Question - What is the cause of anger? What can
we do to ensure that we manage our anger so that we do not hurt ourselves or
others whilst working towards the total elimination of anger?
Answer - The cause of anger is craving or grasping and our belief in a self. On the surface this may not be very apparent. Most Buddhists are aware that intense craving leads to attachment and greed. However, intense craving also leads to ill-will, anger and hatred.
Just as strong attachment and greed arises because we seek our own happiness, ill-will and anger arise because we seek our own happiness. Just as we crave to hold on to happy sensations that form strong bonds which lead to greed, we crave to set aside unhappy situations or unpleasant sensations. And when we cannot set them aside or avoid them, we feel ill-will, anger and hatred. We also feel ill-will and anger when our happiness is taken away or thwarted. The stronger the craving, the greater will be the suffering resulting from ill-will and anger.
Anger is a normal emotion that all human beings feel, like sorrow and happiness. The emotion of anger is felt from the time one is born. How many of you have seen a little baby turn red and cry with his little face twisted with anger? How many have witnessed a two-year-old throw a temper tantrum? They are too young to have learned this behaviour from others. And yet it is obvious that they are experiencing intense anger. It is also obvious that they have not learned to manage their anger. Because of their young age they are often excused the temper tantrum.
Unfortunately, many adults too have never learned to manage their anger. And so, just like the two-year-old, when they are angry they throw a tantrum. Maybe not in quite the same way as the two-year-old, but in a manner that is not acceptable for an adult - in a manner that is harmful to self and to others.
Reminding us that anger harms us more than it does those on whom anger is directed the Buddha advises against anger as follows:
"The person possessed of anger; discoloured,
Does not have sound sleep.
Even when experiencing the beneficial
He mistakes it as mischief.
Then he harms another
By thought, speech and deed
As result, he will suffer.
Loss of property (fines or punishment).
Crazed by wrath he behaves thus
That invites ill-repute.
His relatives, friends and acquaintance
Shun him, for his temper - hot.
Anger fathers misfortune
Anger maddens one's mind
It is a danger that rises from within
But man realizes it not.
The angered knows not what is right
Nor does he see what really is
Surrounded by darkness he dwells
Who now does anger defeat?
Captivated and maddened by anger
He does what is unwholesome with ease
But in time when anger is spent
Regrets he, as one burnt by flames."
As the cause of anger is craving, one often finds that intense anger is felt towards those we love the most. As such it is most important that we learn how to manage our anger so as not to hurt the people we love. One should not assume that those we love will accept and excuse our inappropriate behaviour. Even if they do not tell us how they feel, one can be sure that over time they will not love or respect us for such behaviour.
What we are going to learn today are some techniques to help us manage this anger, and over time, some techniques which will help us to reduce and possibly eliminate anger. We will illustrate these concepts with two stories that occurred at the time of the Buddha.
The first story is an incident that occurred with Visakha, the Buddha's chief female benefactor. One day she had come to the Buddha for solace as she was angered at some unfair taxes that had been levied on a gift she had mailed. Visakha had mailed a parcel to some relatives and the border guards had charged an unreasonably high levy on the goods. Visakha had complained to the king, but due to pressures of state affairs, he had ignored her complaint. Annoyed and angry, Visakha visited the Buddha for solace. The Buddha calmed her mind by saying:
"Painful is all subjection.
Blissful is complete control.
People are troubled by common concerns,
Hard to escape are the bonds (of craving)."
These words of wisdom from the Buddha helped Visakha put this minor irritation in perspective. The Buddha's advice is as valid today as it was 2500 years ago. So strong are the bonds of craving and attachment that often we are angered and affected by small issues, many of which are outside our control and trivial when compared to other issues of greater consequence that afflict mankind.
Visakha, as she was only a Sotapanna, felt anger. She managed her anger by not lashing out and hurting anyone. She then went to the Buddha for support. Listening to the Buddha she realized very quickly that this was something outside her control and something that was not of great consequence. This helped to calm her mind.
The second story is about Sariputta, the Buddha's chief male disciple. A group of men were praising the noble qualities of the elder when a young Brahmin challenged them saying the reason Sariputta had never shown anger was because he had never been provoked. To prove that Sariputta, like others, would resort to anger, he walked up behind the elder and dealt him a resounding blow. Sariputta said "what was that?" and then, without even turning around to find who had hit him, continued walking. The Brahmin was overcome with guilt and shame at his conduct. Falling on his knees he begged pardon and told Sariputta how he had hit him to provoke anger. Sariputta then forgave the Brahmin. The Brahmin, not satisfied with a verbal pardon, asked Sariputta to come to his home for the noonday meal to show that he bore no malice towards him. Sariputta accepted the invitation.
