Anger is Always A Disturbing Attitude



Anger is something which is always disturbing. Nobody is made happier by being angry. It does no make us feel better to be angry. It does not make our food taste better. When we are angry and upset we do not feel comfortable and we cannot sleep well. We don't have to make a big scene with screaming and yelling, but if inside we are very angry and hostile about what is going on in our office or what was going on in our family it can start to give us ulcers, or sleepless nights. We experience many difficulties that come up because of holding the anger back, and if we actually express that anger and give very hostile vibrations to others, even a cat or a dog is not going to want to stay around us. They will slowly creep away because they are made uncomfortable by our presence, by our anger. Anger is something which has no real benefits. If our anger gets so strong or frustrated that we have to somehow vent it and we explode and send a curse to somebody or throw some evil charm against them, does this really make us feel better? Does it make us feel better to see somebody else very upset? Or we get so angry that we feel we have to punch the wall; does it really make us feel better to punch the wall? No obviously not, it hurts. Indeed anger does not help us in any way. If we are stopped in a traffic jam and we get so angry that we start to beep our horn, and scream and curse at everybody, what good is that? Will that make us feel better? Will it make the cars go away faster? No, it will just make us lose face in front of everybody else because they will ask 'who is this idiot beeping the horn'? This is clearly not going to help that situation.

If disturbing attitudes like anger and impulsive behavior based on them are the causes of our problem, will we always have trouble with them? Is this something that we always have to experience? No, that is not case because it is not in the nature of the mind. If it was then our mind will always have to be disturbed. Even in the most severe cases there are moments when we are not disturbed by anger. For instance when we finally do fall asleep we do not experience anger. It is therefore possible that there are certain moments when disturbing attitudes like anger, hostility or resentment are not present. This proves that these destructive attitudes are not permanent, they are not part of the nature of our mind and therefore they can be removed. It is possible to stop the causes of our anger, to overcome resentment and have peace of mind.

This doesn't mean that we should get rid of all emotions and feelings and become just like Dr. Spock in the TV series entitled 'Star track', and become someone who is just like a robot or a computer. Rather, what we want is to get rid of our disturbing emotions. Our disturbing attitudes base themselves on impurities and our lack of awareness of reality about who we are, Buddhist teachings and very rich with many techniques to purity the mind of such ugly traits.

Overcoming Anger : Changing The Quality of Life

First we must have a certain motivation to work on ourselves to get rid of our anger, our disturbing attitudes. We can develop such a motivation by thinking: "Well, I want to be happy and not have any problems. I want to improve the quality of my life. My life is not very pleasant because I am always feeling this resentment and hostility inside me. I am getting angry, may be I do not express it, but it is there and it is making me feel very miserable, very upset all the time and it is not a very good quality of life."

After all, the quality of our life is something which is in our own hands. One of the most important messages that the Buddha taught is that we can do something about the quality of our life. We are not condemned to have to live our life in misery all the time. It is something that we can do something about. Then we could think : "Not only do I want to improve the quality of my life now, or for this moment, not just on a short term basis but also on a long term basis. I do not want to let things get bad that they get even worse. Because, for instance, if I do not get rid of my hostility and resentment now and if I keep it inside it is going to get worse and I might develop an ulcer, I might explode and do something really terrible, like sending some curses on somebody, or a charm and indeed try to destroy them. That could lead to retaliation against me and all of a sudden we have a perfect script for a new video or movie."

If we think ahead that this is something we would not want to happen we will work on it and get rid of our anger so that the problems will not escalate. Further we may think of not only just minimizing our problems, but better still, getting rid of all problems altogether because retaining even a small amount of hostility and resentment is no fun: "I must develop a strong determination to be free from all problems."

Determination to be Free

Usually 'renunciation' is translated as wanting to be free from everything, which is quite misleading. It tends to give the impression that we should give up everything and live in cave. This is not at all what is being asked for here. What is being discussed is that I look at my problems and see how ridiculous it can be: "I do not want to continue like this, I have had enough, I am bored with it, I am fed-up with it, I must get out."

