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Lyman Abbott: Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry.

lyman abbott portraitOnce when I was listening to the Dalai Lama talk in Edinburgh, he was asked a question that went something like this: “You keep talking about changing the world through meditation and compassion, but isn’t anger faster?” His Holiness answered to the effect that it’s precisely because anger acts so swiftly that we have to be wary of it.

His Holiness’s reply reveals Buddhism’s ambivalent attitude to the emotion of anger. Anger’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it can accomplish a lot of good in the world. Anger can simply be a passionate response to something that we know in our hearts is wrong. His Holiness has himself admitted that he frequently feels angry when he thinks about injustice, and particularly the way that the Communist Chinese have treated his homeland and his people. It’s natural — and even right — for us to feel anger in such circumstances. We’d scarcely be human if we didn’t.

At the same time, anger can be such a powerful force that we lose our mindfulness and find that the heart has become filled with ill will or hatred, which is a desire to hurt others. We move from being angry to wanting to punish or wanting revenge. Just as the Dalai Lama says he experiences anger towards the Chinese, he also says he holds no hatred for them in his heart.

The difference between hatred and anger

Hatred, with its inherent desire to hurt and damage others is never seen in Buddhist practice as being an appropriate response. Anger may be passionate and fiery, but it simply wants to remove an obstacle or to change things for the better, not to hurt.

Yet although anger and hatred are different emotions — one potentially skillful, the other very definitely unskillful — many people fail to see the distinction. The experience of being angry — the sense of physical arousal, the quickened pulse, the tingling in the hands as we prepare for action — is in many ways very similar to the experience of hatred. And anger, once aroused, can easily lead to the less healthy emotion of hatred, just as a campfire can lead to a forest conflagration.

Seven steps to a healthier relationship with anger

So how can we teach children — and ourselves — to experience anger in a healthy way? Here are seven steps to a healthier relationship with anger.

1. Accept your anger

First, we can learn to accept that anger is a normal, healthy, and potentially creative form of energy. Too often we’ve been taught, as Abbott suggests, that anger is something to be avoided and believe that we’ve failed when anger has stirred. When we try to confine our anger it’s inclined to burst out uncontrollably, or to gnaw us away from the inside, as resentment. When we accept our anger we can relate to it in a more healthy way.

2. Breathe

Second, breathe! Create a sense of space between you and your emotions by breathing deeply into the belly. Connecting with the body helps stop our emotions spiraling out of control, keeps them in perspective, and helps us to calm down so that we don’t do or say anything rash. If you’re angry when you receive an email, don’t reply at once but wait until you’ve had time to quiet your mind and reflect more calmly.

3. Take responsibility for your anger

Third, we can appreciate that our anger is our anger. Other people don’t make us angry. Our anger is not their fault. Our anger, rather, is our response to our interpretation of our experience. We need to own our anger and to see that it’s something we’ve given rise to, ourselves.

4. Distinguish anger and hatred

Fourth, we can learn to recognize the difference between anger and hatred. To do this requires a great deal of introspective practice, especially since it’s harder to be mindful when our energy is aroused in anger. We have to examine our motivations, our thoughts, and our words: Do we have a desire to hurt? Do we use belittling, condescending, or insulting language? Are we fixated on winning at any cost? Do we distort the truth? Do we still feel a basic sense of sympathy, friendliness, and compassion towards our opponent?

5. Acknowledge your hurt

Fifth, we can acknowledge our hurt. Often anger arises in response to a sense of hurt. Even when someone else has suffered an injustice, this can lead to a sense of hurt arising in our own experience. And that in turn can lead to anger. When we mindfully acknowledge the sense of hurt that we ourselves are experiencing we find that we’re less inclined to lash out.

6. Let go

Sixth, we have to be prepared to let go of our anger. Healthy anger arises quickly and departs quickly. It doesn’t hang around and fester.

7. Cultivate lovingkindness

Seventh, and lastly, we can cultivate lovingkindness in our meditation practice and in daily life. As we go about our daily activities we can repeat phrases such as “May you be well; may you be happy; may you live in peace.” The basic sense of sympathy that this practice helps cultivate makes it easier to avoid anger in the first place and makes it possible for us to experience anger “cleanly,” without it slipping into hatred.

These seven steps can help us to experience anger less frequently, less intensely, and more cleanly. Rather than experiencing anger as a destructive force we can use it creatively. Rather than our anger hurting people it can become a powerful tool for putting our compassion into action.

