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Issue 245
November/December 2007
The Moral Economy

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Article

WORKING WITH ANGER
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Cover: Another Place, sculpture by Antony Gormley Photograph: Harrymoon/istockphoto.com

 

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WORKING WITH ANGER

Anger is a passing cloud on the pure nature of mind.

WE GENERALLY CONSIDER something beneficial if it promotes happiness. But when we ask ourselves, “Am I happy when I’m angry?” the answer is undoubtedly “No.” We may feel a surge of physical energy for physiological reasons, but emotionally we feel miserable. Thus, from our own experience, we can see that anger does not promote happiness.

In addition, we don’t communicate well when we’re angry. We may speak loudly as if the other person were hard of hearing or repeat what we say as if he or she had a bad memory, but this is not communication. Good communication involves expressing ourselves in a way that the other person understands. It is not simply dumping our feelings on the other. If we scream, others tune us out in the same way we block out the meaning of words when someone yells at us. Good communication also includes expressing our feelings and thoughts with words, gestures and examples that make sense to the other person. Under the sway of anger, however, we neither express ourselves as calmly nor think as clearly as usual.

Under the influence of anger, we also say and do things that we later regret. Years of trust built with great effort can be quickly damaged by a few moments of uncontrolled anger. In a bout of anger, we treat the people we love most in a way that we would never treat a stranger, saying horribly cruel things or even physically striking those dearest to us. This harms not only our loved ones, but also ourselves, as we sit aghast as the family we cherish disintegrates. This in turn breeds guilt and self-hatred, which immobilise us and further harm our relationships and ourselves. If we could tame our anger, such painful consequences could be avoided.

Further, anger can result in people shunning us. Here, thinking back to a situation in which we were angry can be helpful. When we step out of our shoes and look at ourselves from the other person’s viewpoint, our words and actions appear different. We can understand why the other was hurt by what we said. While we need not feel guilty about such incidents, we do need to recognise the harmful effects of our uncontrolled hostility and, for the sake of ourselves and others, apply antidotes to calm it.

In addition, maintaining anger over a long time fosters resentment and bitterness within us. Sometimes we meet old people who have stockpiled their grudges over many years, carrying hatred and disappointment with them wherever they go. None of us wants to grow old like that, but by not counteracting our anger, we allow this to happen.

Some people interpret Buddhist teachings on the disadvantages of anger to mean that we’re not supposed to become angry, or are bad and sinful if we do. The Buddha never said this. No judgement is involved. When we’re angry, the anger is just what is at that moment. Telling ourselves we should not be angry doesn’t work, for anger is already present. Further, beating ourselves up emotionally is not beneficial. The fact that we became angry doesn’t mean we’re bad people. It just means that a harmful emotion temporarily overwhelmed us. Anger, cruel words and violent actions are not our identity. They are clouds on the pure nature of our mind, and they can be removed or prevented. Although we are not yet trained in patience, we can gradually develop this quality when we try.

An edited extract from Working With Anger by Thubten Chodron, published by Snow Lion, USA, £8.95.

Thubten Chodron is an American Tibetan Buddhist nun, and author of many books.

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