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Lions Roar : July 2016
In many of the Buddha’s core teachings, he instructed practi- tioners to do anything they could to replace anger that leads to harmful behavior with skillful alternatives. “Hatred is never allayed by hatred; but only through non-hatred, which is the everlasting way,” it says in the Dhammapada. Or, “Overcome your anger with the opposite of anger, as you overcome evil with goodness.” This is excellent advice when you might explosively discharge rage or aggression on another being. I find it helps relieve aggressive impulses if I extend my exhalations until they’re twice as long as my in-breaths, while also mentally repeating a metta phrase to calm my mind, such as “May I feel loved, safe, and at ease.” I may also visualize a place where I feel safe, such as a favorite park by the East River. But if I rely on self-soothing techniques for too long, they can turn into what psychologist John Welwood called a “spiri- tual bypass.” That’s when I’m using my spiritual practice to suppress my emotions like anger and avoid really addressing them. So I only employ breath, metta, or forgiveness practices to subdue immediate impulses that could lead to harm. To properly process anger, we have to really face it. It’s essen- tial to feel and constructively express the feelings that come with difficult emotions. Look at the Buddha’s story of “King Sakka’s Demon.” This demon fed on people’s resistance and anger. One day the demon climbed onto the king’s throne while he was away. Sakka’s guards saw the little demon and yelled at it, “How dare you sit on the throne? This is an outrage!” As they yelled, the demon became a ferocious beast, breathing fire and terrifying the guards, who fled. When King Sakka returned, he tried a different approach. He greeted the demon with kindness. “How can I make you feel comfortable?” he asked. “Can I offer you something to eat? Do you want to put your claws up on the table?” With each nicety, the demon shrank in size. It became smaller and smaller until eventually the king could easily remove it from the throne. This story is, of course, a metaphor for the way to relate to our anger and other challenging emotions. If we try to get rid, repress, or should them, they only get stronger. The real practice is to do what Sakka did: turn toward the anger, make it com- fortable, and create a safe place in the body where it can be felt. When the time comes for communicating anger—which we do in the group practices I lead—I find there’s no real virtue in a blow-by-blow recollection of past grievances. Little soothing or alleviation occurs when we simply repeat the stories of our woundings, rather than express how we feel about them. So the most I might say is something like, “A teller called me up; she informed me that thousands of dollars disappeared from my bank account; I yelled at her and now I don’t feel too good about that. I still feel angry.” Usually, the others will listen with empathy, compassion, and tolerance. Finally, I’d like to add that all the emotion regulation in the world won’t help if we don’t develop and stick to adult bound- aries or are in situations wherein harm is continually happening. We should never use spiritual practice as a way to avoid establish- ing and sticking to rules of conduct in our interpersonal lives. My father and I spent a decade in family therapy working to develop a new relationship. He managed to change a great deal, but he never became capable of helping create a safe environ- ment in which I could discuss certain topics, such as my work, without becoming harsh and judgmental. So I had to establish clear boundaries, not only with him, but also with myself: I’m not going to discuss what I’m doing for a living with him, because it’s not safe. Meditation Practice: Insight into Anger 1 Bring to mind a frustrating interpersonal event. It can be anything that you found irritating, such as a small interac- tion or hearing unpleasant news. It should be something that, when you think about it, fills your mind with thoughts of how unfair or difficult life can be or how unhelpful others can be. 2 Instead of retelling the entire story in your mind, just hold a single image that best evokes the irritating nature of this experience. What you are doing here is inviting the emotion of frustration or disappointment to arise. At the same time, keep yourself comfortable, with your arms and legs relaxed. 3Hold the provocative image in your mind and patiently activate your feelings of irritation, frustration, or disap- pointment until you can feel them stirring somewhere in the front of your body—in the belly, chest, throat, or face. Try to create a welcoming environment for these feelings. Resistance only makes the anger stronger and more painful, and it will stimulate the “unfairness of it all” thought that get us nowhere. Create a space where the emotion can play out, with- out trying to get rid of anything. 4 Every time your mind tries to intervene and retell the story, or launches into criticisms or ideas about the way the world should be, bring it back again to the body. If you can locate feelings of frustration or disappointment in the body, you can send soothing, nurturing messages from the mind to the feeling itself: “It’s okay. You’re allowed to feel that way. You’re safe now.” Connect with the anger the way you would talk to a child you love and who is upset. It’s not the words that matter here. It’s the caring voice and calming awareness with which you greet your feeling that matters. ♦ LION’S ROAR | JULY 2016 55