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Anger is one of the most common and destructive delusions, and it afflicts our mind almost every day. To solve the problem of anger we first need to recognize the anger within our mind, acknowledge how it harms both ourself and others, and appreciate the benefits of being patient in the face of difficulties. We then need to apply practical methods in our daily life to reduce our anger and finally to prevent it from arising at all.
What is anger?
Anger is a deluded mind that focuses on an animate or inanimate object, feels it to be unattractive, exaggerates its bad qualities, and wishes to harm it. For example, when we are angry with our partner, at that moment he or she appears to us as unattractive or unpleasant. We then exaggerate his bad qualities by focusing only on those aspects that irritate us and ignoring all his good qualities and kindness, until we have built up a mental image of an intrinsically faulty person. We then wish to harm him in some way, probably by criticizing or disparaging him.
Because it is based on an exaggeration, anger is an unrealistic mind
Because it is based on an exaggeration, anger is an unrealistic mind; the intrinsically faulty person or thing that it focuses on does not in fact exist. Moreover, as we shall see, anger is also an extremely destructive mind that serves no useful purpose whatsoever. Having understood the nature and disadvantages of anger, we then need to watch our mind carefully at all times in order to recognize it whenever it begins to arise.
This explanation of how to overcome our anger through practising patience is based on Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, the famous poem by the great Buddhist Master Shantideva. Though composed over a thousand years ago, this is one of the clearest and most powerful explanations of the subject ever written, and is just as relevant today as it was then.
There is nothing more destructive than anger. It destroys our peace and happiness in this life.
There is nothing more destructive than anger. It destroys our peace and happiness in this life, and impels us to engage in negative actions that lead to untold suffering in future lives. It blocks our spiritual progress and prevents us from accomplishing any spiritual goals we have set ourself – from merely improving our mind, up to full enlightenment. The opponent to anger is patient acceptance, and if we are seriously interested in progressing along the spiritual path there is no practice more important than this.
Whenever we develop anger, our inner peace immediately disappears and even our body becomes tense and uncomfortable.
Anger is by nature a painful state of mind. Whenever we develop anger, our inner peace immediately disappears and even our body becomes tense and uncomfortable. We are so restless that we find it nearly impossible to fall asleep, and whatever sleep we do manage to get is fitful and unrefreshing. It is impossible to enjoy ourself when we are angry, and even the food we eat seems unpalatable. Anger transforms even a normally attractive person into an ugly red-faced demon. We grow more and more miserable, and, no matter how hard we try, we cannot control our emotions.
Effects Of Anger
One of the most harmful effects of anger is that it robs us of our reason and good sense. Wishing to retaliate against those whom we think have harmed us, we expose ourself to great personal danger merely to exact petty revenge. To get our own back for perceived injustices or slights, we are prepared to jeopardize our job, our relationships, and even the well-being of our family and children. When we are angry we lose all freedom of choice, driven here and there by an uncontrollable rage. Sometimes this blind rage is even directed at our loved ones and benefactors. In a fit of anger, forgetting the immeasurable kindness we have received from our friends, family, or Spiritual Teachers, we might strike out against and even kill the ones we hold most dear. It is no wonder that an habitually angry person is soon avoided by all who know him. This unfortunate victim of his own temper is the despair of those who formerly loved him, and eventually finds himself abandoned by everyone.
To someone who has subdued his or her mind and eradicated the last trace of anger, all beings are friends.
It is very important to identify the actual cause of whatever unhappiness we feel. If we are forever blaming our difficulties on others, this is a sure sign that there are still many problems and faults within our own mind. If we were truly peaceful inside and had our mind under control, difficult people or circumstances would not be able to disturb this peace, and so we would feel no compulsion to blame anyone or regard them as our enemy. To someone who has subdued his or her mind and eradicated the last trace of anger, all beings are friends. A Bodhisattva, for instance, whose sole motivation is to benefit others, has no enemies. Very few people wish to harm someone who is a friend of all the world, and even if someone did harm him or her, the Bodhisattva would not view this person as an enemy. With his mind dwelling in patience, he would remain calm and untroubled, and his love and respect for his assailant would be undiminished. Such is the power of a well-controlled mind. Therefore, if we really want to be rid of all enemies, all we need to do is uproot our own anger.
What Is Repression?