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Comment from Geraldine
Time: March 15, 2008, 4:27 pm

I can use your guidelines in my practice in my workplace. It will help me to keep in mind the “individual beauty from thoughtful children” that can so often pass us by unnoticed.
Thank you.
Kind regards
Geraldine

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Comment from Andrew Scott
Time: May 31, 2008, 6:43 pm

I don’t see any ambivalence revealed in the Dalai Lama’s answer. Can you please explain?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 31, 2008, 8:25 pm

Hi Andrew,

The ambivalence that I see stems from the fact that the Dalai Lama acknowledges that anger can be useful, while at the same time he recognizes that it can be intoxicating and thus destructive. It’s like fire — when properly handled it’s a potent tool, but when mishandled it’s a very dangerous thing.

I hope that clarifies what I saw in the Dalai Lama’s comment.

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from Elizabeth
Time: August 13, 2008, 12:36 am

Hi

I found your 7 steps incredibly useful. I have been thinking a long time about anger – and more importantly how to deal with it when it flares up and invariable turns to hatred – and your article was like a lovely path guiding me in the right direction. Thank you.

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Comment from Isidora
Time: December 11, 2008, 2:19 am

Hi, I’m experiencing a difficult time and I’d appreciate some advice. I have a new coworker (temporary) that usually ask in an angry tone and I feel that I’m not been fair. But in fact I give this person lots of my time an even have to stay after work hours doing my job since I’m dedicating so much time to answer questions all day. Despite that I already ask to please take notes so there would be a benefit for both of us in time and record of knowledge. I find this person’s behaviour unconsiderate and I’m building a frustration that I’ll be afraid will become anger.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: December 16, 2008, 6:01 pm

Hi Isadora,

First off, I wanted to acknowledge your integrity — it’s great that you want to address this situation before your frustration turns into something worse. So let’s think this through a little bit. As Bodhipaksa says in this article, anger in itself isn’t a bad thing. It’s telling you that there’s an obstacle here that needs to be removed. Something needs to change. So what is it that you want to see change? Is it your coworker’s tone of voice when he speaks to you? Or is it all the time that he is asking of you? Let’s begin first by getting clear on what you would like to see change. And then let’s think about what can you ask of this person to request this change. It’s very possible (in fact likely) that he doesn’t know you are feeling frustrated by what he’s doing. So as difficult as it may be, you owe it to yourself to speak to him about it.

When speaking to him, I would suggest that you speak only about specific incidents between you, and only use sentences that begin with the word “I” For example, you could say, “I felt hurt yesterday when you said ABC to me.” Be careful not to accuse or blame him for anything, but just state the fact that you felt a certain way in response to something he did. And then you could make a specific, objective request of him, such as “When you came to my office four times yesterday to ask me questions, I found it difficult to complete my own work. I’d like to ask that you limit the number of times to just one or two.” I would suggest you practice what you want to say beforehand, maybe even try it out with a friend. You might even ask him outright if there’s something he’s upset about. The idea here is to treat him with complete respect as a human being, and listen fully to what he has to say in response. It’s possible there is something that he needs that he’s not getting either! This might be an opportunity to open a dialogue between you.

Keep in mind that both of you are working for the same organization, and both of you have the same goals in mind — that is, performing your jobs well and contributing to the team. Rather than seeing him as an adversary, how can you look at him as someone who has common goals and needs as you? What can you request of him so you can work together toward the same common goal? He isn’t a bad person. He isn’t trying to make life difficult for you. This is a communication difficulty that needs to be smoothed over. How can you open the lines of communication between you?

I know that it feels daunting to think about talking directly to someone about a conflict situation. It’s REALLY scary to think about doing it, I know. But I really encourage you to find a way to do it. Otherwise, these feelings are left to fester and, as you say, could grow into something worse. By the way, what I’ve said here is all based the the ideas of a technique called Non-Violent Communication (http://www.cnvc.org/). You might want to look into it.

Good luck, and have courage!

Best wishes,
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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Comment from Patricia
Time: April 25, 2009, 9:27 am

As a Nonviolent Communication practicioner and an attentive reader of buddhist texts and ideals, I find these 7 steps to be very useful. I may even make a talk based on them.
God bless you :-)

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Comment from Carol
Time: May 5, 2009, 7:20 am

Thank you for this.
My 9-year old son has anger management issues, and I think this will help us to help him deal with these emotions.
Bless.

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