My old friend anger has shown up in discussions here, as well as on some other blogs over the past couple of days. Given how powerful, confusing, and often destructive anger is, it's really good let discussions and teachings around it come right in whenever they appear. Because you never know when you might need them.
Here's a quotefrom Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg:
When we step back and re-vision our understanding of life then we don't need to get so lost in our anger. When we look at anger as it arises, what's important is to look at the very feeling, flavor, and texture of anger. We don't say, "This is wrong," "This is bad," "I shouldn't have this anger." Just pay attention to the feeling.
Once I was sitting at the Insight Meditation Society, the center I cofounded in Massachusetts, and one of my teachers, Munindra, who was visiting from India was guiding us. I was very upset at this moment. Anger had come into my mind and I was thinking, "I've been practicing for four years, I shouldn't be angry anymore but I am. What's this still doing here?!" Munindra could hear how disgruntled I was, how dismayed I was, and he said, "Imagine that a spaceship has landed on the front lawn and these martians have come out and come up to you and asked, 'What is anger?' That's how you should relate to anger."
You don't think "I'm righteous. I'm going to do this or that, get revenge, etc." You just ask, "What is anger?" "What's it like in my body?" "What are the layers of this mood?" "How much sadness is there in it? How much fear?"
I like the "What is this?" focus here. Instead of thinking you know what's happening, you investigate. I know that there have been many times when I have thought I was angry, and actually saw something else when I looked. Grief. Confusion. General irritation. Physical illness developing. Hunger. So, it makes a lot of sense to pay attention, and see if you can see what's there, even if you are in the middle of an argument with someone.
But you know, I also find that Salzberg's example typifies the way privileged, middle class Buddhists tend to talk about anger. Anger is considered in the context of individual relationships, and mostly in individual relationships where the potential for grave damage - like rape, murder, or some other awfulness is unlikely.
Petteri and I had a discussion that bled over into a new post, and which offers some challenge to the "standard Buddhist" view. He writes:
Rather than face the anger, I pretend it's not there; pretend that I'm the kind of person I want to be, or you're the kind of person I want you to be.
I think a great many of our problems comes from this turning away.
Maturing kamma is a messy business, and I don't think there are any magic solutions to completely get rid of the mess, even if there are particular medicines that work, to an extent, against particular poisons.
The upshot is a particular pattern of unskilful behavior. Covert aggression. Exhortations to "abandon the ego" and "let go," to become a Zen zombie floating above it all, like a corpse in a river. Resolution avoidance by walking away from conflicts. Hidden vices. Things left to fester, sometimes for years, until they explode in a fountain of pus. I have a hunch that many of the Zen scandals that have been plaguing the scene lately have to do with this pattern, and I think I can see it playing out in a small way among a quite a few Buddhists.
Avoidance is something I'm aware of in myself. And it's also something I have watched members of my sangha being forced to face in recent years - fallout from our own teacher scandal. Too often, I, we, stuck to just watching, just sitting, and trying our damnedest to speak and act non-violently. Some of that was very skillful, and some of that was noble stupidity.
Petteri talks about times when maybe the best way to "mature karma" is to go at it with each other - to get the pissed off out in some manner or another. I think that might be true, but it also might be a poor idea. I'm convinced that one of the skills to being an awakened being is learning to read situations, so that you have a much better sense of how to approach what's happening. Which is almost impossible if you're really angry. But it might be the case that if you've trained yourself to read situations well, you might get a decent sense of things before you get pissed off. And then perhaps be able to handle being angry within such a situation. Does that make sense?
But there's another level here that isn't on the table. The anger that arises during life threatening situations. The anger that arises from deep, collective injustices. The anger of entire cultures, groups of people who have been oppressed for generation after generation.
Working with this might include a lot of the above discussion, but also requires a different view. A different set of "solutions." For example, shuttling the collective anger of indigenous peoples into individualized patterns and approaches is actually not changing the roots. Collective rage requires working towards collective transformation. And that means working towards justice, and seeing that rage as a manifestation - at least in part - of conditions that must be changed by the multitudes.
While it might be true that certain individuals within a group might have entirely too much attachment and fixation on being enraged - and thus might really benefit from something like doing zazen or examining their fear - it's also the case that there's something much larger than any individual going on there. Which is actually why - going back to Salzberg - the skill of paying attention and saying "what is this?" is really valuable. When enough people experiencing and/or witnessing injustice recognize that what they are experiencing is injustice, then there's an opportunity to address the roots.
So, the way I see it, understanding and working with anger requires that we widen our views of what skillfulness might mean, and realize that while there probably is an individual piece within any manifestation of anger, it's possible that said anger is also arising from some broader, more collective place. Maybe 80% of a given person's anger is just attachment, fear, and shoddy attempts to claim power. But the other 10-20% - that might be something bigger, something calling for larger questions and larger answers.