If we are able to recognize a negative train of thought before it develops into full-blown anger, it is not too hard to control. If we can do this, there is no danger of our anger being ‘bottled up’ and turning into resentment. Controlling anger and repressing anger are two very different things. Repression occurs when anger has developed fully in our mind but we fail to acknowledge its presence. We pretend to ourself and to others that we are not angry – we control the outward expression of anger but not the anger itself. This is very dangerous because the anger continues to seethe below the surface of our mind, gathering in strength until one day it inevitably explodes.
Those who truly wish to be happy should make the effort to free their minds from the poison of anger.
On the other hand, when we control anger we see exactly what is going on in our mind. We acknowledge honestly the angry stirrings in our mind for what they are, realize that allowing them to grow will only result in suffering, and then make a free and conscious decision to respond more constructively. If we do this skilfully, anger does not get a chance to develop properly, and so there is nothing to repress. Once we learn to control and overcome our anger in this way, we shall always find happiness, both in this life and in our future lives. Those who truly wish to be happy, therefore, should make the effort to free their minds from the poison of anger.
Anger is a response to feelings of unhappiness, which in turn arise whenever we meet with unpleasant circumstances. Whenever we are prevented from fulfilling our wishes, or forced into a situation we dislike – in short, whenever we have to put up with something we would rather avoid – our uncontrolled mind reacts by immediately feeling unhappy. This uncomfortable feeling can easily turn into anger, and we become even more disturbed than before.
Anger is a response to feelings of unhappiness, which in turn arise whenever we meet with unpleasant circumstances.
The other main reason we become unhappy and angry is because we are faced with a situation we do not want or like. Every day we encounter hundreds of situations we do not like, from stubbing our toe or having a disagreement with our partner, to discovering that our house has burnt down or that we have cancer; and our normal reaction to all of these occurrences is to become unhappy and angry. However, try as we might, we cannot prevent unpleasant things happening to us. We cannot promise that for the rest of the day nothing bad will happen to us; we cannot even promise that we shall be alive to see the end of the day. In samsara we are not in control of what happens to us.
Unless we make a continuous effort to deal with anger as it arises, our relationship will suffer.
Anger is particularly destructive in relationships. When we live in close contact with someone, our personalities, priorities, interests, and ways of doing things frequently clash. Since we spend so much time together, and since we know the other person’s shortcomings so well, it is very easy for us to become critical and short-tempered with our partner and to blame him or her for making our life uncomfortable. Unless we make a continuous effort to deal with this anger as it arises, our relationship will suffer. A couple may genuinely love one another, but if they frequently get angry with each other the times when they are happy together will become fewer and further between. Eventually there will come a point when before they have recovered from one row the next has already begun. Like a flower choked by weeds, love cannot survive in such circumstances.
We should remember that every opportunity to develop anger is also an opportunity to develop patience.
In a close relationship, opportunities to get angry arise many times a day, so to prevent the build-up of bad feelings we need to deal with anger as soon as it begins to arise in our mind. We clear away the dishes after every meal rather than waiting until the end of the month, because we do not want to live in a dirty house nor be faced with a huge, unpleasant job. In the same way, we need to make the effort to clear away the mess in our mind as soon as it appears, for if we allow it to accumulate it will become more and more difficult to deal with, and will endanger our relationship. We should remember that every opportunity to develop anger is also an opportunity to develop patience. A relationship in which there is a lot of friction and conflict of interests is also an unrivalled opportunity to erode away our self-cherishing and self-grasping, which are the real sources of all our problems. By practising the instructions on patience explained here, we can transform our relationships into opportunities for spiritual growth.
Anger Creates Enemies
It is through our anger and hatred that we transform people into enemies. We generally assume that anger arises when we encounter a disagreeable person, but actually it is the anger already within us that transforms the person we meet into our imagined foe. Someone controlled by their anger lives within a paranoid view of the world, surrounded by enemies of his or her own creation. The false belief that everyone hates him can become so overwhelming that he might even go insane, the victim of his own delusion.
Since it is impossible to fulfil all our desires or to stop unwanted things happening to us, we need to find a different way of relating to frustrated desires and unwanted occurrences. We need to learn patient acceptance.
When patience is present in our mind it is impossible for unhappy thoughts to gain a foothold.
Patience is a mind that is able to accept, fully and happily, whatever occurs. It is much more than just gritting our teeth and putting up with things. Being patient means to welcome wholeheartedly whatever arises, having given up the idea that things should be other than what they are. It is always possible to be patient; there is no situation so bad that it cannot be accepted patiently, with an open, accommodating, and peaceful heart.
