. (This is assuming that the other person hates you, which isn’t always the case.)
What does a person who hates you want for you? Bad stuff, that’s what. Buddhaghosa points out that hatred makes you ugly, causes you pain, destroys your good fortune, causes you to lose your wealth (or not to create any, perhaps because you’re distracted), detracts from your reputation, loses you friends, and leads to a bad rebirth. This is all bad stuff.
Someone who really hated you might wish all these things on you, and here you are doing them to yourself! You’re handing your hater victory. You’re doing him or her a favor. And by getting angry at an angry person, Buddhaghosa says, you become worse than them, and “do not win the battle hard to win,” which is of course the battle with yourself, to remain happy and unruffled.
So basically, we reflect here that true victory can’t come from getting angry at an angry person. That’s defeat. Victory comes from remaining calm, loving, and equanimous.
4. “Accentuate the positive”
Buddhaghosa suggests that we think about something positive in the other person, so that you can “remove irritation.”
This works, too. Resentment doesn’t like complexity. When you bear in mind someone’s good points — even things (dammit!) that we admire — it’s harder to keep the resentment going.
5. Develop compassion
But if you can’t think of anything positive about the other person, or if they truly don’t have any positive qualities (although that’s almost impossible) then you should develop compassion toward them. In Buddhaghosa’s world view, a person with no redeeming qualities is bound for the torments of the hell realms, and is therefore worthy of our compassion. I should stress that in Buddhism the hells are not permanent and are not punishments — they are simply places where we are reborn for a while as a result of our actions. Buddhist hells are a kind of “fat farm” where we burn off our bad karma.
6. Notice how you’re causing yourself suffering
As Ann Lamott points out, resentment hurts us. Buddhaghosa offers many reflections along those lines:
If another person has hurt us, why should we then hurt ourselves? In your life you’ve had to give up many things that brought you happiness, so why not walk away from resentment, which makes you miserable? If another person has done something we disapprove of, then why do something (like getting angry) that we would also disapprove of? If someone wants you to get angry, why give them the satisfaction? You may make the other person suffer with your anger. Then again you may not. But you’ll definitely hurt yourself. The thing you got angry about is impermanent and in the past. So why are you angry now?
He’s kind of unrelenting, that Buddhaghosa.
7. Reflect that all beings are the owners of their karma
This is a common reflection in Buddhism: all beings create their own actions (kamma) and inherit the consequences of those actions. The other person may have done things that are unskillful, and those actions will cause them suffering. So what’s the point of you doing exactly the same thing, by acting out of the unskillful state of resentment? It’s like picking up a hot coal to throw at the other person. You may hurt them, but you’re definitely going to hurt yourself.
The other person, if they are angry with you, is causing themselves pain. It’s like, Buddhaghosa says, them throwing a handful of dust into the wind. They may be aiming at you, but it’s their eyes that will end up smarting.
Reflecting in this way we can untangle our respective lives. The other person’s faults, real or imagined, are no longer an occasion for us to exercise our own faults.
8. Reflect on exemplars of patience
Buddhaghosa goes a bit over the top with this one, devoting almost as much time on this method of dispelling resentment as he does on all the others put together. His approach is to remind us of various past lives of the Buddha, or jataka tales, as they’re called. These are mythological stories about the Buddha’s previous lives, as he developed the qualities of compassion and wisdom that led to his awakening.
I’ve found that being in the presence of someone who is very patient causes me to let go of my resentments. I had a good friend in Scotland who I never — not once — heard say an unkind word about anyone. Sometimes I’d be bitching about someone else, and my friend would just come in with some wise and kind word about the other person’s life that would put everything in perspective and leave me feeling a bit petty about having ranted. Even now, just calling that friend to mind helps me evoke a sense of patience.
