Friday, April 15, 2011

Buddhist Anger Strategies

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.


Brikoleur said...

I didn't intend it as a challenge to the standard Buddhist method of anger management. Rather, I think that the attempted application of that method often goes wrong in a particular way, and I tried exploring that.

Specifically, I think the recommended methods—focusing on the sensations that make up anger rather than feeding the anger, etc.—work very well for "hot anger," the kind of sudden rage you get when something touches a sore spot.

Trouble is, I don't think that's always enough. Rather than go away, the hot anger transmutes into sustained, cold ill-will, which then poisons stuff much more insidiously—with the additional benefit of giving an ego boost for "successfully" navigating an angry situation.

Nor do I think that having at it is the best strategy. I just think that sometimes it's the best available one.

Anger avoidance easily becomes conflict avoidance, which becomes resolution avoidance. And that's trouble.

Brikoleur said...

Oh, and, very good points about systemic injustice and collective anger, and the totally wrong "solution" of treating it as an individual problem

David Ashton said...

Nathan, I see this is posted over at Odd that there doesn't seem to be any attribution. Just sayin'.

Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...

Nice article Nathan. Interesting timing because this week in meditation group I was going to be teaching on this topic. My years of investigation in myself, I've tend to agree with you. To "Go at it" with someone is really just when we haven't yet learnt a more skillful means of approaching it. Underlying that is certainly attachment to self, our own views and how we want to make the world. Often there is also the underlying view of "They just don't get it" or "they just don't get me" and so we try to berate them into understanding. Underlying this is the frustrations.

As we learn to be more mindful and more skillful, when we feel that urge to "go at it" with someone, this is when mindfulness (as per the approach of Sharon Salzberg) is required so that we can just be present with the emotion and learn to act in more skillful ways.

If you act out in anger, reflect on it later, you'll realise there is attachment and also a level of frustration inherent in the experience and thus a lack of mindfulness, and incorrect perception about the experience we are having in that moment. You can also sense the condensing of self that appears around the experience, the mind and self contract into rigidity. Afterwards, we replay the situation in our minds and contort it so that we are right and we self-justify our actions, no matter how illogical. This is the condensing of the self, we try to bring it back to a place of stability and being known.

Anyway, nice article.


Adam said...

Nathan, you should take a moment to take some action against the person. All you have to do is go here:

and fill out the form, and they'll contact the buddharocks person.

Nathan said...

David and Adam,

I wrote a post about Buddharocks awhile back. The site owner has been pillaging from several of us for months now. Have you or others written in to Google? I'm just wondering if anyone had success getting their posts removed from there.


Adam said...

My posts have never been ripped off there, so I can't really file a complaint. I contacted G from Buddhaspace, the Zennist, Big Happy Buddha, and a few others that I noticed were getting ripped off, hoping that someone would complain to Google officially so this might either end, or result in some sort of resolution. That's why I suggested you file a formal complaint with Google, since your work is being ripped off. I'm also noticing that the list of blogs they're stealing from is growing, but it looks like until my work is actually used, I personally can't do much about it.

Nathan said...


I did a bit of research. Was going to try and block the website IP, because people are reporting that any action on formal complaints is taking weeks, or months. But Buddharocks is using an rss or aggregate feed, which can't really be blocked. They used to be on Twitter as well, but the account has been quiet since Sept.

I also found Buddharocks blogger profile, which includes a place to send an e-mail.

Guess we will see what happens.


David Ashton said...

They are also on Facebook at - I ended up being friends with them/it and not sure how it happened. The only contact info is their web page. I unfriended it today.

Adam said...

If you report them at the link I sent, it puts their ability to host ads in jeopardy. It may take awhile (Google's wonderful customer service at work...) but I think it would be worth it to have something official out there. But, your blog, your action.