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Respecting Anger (1)

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Anger, of course, is a very important emotion, attitude, motivating force in our society. A tremendous amount of harm gets caused through anger. I do not know if it is fair to say that any one particular harm of anger is worse than others, but what comes to mind in the moment, is the tremendous influence on young children, if they grow up with anger, or grow up afraid of unexpected anger coming at them.

Also anger is a protective device. Some people, motivated by anger, will protect other people – protect their children, protect society. Some people, with their anger, protect themselves and set up strong boundaries – strong "No" and can be ferocious sometimes in that protective movement.

Some people by their anger can put a tremendous amount of energy into a good cause because the energy is just forcing them.

Anger has many different expressions in our society. It can be confusing. Sometimes anger is treated as something that is wrong, bad, or painful. Sometimes it is treated as something that is necessary, important and justified.

Whenever there is a discussion about anger, in Buddhist English, the discussion implies that anger has hostility as part of it. If that is how we see it, then we have to come up with another word for something like anger that has no hostility in it. There might be a very strong expression of displeasure, that will look like anger, but there is no hostility in it. There can be very strong movement, ferocious movement of protection, of a strong "No," but there is no hostility. There is no desire to harm anyone. It is just setting up a very strong statement – asserting a certain ferocity of purpose, of negation, or something.

A very useful way of looking at our anger is to look and see, "Is there any hostility in it?" If there is, be careful. Hostility, I would like to suggest, is never necessary, never appropriate. Ferocious boundary setting, ferocious standing in front and saying, "Stop," ferocious sense of displeasure, "This is not right – I think can be very healthy for ourselves and for others.

The first time I saw that was when I was working as a kitchen manager at the Zen monastery. I do not remember the details of what led up to this, what I did. I was the manager, managing other people in the kitchen. The kitchen was kind of a pressure cooker. An older man who was in the kitchen – we were standing next to each other at the big table – he stood up straight, turned to me, and with ferocity said to me, "Don't ever say that to me again." It was quite ferocious. What was amazing to me, was the moment he said it, he turned it off. He was back to being clean and clear, just present doing his work.

I was so surprised, because I only experienced before that people stayed angry. People were upset, they would stay, and there would be a conflict and a fight. He had this clean anger, completely clean. It was just, "Don't do this again." He had said what had to be said, and he was not carrying it. He was not continuing with it. It was not like I was forgiven – I did not need to be forgiven. It was just, I got the message and he was not holding on to it. He was not carrying anything with it. He just said what had to be done. I was so amazed by this, that you can take care of yourself this way.

Regardless if anger is only defined as having hostility, or if anger is a kind of ferocious boundary setting or displeasure, it is helpful to see anger always as a messenger – always as something to study and get to know better. Anger is a tip of an iceberg of something deeper inside of us, that would probably be useful to get to know well, to understand well.

Part of the challenge of any kind of anger is it tends to be directed towards something, with such strength of directionality – even if it is towards something inside of ourselves – that we do not see the bigger picture. We do not see where the the anger is coming from. It was directed outwards, and we do not look backwards, to see what is happening there. What is going on there.

That is what the practice is about. Very broadly, there are four stages that Buddhists can point to around anger. One is unrestrained anger. You see it sometimes in a young child, where they are just completely consumed by their anger. I have had it with my child, when he was a toddler. I was carrying him through the supermarket aisles, having a temper tantrum about something. I just assume that people in the store thought that I was just a horrific father. I know that other parents have had this experience too, where the child has just unrepressed, pure volcanic anger, at something. Maybe it was that they saw a toy they wanted, but it was not really the time to give them a toy in the store, buy it for them.

The first is an unrestrained anger, where it is explosive, freely given, felt like every anger is justified. Very broadly, the next stage is holding anger in check – sometimes repressing it, denying it, hiding it – because it is dangerous to express the anger or something. Some people learned that growing up. Sometimes one will learn that by the violence done to them. If they express anger, they are hit or attacked or something, they learn that they can not express any anger. They bottle it up or turn it off.

The third is what we do in this practice. We respect it. We attend to it. We study it. We get to know it better. We get to know it without shame, without further anger towards the anger. We get to know it because it is an expression of our lifeforce. It is an expression of what it means to be alive. It is not just anger that is happening. It is something deeper and fuller about who we are that is in that anger – our values, emotions, fears, desires, loves, past sufferings, pains and wounds.

A whole constellation of things come together – some of them are part of our beauty and wonderfulness, and some of it is what we are trying to let go of in practice. To let go of conceit, self-centeredness. Intense self-centeredness is often a recipe for intense anger and hostility. That kind of anger we do not want to give free rein to, but we do not want to repress it either. What we want to do is turn around to really look deeply, "What's going on here?"

Meditation is one of the best places for this. In meditation, you are committed to being still, not moving your body. You are not going to punch anyone out, or scream at anyone.

You might even try it. When you find yourself having anger, go and sit down to meditate. Let the anger be a volcano. Let the anger course through you. Just feel it. Make room for it. Keep letting go of the thoughts, the stories, and let the body compost the anger. Let the body hold and process the anger. Sit there, allowing it but being present for it, feel it in the body. See what happens. This is very respectful of anger. It allows it to be there, but we are not fueling it, and feeding it with more and more activity and stories. This is a place to really get to know it.

The fourth stage of Buddhist practice at least, with anger, is that anger does not get triggered. Partly because we have learned other ways of responding – other ways of boundary setting or protecting, other motivations that get done what needs to be done. Partly because the attachments that we have – the clinging, the conceits, that are part of the triggers for anger – are no longer there. There might be strong displeasure, but no hostility at all.

As a little homework assignment for this next day, or as you go forward here, see if you can learn to be comfortable, or empty, nonreactive, to other people angry at you. It does not mean that they are justified in the anger or they should be angry. Hopefully, it is a safe context for this to happen. Do not do anything unsafe. If you can learn to be present, stay relaxed and breathe, when other people are angry, this will go a long way for your ability to do that for yourself. Whether you are angry, or you are the recipient of anger, see if you can practice mindfulness in the middle of it. It is invaluable.

respectful for all the different ways that people have experienced anger, been angry, been harmed by anger, and that each of you will find some usefulness in what is said this week. Thank you.

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