Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Resenting the Fire for Burning
I've been contemplating anger ever since I bullied a bully last week and gave in to my anger. I latched myself onto the idea that there is such a thing as "Righteous Anger" but it turns out I was deluded. Again.
According to Allan Wallace, concepts like Righteous Anger or "Righteous Hatred" make about as much as sense as "righteous cancer" or "righteous tuberculosis." They are all absurd.
He goes on to explain in "Tibetan Buddhism From the Ground Up:"
"This does not mean one should never take action against aggression or injustice. Instead, one should try and develop an inner calmness and insight to deal with these situations in an appropriate way ... One could say that there are three ways to get rid of anger: kill the opponent, kill yourself or kill the anger. Which one makes the most sense to you?"
I don't know about you, but I feel lousy when I'm angry. Sure, anger unexpressed turns into depression, but anger expressed is still ... anger. It makes me tense. Makes me clench my jaw, hunch my shoulders — makes me an uptight wreck. I don't want to live like that. I don't want to be angry any more. It doesn't solve anything and the only one who really seems to suffer from it and ponder over it for days is, uh, me.
So if I thought my anger was somehow productive in effecting my opponent, it's just not. The object of your wrath rarely loses sleep over it. Well, hell, even if they did, chances are you lose sleep too. Or if you're not losing sleep, you're gaining weight, or losing weight, or jacking up your heart rate, snapping at your friends, whatever. There is a consequence to your anger. Since I can't control the Object of My Wrath, I've got to do something about that which I can control: Me.
Me, me, me.
I know, Buddhism is such a selfish religion.
It's actually not unlike the Serenity Prayer the alcoholics are always chanting:
"God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference."
Buddhism certainly doesn't have the market cornered on letting go of the things you can't control. Of course every time I see the Serenity Prayer, I can't help but think of George Kostanza's "Serenity NOW!" campaign from "Seinfeld." I hear that little man screaming, "SERENITY NOW! SERENITY NOW!"
That's pretty much how I practice buddhism. Imperfectly.
The Dalai Lama has quite a bit to say on anger. "If we examine how anger or hateful thoughts arise in us, we will find that, generally speaking, they arise when we feel hurt, when we feel that we have been unfairly treated by someone against our expectations." In such an emotional state, it is a wonder how we can be reasonable. Our vision is too colored by the red rage of injustice glazing over our eyes. We can't hear what the other person is saying for the steam shooting out of our ears. The Dalai Lama explains: "It is almost as if [we] have become crazy. These are the negative effects of generating anger and hatred, we realize that it is necessary to distance ourselves from such emotional explosions." He goes on to say that money, power, even the law, cannot protect us from anger. Nothing can really protect us from anger, because there will still be those who treat us unfairly, who tell lies about us, who won't do what we want them to do ... such is life. "The only factor that can give refuge or protection from the destructive effects of anger is the practice of tolerance and patience."
I know, that sucks, right?
But the point is, anger is useless. It only causes the sufferer pain. The plain truth is, it's usually the people you're the most mad at who couldn't give a damn that you're mad at them. They sleep the sleep of angels, I assure you. That's why they piss you off so much!
No good! No good, I say! We have got to let it go or else it's going to consume us and our rapidly passing lives. Such a waste. Michael B. Ross wrote of how to deal with anger while he was on death row. What he wrote about, was forgiveness.
I know. Try not to recoil from the screen, please.
"Forgiveness is a form of realism. It doesn't deny, minimize, or justify what others have done to us or the pain that we have suffered. It encourages us to look squarely at those old wounds and see them for what they are. And it allows us to see how much energy we have wasted and how much we have damaged ourselves by not forgiving."
I have not forgiven my mother for drinking her way through my childhood. I have not forgiven my son's father for sleeping his way through my city. Not forgiving these two acts of betrayal — and that is how I experience both of them — has not done me a whit of good. Every time I think of the injustice, of the wrong these people have done me, it makes me physically ill. I can bring tears to my eyes if I think on it too long. I am almost weak with rage at the thought of what these two people did to me, an innocent.
