Thursday, April 12, 2012

Anger and Karma

As this was raised over on Aerial Pork, and what I wanted to say in response was really more than is polite to leave in someone's comment section, I want to write today about the precept on not being angry, and if I have time dip a little bit into karma.

When I was growing up, anger was one of those things I denied so strongly that for the first two decades of my life I claimed to friends that I didn't get angry. At all. Ever.

Mr. Placid, cool and unruffled. Even-keeled.

Anger was scary, I'd seen it enough to know "that's not me, no way" which of course meant I had driven it so deep underground that it came out in a leaky pressure cooker fashion, teeth grinding away... When you say someone is out of touch with their emotions, well in this case my Anger and I hadn't ever even talked.

By my mid-twenties, I did finally realize that my lack of awareness around anger was -- far from being an admirable quality -- actually gumming up my emotional works pretty badly.

As I started paying attention to anger, I measured my progress in the following fashion: I would say to my then new bride: "You remember that thing you said two weeks ago?"

"Yeah," she'd say. "What about it?"

"Well, that really made me angry."

"It took you two weeks to figure out that made you angry?"

"Yes." I'd say, studiously not getting angry at her reaction.

So I would actually keep track of how many days less than two weeks it took me to realize I was angry. And that meant progress. It became a running joke. After a while I was down to two days. Then it was only a few minutes. Now, thank goodness, I pretty much feel the anger as it arises. And I can work to transform it.

During that time when I was just beginning a daily practice, but still had no handle on anger, I had systematically renounced the majority of my usual coping strategies. Without those filters, barrierrs and crutches I began realizing that not only did I get angry, I was angry almost all the time. I was a constantly simmering cauldron of judgements, in true perfectionist fashion always dissatisfied with how little my own actions and those of the people around me -- and reality in general -- met my admittedly rediculous expectations.

What I found really helpful to do, because this recognition scared me, was to work with Pema Chodron's "meditate on whatever provokes resentment."

Tracing each resentment back to its source meant discovering everything from simple fatigue, to those myriad judgements, but also to fear, simple emotional needs, expectations, assumptions and my self-imposed silence about all of those. Recognizing how self-generated most of it is.

Raising our first infant child, we were cranky, bone-tired, cross-eyed and stupid with lack of sleep -- resentments and anger flared at the smallest things. This practice was essential during that time. And it might seem ludicrous, but as I would sit down at night on my cushion for just a few moments of peace, the cat would come around and I'd think "Oh great, how long is this going to take before he settles down? I'm trying to meditate here!!" I'd aim all the resentment of the entire day at this cat, who, being a cat, let it roll off completely. It was disarming. After a while I just let being present with the cat be the practice, until he settled down.

That's all nice and pat, but there's another level which I call Meeting your Inner Murderer. Buddhism isn't just about recognizing that everyone including you was once somebody's good little baby, it's also recognizing that everyone including you has also wanted to maim, murder and otherwise ruin the credit rating of your boss, your best friend, and that jerk who just cut you off in traffic.

Recognizing that every single person you walk by on the street is a great deal of the time also almost drowning in their own sea of anger and resentment, it sets you back. Helps build compassion for them. But even this didn't help me feel anything but resentment at my own anger and resentment. Anger was still Other and Unwanted. So whenever I recognized anger the plan was still transform it by god as quickly as possible into snowflakes or baby ducks or whatever it took so long as I wasn't angry any more. I was still missing the mark here.

And I'd like to say this all happened in sequence but the fact is after so long it is kind of mushy what the order was, but in the middle of grappling with the precepts and trying to get a handle on my anger I ran into this quote by Thich Nhat Hanh:
Treat your anger with the utmost respect and tenderness, for it is no other than yourself. Do not suppress it -- simply be aware of it. Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things they are transformed. When you are aware that you are angry, your anger is transformed. If you destroy your anger, you destroy the Buddha, for Buddha and Mara are of the same essence. Mindfully dealing with anger is like taking the hand of a little brother.
Oh snap. I really, really didn't want to make friends with my anger. Fine to process it like outgoing toxic waste, but to treat it like taking the hand of a little brother...but that's the practice. And I'm so glad to be reminded of it.

