From Cathy from Missouri.
I wondered if you would expand on some questions that surfaced about today's post?
What *should* make us angry in life? Anything? I can't settle in with the idea that "nothing" is a reliable answer, or that anger always = weakness. I don't think you would say that, either - wondered what your thoughts are?
What is the patience for? As in, what are we waiting for? Patience without an object doesn't seem like patience; more like denial. What about when the "patience advocates" are actually trying to deny the reality of suffering? Or is that the goal?
I hope you don't mind questions. Your posts always make me think and that's very welcome.
Cathy in Missouri
Thank you so much for your question, Cathy. I have enjoyed thinking about this, writing about it, meditating on it.
I engage in two lines of thoughts in regards to my philosophies around anger--Buddhism and what I have learned in recovery. In recovery, anger is kind of a gateway emotion to the behaviors that keep us drinking, drugging, eating, sexing, gambling--those coping mechanisms that addicts develop to deal with normal life. In this way, "I am so angry, I need a drink to calm down." Or "You would drink too if people ticked you off the way I am ticked off." See, it is not that there is no justifable anger. But the line between justifiable and unjustifiable is barely legible. It is hard to discern, hard to recognize. In recovery, there is a line in the main book that calls anger the "dubious luxury of normal men." And it feels like that a luxury, something indulged in, something I cannot indulge in, like bourbon.
In Buddhism as in recovery, anger is a poison. Deadly and potent. A way to justify all kinds of wrong behaviour. Buddhism takes the same line of thought about anger--there is no justifiable anger. All this is being said in the same breath that I can say that anger is a natural emotion. Anger is a response to fear. Anger works in nature to defend the vulnerable animal.
"So what should make us angry in life? Anything?"
Ideally, nothing, but I don't think that is realistic. I also do not think there is one answer that fits that question. Buddhists believe that no anger is justified. That doesn't mean that anger is not a natural human response, but simply that indulging in anger is not justified. Personally, I think anger is a habit. Anger is a conditioned response, and it can be conditioned out. That certainly does not mean that we ignore anger and pretend everything is okay. Mostly, I have found in my own experience, anger is a response I barely recognize in myself. I think I am hurt and the person betrayed me. I often put it in terms of loyalty. I cry. I grow frustrated. I misplace it easily. I don't realize that my anger is there, and it comes out in being overly sensitive, overly critical, overly everything. Anger, in my experience, distorts the truth.
Which doesn't answer your question, I realize. The only way I can think to answer this is to help you recognize and dispel anger rather than tell you what I think is justifiable and non-justifiable anger. My hookable places, as Pema Chodron calls them, are different than yours and different than the next person and different than Pema Chodron's. This is where the patience comes in and what we are being patient for.
There is this saying in Buddhism: Walking in the rain is only uncomfortable if you are trying to stay dry. That is to say, any human experience is suffering if you think it is suffering. If we agree that anger is a normal response to fear and it is natural, then we need to stop punishing ourselves for feeling anger. That takes part of the suffering of anger out of the equation--the guilt of anger. It is only then that we can deal with the anger. The steps for dealing with anger are exactly what you think they are, except they are much harder than they sound. 1. Admit that you are angry. I can't think of anything more frustrating than talking to someone who is clearly angry and keeps denying their own anger. Maybe more frustrating is talking yourself out of your own anger, and having someone continually tell you you are angry. Can you allow yourself the space for anger? Can you honestly assess anger and work towards its elimination? There is the key to dealing with anger. 2. Identify why you are angry. I find most of my anger comes from a fear of not being loved, but that is just me. 3. Cultivate patience.
Patience means waiting out your own anger. You restrain yourself and your responses, because anger comes out in every word you speak to the person. Pema Chodron writes about anger and patience, "Patience means getting smart: you stop and wait. You also have to shut up, because if you say anything it’s going to come out aggressive, even if you say, 'I love you.'"
That is true, no? You can tell when someone is angry with you by their tone of voice. The part of anger that makes it so indulgent and difficult to channel into love is that anger is such intense suffering. It is a ball of differing emotions--aggression, betrayal, hurt, loss, pain, resentment, fear, irritation. It grows the more you feed it and it becomes a planet that has its own gravitational pull. It sucks other emotions into it. In that way, anger demands resolution. You just want to stop your pain and suffering. We scream and yell, or even calmly explain why the other person is wrong and you are right. But the way we resolve issues in anger does not help the situation; it escalates suffering. Patience is the way out. Patience isn't to deny the anger or suppress it, but to call the thing by its proper name. This is what humility is to me--taking ourselves right where we are. The good, the bad, the ugly.
Patience isn't just waiting--it is fearless waiting. It is reacting internally rather than externally. It is listening. It is breathing. That is scary to our egos--to hear someone's grievances with us, or hateful words, or watch their wrong actions, and sit silently with them, not indulging in the drama, not being right. It is setting a goal to your anger--to stop your suffering and the suffering of others--while understanding that there is no resolution to suffering and anger. Do you understand that? Patience advocates (in Buddhism, at least) are not trying to deny the suffering, but to acknowledge, understand and cease the continuation of suffering.
I am going to stop here and just mention that the goal is to cultivate a loving-kindness with all sentient beings. That is always the goal. The caveat is not "except for those people with whom you are angry." Christians counsel to pray for the people you are angry for*, Buddhists counsel the same thing, to approach each person with loving-kindness. To share your compassion, to want to literally remove their suffering and take it on ourselves.
This really leaves us with nothing. We can never be "right", right? Right. You can be right or happy. Because indulging in that anger, fighting, trying to convince, change, cajole...where does this lead us? To more suffering. When we leave an argument where we "won", the other person is hurt, sad, rejected and dejected. Have we truly won? Patience is a way to diffuse yourself, to react in a way that is going to help alleviate suffering rather than create more. So, what do we do with all this self-knowledge after looking at our own anger and suffering? We let it go.
Easier said than done. I have such a hard time letting shit go. I open my hands to let go of the reins, and I realize I had been holding so long and so tightly, that the rope are burned into my skin. So, we do it little by little. We let go of our need to argue, first. We let go of wanting to be right. We let go of the importance of our anger. We let go. And we will indulge in anger. We will confront people even when we know this, we are human. But we will try next time to walk away if we cannot sit in silence. To ask for twenty-four hours to respond to confrontation. We set boundaries so we do not have to indulge in anger. And that means the practice of patience is also patience with ourselves. Patience with our own humanity.
I hope this sheds some light on this topic in my life and my approach to anger, which is a new thing. I should say, it is a practice I have focused on in the last eleven months of sobriety. I didn't realize how full of anger and resentment I was before. Seeing that in my has really forced me to understand and confront those anger demons. As always, I love answering questions about Buddhism, grief, sobriety, parenting, mindful parenting, loss, art, religion (I love religion questions) and everything in between. I like riffing on topics other people pick, if I have to be honest. Anyway, you can leave them in comments or send me an email at uberangie(at)gmail(dot)com. I can also clarify any of this and welcome any Buddhist or AAer to clarify their understanding of these topics.
* I actually wrote a post about exactly how you pray for people with whom you are angry. I can publish it, if anyone is interested.
I consulted this article by Pema Chodron called The Answer to Anger and Aggression is Patience. I read it a few months ago when I was journaling about my own anger and resentment and read it again before writing this post. It is worth the read if you are interested in this topic.