The attitude to develop here is the determination to be free and it is most important. Unless we have made up our minds very strongly we will not put all our energy into it. Until we put all our energy into it, our effort to be free will be very half hearted and we will never get anywhere. Therefore, it is important to have this very strong determination to make up one's mind that one must stop one's problems. On the next higher level we have to think: "I must get rid of my anger not just to find happiness for myself, but also for the sake of everybody else around me. For the sake of my family and others I must get rid of my anger. I have to overcome this, out of consideration for others. I do not want to make them unhappy. Not only would it cause me to lose face were to express my anger but it would bring shame on my entire family, it would bring shame on all my associates and so on, and out of consideration for them I must learn to be able to control and deal with my temper and get rid of it."

An even stronger motivation is produced by reflecting: "I must get rid of this anger because it prevents me from helping others. If others are in need of my help, like my children or the people at work or my parents, and if I am all upset or disturbed by anger or by hostility then how can I help them?"

That is major obstacle and so it is very important to work through these various levels of motivation. No matter how sophisticated the technique might be for dealing with anger, if we do have a strong motivation to apply it, we are not going to do it.

Teaching to Overcome Anger

What are the actual techniques that we can use to overcome anger? Anger is defined as an attitude which wants to generate violence, an agitation against something either animate or inanimate. If we look at a person, an animal, a situation or some object and so not like it and we want to express some violence and agitation towards it, to make it change in a violent way, this is a state of intolerance and a lack of patience combined with a wish to harm whatever it is that we cannot endure. Its opposite on one hand is patience which is the antipode of intolerance and on the other it is love, because love is the opposite of wishing to harm someone else. Usually we get angry at situations in which something happens to us which we do not like to happen. People are not acting in the way that we want them to, they are not showing us respect, they are not following our order at work, or they promised to do something for us in business and they do not do it. Because they do not come up to our expectations we get very angry with them.

A great Indian Master, Shantideva, gave many lines of thought to help. He said, "If in a difficult situation there is something we can do to change it then why worry and get angry, just change it. If there is nothing that we can do then why worry and get angry? If it cannot be changed anger is not going to help." 

We want to fly somewhere but when we arrive at the airport the flight is full. There is no point in getting angry. Anger is not going to help us get on the plane. But there is something that we can do to change the situation. We can take the next flight. Why get angry? Make the booking for the next flight, telephone friends and inform them that we are coming later, then relax. This is something we can do to handle the problem. If you our television does not work, then why get angry and kick it and curse? Fix it, this is something very obvious. If there is a situation that we can change, then do not get angry, just change it. But if there is nothing we can do to change the situation, like for instance if we are caught in the rush-hour traffic then we have to just accept it. We do not each have a laser beam gun on the front of our car to 'zap' all the cars in front of us and fly off like in some television cartoon. We should say, "Okay I am in the rush hour traffic, I will put on the radio, or I will put on the cassette recorder and listen to some teachings on the preventive measures (dhamma), or just listen to some music." Most of the time we know when we will get caught in the rush-hour traffic and therefore can prepare ourselves by taking a tape to listen to. If we know that we have to drive in such traffic we can make the best use of that time. We can think about some problems in our office or with our family or whatever.

If there is nothing we can do to change it, then just try to make the best of it. If we hurt our toe in the dark, well, if we jump up and down and scream and yell, is that going to make us feel any better? In American slang we call that 'doing a hurt dance.' You get so hurt that you dance up and down, but that is not going to make it better. There is little we can do about it. Just go on with whatever we are doing because the pain is impermanent. It is something which will pass, it is not going to last forever and jumping up and down and screaming and yelling is not going to make us feel better. What do we want? Do we want everybody to come and say; 'Oh poor you, you have hurt your toe.' If a baby or a child hurts himself then his mother comes over and kisses him and makes him feel better. So do we expect that people treat us in a similar way, like a baby?

While waiting for our turn in a queue if think in terms of impermanence that 'I am not always going to be number 32 or 9 but eventually my turn will come' then that will help us to be able to tolerate the situation and we could use that time in a different way. There is a saying, "Waiting has a certain pleasure of its own." This is true because if we have to wait for our turn in a queue then we could use that time of become aware of the other people in the queue, things that are going on in the office, or whatever. If we are there, we might as well use the time constructively rather than spending the hour cursing.