Getting back to meeting your Inner Murderer, TNH in his Old Path, White Clouds tells the story of Angulimala the serial killer who converts after meeting the Buddha. One of the things that has always given me great comfort when thinking about all my ancient twisted karma is that if this guy could just STOP, drop his old ways, and become an Arhant, then there has to be hope for any of us. Which is...probably the point of that parable. But nobody taught it to me like that, I just ran into it reading Old Path one day and it hit me like a thunderbolt.
Bodhidharma said: "Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous. In the Dharma of the No-Self, not postulating a self is called the precept of refraining from anger."
No self, no problem.

Open to all beings and myself
with unrealized anger
eyebrows contract, vision blurs
we strike out blindly.
With realized anger
our foreheads touch
and even with closed eyes we see.


  1. anger was my gateway into the Dharma and so I am grateful to my anger in a strange way. Similar to you, I used to say I seldom got angry. But of course it wasn't true. And then after meeting my Dharma teacher but not feeling ready to commit, I ended up in a ridiculous situation with a neighbour where I realized that anger was suffering. I phoned the teacher and asked her how to work with anger. She invited me over and that was the beginning of learning how to bring the Dharma into my everyday life, which is really what the Dharma is all about. I have done a lot of work with anger.

    1. A few weeks ago, I read your post on the three Buddhist personality types and my first thought was, "oh right, I'm a delusion type." But then I came to writing this post above and thought "You were fooling yourself again, Mr. anger type..."

      Good for you for phoning the teacher. Whatever Dharma door gets us there. For me it was the sudden realization I was going to become a father -- what do I do with all this anger? After a year of practice, I realized most of what I was hung up about was not making any mistakes at being a parent (!). Once I realized how ridiculous that was, I could let go of a lot of expectations, which decreased the (self-directed) resentment and anger significantly.

  2. Lovely post! I admire how you are working with anger. I too have had anger issues - all my life actually. And it was not hidden. I am very open with my anger feelings - definitely feeling it, and expressing it, as it arises kind of gal :) I love the "Meeting Your Inner Murderer"! So true. Does give one perspective about anger, and compassion for others.

    I have found seeing anger as an orphaned child has been helpful for me; a child who felt abandoned in a time of pain, or was left with too much responsibility too young. Even giving her a name has been helpful. And then tracing the feeling back to the fear, like Pema said... It really is so important to face these shadow aspects who need love too... Thanks for addressing this in such an honest way.. Christine

  3. I am pretty sure we all have anger issues. I used to so admire my friend's family, I'd go over there and any one of them when they were angry would just express their anger, and then it was over. None of what I was used to which was just holding it and stewing.

    Christine, I resonate with what you've written here about anger as an orphaned child...tracing back to the fear, and how the shadow aspects need love. Thank you in return.

  4. just read the Tricycle daily dharma and it was about negative emotions, spiritual bypassing and mentioned anger. I really liked the way it framed anger saying it could actually be a positive emotion. It's our emotional corruption of it that makes it seem negative to us. It's a short piece. Think you might like it too.

    1. There I went again hitting the wrong reply field...I'll get it eventually. Anyway:

      Thanks! I saw that snippet come in but I hadn't had a chance yet to follow the link to the main article. Very useful distinction between anger and hostility. Namaste.

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  6. Dear StoneCutter,

    I remember going for a walk with Kosho and talking about Nazis, and saying I just can't imagine how anyone could do what they did- and he floored me when he said, you could do that,you know. You have that capacity. It could happen to anyone.

    To sit with Angulimala is terrifying.

    Great post. My computer died, so I've been slow to the blog roll!

    1. Kosho is wise. As per Jung ... "The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely,"... to sit with the self is terrifying. In part because we recognize we have the capacity, as that great poem by TNH recounts in detail, to fulfill all the karmas from piracy and murder to loving parent.

      Hope you can get the computer fixed. Enjoy your reportage quite a bit. If there is anything else I would be doing than what I'm doing now, its the adventure you are on.