After the meal, as Sariputta was leaving, he saw that a mob of angry supporters had gathered with sticks and stones to punish the Brahmin. They had witnessed the Brahmin's treatment of the elder whom they loved and respected. Sariputta asked them what the commotion was about. When informed he asked, 'Whom did the Brahmin strike, you or me?" On being told that it was the Elder whom the Brahmin had struck, he dispersed the angry crowd by saying, "I have pardoned him. What cause is there for anger when I, whom he struck, feels none."
Sariputta, being an Arahanth, had eradicated all craving and as such felt no anger. The only way we cannot feel anger is by destroying craving. As such it is only an Arahanth who will be completely free of anger. Since none of us are Arahanths we should not put ourselves down or feel guilty when we feel anger. We should, however, ensure that we manage it so that we do not hurt others.
And so we have our long-term goal and our short-term goal. The long-term goal of eliminating anger and the short-term goal of managing anger. Our long-term goal will be reached only through the practice of morality - infinite compassion to all living beings and meditation. Meditation on loving kindness, awareness of breathing (Anapansati) and insight (Vipassana). Over time, all of these will help reduce and finally eliminate anger. As we are aware of the purpose of meditation in relation to the Buddhist goal of Nibbana, we will concentrate on the short-term goal of anger management whilst keeping in mind the importance of eradicating the craving which leads to anger, which is the Buddhist goal.
It must be stressed, however, that meditation also helps in the short- term goal of anger management, as meditation teaches you:
compassion and loving kindness,
to be more aware of your feeling,
to reflect before you speak or act.
The Buddha encourages anger management as follows:
"He abused me, he ill-treated me
He defeated me, he robbed me.
Releasing such thoughts
Banishes hatred for all times."
"Repay not the angry with anger
And you will win the battle hard to win.
He who acknowledges the other's anger
While maintaining peace mindfully,
Has worked for the well-being of both
Himself and the other."
"Everybody loves himself
Life is dear to all
Feeling for others as for yourself
One should refrain from harming others."
"By not retaliating in anger
At one who gets angry
One wins the battle
That is hard to win."
As meditation helps anger management, we will relate back to meditation periodically throughout this lesson.
When we are in a situation which causes us unhappiness or distress we go through many different emotions. Especially if the incident is one that is outside our control and of significant importance. According to Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, when faced with grave personal loss we go through five stages - denial, anger, depression, bargaining and finally acceptance.
Denial because at first you don't want to believe that this is true,
Anger because you feel hurt that this should happen to you,
Depression when you feel that nothing can be done about it,
Bargaining when you start to look for alternatives or opportunities to minimise or overcome the hurt and, finally,
Acceptance when you start to heal.
At times one may go through these very quickly. At times it may take months. At times one may go to acceptance and then relapse back to denial. These emotions are often felt when there is major personal loss. It could be an unexpected death, a job loss or a sudden diagnosis of a terminal illness. Academics say that it is normal for everybody to go through these stages. These feelings are not just unique to you. However, the anger felt at such times needs to be managed because if one cannot get past this stage in a reasonable time it could lead to hatred, long-term depression and emotional problems. If we can understand that everybody goes through these stages and that this situation is outside our control, we may, on our own, be able to manage it with time through acceptance and support from good friends. Some, however, may need professional help.
The majority of us, however, get angry because of day-to-day events and day-to-day stresses. What can we do to manage anger in these situations that occur daily? Anger manifests in two ways. Sometimes anger arises spontaneously, flares up, and then is spent. Sometimes anger flares up, then one holds the anger for days, weeks and maybe even for months. This is very dangerous as anger that is not managed can build to hatred. Both manifestations, which sometimes overlap, cause suffering to self and others. How do we manage this anger that we all feel so no one gets hurt? How do we ensure that anger does not escalate to hatred?
First we try to identify where anger starts, and secondly we identify where we hold anger. This may not be easy to do and at times you may need help from a loved one. What is your first sign of anger? Is it the clenching of your palms, the grinding of your teeth or is it your flushed face? Secondly, where do you hold the anger? Whilst there are some who blow over with anger, some retain it for days. Do you retain anger in the head with migraine headaches and thoughts that go on and on, in the chest with this consuming, burning heat, or in the stomach where it manifests as ulcers?
We begin by observing how we first express anger. Is it by yelling out hurtful words, throwing things, hitting, crying or running away? Or do we suppress our anger and hold on to it? Examine yourself and try to observe and know yourself.
In other words, with mindfulness we try to be aware of all our feelings and sensations at times of anger. Once you have identified the first external symptom of anger and consciously try to feel these sensations you will be able to identify when anger arises. Over time you will know and recognize the first signs of anger and suppressed anger. Mindfulness and insight meditation will help you very quickly to identify the first signs of anger. Being able to identify the first signs of anger, you can now start strategies to cope with or manage anger.