Here's another line of advice of Shantideva: "If somebody hits us with a stick, who do we get angry with? Do we get angry with the person or do we get angry with the stick?" If we think about it logically, it should be the stick we get angry with because it was the stick that hurt us. But, that is silly, nobody gets angry with a stick, we get angry with the person. Why do we get angry with person? Likewise, if we think further, the person was manipulated by the disturbing attitudes. So if we are going to get angry, we should get angry with the person's disturbing attitude that made him hit us with the stick. Then we think: "Well, where did this disturbing attitude come from? It did not arise from nowhere. I must have done something to trigger it off. I must have done something that made the other person get angry with me and he hit me with the stick. I might have asked somebody to do me a favor and when he refused I got angry. I got hurt because of that. Well, if I think about it, it was in fact my own fault. I was too lazy and did not do it myself. I asked this other person to do me a favor and when he refused I got angry. If I had not been so lazy myself, then I never would have asked him, and the whole problem would never have arisen. If I am going to get angry it must be with my-self for being so stupid and lazy to ask this person to do me a favor."

Or even when it is partly not our fault we should look to see if we ourselves are free from this disturbing attitude that is manipulating the other person, like for instance, selfishness. "He refused to do me a favor. Well, do I always do others a favor? Am I somebody who always agrees to help others? If I am not, then why expect other people to always go out of their way for me?"

This is another way of dealing with anger. I mentioned before that anger does not always have to be on the level of expression through yelling, screaming or hitting another person. Anger is this disturbing attitude which makes us feel uncomfortable when it arises. So even if we are keeping it inside and never express it that anger will act very destructively inside us and makes us very upset. Later it will come out in a very destructive way.

The way to handle anger within ourselves, is by changing our attitudes. Then there is a type of patience which is called 'patience-which-is-like-a-target.' Then idea is that if you yourself had not set up a target, nobody would shoot at it. In America, children have a little game. They pin a piece of paper on to their friend's clothing. On the paper they write 'kick me' on this little child's behind. Anyone reading the note will kick the child. We have pinned such a 'kick me' sign onto our own behinds through our own negative and destructive actions in the past which cause all sorts of problems to happen to us now. If I had not set up the target by acting negatively and destructively in the past or in previous lives, then the impulse could not have arisen in my mind to go down the dark street at just that time when there was a mugger waiting to rob me and beat me up.

"Why did that impulse come into my head? Well, it just came to my head, usually I do not go there, but that night I thought, I will go down that dark street. Usually I go home much earlier, but that night the impulse came to me to stay with my friends a little longer. Then I also went down that street at just that time when there was a robber waiting there for somebody to come. Why did that impulse come to my head? It must have been that in the past I had done something which hurt this person and that is now ripening in terms of cause and effect."

This again is kamma, kamma is the reason why these impulses come to my mind. If we now think: "I am depleting my past negative kamma. I should be very happy that I am getting off so lightly because it could have been worse. This person just robbed me but he could have shot me also. Therefore, I should feel very relieved that this negativity has ripened and I am finished with it. It was not so bad after all and it is good to get rid of it, to get it off my back. I no longer have a karmic debt."

This type of thinking could be considered naive by those who have a very deep understanding of kamma but it is very helpful. I remember once I was going on a weekend holiday with friends to a beach. we were driving for many hours. It was a long drive from the city. After we had driven for about an hour and a half we heard a funny noise from the car. We pulled over to a station on the roadside and a repairman took a look at the car said there was a crack in the axle and we could not continue because we had to get a tow truck to tow us back to the big city. My friends and I could have gotten very angry and upset because we wanted to go to this lovely beach resort for a weekend rest. But with a different attitude we looked at it completely differently. 'Wow, this is wonderful. How great it is that this happened, because if we had continued to drive them the axle could have broken while we were driving. We could have gotten into a terrible accident and both of us could have been killed. So how wonderful it is that it has ripened in this way, we go off very easy.' We took the tow truck back to the city and back in the city we borrowed another car and then went on a different plan.

