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 care.

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


  1. An important part of forgiveness and letting go of anger is forgiving yourself. Tell yourself that you are forgiven for putting up with a man who slept around (or not noticing it when it happened), hell, for loving a person who is unable to love you in the appropriate manner. Tell yourself that you are forgiven for not being the perfect child for your behavior was not the cause of her drinking. None of the things that we tend to blame ourselves for would have changed the actions of another, even though we often feel like it would have.

    My lovely son suggested that perhaps if I was prettier my order would not have been screwed up. Gotta love kids.

  2. I have been really interested in buddhism but way too lazy to really learn about it. This blog helped a lot, so thanks! This reinforces my gut feeling. I am an extremely patient person and am pretty good about killing the anger and/or not picking up the hot coals. I don't know that I buy into the forgiveness part though. I think I just decide I don't care enough to let it be worth either anger or forgiveness.

  3. FEAR- False Evidence Appearing Real. The opposite of love.

    Sometimes, dont you just want to slap the shit of out someone?

    I had a very challenging day with my boss, kids and boyfirned today. I remained patient but I felt disappointed, expressed it and sent everyone scattering, I guess the anger was too close. I forgive them, I hope they can for give me.

    We teach what we need to learn. Your are a great teacher. Thank you.

  4. My three year old told me he hated me today, and even though he doesn't really know what it means I nearly burst into tears. Hateful words sound awful when coming from such cute little voices.

    I can forgive my mother for being mentally ill, but not necessarily for refusing to believe it and for forcing us all to live in that reality. I can forgive, I just can't seem to forget. That's the toughest part sometimes.

  5. Hey... you weren't kidding about having a backlog of words.

    They were good ones. Thank you for sharing, grasshopper.

  6. I forgot to tell the Blogspot folks that I'm writing at your place too!

    Please come read the Julia Setters:


    I posted a blog about my son yesterday. It involves bodily functions.

  7. @Megan: Quit tryin' to make me cry.

    @WTWA: Buddhism isn't really any different than anything else, it just has a different approach. Oh, and the "coolness" factor. Which is nice.

    @IHIJ: We do teach what we need to learn. What a great observation!

    @SM: I'm still trying to navigate all of that myself. Not there yet. (Obviously.) ;-)

  8. I think there is a difference between anger and cruelty, even though they can go hand in hand. Some bullies are just cruel, not necessarily angry. I say this b/c Ive been guilty of being a bully before, a cruel one.

    Boog has called me ugly. :)
    I told him "Yes, but I have A LOT more money than you do!"

  9. Did you hear about this BlogHer convention that went down recently? Do you read any of those bloggers? They all sound like a bunch of bitches!

    Wait, that wasnt very nice of me, was it?

  10. I haven't heard of it.

    What is BlogHer?

  11. I should have read this yesterday...I needed it!


  12. That was downright epic! And true, though at times I wanted to argue:p You shut my mouth as it drew to a close!

    I especially loved the example of stabbing ourselves with the arrow.

    I should read it about 3 more times. ~OM

  13. This big blog convention they have of "famous" female bloggers I guess.

  14. Amazing...

    I've been basking in a sea of anger and regrets lately and it sucked. Forgiveness of myself and others was the only way to swim out. Yet once I reached land I realize there really wasn't really anything to forgive. It was all a misunderstanding. I was under the delusion that I know what's best for EVERYONE when I don't even know what's best for me most of the time. I hurt myself by believing otherwise.

    Reality...my powers are useless here...

    Once I can truely grasp hold of that concept, I am usually able to see how everything is just fine the way it is...better, in fact, than it would have been if I ran the show and got whatever I wanted.

  15. I should have this tatooed somewhere. That would hurt and I would be angry.

    Anger (at situations) has also motivated me to act. I see it as a tool to get my butt going. Is that wrong?

  16. I don't think any of this is about "right" and "wrong" but about being aware.


    *Tattoos you*

  17. This is one of the best pieces you've ever written.


  18. It felt like an English paper.


  19. Since most anger is borne of pain, forgiveness makes sense. I believe in forgiveness, because it is about me, not the other person. Forgiveness frees me, doesn't make me call that person, or be friends or lovers with them, just frees me. The hard part is giving up the anger to get to forgiveness, and as usual, this process is easier/harder based on who the anger is directed towards, and of course how deep the pain reaches. I still have anger and it's pain that I find it difficult to process, and then let go. I, too, am imperfect. But still trying.

    Great lesson!


  20. "The hard part is giving up the anger to get to forgiveness, and as usual, this process is easier/harder based on who the anger is directed towards, and of course how deep the pain reaches. I still have anger and it's pain that I find it difficult to process, and then let go. I, too, am imperfect. But still trying."

    And there's the rub. First, the fear of acknowledging the pain,then fully realize the magnitude, then abandon yourself to the giganctic fucking OWIE attached to it...sorry...was going to maintain some degree of eloquence, but at this point I got nothin'. grin. sigh. so look at the big scary monster and DON'T fight...ugh...again. I'm so fucked.

  21. Everything you wrote about anger is 100% dead on. I don't experience it much as I tend to shrug everything off as someone elses problem. Someone does something mean or inconsiderate I wonder what is wrong with them? I have that "I am perfect in my imperfections" attitude in my brain.

    Though the times I have felt anger I tend to face it head on. I go home, sit by myself and get really angry. I let it all out and scream profanities, tell the world about how f'in angry I am and somehow relieved of all the feelings.

    I was fortunate in that forgiveness was ingrained in me from the moment of conception. It is the most glorious thing we have when finding inner peace. You are there you - just look at what you write and you can see that the only person you haven't really forgiven is yourself. You beautiful girl - forgive and love because you do that so well.

  22. Let it go is one of my favorite sayings.
    If it's not worth keeping then rid yourself of it.
    I still can't envision you as a bully.