Anger is my worst enemy; It’s also my best friend and greatest teacher.
There are few incidents that get me riled up for months. Awhile back, the incidents that occurred in Ferguson, MO and New York City stirred up a sense of shock, indignation, and confusion that has stayed with me for a long time. My mind roused with so many questions like, what is considered reasonable force that police officers can use to apprehend a suspect? What level of standards should police officers be held to? Is being immune to fear a reasonable standard? How much power does the grand jury actually have? Are they truly unbiased? Are they really capable of deciding if a police officer should be charged with murder? I had lots of questions and few answers. The only thing I knew for sure was that two unarmed men, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, were killed as a result of police force.
Over time my anger morphed into a deep sense of sadness, distrust, and doubt in the very systems that were developed to protect us. With the high level of media attention, I couldn’t quite determine if these feelings were provoked or if I truly mistrusted the policing methodologies. Perhaps your reaction was not of anger or sadness. Perhaps they were similar to some of the comments I read on social media and national websites where the general sentiment was justification, rationalization, denial, and blaming as ways to deal with whatever feelings emerged. Regardless, the topic is now embedded in our consciousness.
At the time, I met with Sharon Salzberg who offered a Buddhist Perspective on how to deal with the public and individual anger that many were feeling at the time. As introduced in her book “Love Your Enemies”, the model below can be used to discover how to create distance from your emotion and move to place of compassion, understanding, and action (either personal or societal). What do we do with our emotions when we feel a sense of injustice? How can these strong emotions be used for good? What are the risks if we let these emotions shift our world view?Whether it’s something with big media attention like Ferguson, or an everyday occurrence like getting irritated with a friend, work colleague, or child, the tools below can be used to gain more self-awareness of “right action” when faced with many strong emotions.
What is anger?
Sharon Salzberg’s book, “Love Your Enemies”, describes four types of enemies pulled from the ancient Tibetan mind-transformation teachings and uses Ferguson as a real life example to demonstrate these concepts:
The outer enemy: the people and institutions that harass, disturb, or harm us in some way, as well as situations that frustrates us. – In the Ferguson case, it could be the Police officers, the legal system, or anything that has generally harmed or hurt others such as prejudice and ignorance.
The inner enemy: force of anger, hatred, fear, and other overwhelming states that start dictating our lives and can limit what is possible for us. It’s suffering that you create yourself; an anger habit, which is an enemy within. This is when we take our anger and rage out on others, but also on ourselves.
The secret enemy: self-obsession and self-preoccupation, which isolate us from other people, leaving us frustrated and alone. It’s when our anger gets to the point that we isolate and start feeling ourselves as separate, cut off, threatened, put upon, and in competition. We forget that we live in an interdependent universe and that we mutually rely on each other. We forget that we are connected. This may be the hurtful things we said to others during the heat of the moment forgetting the harm our words or expressions of anger may have caused like breaking something or becoming physically abusive.
The super secret enemy: deep-seated self-loathing and condemnation and believing that you are capable of very little. Instead of being ignited to make change, you feel stuck and hopeless. For example, you may not think of yourself as valuable and believe that you are powerless to the prevailing systems because of the color of your skin. You don’t have to become the way that others see you. Listen as Sharon shares a Buddhist point of view here.
HOW SHOULD I DEAL WITH MY ANGER?
By breaking down the potential enemies we direct our anger towards, we can begin dismantling the barriers we built towards them. We can start shifting what psychologist Jonathan Haidt refers to as stepping out of the “moral matrix”, which is moving from our rigid, entrenched, same-old thinking mind. Once we are able to clearly see that there are no enemies, we can move from returning anger with anger, exacting revenge, and move to more loving kindness and compassion. We can move to “metta” position where everyone counts and everyone matters.
What do the Buddhist teaching say about anger?
According to Buddhist psychology, anger is likened to a forest fire that burns up it’s own support. This analogy is used not only because anger can burn uncontrolled and wild like a forest fire, but it also causes great damage to the habitat and living things around itat the end. However, there are positive aspects of angers within the Buddhist teaching. Anger is active and has potential energy (versus complacent or passive). The angry person often can be the most honest. The challenge is balancing the positive aspect of anger (strength) with the potential dangerous aspect of anger (damage and delusion), which ultimately leaves us in a fixed mindset unable to find possible solutions.
Anger is often a cover-up for deeper feelings that we hide on the inside. Sharon explains that if we can look at the heart of the anger, we will find that anger arises when we feel powerless and helpless. It also masks other feelings like guilt or sadness. Anger is a way for us to gain respect and get control. In Tibetan Buddhism, they say that “anger is that which we pick up when we feel weak” because we believe anger will make us feel strong. Being able to understand the strands of emotions that make up our anger can often help in creating more thoughtful and informed action.
How does the idea of impermanence fit within this model?
We either hope that things will change or that things will never change, but life is always changing. Similar to the weather, our anger and even the life events that caused them will change and it’s important not to get too attached to these fleeting expressions of life.
Is anger ever justified? Should we “hold On” to our anger or surpress it?
It’s very common to believe in a spiritual practice that condemns anger and views it as “bad”. In the video, Sharon explains how anger is like a wave that flows through you. You’re able to recognize it, look deeply into the heart of it, understand your intention, and then make a conscious choice on whether you should take action or not, and what kind of action would be the most effective. Check it out here. http://youtu.be/E6lu7w8vSsk?t=4m53s
Sharon talks about the importance of allowing ourselves to feel anger without judgment, condemnation or fear. It’s important that we can make a distinction between the feeling of anger versus using it as a motivation for such actions as being violent, verbally abusive, or for the purpose of damaging relationships. She cautions us not to conflate the two. Hear more here.