You can see that there are many ways that we can experience that type of situation. To become angry and upset would not have helped at all. If we can look at it in terms of : "Well, this is depleting my past kamma. Negativity ahs ripened now, wonderful, it is finished, it could have been much worse." This a much saner way of handling it.

There is also the type of patience which is called the 'love-and-compassion-type-of-patience'. With this patience we regard anybody who becomes angry with us or yells and screams at us as a crazy person, somebody mentally disturbed. This could be also somebody who embarrasses or criticizes us in front of others, which would embarrass us and we would get angry with them. If, for instance, a parrot were to call us names in front of others that should not annoy us, there is no reason to get angry with the bird. If would be a stupid reaction. Similarly if a crazy person starts yelling and screaming at us we should not be unduly worried. Everybody knows that children occasionally get into tantrums. Also a psychiatrist does not become angry with a patient who is angry but rather feels compassion for the patient. Likewise we should try to show compassion for whoever it is who makes us upset, gets angry with us or embarrasses us : "In fact they are the ones who should be upset. I am not the one who is upset as everybody can see that this person is the one who is making a complete idiot of himself."

We should feel compassion for them instead. This does not mean that if somebody is trying to hit us, we don't try to stop them. If our child is screaming we do try to quieter it down. We want to stop them from causing harm to us or others and harming themselves. The point is not to do it out of angry. If our child is acting in a naughty way we discipline it not out of anger, but for the sake of the child. We want to help the child to behave properly. We discipline the child out of concern, not out of anger. 

Then there is the 'guru-disciple-type-of-patience'. This is based on the fact that the disciple can't learn without a teacher, and so if nobody tested us, we could not develop patience. In the 10th century the great Indian Master (Bangladeshi) Atisha came to Tibet to spread Buddhism there. This Indian Master brought with him an Indian cook. The Indian cook never did, anything in a correct agreeable manner, was completely obnoxious and very unpleasant. The Tibetan people respected Atisha very much and therefore asked him : "Teacher, why did you bring this obnoxious cook with you from India? Why don't you send him back? We can cook for you, we can cook very well."

And the Master Atisha replied them : "Oh, he is not just my cook. I brought him along because he's my teacher of patience."

Similarly, if we have somebody in our office who is obnoxious, who is always, saying things that are annoying to us, we can look at this person as our teacher of patience. There are some people with very annoying habits, like always drumming their fingers. If nobody tested us how could we develop ? If we have difficult situations like a long delay at the airport, we can use this as a golden opportunity to practice patience: "Ah, I've been training to do this, I've been training to cultivate patience, and now here is my chance to see if I can actually do it."

When I am having difficulties to get some forms in the office this is my challenge. This is like when I have been training in martial arts for sometime and when I at last get a chance to use my skills I would be very happy. Likewise, if we have been training ourselves to be patient and tolerant, then when we are faced with an obnoxious situation like this we will look at it as a test case : "Ah, here is a challenge. Let's see if I can handle it and not lose my temper, not become angry, not even feel badly inside."

Like that it becomes a much greater challenge than a challenge in martial arts because we are doing this with our minds, I with our feelings not just with our body and physical control. If other people criticize us we should try to look at this criticism as a chance to see where we are at, instead of feeling angry about it. This person who is criticizing us may be pointing out certain things about us which perhaps we could learn from. In this sense try to tolerate and also learn how to handle problems by ourselves. If we get very upset it may cause us more embarrassment than if some crazy person just criticizes and yells at us.

Another way of dealing with anger and developing patience is to try the 'patience-of-the- nature-of-things'. It is the nature of childish people to act badly and rudely. If there is a fire its nature is to be hot and to burn. If we stick our hands in this fire and get burned, well, what do we expect? The fire is hot, that is why fire burns. If we drive across town during lunch hour, well, what do we expect? It is lunch hour, and there will be heavy traffic. That's the nature of things. If we ask a small child to carry a tray or a cupful of hot tea and he spills it, what do we expect? It is a child and we cannot expect the child not to spill it. Likewise if we ask other people to do us a favor, or to do something for our business, to make an agreement and then they let us down, well, what do we expect? People are childish and we cannot count on others. Shantideva has said: "If you want to do something positive and constructive, do it yourselves. Don't rely on anybody else. Because if you rely on somebody else, there is no certainty that they will not let you down and disappoint you and make you angry." 

