Friday, April 15, 2011

The Truth of Anger

Posters, Graffiti, Reflection

Buddhist theory states that acting out of anger or other destructive, selfish impulses creates suffering, both directly through the results of the action, and indirectly by reinforcing these unskilful patterns of behavior in yourself and others. Conversely, acting out of compassion or other unselfish impulses paves the way to transcending suffering, again both directly and indirectly. In Buddhist jargon, acting unskilfully creates akusala kamma which, when it matures, creates more unbeneficial states of mind, which push you to more unskilful actions, and so on. And vice versa.

Ergo, to make the world a better place, avoid acting unskilfully and act skillfully, thereby reinforcing skillful behavior in yourself and others, and letting unskilful behavior wind down. Simple enough.

Only it's not, when you try to apply it.

Anger is destructive. It should be avoided. Sometimes it can be. Only, then we never know about it. Anger was avoided. Beneficial impulses predominated. Akusala kamma was not generated. The question of what to do with anger never came up.

When the question does come up, it's too late. Anger has not been avoided. It's there, demanding action. Like a red-hot ball of iron in your throat. Swallow it, and it'll burn you up from the inside. Spit it out, and it'll burn the Earth. Then what?

Everybody carries a load of akusala kamma, which means that everybody has a lot of those unbeneficial impulses coming up all the time. They have to be dealt with somehow. But how? "Just let them go" is great advice, but, again, not exactly easy to apply. Perhaps it isn't even possible to "just let them go." Whatever we do in an unbeneficial state of mind is unskilful, even if what we do is "nothing."

What's more, we're not in this alone. When my unskilful behavior intersects your akusala kamma it will often trigger unskilful behavior in you, which will trigger more unskilful behavior in me, and so on: together, we give the karma wheel a great big heave. No wonder running off to sit all by yourself in a cave for a decade or three is so popular among would-be arahants.

When people figure this out and try to practice it, something unpleasant often happens. Instead of letting go of the unbeneficial and only acting on the beneficial, we tend to repress the unbeneficial. We never allow that akusala kamma to mature; instead, we bury it and try to avoid it, pretend even to ourselves that it isn't there. Then it bubbles up in some other and often more insidious way, in action that we may even think is skillful, but is really caused by that buried unbeneficial state of mind. 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.

If I do something to piss you off, you have a choice. Your palette of options depends on your internal state. Your karma. If you have a lot of kusala kamma – i.e., you've worked hard at reinforcing skillful patterns of behavior – you may find a genuinely skillful way of acting, something that allows us both to resolve whatever akusala kamma caused me to do whatever I did to piss you off, and whatever akusala kamma of yours manifested in your getting pissed off. I believe that's what's known as 'enlightened behavior.'

A lot of the time, you and I just don't have what it takes. Skillful action is out of sight; out of reach. Instead, you're left with a set of unattractive options to choose from.

You can cast aspersions on my ancestry.
You can walk away and go meditate, for a half-hour or a week.
You can try to pretend that you're really not pissed off, to yourself even.
You can engage in fierce but civil debate attempting to prove I'm wrong.
You can call me a mean poopie-head.
You can write a hatchet piece about me on your blog.
You can troll me on mine, anonymously or not.
You can hire a hitman to break my knees.

All of these options are action arising from an unbeneficial impulse. They all create more akusala kamma. Buddhists often seem to prefer the ones that don't involve open aggression: walking away, suppressing the anger and trying damn hard to act civil, and so on. While it's obvious that some of those possible behaviors are more destructive than others, I'm not at all certain that those passive options are less destructive than some of the active ones.

There's a particular truth in anger. It's indicative of kamma maturing; a chance to resolve that bad stuff and really get over it, rather than just burying it again and carrying it along. But how to express the truth of anger without being destructive about it? Is it even possible? Are we doomed to solitude, trying to work out this kamma in bubbles of our own?

If genuinely skillful behavior is out of reach, out of the remaining options I have a strong preference for behaviors that lead to resolution over behaviors that avoid resolution, even if the cost includes a measure of open aggression.

Put another way, if I piss you off, I would prefer that you call me names or engage me in debate to prove how I was wrong, rather than walk away and dedicate your next round of zazen to me. That way, we can bash heads and get it over with, and then maybe make up and be friends again—or, perhaps, discover that we didn't like each other all that much after all, which is OK too.

But please, no hitmen. I'm a dreadful coward with a low pain threshold.

Thanks to Nathan of Dangerous Harvests for the post that sparked this one.


  1. Hehe :)
    Now I know how to scare you...

    I've just watched the Star Wars movies again and it's funny how much of Buddhism is put into the movies. Except they call akusala kamma the dark side and kusala kamma the light side...

    In some ways it's true that when you're angry you cannot think clearly and do something beneficial. It is also why a lot of cultures have ways to make you calmer before you react. In Judaism there are some who say that when angry at someone, you should take 4 hours to think before taking any actions.
    At school I had a teacher who used to count to 5 or 10 when he started getting angry, so he would think and talk calmly instead of exploding at us in rage.
    While others just say you should take three long breaths and then take action.

    All of these are ways of trying make, as you say, skillful decisions while in a state of anger, or to get out of that state first.

    Many times, this skillful action is out of reach, but I believe there is always at least one skillful action possible. You might not always like it, because you might have been the one who was wrong and are too proud to say sorry. But there usually is a way out of it. The question isn't just anger itself but pride or ego or something in that genre I think. Sometimes you can put the anger aside, but by doing so you see a solution you dislike and so keep going with the anger.

