Once 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.
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.