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Lions Roar : September 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2008 78 learning to see that things do not inherently exist in the way that I perceive them to (the Buddhist concept of emptiness.) That may sound abstract and intellectual, but it’s easy to apply to relationships. When Zen master Shunryu Suzuki was asked to sum up the essence of his philosophy, he replied with just three words: not necessarily so. If I get riled up now, I repeat those words to myself, a reminder that my perception of what’s going on is undoubt- edly incomplete and likely faulty. The anger I perceive in someone else may be arising out of hurt; their seeming stubbornness may cover insecurity and fear. DID ALL THIS new knowledge miraculously enable me to eradicate my anger? Of course not. But at least I started getting better at recog- nizing it when it first arose, and calming myself before I might act on it. Eventually, I came to see that anger was a false friend. Though it might seem to bolster me, to save me from depression, to keep me moving forward, it worked against me. Each impetuous e-mail, each vengeful riposte, each passive-aggressive refusal to respond—they all came back to bite me in the end. In fact, Buddhism says that acting out of anger is never the skill- ful thing to do. You might think of certain exceptions. What about anger directed against social injustice? And isn’t it necessary and thera- peutic to express some anger? I can think of at least three answers to these objections. First, anger causes us to perceive its object in a distorted way. We turn the person we’re mad at into an ogre. We become unable to see their good qualities, and we get pumped full of a blinding adrenalin that often causes our interactions to spiral out of control. Anger leads us to see things in a polarized, sharply dualistic way. We believe we’re good; we believe our enemies are evil. If you think that’s a helpful way to look at conflict, just look at what it has done for the Israelis and Palestinians, Hutus and Tutsis, Armenians and Turks, etc., etc., etc. Of course, it’s important to work against injustice, but we need to do so wisely, with clear eyes and a compassion- ate, understanding view of all sides. As Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Dalai Lama have so ably demonstrated, a calm mind gets better results. These wise leaders were able to see that, just as our anger is a delusion arising out of our suffering, the anger of our “enemies” is also a delusion, like a sickness in their minds. We should fight the delusion, not the people who suffer from it. Second, though some therapists tout the ben- efits of expressing anger in a controlled way, such as punching a pillow, re- cent research in neurosci- ence contradicts that notion: if you punch a pillow, you’re actually exercising your brain’s neural pathways for aggression. Finally, our anger damages us as well as the object of our wrath. It increases our heart rate, elevates our blood pres- sure, and has other serious health effects. As the saying goes, anger is an acid that corrodes the vessel that holds it. This seems stupidly obvious to me now, but when I was tromping around the streets of Brooklyn running my resentful little mental loops, I failed to realize that they had absolutely no effect on my wife. I was just working myself into an increasingly agitated state—punching holes, in effect, in a wall that only I could see. I was carry- ing around an entirely unhelpful burden, and I had to resolve to set it down. In case I needed a more forceful dem- onstration of the dangers of anger, life soon provided one. A few minutes after I left that real estate office, I came across another realtor. Miraculously, she drove me straight to a fantastic apartment, in a big old Victorian house with a front porch and a back patio, a stained glass window, and even a chandelier. By New York stan- I found that I was not “an angry person.” I was simply a person experiencing angry thoughts. And like all thoughts, they were just temporary, passing through my head like storms through a clear blue sky. BUDDHIST CHAPLAINCY Affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, and Ryukoku University, Kyoto Information regarding admissions requirements and application process available at: A three-year program of education for students seeking to serve as professional chaplains in hospitals, prisons, and the military. www.shin-ibs.edu Combine Wisdom and Compassion by Acting in Service to All Living Beings INSTITUTE OF BUDDHIST STUDIES 2140 Durant Ave., Suite 30 Berkeley, California 94704 USA (510) 809-1444 Fax (510) 809-1411 SEPT 74-79.indd 78 SEPT 74-79.indd 78 7/3/08 1:34:07 PM 7/3/08 1:34:07 PM