Dealing with Anger

Dec 2000

The modern urban environment often leads to a lot of stress. The fast pace, crowded conditions and constant sensory bombardment incline the mind towards agitation. This manifests as a constant low-grade irritability sometimes exploding into anger. We are all familiar with the general surliness of modern manners and with the more dangerous phenomenon of road rage.

The Buddhist teachings have a lot to say about the state of anger, and provide practical tools for dealing with it. Anger is classified as an unskilful state of mind. This is very important, and it is crucial to see that there are no exceptions. Buddhism allows no place for "righteous anger." In other words, there is no conceivable case where anger is justifiable or where it is the most appropriate response.

This might be hard to accept. It is easy to think of numerous examples of real grievances and injustices that seem to call forth the need for anger. But if we look at the results of anger the wisdom of this teaching may become more evident. An angry person is unable to think clearly, he has lost his perspective on the issue and if he acts from that anger he is likely to provoke an angry response, escalating the conflict.

This does not at all mean that one should be passive in the face of abuse. It is a simple statement of the fact that any difficulty is best faced with a clear mind and a calm resolve. This holds true even in extreme situations where the skill of the warrior may be required. Ask any student of the martial arts whether the calm or the angry combatant is likely to take the match. In real life, avoiding anger can often defuse situations before they turn violent. All of this is in addition to the physiological effects of chronic anger, from high blood-pressure to ulcers.

A final objection might be made by those who see anger as empowering, a way to self-assertion for the victimized. There is something of truth here, and it is important to clarify the issue. There is a great deal of harm in repressing any mental state, including anger. When a state is repressed, it is not that it isn't present, it is just that it is not fully conscious. If we want to overcome anger, or any unskilful state, the first step is to be fully mindful of it. It is only then that we can work to get beyond it.

Buddhism recognizes anger as a poison, and it offers an antidote. This is the skilful mental state of loving-kindness which is simply wishing well of another. If this state becomes universal, it leads into wisdom. It also feels better than anger, and that isn't such a trifling advantage.

As a practical example, let us go back to the case of road rage. If you are driving on the expressway and some aggressive driver cuts you off, you have a choice. You can indulge in the automatic flaring up of anger and it would be easy to justify it to yourself. That guy is an idiot, after all. You can become consumed with the anger, which will leave you feeling miserable and make your own driving more reckless. Alternatively, you can be mindful of the anger at the first arising and refuse to play along. You can cut it off immediately with a thought of loving-kindness. Instead of cursing that fellow up ahead formulate a conscious wish; "May he get home to his family safely." Isn't it worth a try?

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