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Lions Roar : September 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2008 77 they were just temporary, just passing through my head like storms through a clear blue sky. They didn’t have the power to damage the inherent clarity of my mind. And they couldn’t force me to act in an angry way. I learned that it was possible to put a little pause, a breathing space, between an external event and my reaction to it, in order to discover a broader range of options. As I probed deeper, I realized that—in almost every case—my anger arose out of a deep, internal sense of hurt. That feeling was uncomfortable, often intolerable, and I would try to get rid of it by projecting it outward. That seemed to offer some sense of relief, but it had pained my wife and damaged our relationship. Often, my hurt arose out of a perceived sense of injus- tice. Like legions of foolish men before me, I believed that being right was the essential thing. When conflicts arose, I argued like an expensive trial lawyer. I won some battles, but I lost the war. I DON’T WANT TO OVERSTATE how angry I was. My wife and I actually got along very peacefully and lovingly for the great majority of our time together. I’m generally pretty upbeat and laid-back, and I have friends who say that they can hardly even imagine me angry. On the other hand, that Buddhist talk made me realize that I was probably underestimating how angry I—and most people—really are, much of the time. We tend to be- lieve that anger is an aberration, an emotion that only arises in exceptional circumstances. But pick up any newspaper and you’ll see how prevalent it is in the world at large: abuse, assault, murder, war. And it’s pervasive in our daily lives. We’re peeved that it starts raining just as we decide to go out for a walk. We’re disappointed that we didn’t win the lottery (even if we didn’t buy a ticket!). We’re irate because our parents didn’t love us enough, or loved us too much. We’re aggrieved that our life is not turning out as we wish or believe it should. Some of us can’t acknowledge our anger; we suppress it and become depressed, or try to salve it with alcohol or food or shopping—or we run away. (If you doubt that there’s an unacknowledged current of anger underlying your daily existence, just notice how it flares up the instant someone cuts you off in traffic or steals your parking space. Did it arise out of nowhere, or was it already there?) Among all our spurs to anger, why is a failed marriage so especially powerful? Partly, it’s because our expectations are so high and unrealistic. We buy into a fairy tale that our spouse will relieve us of all our existential suffering and loneliness; we believe that they should make us happy all the time. As Buddhism points out, that’s not love; it’s an ego- based delusion called desirous attachment. When that false ideal falls apart, it’s quickly replaced by disappointment and hostility. It’s much easier to blame our spouse than to ac- knowledge the fundamental wrongness of our own view. It’s not a thin line between love and hate; Buddhism says that true love is never the cause of suffering. It’s a thin line between unreasonable expectations and the stinging disen- chantment that arises when they can’t be met. A big part of the solution is learning to let go of our expectations of what should happen, and to be more accepting of what life actually brings. As the thirteenth-century Zen teacher and philoso- pher Dogen beautifully put it, “A flower falls, even though we love it; and a weed grows, even though we do not love it.” As I developed a practice, I came to understand that my feelings of disappointment and hurt and injustice were all rooted in the same toxic soil: an inflated sense of the pri- macy of my own needs and desires—what Buddhists call self-cherishing. My anger was a childish wail of complaint: What about ME? A remarkable meditation called taking and giving helped me start letting go of my self-centeredness and resentment. As I went to more Buddhist talks, I became familiar with the technique of imagining that I was exhaling my tensions and frustrations as dark smoke, and that I was inhaling a clear, blissful light. One day, though, after a talk on anger, the teacher offered an astonishing, counterintuitive exercise. She said that if we were angry with someone, we should imagine breathing in their suffering as dark smoke, and that we should imagine breathing toward them that blissful light. In the early days of my divorce, the last thing I wanted was to imagine that I was taking on my wife’s troubles, but when I tried the meditation, it had a profound effect: it helped me to see her as a suffering person in her own right. I had already found that when my heart was full of anger, it held no room for compassion. While doing this meditation, I discovered that the reverse was also true. In regard to my big desire to be in the right, Buddhism offered another counterintuitive, helpful method: accepting defeat and offering the victory. Instead of always trying to win, I could surrender my own agenda in the service of a greater peace: I could lose battles, and the war might disappear. Buddhists say that the antidote to anger is patience. One thing that has helped me move toward that goal has been it felt as if it was coming to me from her, as if it could leap from one person to the other. SEPT 74-79.indd 77 SEPT 74-79.indd 77 7/3/08 1:34:07 PM 7/3/08 1:34:07 PM