9. Reflect that all beings have been your dearest friends and relations in a previous life
I’m not big on past lives, or in belief in rebirth generally, but if you do take that kind of thing seriously, then Buddhaghosa’s advice is to remember that because of the beginninglessness of time, every being — including those you get most pissed off with — have been your mother, father, brother, sister, son, and daughter. When that person was your mother, they carried you in their womb, suckled you, wiped away your snot and shit, and generally lavished you with love. And we can reflect, Buddhaghosa says, thus: “So, it is unbecoming for me to harbor hate for him [or her] in my mind.”
Being one of a scientific bent, and not putting much stock in reflections that rely on assuming that rebirth is a reality rather than a myth, or perhaps a metaphor, I find myself approaching this advice in a different way. Let’s take rebirth as a metaphor: change is happening all the time, and so we’re each reborn in every moment. Each moment we die and are reborn.
Each momentary contact with the world is part of this process of death and rebirth. In fact, each perception is a kind of birth. It’s the birth of a new experience, and thus of a new “us.” Each contact that we have with another being is part of this process. Each time we see someone, hear someone, touch someone, even think or someone, a new experience arises and a new being is born. So in this way, all beings that we have contact with are our mothers. Each being we have contact with in this moment helps give birth to the being that exists in this moment. And since, in our immensely complex world, the unfolding, never-ending death-and-rebirth of each being is ultimately connected with the never-ending death-and-rebirth of each other being, all beings are our mothers.
10. Reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness
You can reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness, and how you’ll deny yourself those benefits by indulging in resentment. What are the benefits? Well, it’s worth reflecting on that through examining your own experience, but here’s Buddhaghosa’s list, which comes from the scriptures: You’ll sleep in comfort, wake in comfort, and dream no evil dreams. You’ll be dear to human beings and to non-human beings. Deities will guard you. Fire and poison and weapons won’t harm you (although that seems unlikely, to say the least). More plausibly, your mind will be easily concentrated. You’ll be reborn in a pleasant realm (or at the very least the future you that arises will have more a pleasant existence than the being that would have arisen had lovingkindness not been a part of its previous existence).
Some of these are plausible. There is scientific research showing that there are health benefits, and mental health benefits, from practicing lovingkindness meditation. Friendly people generally seem to have a more pleasant experience of the world, with less conflict and more fulfilling experience of others. You’ll deny yourself these benefits if you indulge in resentment. Resentment is the saturated fat of emotions, clogging the arteries of our happiness.
11. Break the other person into tiny pieces
Mentally (not physically!) we can dissolve the object of our resentment into various elements, asking ourselves what exactly we’re angry with. Is it the head hairs, the body hairs, the nails, the teeth, etc? Is it the solid matter making up that person, the liquid, the gas, the energy?
This might seem a little silly. In fact it seemed silly to me, right up to the moment that I tried it. There had been resistance to the idea, because I thought, “Well, of course I’m not angry with any of those things, I’m angry with them — with the person as a whole. But setting that resistance aside, and just reflecting on the bits that make up a person takes you away from the thought of them “as a whole” and you temporarily can’t be angry with them!
As Buddhaghosa says, “When he tries the resolution into elements, his anger finds no foothold, like a mustard seed on the point of a needle.”
12. Give a gift
This one’s delightfully straightforward and earthy. If you give the other person a gift — especially something you value — then you break the dynamic of your resentment. You shake things up within yourself. You have to think of the other person as a human being with needs. You have to think about what they might like. You stop your mind from going around and around in the same old rut of complaining. You have to let go of your damned pride. You have to take a risk. You have to make yourself vulnerable.
And giving to the other person changes the dynamic of the relationship. If there’s mutual resentment, then you may shock the other person into seeing you differently.
Buddhaghosa points out that giving naturally leads to kind speech:
Through giving gifts they do unbend
And condescend to kindly speech.
Of course you may be thinking something along the lines of, “Wait! I hate this person; why on earth would I give them something?”
But that just brings up another question. Do you want to end your resentment?
Well, do you?