Monday, August 15, 2011

Whittling away at anger

Recently while on my commute to work, a taxi driver in the lane to the right of me decided he wanted to make a left turn at the intersection I was about to proceed through. He waved at me for letting him go through while I cursed loudly at him. I had no choice but let him through as he cut me off.

Immediately I chastised myself for losing my temper like that. I practice what the Buddha taught his son Rahula, and that was to immediately cultivate a sense of shame at my own behavior.

Alas, I do that often, because anger remains a major issue for me. And as evidenced by some recent bloggers, it is an issue for others as well.

I am ashamed to admit that words like “moron!” and the f-bomb frequently flow effortlessly from my lips while I am driving. Unlike with other activities, the anger button is easily pushed while driving. I can be doing a lot of other things and never reach that fast flare of anger that seems to instantly arise when I’m behind the wheel. And the reason is very simple, despite my apparent inability to sufficiently deal with it: it’s ego.

You see, when I’m driving, all the rest of you are in my way. I’m quite perfect. I leave well-enough ahead of time so I don’t have to be in a rush, so it’s not that I’m in your way, it’s you haven’t planned enough time for your drive. And when you do get in my way, it’s because you’re a rude and pathetic self-centered bee-atch!

Well, maybe it’s not everyone else on the road.

The Buddha was consistently clear on how poisonous anger is for us. When he describes the Big Three – I’m not talking automakers – of greed, hatred and delusion, anger is right in there tied up with hatred. Anger is a form of hatred, it is an expression of hatred, and it sullies our kamma every time we allow its expression. Contrary to many pop psychologists, venting anger does not make us feel better; it does not relieve us of our anger. Rather, venting anger gives our mind fodder for justifying future anger so it is sure to reappear again.

Remember the Bhaddekaratta Sutta and the lesson it has for us? We must pay attention to what we are doing right now because what we do right now shapes what is yet to be.

An entire chapter of the Dhammapada is devoted to anger and our need to rid ourselves of this. Anger is described as wretched, causing one to appear ugly and drive away his friends. The Samyukta Agama simply guides us with, “Not being angry is always better than being angry.” And if that wasn’t enough for you, anger is identified as one of the Five Hindrances to one’s practice, more commonly labeled as ill will.

Face it, anger’s got to go.

Granted, the examples of what gets me angry are rather petty. Many of you may believe that what gets you angry is so much more important, so much more meaningful. But I think it’s safe to say that the allegedly “important” things we get angry about are generally infrequent. Most of us get pissed off by really stupid things.

I hope that I am less angry today than I was yesterday, and last month, and last year, etc. But it requires effort, something I don’t always remember and even when I do sometimes remember, it’s effort I want to avoid. I like being angry. I must, because there are so many things I do to nurture it. And if you have issues with anger, I suggest that you must like it as well. If you didn’t like being angry, you would rid yourself of this venomous emotion like you would dispose of a Ted Nugent recording.

When I do cultivate the necessary awareness of my anger, there are a couple tricks I employ. One I mentioned earlier, and that is to immediately create a sense of shame within myself for reacting with anger. I remind myself that the object of my anger, usually another person, is suffering like I do but I have no idea of what they are dealing with. Rather than react with a knee-jerk response that my woes are so much more important and overwhelming than anyone else’s, I attempt to develop a bit of compassion and empathy for my fellow human – even if he or she is an asshole. Whoops, did I say that?

Another trick I use when this option is available is to quickly find a mirror and look at my face. Have you ever really looked at your face while you are angry? Believe me, it’s not as pretty as David Oldham’s maniacal face in Harry Potter. And this really works, because even if you really try, you can’t stay angry while looking at your face in a mirror. It wouldn’t surprise me if you started laughing.

And a final trick, also quite simple, is to immediately be aware of your anger and ask yourself, “what is this? Where does this come from?” By immediately focusing on the origin of your anger, you quickly and cleverly shift your mind’s attention from self-indulgence into healthy investigation.

Granted, this takes effort and practice. But let’s look at the three types of anger as expressed in a simile I once read. There is anger like a line scratched into stone: this line can take years to be erased. There is anger like a line drawn in sand: the line remains for a while, but is eventually removed by the wind. And there is anger like a line drawn in water: so brief and fleeting, no trace of it is left behind.

While I remain quick to anger over the silliest things, my anger is much more like the line drawn in water. Before I found the Buddha, I had a lot of scratched rocks in my mind.

Speaking of anger, the photo with this post is from the memorial in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia, that now resides on the location of the former Paddy's Pub where a bomb exploded on Oct. 12, 2002, killing 202 people and injuring 240 more.


  1. I'm pretty much the same way. I am so cool, calm and collected at any other time, but as soon as I get behind the wheel of a car. Especially here, New England drivers are the worst!

    After Ive yelled, I catch myself, say "Cancel, Clear, Delete" and basically reset myself. Then I forgive the person who cut me off etc, and just let it go with a big exhale.

    I find this works from keeping me holding onto the anger, and by forgiving the person, Im not putting any harsh thoughts out into the universe, or onto another person

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    Here's why I do not forgive the other person and instead, cultivate a sense of shame over my action.

    When I "forgive" someone, I am cultivating the mental state that still blames the other person for causing me to become angry. My mind absolves itself by resting the blame on a source outside of me.

    Forgiveness also, in my view, presents a notion that I somehow have this authority to absolve others, even if only in my own mind. That's a bit egocentric, don't you think?

    By cultivating internal shame, I am focusing my mind on what I did, how I responded, regardless of what the outside stimuli may be. I am responsible for my actions, no one else is, and losing control of my emotional state is entirely my own fault. By creating a sense of shame at my own behavior, my mind is more focused on not allowing that state to rise again in the future (all about the Four Right Efforts).

    Forgiveness implies the other person did something "wrong" that requires forgiveness when the fact may be the other person did absolutely nothing wrong. What was wrong was my reaction. Letting go of anger is easy. Preventing it from re-arising in the future? Now that's a different matter!

  3. Anger is one of the hardest to tame. But kudos to you for trying!

  4. I love your blog. :) I love your progressive self-reflexivity, wisdom, kindness, and humility.

    I've been following your blog for a short while now, and I must admit, I was not expecting that you'd have such a problem with anger! You seem so level-headed most of the rest of your blog. Then again, as a blogger myself, I know to always put my best face forward, lol. :)

  5. @Sofan, Thank you! Yes, it is one of the hardest to tame, but the granddaddy of them all is delusion!

    @shinenigan, thank you! And yes, I am known to go a bit off level from time to time, but it's all good right?