You can see my life 20/20, I bet? I'm sure you're all shaking your heads at the waste of my time and energy over these people's choices. Their lives. It's got nothing to do with me, I'm sure you all can see it. What an impotent rage mine is. I'm never going to get a satisfactory answer of "Why?" from either of these folks, and I'm certainly never going to get a satisfactory apology. Truth is, the only thing that would suffice is for them to take it back.
I just wish they hadn't a' done it.
Good lord, writing that now, I see even more clearly how pointless my anger is. Michael B. Ross agrees:
"Forgiveness is a sign of positive self-esteem. We no longer identify ourselves by our past injuries and injustices. We are no longer victims. We claim the right to stop hurting when we say, 'I'm tired of the pain, and I want to be healed.' ... Forgiveness is no longer wanting to punish those who hurt us. It is understanding that the anger and hatred we feel toward them hurts us far more than it hurts them."
Amen. If this man was a preacher, I'd convert. Then again, my Buddha said much the same thing: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” I don't know how many times I've read that quote, and despite knowing it's true, I still return to anger over and over again.
Why do I keep picking up that hot coal?
Because I am human, and as such, imperfect. I will probably pick it up again and again. In fact, buddhists are fond of anecdotes about picking things up we shouldn't. This one is from Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche:
"If someone insults us, we usually dwell on it, asking ourselves, 'Why did he say that to me?' and on and on. It's as if someone shoots an arrow at us, but it falls short. Focusing on the problem is like picking the arrow up and repeatedly stabbing ourselves with it, saying, 'He hurt me so much. I can't believe he did that.'"
Oh lordy, that sounds like me.
So how do I stop it? Apparently with patience. Yes, that's right, it's back to the Sacred Pause again. Anything I do in anger, I am bound to regret. But if I stop and consider the conflict, consider what is making me upset, and sit with it a spell ... perhaps I will see things with greater clarity. Perhaps I will not respond with the red rage of a victim?
I will practice on it, I will meditate on it. I will cultivate patience, and hopefully, in time, I will get better at it. I can count to 100 to perhaps stifle my rage. I can go outside and take a walk. I can run on the treadmill at the YMCA. I can remind myself that all beings want to be free from suffering, we all want to be happy. Even the person who is attacking me. Perhaps they are reacting in rage, in fear, with a sense of injustice at my hands? Am I all-seeing? Am I all-knowing? Can I claim to know their life experience?
So when I was called a bully by a bully ... perhaps he was right.
I shouldn't have scoffed at it. Perhaps I recoiled from it because the truth hurt? If it wasn't true, I wouldn't be ruminating over it now, days later. I wouldn't still carry this unease in my shoulders. I own those things, not him. I read something by Rilke once, and it haunts me:
"...perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us."
I used to think of that more often, and I used to remind myself that any dragons attacking me may well be wearing pink pointy hats and languishing in towers. It's actually quite helpful. Try it the next time some asshole is enraging you. Put him in a pink hat, with long blonde hair flowing out of a turret. It helps. You get to be the knight in shining armor rather than the asshole who slayed a pretty princess by mistake.
Another trick I have used is imagining my attacker as my son, or any child for that matter. If my son lashes out at me, it is much easier for me to be patient. Those pink cherub cheeks and those huge Kewpie doll eyes are difficult to find threatening. I try to treat anyone in a rage as a child about to run in the street.
With concern for their well-being.
With a slap on the ass.
Okay, kidding. My point is, sometimes my son pisses me off. Particularly when he calls me fat. Yes, my four-year-old has already figured out the one thing that will piss Mama off. Usually I just say, "That hurt my feelings!" and try to ignore the gleam in his eye. Sometimes I burst into tears. (Okay, once.)
Look, nothing is perfect, and there is no quick-fix to coping with anger. I think the best advice is to be aware that your anger is hurting you, and that you're going to need to practice some patience and forgiveness in order to get over it.
And by you, I mean "me."
"It is natural for the immature to harm others. Getting angry with them is like resenting a fire for burning." -Shantideva