How can anger fuel positive change?
Anger is motivating and awakening and can be very powerful depending on how it’s expressed. Sharon shares her own experiences at a dinner table with someone she disagreed with here. http://youtu.be/E6lu7w8vSsk?t=7m15s
Sharon challenges us to channel that outrage in a way that could make a difference, and to use the power we are given to enact change. She shares her frustration with the turnout for a recent voting and uses that as a paradigm of how society reacts to issues that warrants change here.http://youtu.be/E6lu7w8vSsk?t=11m24s
Ferguson: A case study in dealing with Anger
Sharon and CJ discuss Ferguson.
Sharon talks over Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement as a model spiritual force that was less about violence and more about love. Here more: http://youtu.be/E6lu7w8vSsk?t=12m25s
STRATEGIES FOR ANGER MANAGEMENT
Step 1: Feel everything mindfully. Think of the feeling as weather passing through you. http://youtu.be/E6lu7w8vSsk?t=27m39sGet clear
Step 2: Once we feel something mindfully, then we can get at the heart of our feelings (our inner enemy), whether it be fear, guilt, powerlessness, helplessness, or sadness.
Step 3: After we uncover what is going on for us and are mindful of our emotions, we are likely to come up with more informed actions on how to act: to be fierce, to create clear boundaries, or to figure out a better way to communicate beyond screaming.
Let your attention settle to your feelings of your breath (nostril, chest, abdomen)
If your mind wonders, notice how you speak to yourself when you lose your focus. Are you harsh with yourself?
Let go gently and with kindness, start again.
Sharon Salzberg – Pioneer in Mindfulness Teaching, Author, and Teacher
Sharon Salzberg is a New York Times Best selling author and teacher of Buddhist meditation practices in the West. In 1974, she co-founded the Insight Meditation Society at Barre, Massachusetts withJack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Her emphasis is on vipassanā (insight) and mettā (loving-kindness) methods, (Wikipedia)Born in New York City in 1952, Sharon Salzberg experienced a childhood involving considerable loss and turmoil. An early realization of the power of meditation to overcome personal suffering determined her life direction. Her teaching and writing now communicates that power to a worldwide audience of practitioners. She offers non-sectarian retreat and study opportunities for participants from widely diverse backgrounds.Sharon first encountered Buddhism in 1969, in an Asian philosophy course at the State University of New York, Buffalo. The course sparked an interest that, in 1970, took her to India, for an independent study program. Sharon traveled motivated by “an intuition that the methods of meditation would bring me some clarity and peace.”In 1971, in Bodh Gaya, India, Sharon attended her first intensive meditation course. She spent the next years engaged in intensive study with highly respected meditation teachers. She returned to America in 1974 and began teaching vipassana (insight) meditation. Today she leads intensive retreats worldwide as well as a variety of non-residential programs, workshops, and classes.
In 1976, she established, together with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, which now ranks as one of the most prominent and active meditation centers in the Western world. Sharon and Joseph Goldstein expanded their vision in 1989 by co-founding the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS). In 1998, they initiated the Forest Refuge, a long-term retreat center secluded in a wooded area on IMS property. Sharon resides in Barre, Massachusetts, and New York City.
Sharon has also emerged as a featured speaker and teacher at a wide variety of events. She served as a panelist with the Dalai Lama and leading scientists at the 2005 Mind and LifeInvestigating the MindConference in Washington, DC. She also coordinated the meditation faculty for the 2005 Mind and Life Summer Institute, an intensive five-day meeting to advance research on the intersection of meditation and the cognitive and behavioral sciences.
At the 2005 Sacred Circles Conference at the Washington National Cathedral, Sharon served as a keynote speaker. She has addressed audiences at the State of the World Forum, the Peacemakers Conference (sharing a plenary panel with Nobel Laureates His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Jose Ramos Horta) and has delivered keynotes at Tricycle’s Buddhism in America Conference, as well as Yoga Journal, Kripalu and Omega conferences. She was selected to attend the Gethsemani encounter, a dialogue on spiritual life between Buddhist and Christian leaders that included His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The written word is central to Sharon Salzberg’s teaching and studies. She is the author of nine books including Lovingkindness, the NY Times best seller Real Happiness, and Real Happiness at Work.
In her early Buddhist studies at the University of Buffalo, she discovered Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s book, Meditation in Action. She later heard him speak at a nearby school: he was the first practicing Buddhist she encountered. While studying in India, Shunryu Suzuki’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind profoundly influenced the direction of her meditation practice.
She is a regular contributor the the Huffington Post, and was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine for several years. She has appeared in Time Magazine, Yoga Journal, msnbc.com, Tricycle, Real Simple, Body & Soul, Mirabella, Good Housekeeping, Self, Buddhadharma, More and Shambhala Sun, as well as on a variety of radio programs.
Various anthologies on spirituality have featured Sharon Salzberg and her work, including Meetings with Remarkable Women, Gifts of the Spirit, A Complete Guide to Buddhist America, Handbook of the Heart, The Best Guide to Meditation, From the Ashes—A Spiritual Response to the Attack on America, and How to Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism.