Precepts – Not Dwelling in Anger (#9)

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Don’t be Angry

The 9th precept admonishes us to not be angry.
In Buddhism—and in “enlightened” Western culture, in general–we condemn anger, we warn each other and ourselves against anger, we fear anger, we avoid situations in which we think we will feel angry or others will be angry at us, we can even get into the habit of denying that we feel angry. Why is this?
We “shun” anger because of what it can drive us to do—shout, curse, say things we would never otherwise say, even hit and injure the person or object we’re angry at.
So it’s what we DO when anger arises that is the problem, not the emotion of anger in itself. But rather than scolding us to not be angry, in The Mind of Clover Aiken Roshi quite gently advises us: Don’t indulge in anger. Don’t indulge in anger.

What is indulging in anger? It’s yelling and cursing and hitting and harming! Or it’s castigating oneself for feeling angry. Or it’s going so far as to become depressed rather than to feel angry. Not indulging does not mean, Never feel anger, always suppress it, always deny you feel it, choose depression instead. After all, anger is a human emotion equal in status, though not in kind, with the other strong emotions we humans can feel—love, joy, fear, grief. Anger is in the human repertoire. If we were never to feel anger, we’d lose some of our humanness. So not indulging in anger doesn’t mean don’t ever feel or be angry. It simply means don’t act on the feelings of anger when they arise.

So, following Aiken Roshi’s advice not to indulge in our anger, we work on ourselves and eventually we get ourselves under enough control so that we only slam doors or clam up or some other ineffective behavior that telegraphs our anger but at least it doesn’t physically or verbally harm the person we’re angry at.

But we’ve still got this anger inside (and it IS leaking out to those around us whether we realize it or not). The anger may feel boiling hot; it may feel steely cold. Whatever its temperature, we really need to deal with it somehow. To that end, Aiken Roshi quotes Thich Nhat Hahn, who encourages us to become well acquainted with our anger, to respect it, treat it tenderly, as it too is Buddha: (p. 95).

Angry behavior, I think, is an attempt to have or regain control—or agency—over our experience and circumstances. My young son who has been playing outside is very late coming home for supper, and I have begun to be very worried, so when he comes in the door, I yell at him with an angry face, “Where have you been? You’re LATE!” Or my husband has a rough day at work, so when he comes home and hears the neighbor’s big dog barking incessantly, he opens the window and yells an obscenity in the direction of the neighbor.

Angry behavior says, “What about me? am here too! I’m important too!” I And while these examples are not the very worst things people can do to each other, they are harmful—and we Buddhist practitioners want to learn how to avoid expressing anger in harmful ways. We need to learn how to express our “agency” in non-harmful ways. So, in order to convey our concerns without behaving angrily—we need to get to know our anger.

Let’s look at a few of the perhaps many varieties of anger. 1) There is righteous anger, such as what one feels when someone—oneself or someone else is treated unfairly or unjustly; or when the environment is degraded, or some institution causes harm to a whole class of people. There are plenty of things to feel and express righteous anger about these days, and there are many reasonable avenues for expressing it. We can learn and practice the skills for effectively expressing our righteous anger in the world.

2) Then there is ill will, a perhaps habitual reaction to certain events or people, based on our judgment or pre-judgment of others.
Something in our experience has led us to feel resentment or suspicion or skepticism toward another.
Ill Will may be a more cognitively driven mental formation. It’s our “attitude” about certain classes of experience or people; it may be a subtle and pervasive feeling and thereby, in a way, a more difficult feeling for us to detect in ourselves—and thus a more ubiquitous mental state.
E.g, I often turn off the radio news when a politician I know I disagree with starts to speak. I realize I am experiencing and expressing ill will toward the politician.
In connection with ill will, because I am strongly for better gun control in our country, lately I have been trying to understand the point of view of gun advocate. I heard someone comment that gun owners have positive experiences with guns, while people like me have only negative associations with them. So I’m trying to listen to what gun advocates say, hoping to better understand them. I’ve just finished reading a book about why Americans like guns, and it has helped me get beyond my automatic reaction of ill will and begin to think about how to include such people in problem solving.

Well, Ill Will is an unhappy state of mind, a drag on our mental and emotional life, not to speak of how it separates us from others unnecessarily. I can and do study my daily life for instances of Ill Will. It pops up pretty frequently, I must admit. But over time, through mindfulness, I can investigate it and, as in the example I gave about gun control, reduce the unhappy feelings of ill will in myself.

3) Then there is the kind of anger that is deeply or highly emotional, the kind that might erupt suddenly, explosively, as a feeling of rage; or the kind that might build over time to become a cold condemning judgment that resists all reason and argument. This very emotional anger can be more troublesome than the first two I described because it arises perhaps entirely out of the unconscious. It may not occur often, and if we aren’t prone to aggression toward others, this deep anger may not lead to physical violence, but it can scare or dismay people who witness it. So although this kind of anger is the type we’d like to deny we ever feel or express, because it is so unwholesome, it is the type we must get to know. As with all negative emotions, the way to reduce or eliminate deep anger is not by pretending we don’t feel it, not by suppressing or denying it, not by avoiding situations in which it might arise. The way to stop this deep anger is to become intimate with it, to study it thoroughly in all its manifestations.

