Breaking the cycle of resentment


Most of our suffering is self-inflicted.

When we call to mind some resentment from the past, we often assume that it’s the other person who’s making us suffer. And perhaps they did hurt us at some point. But unless they’re still in our lives doing the same thing that hurt us before, right now it’s our own thought processes that are causing us pain.

There’s a 5th century text by a monk called Buddhaghosa, “The Path of Purification,” that discusses reflecting on this very thing as a way of getting rid of resentment. He suggests we ask ourselves why, if another person has hurt us, should we then hurt ourselves?

So when resentful thoughts come into the mind, we can be aware that we’re causing ourselves pain. Now our problem with a person we have a grievance about is that they caused us pain, and yet here we are doing the same thing to ourselves!

Reflecting this way is probably not going to stop the whole process of resentment straight away. But it lessens the stream of resentful thoughts enough that we can start to think straight again.

Implicit in the practice that Buddhaghosa is suggesting is that we become aware of the way that feelings and thoughts affect each other. When we have resentful thoughts, this triggers feelings of pain, hurt, anxiety, etc. And those feelings in turn trigger further resentful thoughts. So our resentment becomes cyclical, which is one reason it becomes such a problem for us.

The Buddha talked about this in terms of two arrows. He said that being hurt is like being shot by an arrow. That’s obviously painful, but the stream of thoughts that springs up in reaction to our pain hurts us even more. He said that it’s like being shot by yet another arrow. Actually, each thought is an arrow. And because we can have a thousand resentful thoughts in reaction to being hurt, we often fire many more arrows at ourselves than the other person ever did.

Buddhaghosa offers some other reflections as well. He points out that in your life you’ve had to give up many things that brought you happiness. So why, he says, should we not walk away from resentment, which makes you miserable?

He also suggests that if another person has done something we disapprove of, then we should reflect on why we are doing something (like getting angry and resentful) that we would also disapprove of them doing? We should hold ourselves to the same standard we hold other people to. He’s suggesting that we practice integrity.

Buddhaghosa further points out that if someone wants to hurt you, why give them satisfaction by joining in? You may make the other person suffer with your anger. Then again you may not. But you’ll definitely hurt yourself.

These are all just ways of tapping the brakes.

I find that a very useful and important practice is to notice where thoughts appear to come from, which you’ll probably find is up in your head, and where feelings arise, which is probably down in the body, mainly around the heart and the gut.

Once you’re aware of this separation, you can more easily see the dynamic that’s in operation between those two parts of our being. You can see how a thought affects how you feel — for example causing you to be afraid or feel hurt or despondent — and how those feelings can affect how you think — provoking you to have further resentful thoughts.

When we do this we can start to see the whole cycle in operation.

Now lovingkindness practice is very important here, because we can find ourselves becoming aware of the cycle of resentment, and start criticizing ourselves. In practicing lovingkindness, however, we’re learning how to be more supportive, gentle, and understanding toward ourselves. So we can recognize that we’ve been caught up in a cycle of resentment. We can recognize the pain of knowing that we cause ourselves suffering. And we can offer ourselves kindness: “May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be free from suffering.”

None of these practices I’ve mentioned is a quick fix, but they help us to soften around our resentment, and this in turn helps us to let go and be at peace.

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • Hi Bodhipaksa are you planning to run any online courses anytime soon?

  • That is correct, we make ourselves suffer the most. We should take easy on ourselves.

  • I really enjoyed reading your article. I have a question though? Can we have resentment towards some sort of situations? Like traumatic past experiences, where subconsciously we are blaming our selves? I had such a experience when my daughter was 6 months old and due to some complications, she had to undergo surgery. Because of that “month” of pain, I can’t really move further. She is however fine. Regarding the path of purification, what really helped me was a standing meditation, standing like a tree. It helped notice the tension in my body, but also my thoughts and my feelings. I wrote a post about it. I would be very much interested in your feedback.

    • Yes, we can have resentment that’s connected with situations — feeling that we’ve been treated unfairly, whether by “life” or by another person, although a key component of resentment is a sense of helplessness, and so we often end up blaming ourselves. Your “standing like a tree” practice reminds me of something that the Buddha sometimes talked about:

      “Develop the meditation in tune with earth. For when you are developing the meditation in tune with earth, agreeable & disagreeable sensory impressions that have arisen will not stay in charge of your mind. Just as when people throw what is clean or unclean on the earth — feces, urine, saliva, pus, or blood — the earth is not horrified, humiliated, or disgusted by it; in the same way, when you are developing the meditation in tune with earth, agreeable & disagreeable sensory impressions that have arisen will not stay in charge of your mind.”

      The basic practice would seem to be similar — emulating stillness and non-reactivity, and allowing what’s painful to just fall away. It’s interesting that you note that “both joy and sadness have equal powers to distract the stillness of the mind.” That’s very much a Buddhist perspective as well, and is a good description of equanimity.

  • Would I be happier without this thought? If the answer is yes, I let it go

    • In cases of resentment, which is never justified, that’s always a good guide to what we should let go of.

      In other circumstances though there can be unpleasant thoughts that are useful or even necessary. I think the resolution there is asking what’s going to make us happier in the long term. Our long-term happiness can require us to face up to unpleasant realities in the short-term.


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