    Old family feuds are a good example of this where no one knows why they are angry at the other anymore, but they stay angry because without this anger they would have to admit they were wrong for continuing the conflict in the first place and that's a big no-no.

    Word of advice from my short life would be to first try and make sure that YOU are able to say that you are wrong and not deny that fact. I used to never be able to admit that to myself or others. Now that I can, I have been able to resolve many conflicts I would not have been able to before.

    Nice post though. Last one too :)
    Go Jedi's !

  2. One of the gotchas of Buddhism is, though, that you can't act skillfully when in a state of anger (or any of the other unbeneficial states). It's pure intentionalism: from a karmic point of view, the only thing that matters is what motivates the action, and no-action is also action. Karma is a bitch.

    On the other hand, it's really simple, just a matter of training yourself to do good things and not do bad things; you fall on your face a lot but slowly, slowly it starts to take and the light side gets the upper hand on the dark side. The trouble is that unlike in Star Wars, the dark side is a tricky beast that sneaks up on you just when you think you're doing a brilliant job of avoiding it. For example, just when you're congratulating yourself about not exploding in rage at the drop of a hat, you notice that what you've actually been practicing is suppressing and bottling up anger, not avoiding it like you imagined.

    You're right, anger (and the other poisons too) springs from the small self.

    And yeah on Buddhist influences on Star Wars, although most of it is more pop Buddhism than the real deal. Some very good bits though, especially the Dagobah sequence in The Empire Strikes Back. That cave is a pretty good metaphor for the whole thing, really. Weapons are no good, and the only thing you'll meet there is what you bring, which may well be Darth Vader.

  3. Short post before sleep:
    No-action is action, but you can do no-action just to delay the action and think about the action you are going to do. Even though all of that is an action too, it's usually one that gives you time to find your true position rather than just what your anger might want to say.

    Like in engineering and programming where solving problems usually requires breaking the problem up into smaller subproblems, which can be broken down again and again before starting to solve the whole piece.

    With anger, break it up too. First let time take the context of anger out of the anger, then find out why you are angry, then find ways to solve it, then solve the anger.
    There usually is no reason to rush, that's the anger speaking :)

    Good night.

  4. "There usually is no reason to rush, that's the anger speaking."

    Now that's words of wisdom, right there.

    Only sometimes it's still the anger speaking, three breaths, five minutes, a day, or ten years later.

  5. You have no idea how pertinent this post is for me!

  6. As a person with a terrible flyaway destructive and self-destructive temper,(of course speaking outside of Buddhism)all I can say is age has helped, time has helped, but I think you're being quite realistic to see it as something very basic and very indigestible in our lives. I'm not sure how skillful my personal ways of handling it are but waiting to act seems to be the most helpful to me. The worst silliness usually does bleed away, and you find out what is worth remembering about what caused it and what is useful to know about it for future reference. I definitely don't think you have to be passive and repressed about it, because there is a lot of message in anger that has to be digested and can be quite important. I do think you have to be responsible and fair even when angry, and perhaps that's where all the unskillfulness comes in.

  7. PJ :)
    You should put that quote up there instead of Perlis :P

    And yeah you're right, it could still be the anger talking, but hopefully it won't be and even if it is, then it would be tempered anger rather than fully-blown rage, which I think is at least somewhat better.

  8. I'm not so sure. Hot rage can be terribly destructive, but when it cools down it sometimes transmutes to cold ill-will, which is much more insidious and poisonous, and can be even more destructive, with the additional twist that you don't recognize it as anger, you rationalize it away, and you get a nice ego boost from having "successfully" navigated that burst of hot anger.

  9. It could happen, but that's just mean o.O
    "Don't do unto others what you don't want them to do unto you."

  10. Yet more good advice that's very hard to apply.

    I always did like that version better than the Christ's. Smart man, Rabbi Hillel.

  11. This kind of dilemma can become discouraging and paralysing, along with others, like the importance of forgiveness, of oneself and other. At times like that, I like to remember one of my favourite teachings: "Just get on with it."

    Rusty Ring: Reflections of an Old Timey Hermit (blog)

  12. Dealing with anger and wondering what to do about it has been a large part of my path as a Buddhist, and I appreciate this post very much. I have a couple of thoughts to share. One is that from my experience and what I've learned through the Dharma, once we've lost our cool in anger and created some kind of mess, or on the other hand suppressed it and created a different kind of mess, one thing we can do after we've calmed down is to sit up and realize what happened, to view it with a clear heart and mind, and to make some kind of resolution to 'do it better next time." In other words, we can bring it to the path, use it as a learning experience, and as a result we can grow over time as a result of our anger.

    The other thing I've worked with over the years is the practice of 'being naked with' the experience of anger. I mean really just stopping and letting it be there, letting the powerful feelings hurt you, let it burn your heart and body, and don't do a thing about it. This is super difficult to do, yet it's also so simple, if we can find the space of mind. Then the energy of the anger moves through you, naturally, because you have not distorted that energy by acting it out or suppressing it inwards.

    I can't say I am able to do this very often, but every once in a while I am. I find the key to working with it though is to take it on as a practice, to have the aspiration to just let it be there. Pema Chodron talks about this a lot. She did an audio program called "Don't Bite the Hook" which is all about this approach.