We must ask, In what circumstances, under what conditions, does this anger arise? As I have pondered instances of this deep type anger in myself, I have discovered that deep anger occurs almost exclusively in my relationships with people or situations that are important to me. Some people get really angry when their stuff breaks—their car or computer or toilet, whatever. That’s not me. I get frustrated, but not really angry, so I can relax on that count. But in important relationships in which I have a strong investment are where the strong emotion of anger can be triggered.

So I study the instances in my close relationships in which anger has arisen in the past–
What am I studying when I study my anger?
What it feels like, where I feel it in my body. You’ve heard the saying, “Seeing Red”? That is the physical sensation of anger for some people. I’m not sure I see red, but what has happened for me when strong anger has come up is that I have whirled into action—not toward another person, but just physically doing something. One time I flung a whole carton of milk on the kitchen floor, knowing all the while that I was the one who would have to clean it up, and knowing from experience how hard it is to thoroughly clean up milk!

But what’s driving my anger? Anger, psychologists have observed, is a cover up for a prior emotion that we feel is even less manageable than the anger itself—
Fear, or hurt, or guilt or any number of other difficult emotions.
Anger has a lot of energy, which gives us the illusion of being in control,
When experiencing a prior, less tolerable emotion, we quickly default to anger and we feel at least a tiny bit better.
I’ve discovered that for me, one catalyzing emotion can be shame. Shame that I feel when I believe I have done something that I think makes me look bad—stupid, inappropriate, imperfect to someone who matters to me.
So now shame becomes my focus of my study.
Whereas anger can manifest as Seeing Red, for me
Shame manifests in my body like a black drapery dropping over my head and covering my entire body. It’s a terrible feeling of worthlessness—the exposed worthlessness of my Self—my ego—that tells me that I am separate from others and unworthy.

An example of a time when I experienced shame and in quick succession this full bodied physical reaction in order to feel more in control again:
35 years ago, when my husband and I were in the process of a painful divorce.
Just prior to the divorce trial, his lawyer called me on the phone (something he shouldn’t have done) probably to see if he could push my buttons and learn something that would help him in court.
During the conversation, in which I was very nervous, realizing that he was manipulating me, he said a word that I didn’t understand, which made my response inappropriate. He chortled and said something dismissive that made me feel incompetent and embarrassed—and the black cloud of shame dropped over me instantly.
As soon as I hung up the phone, I whirled around and kicked the nearby door and I sprained my toe! Why such explosive anger? Because the shame felt so overwhelming.

So in my case (yours will be different) when I felt acutely ashamed, I defaulted immediately to anger in order to dispel the unbearable discomfort of the shame.
So trying to understand my anger, I ask, When /why do I feel shame? And I answer, When I am shown or revealed to be imperfect to people who are, for one reason or another, critical to me or my welfare (my husband’s adversarial lawyer).
Of course, rationally, I know I am not perfect, and I am aware and accepting of the fact that my imperfections are no doubt obvious to everyone. But I’m speaking about emotionally fraught situations here.

So for me, the study of my anger is really about shame, which is really about my illusion that I have a Self, for which I apparently have the requirement that it be Perfect!
Because I have observed that my emotion of shame so quickly defaults to anger and then blame of the other person, my study now takes me to what Buddhism teaches about the Self.
The Lojong saying, “Drive all blames into one” applies here. Who or what is “the One”? It is the mistaken belief that I have a Self. The one to blame, of course, for my unhappiness is my own ego centered self that wants what it wants. This slogan is the perfect antidote for me.

It’s not my husband’s lawyer who has caused my anger. It’s my misunderstanding—or ILLUSION—that I have a Self to protect and perpetuate in its “perfection” that is at fault here. When I get to this insight, all the air hisses out of the balloon of my anger and I am done emoting. I may not have any words for the situation. I am done. Quiet.

So, to follow and practice the precept of not indulging in Anger, we must
Study ourselves, our body and sensations and thoughts when anger or ill will arises.
Look underneath the anger to what drives it.
Once we get a handle on the prior emotion and see that it is connected with our bedrock assumption that we have a Self we must protect and perpetuate, our “case” for being angry begins to dissolve, fall away.

Buddhism teaches that everything is always changing, including ourselves. If this is so, then there is nothing to defend or perpetuate, is there? We can let go of the anger, let go of the shame or fear or whatever drives the anger, and just be aware of what is—a clever lawyer who got a rise out of me. Nothing more. Unpleasant? Yes. Cause for rage? No.

Meanwhile, of course, we are practicing this precept by not attacking anyone verbally or physically, not shouting, hitting, cursing, kicking doors, whatever. And we are not harming ourselves by going off on the tangent of being angry when the real problem is we feel hurt or afraid or embarrassed, or–whatever. We can remember that being human includes feeling anger. And we can begin to follow Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice:

6. Do not maintain anger or hatred. Learn to penetrate and transform them when they are still seeds in your consciousness. As soon as they arise, turn your attention to your breath in order to see and understand the nature of your anger and hatred and the nature of the persons who have caused your anger and hatred (from The Fourteen Precepts of the Order of Interbeing)
and

The seeds of anger are always there. But when you notice, when you keep alive your
understanding, they have no chance to manifest. Understanding is something that stays
with you, and practicing the precepts, practicing meditation, helps you deepen your
understanding all the time. (from Tricycle, May 4, 2013 edition)

About Zaren Edie Norton

Zaren Edie Norton began practice in the 1970's with Kobun Chino Otagawa, received the precepts from Tenshin Reb Anderson, and served as the shuso (head student) for the Winter 2011 Practice Period under Zoketsu Norman Fischer.
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