Anger that is held is more damaging in the long run as it can build to hatred. Unchecked, it can lead to unwholesome thoughts, speech and action, with grave consequences. As such, we will begin with some strategies for anger that has been held onto. The following have helped others:
Calm discussion with person (sometimes this may be through letters)
Self care (do something special for yourself)
Reading a book
Listening to soft music
Talking to a friend (support)
Reading or listening to the Dhamma
Daily meditation on compassion, mindfulness and insight
Add to this list by reflecting on what works for you. Incidently, these strategies also help to reduce spontaneous anger by reducing stress and promoting general well-being so that trivial things don't result in anger.
Some strategies for dealing with spontaneous anger are:
Taking time out (walk out of the situation)
Practising deep listening
Reflecting before you speak
Developing compassion and kindness to other's needs, frailties and differences .
Looking at the other point of view
Slowing down (cutting down on stressful commitments)
Daily meditation on compassion, mindfulness and insight
Add to this list by reflecting on what works for you. The majority of us express anger in words, and so we will concentrate on words that will heal and reduce conflict as opposed to words that will hurt and escalate conflict. The Buddha has advised us to speak words that instil confidence and cause happiness, hope and joy. If we are mindful of our precepts we can, over time, move towards refraining from words that hurt, cause disharmony and suffering. With effort we can move towards words that being hope, joy, peace and harmony.
Some words and action you should avoid using when you are angry are:
Words of accusation
Hurtful words such as:
You are stupid
You are dumb
You are selfish
You are vicious
You are cruel
and definitive words such as:
Instead, learn to express anger by sharing how you feel and how the other person's actions or words affect you. The following expressions will help to defuse anger without escalating anger. "I feel (insert specific feeling) when you (insert specific act). Instead I would like/ prefer (inserts specific preference)."
For example, the statements: "I feel hurt when you accuse me of lying. I would prefer that you hear my side of the story before you pass judgement", defuses anger. Compare this with "You always call me a liar. You never believe what I say. I might as well lie to you. What is the use of telling the truth when you will never believe me anyway?" The first approach defuses anger and helps the situation, whereas the second escalates anger.
Reflect on the advice the Buddha gave Visaka. The following reflection when meditating on loving kindness may also be helpful.
"May I develop the equanimity
to accept things I cannot change,
The courage to change things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference."
It is normal to feel annoyed when something unpleasant occurs. First, reflect on the issue and the magnitude of the action that has offended you. Is it really that important? If not, let it go. Do not let it escalate to anger, especially if the offender is a loved one. Instead, reflect on the positive things that the person has done for you. Also reflect as to whether this action is within your control. What is the use of getting angry and annoyed if you have lost your job and if there is nothing you can do to get your job back? Instead, spend your energy on changing or coping with the situation. Negotiate a severance package, ask for retraining, or look for other opportunities.
Remember that anger is your worst enemy. Anger harms you more than it does the person towards whom the anger is directed. The law of kamma operates despite the ignorance of man. Intentional actions by thought, word and deed will follow you and fruit at the opportune time. If you are a person who acts on anger through hitting and becoming abusive you need professional help. Spousal and child abuse is against the law. One must recognize that abuse can be both physical and through continuous harsh and threatening speech. Both leave scars. Often it is the mental scars that are harder to heal. They leave long-term emotional problems. Does your family love and respect you or are they afraid of you? One needs to earn love and respect. It cannot be got through fear. In fact, according to the Buddha's teachings, continuous harsh words will result in aversion and ill-will in the mind of the recipient. Unchecked, aversion and ill-will in the mind of the recipient will lead to anger and hatred. And while you can change yourself and manage your own anger, you have no control over the minds of others:
The Buddha's advice for anger management is boundless compassion and loving kindness through mental development. The Buddha said:
"Anger is never appeased by anger
Anger is appeased by loving kindness.
This is an eternal truth."
The Buddha encouraged others to destroy anger and hatred through loving kindness by describing the bliss of those who have conquered anger. He said:
"Truly we dwell in happiness,
as we do not hate, while others hate.
Amidst those who are filled with hatred
we live appeased,
free of hatred."
Statistics show that often persons are angry and abusive with their loved ones. The very same act performed by an acquaintance does not lead to anger. Most people with effort manage their anger in the workplace in order to appear professional, but vent at their loved ones. And yet it is those we love that we should treat with most tenderness. The damage done by anger cannot be measured. Reflecting on the following story may help to motivate anger management.
There was a little boy who had a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, to hammer a nail in the back fence. The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Then it gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to manage his temper than to drive those nails into the fence. Finally the day came when the boy didn't lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to manage his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. He said, "You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same."
When we say things in anger, we leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won't matter how many times you say I'm sorry, the wound is still there. A verbal wound is as bad as a physical one. In fact it can be worse, for mental abuse takes longer to heal. Family and friends are like very rare jewels. They make us smile and encourage us to succeed. They lend an ear, they share a word of praise, and they always want to open their hearts to us to help us when we are hurt. Don't scar your family and friends. Learn to manage your anger.