The last type of technique to use is 'seeing-the-sphere-of-reality' of what is going on. We tend to label things around ourselves: "This is who I am, this is how I must always be". Or we put a big tag around somebody else and say: "They are obnoxious, they're no good, they're trouble makers." 

If that is the case they would always have to exist in this way. They would also have to be obnoxious to everybody, to their wives, their dogs, their cats and to their parents, because they're truly obnoxious individuals. If we can see that people do not exist with a big tag around them and have a certain true identity or a certain nature, then that again allows us to ease off and we will not be so angry.

Developing Beneficial Habits

In difficult situations is might be not so easy to apple all these points. All these various ways of reasons are known as 'preventive measures', this is how I translate the word dhamma. Dhamma is a measure we take in order to prevent problems. We want to safeguard against getting angry by trying to build up these different types of patience as a beneficial habit.  That is what meditation is. The Tibetan word for meditation comes form the words 'to make a habit', to habituate ourselves to something beneficial. First we would want to listen to these various explanations about the different types of patience and then we think about it so that we understand them; they make sense. If they make sense and we understand them, and we also have a motivation of why we want to apply them then we build them up a a beneficial habit by practicing and rehearsing them. This is done by first reviewing these points. After we have reviewed these points we have to try to see and feel things in that way. We have to picture situations in our mind using our imagination. We can imagine a situation in which we get angry and upset. For instance, someone in our office may do things different from the way we want it. First try to see this person as he is, as a human being who wants to be happy and not unhappy. Although he is trying his best, still he is like a child and does not really known what he is doing. If I try to see and feel him in that way and I rehearse that in my mind when sitting quietly at home, then I will be acting in a more positive way when I am in the office and anyone starts to act obnoxiously. Instead of the impulse to get angry with him a new impulse will come up to my mind, the impulse to be more patient, to be more tolerant. I have practiced seeing him as being like a child. I should be patient because I see that when he acts in a certain why he is losing face and I should have compassion for him. We can build up the habit to see and feel that why through meditation. When looking and feeling with patience becomes a beneficial habit it becomes more and more a part of us. It becomes our natural way of responding to things we have to face with like difficult situations. When an impulse comes up to get angry, there will be a space. We won't act it out immediately and more positive impulses come to act in a more beneficial way.

I usually advise the technique of counting the breath and focusing on the sensation of breathing at the start of each talk. This technique is very helpful because it creates a space where the negative impulses come out and it gives some space in which to reconsider if I want to get angry and upset. Do I really want to make a scene or is there a better way of handling this situation? As a result of meditation and the build up of more beneficial habits we will see situations with more patience and will feel more tolerant. More positive alternatives will come to our head and we will choose those.

In order to do this we need concentration. That is why there are all these different meditation techniques in Buddhism for learning how to concentrate. These techniques are not just learned as an abstract exercise; they are done in order to be used. Where do we apply them? We apply them in difficult situations, when we are dealing with obnoxious people or obnoxious conditions to concentrate on keeping our mind patient, not just out of self control and discipline. If we act out of self control and discipline, them that anger stays inside us and we are just putting on a very strong face on the outside but inside the anger burns and gives us an ulcer. When we use these techniques correctly anger does not even arise. It is not a matter of controlling anger and keeping it all inside, it is a matter of replacing the impulses that come to our head. Rather than having negative impulses arising which we may have to deal with by keeping it all inside, positive impulses will come up. Once we can do that then we can control our motivation, get rid of our problems to our family, to our friends, to the people around us and on the highest level we will be able to help others most because we will not be limited by our disturbing attitudes and problems, and we will be able to realize all our potential.


The article was written by Dr. Alex Berzin edited by Gyana Ratna