Monday, November 28, 2011

question: anger and patience

Edited to add: This question came in the comments of this post: another post where I kill a metaphor by slow torture. In that post, I talked about how I drew lines in the sand with friends, resided in a place of anger and impatience. And how through recovery, I am learning about how detrimental anger and resentment is to my spiritual condition, and how it feeds into my spiritual malady. I also talked about patience and how I lacked patience, and am trying to work on that aspect of overcoming anger. Cathy asked me this question, and I read this question as her asking me to expand on the philosophies that led me to believe that anger is inhibiting me, and patience is a virtue I need to cultivate. Hope that makes sense. As I said in the comments on this post, I am not perfect on this. In fact, I am just about as far from perfect in this as I can be, but I am practicing letting go of anger.

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.


  1. I gotta say, when I read this I was a little, well, frustrated. Because there were times I felt justified in my anger. My baby died because of a doctor's negligence and that was a hard pill to swallow. It still is. Am I as angry as I was - no. Am I still a little pissed - yes. Have I forgiven her and myself - yes, mostly. But I had to be angry for awhile, because that's how it was. There came a time when I couldn't carry around that much anger anymore, and I let go of it (mostly). But I do believe I had to feel those emotions, that hatred, that anger for awhile. I wasn't capable of sitting with patience and understanding and expressing those emotions, as ugly as they were, allowed me to release them in time. Maybe I missed the point, I know you talked about not denying our emotions but I do believe there is something to genuinely expressing oneself. My mother cannot express anger at all and it comes out in other ways, I feel in less productive ways (she is very passive aggressive). I'm rambling, but I guess, how do you express/release these emotions in a healthy way?

  2. I guess my thought about anger is that it should be temporary and proportional. I also try hard not to get angry when something is unintentional.

  3. I totally agree with you, Monique. Anger was the primary emotion I felt after Lucia died, even though it was no one's fault. I see now how anger prevented me from feeling the true emotions of her death. Anger felt like an action and it helped my focus that emotion somewhere, but in the long run, having three years since her death, losing friends, going into recovery, I can see how the anger prolonged my acute suffering and multiplied my issues. I am not sharing this, though, because I have practiced patience. I am only beginning to practice anything close to patience. I'm on my phone. I will think about this more.

  4. Angie, I love that you write about this and I love thinking about what you wrote. I will be doing a lot more of that, and doubtless commenting/emailing further, later.

    Monique's comment helped me to pinpoint something. (Not that I'm assigning you to write more on this topic, but would value your thoughts, as always...)

    I can tell that, for me, both anger and patience are connected with justice. That's the focus of the patience, and that's what helps to put limits on the anger: if I somehow get the sense that justice is not going to be trampled.

    Idealism can be a killer, but - I do want to see justice triumph in the end.

    Is it possible to get *too* angry about things that are horrifying, purely evil? The Holocaust? Child sex trafficking? Greed, graft, and corruption? (Fill in the blank; there are a million examples.)

    Most of my anger isn't about me. It isn't about things people have done - or left undone - to me. It's about justice unsatisfied.

    Maybe that's why the patience can be so hard to find...because the justice isn't coming, in so many cases.

    For you, where does injustice - whether personal, or large/global - fit in to anger and patience?

    I do realize you have plenty of things to do every day besides answer questions. :)

    Enjoying your writing and your thought processes, and thank you!

    Cathy in Missouri

  5. When I first started to look at myself and I how to handle anger, I too ran into all the advise about letting go of it. And it seemed overwhelming. Like a lot of emotional work. Lots of deep thinking about right and wrong and justification and my place in the world and how I wanted to live and what kind of person I wanted to be and how much effort it was going to take to get there. Wherever there was. I believed in self improvement and personal growth, but I was in my early twenties and knew I didn't really have that far to go. (Can you say "shallow" and "no self-esteem problem"?)

    So I decided I could skip all that work and go straight to forgetting. Just keep my mouth shut and forget about it. But I would only forget about whatever had made me angry for three days. I can turn my thoughts and ignore stuff for three days. But only three days, because if it still mattered after that time, then I was obviously right and justified to be angry. Right? I kept a dated list of stuff that pissed me off, just in case I might forget something important while doing all this forgetting. Yeah, seriously, a list.

    I noticed, after a more then a year (I'm a slow learner and I don't give up my self-righteousness easily), that the vast majority of the things people did to tick me off were completely forgettable in three days or less. And the few that weren't, were all the better for taking some time to calm down and think about instead of just react to. 30+ years later, I'm a lot better at identifying, ignoring and forgetting unimportant irritations. Better at not lashing out at those I love in anger, giving myself time to cool off. And working on not letting a hot anger settle into a cold, constant anger. Still learning how to think through a calming down period, not seethe.

    This is where your patience hits me, Angie. Without the anger, I wouldn't need so much patience. Patience with myself. Patience to keep learning, though I'll be dead before I've gotten it right. Patience to say, "If anger is not the response I want to give, what is?" Patience to try and find a way to build up, not tear down. The simple, but oh so hard, patience to just keep my mouth shut sometimes.

    Many thanks for the post! It sure got me thinking again!

  6. Angie, Sorry! Forget to sign the comment at 3:59pm. I did say I was getting better at forgetting things!

    Love, Jill A.

  7. Um, yes. How do you pray for people who you are really angry with? Thanks

  8. I happened upon your blog today, following a chain of links to the glitter mind jar, of all things. And yet, this is the post I needed today. My heart is sore with anger and resentment, and I need a path for letting it go. At the same time, how do I do that knowing that other people are angry with me? Nobody is at complete fault, nobody is without fault. Everyone is miserable. How do we reach peace?

  9. Thanks for this, Angie. I've been mulling your words over and keep coming back to how hard it can be to extend compassion and patience to myself. I tend to take my anger at others, turn it toward myself and play martyr until it ebbs. Letting it go is hard.


What do you think?