When patience is present in our mind it is impossible for unhappy thoughts to gain a foothold. There are many examples of people who have managed to practise patience even in the most extreme circumstances, such as under torture or in the final ravages of cancer. Although their body was ruined beyond repair, deep down their mind remained at peace. By learning to accept the small difficulties and hardships that arise every day in the course of our lives, gradually our capacity for patient acceptance will increase and we shall come to know for ourself the freedom and joy that true patience brings.
If we practise the patience of voluntarily accepting suffering, we can maintain a peaceful mind even when experiencing suffering and pain.
If we practise the patience of voluntarily accepting suffering, we can maintain a peaceful mind even when experiencing suffering and pain. If we maintain this peaceful and positive state of mind through the force of mindfulness, unhappy minds will have no opportunity to arise. On the other hand, if we allow ourself to dwell on unhappy thoughts there will be no way for us to prevent anger from arising. For this reason Geshe Chekhawa said ‘Always rely upon a happy mind alone.’
If there is a way to remedy an unpleasant, difficult situation, what point is there in being unhappy? On the other hand, if it is completely impossible to remedy the situation or to fulfil our wishes, there is also no reason to get upset, for how will our becoming unhappy help? This line of reasoning is very useful, for we can apply it to any situation.
By training our mind to look at frustrating situations in a more realistic manner, we can free ourself from a lot of unnecessary mental suffering.
Patient acceptance does not necessarily mean that we do not take practical steps to improve our situation. If it is possible to remedy the situation, then of course we should; but to do this we do not need to become unhappy and impatient. For example, when we have a headache there is no contradiction between practising patience and taking a tablet, but until the tablet takes effect we need to accept whatever discomfort we feel with a calm and patient mind. If instead of accepting our present pain we become unhappy and fight against it, we shall just become tense, and as a result it will take longer to get rid of our headache. For as long as we are in samsara we cannot avoid unpleasant, difficult situations and a certain amount of physical discomfort, but by training our mind to look at frustrating situations in a more realistic manner, we can free ourself from a lot of unnecessary mental suffering.
Instead of reacting blindly through the force of emotional habit, we should examine whether it is helpful or realistic to become unhappy in such situations. We do not need to become unhappy just because things do not go our way. Although until now this has indeed been our reaction to difficulties, once we recognize that it does not work we are free to respond in a more realistic and constructive way.
Benefits of Patience
Many of our relationship problems arise because we do not accept our partner as he or she is. In these cases the solution is to accept him fully as he is.
In reality most of our emotional problems are nothing more than a failure to accept things as they are – in which case it is patient acceptance, rather than attempting to change externals, that is the solution. For example, many of our relationship problems arise because we do not accept our partner as he or she is. In these cases the solution is not to change our partner into what we would like him to be, but to accept him fully as he is. There are many levels of acceptance. Perhaps we already try to tolerate our partner’s idiosyncrasies, refrain from criticizing him or her, and go along with his wishes most of the time; but have we in the depths of our heart given up judging him? Are we completely free from resentment and blaming? Is there not still a subtle thought that he ought to be different from the way he is? True patience involves letting go of all these thoughts.
Once we fully accept other people as they are without the slightest judgement or reservation – as all the enlightened beings accept us – then there is no basis for problems in our relations with others. Problems do not exist outside our mind, so when we stop seeing other people as problems they stop being problems. The person who is a problem to a non-accepting mind does not exist in the calm, clear space of patient acceptance.
Patient acceptance not only helps us, it also helps those with whom we are patient. Being accepted feels very different to being judged. When someone feels judged they automatically become tight and defensive, but when they feel accepted they can relax, and this allows their good qualities to come to the surface. Patience always solves our inner problems, but often it solves problems between people as well.
There are three kinds of situation in which we need to learn to be patient:
- When we are experiencing suffering, hardship, or disappointment
- When we are practising Dharma
- When we are harmed or criticized by others
Correspondingly, there are three types of patience:
- The patience of voluntarily accepting suffering,
- The patience of definitely thinking about Dharma
- The patience of not retaliating
These three types of patience do not come easily, and may seem somewhat strange when we first read about them. However, once we understand them clearly and put them into practice sincerely and skilfully, they will liberate our mind from one of its most obsessive delusions and bring great peace and joy. It is therefore worthwhile to persevere in these practices even if initially they may seem unusual or even unnatural.
An in-depth explanation of these 3 types of patience can be found in Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s How to Solve Our Human Problems.