The other day at Home Depot, two men got into a heated argument over who had broken the queue. One of the men, a giant over 6ft, stalked over to the shorter man, and looming over him challenged and swore him. The shorter man, visibly pale, but furious tried to act macho as he weakly parried insult for insult. I watched horror stricken, hoping they wouldn’t come to blows.
When I was in India a couple of months ago, I got into an argument with a few people who I thought were trying to cheat me. I related this incident to students in my meditation class. One student asked me if I felt good after angrily telling them off. I said no because I was embarrassed at having forgotten my training and losing my cool. And my ranting hadn’t changed the outcome.The futility of anger is clarified in this quote by the 8th Century Indian Buddhist monk Shantideva:
“If something can be remedied, why get upset? If something can’t be remedied, why get upset?”
Venting my anger had only succeeded in making my body tremble, heart race, and left me feeling exhausted and impotent. I had wasted energy but had achieved nothing of benefit. I could tell my answer hadn’t satisfied her or many other students.
I’ve since thought more about her question. We assume that when we vent our anger we are at least not letting ourselves be taken advantage of and we are fighting back. These were certainly the thoughts and feelings flashing through me during my Indian altercation.
We are living in challenging times in a world and country that’s polarized, where distrust and distress are growing every day. With the daily onslaught to our civil and social rights and the loss of human life in racial attacks, there's good reason to be upset, but we should be careful not to vent our anger.
Anger isn’t bad, but it is unhealthy. Sometimes it is justified. The trouble with it though is that even if the anger is valid, becoming enraged is not a skillful response. Anger can make us feel powerful. And while it may occasionally get us what we want, as a long term strategy for dealing with frustration it isn’t effective. Anger is destructive to ourselves and others.
The Buddha said, “we will NOT BE punished FOR our anger but BY our anger.”
If we use lashing out, avenging, or swearing as a response in stressful times, we strengthen the habit. As the habit strengthens, our tolerance weakens, and it will take less and less to upset us. Then the time and space in which to process and decide how to act will drastically decrease. And so this spiral will tighten.
A mindful attitude can reduce the duration and level of our anger. Begin by:
Reigning in the anger habit is difficult. It will take time, so be patient with yourself. Know that you will forget and react in a habitual way. Practice self-forgiveness. And remember constant practice will bring about the desired change.
May you be free from anger’s destruction.