This summer the trees in our retreat center in France were turning brown by early August. When the wind blew, sucked up by soaring thermals in the searing heat, leaves scattered across the field in a whirling mass. Temperatures rose steadily until they peaked at 42 degrees [108F] in the shade and stayed there for two weeks. Everywhere the landscape was shriveled and bleached. Trees stood, branches bare. The drought had lasted all spring and the countryside was feeling its effects.
Watching the slow decay of woodlands and hedgerows in the surrounding countryside, the reality of climate change hit me in a way it hadn’t before. If this weather pattern were to continue, great swathes of forest would simply die. Agriculture would struggle and, in many cases, fail. The countryside as we know it would change beyond recognition.
As I looked up into the blue sky, criss-crossed by plane tracks, and knew the interconnectedness of increasing fossil fuel consumption and environmental change, I felt … What did I feel? Was it anger? Was it despair? Was it grief? A sensation in my chest, tears pressing into my eyes, thoughts circling, my reaction was visceral and poignant. Thoughts tore at me. This had to stop. Someone had to listen now. Images of heaping the embassy steps of those countries most guilty of over-consumption with dying vegetation flashed into my mind.
Anger has a bad press – at least in Buddhist circles. Yet, if I examine my responses to the drought, I am left with two questions. Firstly, I see the need to look more closely at what we mean when we say we are angry. It would be easy for me to say I looked at those trees and felt anger, yet the emotion I felt was much more complex. Secondly, if this response was fired by anger, was it potentially useful anger? Certainly, in my reaction there was energy to do something. Indeed not to act felt a betrayal. I was fired up. Such energy could blame and punish, but energy could be used to seek change.
These days, “anger” has almost become an icon. Whether people are for its free expression or against it, the subject itself evokes powerful responses. The preoccupation with expressing anger probably has its roots in the rise of interest in psychology that became particularly strong in the human potential movement of the late 20th century. Through my work, I am only too aware of the view in some personal development circles that all emotions, especially if they are negative, need to be expressed, and of the paramount position anger holds. Repression is out: bad for your health and definitely rooted in past attitudes.
Thankfully there has been some questioning recently of the catch-all assumption that “getting your anger out” and bashing cushions is a good thing. Nevertheless I still encounter people who seem to feel it not only their right, but also their duty, to express their anger – often regardless of the effect on the recipient. Such a need to express often seems to go beyond simply the attempt to gain relief and healing, and to become an end in itself.
Anger is a powerful emotion; so, too, can be the attachment to expressing it. For those wedded to the expressive model, a level of passion often accompanies the belief that anger should be expressed. This suggests there may be more going on for the person than is immediately apparent. Attachment to beliefs often has more to do with individual and group self-definition than with the subject of the belief itself. This is just as much the case with beliefs about anger as with anything else.
Buddhist teaching suggests that we build structures of identity or selfhood as a way of defending against uncomfortable or threatening experiences. Initially we retreat from such experiences into a variety of distractions or attachments, which take the form of greed, hatred and delusion. When we have used the same distractions many times, a pattern of habitual behavior is created and our identification with this pattern of responses gives us a sense of self. Attachment to beliefs is one such pattern, and for a person who is attached to the view that the expression of anger is a good thing, these beliefs form a creed that sustains their ‘habit formations’ and identity. Thus anger and identity can be enmeshed and together represent the avoidance of reality.
Few in the Buddhist world share such views on the desirability of expressing anger, yet here, too, there is a danger that anger becomes a kind of icon. Identifying oneself as a not-angry person can lead to just as fixed a process of self-creation and self-definition as identifying with anger. Being Buddhist can also be an identity: we are calm, peaceful people, not like those others who get angry. But if our avoidance of anger is driven by identity formation and the need for certainty, we can be pretty sure that existential fear is operating not far from the surface.
In the uncertain world we inhabit today, the fear of war, environmental disaster and many other threats evoke strong reactions. We can react to these realities with anger; we can also react with denial and withdrawal. The person who has invested in non-anger may withdraw into quietism. If I am a not-angry person and need to maintain that identity, I may not only work on getting rid of my anger, I may also avoid situations that give rise to it in order to maintain my sense of spiritual progress. I can not read the newspapers, avoid meeting people who discuss disturbing events, and bury myself in a remote rural spot where my calm will not be challenged.
Not all Buddhists are so strongly identified with the quietistic position. Recently there has been increasing interest in engaged practice, in which Buddhists take part in humanitarian or campaigning activity as an active expression of the Bodhisattva spirit. This is a model practiced by the Amida Order, the tradition I follow. In engaged Buddhist approaches there is less likelihood of falling into quietism, but understanding and working with reactivity becomes even more important. The person who has invested in anger may be sucked into vociferous or even violent pressure groups. Finding an alternative that expresses a compassionate message actively but not aggressively is the challenge of engaged practice.
The engaged practitioner’s aim is not to eradicate emotion, but to hold the energy of their reaction, and to harness it for the needs of the situation. Letting go of a fixed position, we need to be willing to face our frailty and impulses. Such reactions are part of being human. We are not so special or separate that we are not touched, nor would it be good if we were.
The roots of anger and hostility lie in our individual and collective attachment to identity, and with it our attachment to certainty. Although real situations are never as simple as they are portrayed, there is always a temptation to create heroes and enemies, and to define ourselves in relation to “my country” or “my side,” because this gives us a sense of certainty. We may have a sneaking feeling that things are not so straightforward, but there is a relief in putting this aside and shouting slogans. It is uncomfortable to know that there are no easy answers. Delusion is more comfortable than authenticity. The temptation to seek quiet spaces away from the problems of the world becomes attractive.
Yet we cannot avoid being involved. As humans we are cast into the world with its many conflicts and troubles. Simply withdrawing can be a retreat from reality into delusion. It can be another way of holding onto our personal world at the expense of seeing the one that others are forced to inhabit. This is not to deny the importance of contemplation and quiet, but the practitioner who seeks these must be aware of the choice being made, and not pursue them from a need to flee from disturbance.
Engaged Buddhist practice is a matter of bringing awareness and non-attachment into the place where turmoil is unfolding. In such situations we often have no choice but to act. In doing so we take responsibility for the karmic consequences of our actions while still inhabiting this uncertainty. And that demands great personal courage.
Anger is a complex emotion. The elevation of anger to its current iconic position has tended to prevent us from looking at what we really mean when we say we are angry. Whether positively or negatively framed, anger limits and distorts our perception of both our own responses and the situation that evokes them. We feel the first flash of negativity and assume it to be anger. Then, having labelled it, we either indulge it or we dismiss it as something to be avoided. Yet, if we neither give way to the impulsiveness nor suppress it, but stop and look into our response, other layers of the process become clearer. Stepping back creates the possibility of separating the energy behind the anger from the potentially harmful results of expressing it.
So does Right Anger exist? Engaged Buddhist practice is a middle way. In recent demonstrations against the arms fair at the Excel centre in London, Buddhists were actively and visibly present, bearing witness to the gross immorality of such commerce. The presence of people of faith – recognizable by their robes and signs – is welcomed by many involved in these actions as a source of calm among groups who might otherwise become angry and even violent. Being able to hold back from reacting aggressively in highly charged situations is a vital aspect of training. Yet the energy that arises when a person is confronted by the harm and wrong in the world is also vital to the practitioner’s practice. It brings the kind of presence that speaks to others.
The impact that the engaged practitioner creates comes out of the passions: the person’s ability to be moved. The deeper we look at a subject, the more we are moved. Last year, with members of our sangha, I attended part of the inquiry into the setting up of a laboratory in Cambridge that would use primates to research various degenerative diseases. We were deeply affected by the films and descriptions of experiments shown at this event and, following it, we staged a procession through the city carrying replica coffins for the animals that would die if the project went ahead. The powerful image of a line of robed figures in procession was both moving for us and affecting for many who observed it.
Another form of engaged practice is involvement with those who are disadvantaged, perhaps through offering direct humanitarian help. Here, too, we have to work with our reactions. The feelings that arise when one is confronted with people living in extreme conditions or mental distress can be a hindrance, but they can also motivate us to offer compassionate support. In turn, this can broaden our perspective. When the Amida Trust became involved in supporting a health project in rural Zambia, we had the chance directly to support sick people, but we also became more aware of the global context in which such poverty is allowed to exist. That awareness led us to become more involved in campaigning work.
Faced with issues of social disadvantage, the treatment of laboratory animals, the run up to global conflict or environmental disaster, a strong emotional response is inevitable and appropriate. It is part of being fully alive, and the fruit of a practice that moves us out of our small, personal concerns.
The engaged path is not smooth. It does not have the tranquility of the remote mountain retreat. Sometimes the rising passion tips over into rough responses. At other times people act with tremendous courage in the face of our great global mess. The unease of uncertainty is always close, but our reactions can also provide a wake-up call. We see the impulse to blame, to distort, to duck out of situations. We see how, again and again, we fail to handle the reactions as well as we would like. Real life situations have a way of puncturing self-satisfaction.
Back in Britain, September rolls on. Still the sky is blue and the sun is hot. We start to see the effects of drought on vegetation here. Cars keep tearing along the motorway within earshot, belching greenhouse gases into the autumnal air. Change touches all. The rural retreat is far from immune. What will it take to call an end to this particular madness? Our practice may make us more skilled in avoiding destructive outbursts of anger, but let us not lose the passion that fires us to create a better world.
Prasada Caroline Brazier has been a pioneer in the presentation of Buddhist Psychology and directs the training programs offered by the Amida Trust which include a full professional training for psychotherapists and counselors taught from a Buddhist Psychology perspective. In addition to Pureland Buddhism, she has also studied Theravada and been a member of the Tiep Hien Order of Vietnamese Buddhism.