Dissolving Anger

by Kathy Kundalini
March 13, 2010

"We say, 'Pulling the weeds out gives nourishment to the plant.' We pull weeds and bury them near the plant to give nourishment. So even though you have some difficulties in your practice, even though you have some waves while you are sitting, those waves themselves will help you. So you should not be bothered by your mind. You should rather be grateful for the weeds, because eventually they will enrich your practice. If you have some experience of how the weeds in your mind will change into mental nourishment, your practice will make remarkable progress. You will feel the progress. You will feel how they change into self-nourishment. Of course it is not so difficult to give some philosophical or psychological interpretation of our practice, but that is not enough. We must have the actual experience of how our weeds change into nourishment."
    — Shunryu Suzuki; Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind


It is the nature of our human existence that joys are few, often short-lived, fleeting, threatened, while the circumstances that bring suffering and misery are more than plentiful. But that is part of our condition and circumstance, and so we should learn to face this reality, even embrace it, as the content of mindful awareness and practice. If we are impatient and angry with our suffering, we will only make ourselves more miserable. By practicing mindful endurance and patience in the "small sufferings" in everyday life, we make ourselves more able to endure the larger sufferings that are inevitably encountered. Mindful attention to the causes and conditions of our sufferings, and to our reactions to suffering, helps us gain insight into the nature of our existence, and our lives, consciousness, senses of self. By learning patience with ourselves, and compassion for others, we begin to acquire new skills and abilities, and a new sense of freedom. The following is a list of ideas, processes, lessons, viewpoints, and practices that perhaps can help prevent, or help deal with, verbal violence and hurtful anger-infliction, and also point the way toward a more compassionate and mindful way of living.


There is suffering that originates from external events, including, of course, those inflicted upon us by other people. But this suffering is also the result of how we process these events in our mind. There are "objective" events and facts which happen, which include life-challenges, illness, conflicts, frustrations, stresses, catastrophes, etc. But along with these "objective" facts there is also internal experience — the seemingly endless chains of emotions, reactions, feelings. We can deal as best we can with the externally inflicted "objective" events, but our internal world is all ours to experience, observe, understand, work with, and transform. As we deepen our self-understanding through practices of mindfulness, we can open to a deeper, richer sense of our immanence, and perhaps begin to experience a new kind of sense of well-being, and movement toward a transcendent freedom.


Anger is the eruption of hot, distressed emotion, usually aimed at a target exterior to oneself, usually seeking to disrupt, harm, damage, or terrorize someone else's sense of well-being. But it is also the "slow burn" of unhappiness and suffering, of self-hate and stress, as well as, an ongoing quasi-conscious scanning of the environment in the search for targets, victims, sources to blame and put-down. Anger, and its cousin, retaliation, act like irresistible drives, now quiet, now loud, that rob you of reason and good sense. Your anger not only seizes control of your mind, it also reproduces and spreads a sense of suffering and hurt. To the extent that it takes you over and seizes control of your mind, body, and behavior, it occludes your freedom of choice, your ability to freely and consciously choose your own actions.


You can only do so much when it comes to communication. Everyone ultimately is operating from their own set of experiences. The beneficial and most helpful path would mean respecting differences, allowing for disagreement and the realities of different biographical histories and life-experience. But so often, due to causes, conditions, contexts, psychologies, reflex-reactions, unmindful actions — discussion often deteriorates into aggression, abuse, insensitivity, and a hardening of differences rather than a mutual sharing and communication. These kinds of disagreements can escalate into hurtful disruptions of our sense of well-being, and anger and retaliation are often the result.


Anger is unskillful behavior. By displaying anger toward others, you risk transforming them into enemies. In this way, anger reproduces like a virus. It demonstrates your inability to skillfully manage your own life, as well as, your lack of abilities to think and communicate clearly. Anger distorts and creates more waves of distortion. A victimhood can spread, as others are engulfed or threatened by waves of anger-action and reaction.


A person habitually controlled by anger becomes the victim of his/her own hostility. Others' reaction to this hostility can become their discomfort and avoidance of being in the presence of this anger, for the eruption of this anger is always potentially present. Walking on egg shells is a precarious way to live.


It is often the anger we feel inside ourselves that is imagined as a threat coming from outside. Your internal anger becomes projected onto the world as something always present, and ever-threatening to your own sense of well-being and security.  Anger can develop into paranoia. The world is out to get you because you are split inside between your senses of victim and aggressor.


It is important to gain insight and understanding into the true cause of our unhappiness, including anger. If we are continually blaming our difficulties on others, that is a sign that there are problems and faults within our own mind. If we are truly peaceful inside, with our mind under control, then nothing that happens would disturb that peace, and no one would be able to appear as our enemy. This does not mean that problems never arise or that we become helpless victims. Rather, the difficulties inflicted upon us by others, and by all life-situations, may not have the distorting effect of upsetting our sense of balance, peace, integrity — literally because we are out of the reach of the distortions of anxiety and anger. In this way, we actually become better able to handle the inevitable stresses and disruptions that impinge on our life.


If we truly want to be rid of all enemies, subjectively felt and experienced, the surest and wisest path is to uproot and destroy our own anger. Dealing with our anger may not change the world, may not make those that oppose, or even oppress us, disappear, but it will change our experience of the world and of those "oppose" us. We may have enemies, but they will not be able to inflict the same kind of harm upon us. Moving beyond anger will not degrade our tools of self-defense or our ability to express, plan, deal with life's issues, including our strategies for social change, but rather will go along ways in helping us become more clear-headed, less neurotic, and less a victim. Our insight and abilities will be sharper, more coherent, focused, and better able to grasp reality as it is, rather than being victims our own outrage as anger-driven neurotics. We will see things as they are, not as how we are projecting.


As we smolder, ignite, and burn with anger, and then as we strike out in energy-vectors of rage, including verbal (or physical) violence, there may come some sense of relief and discharge. But we are also reproducing and programming ourselves for further anger. These responses become part of our personality-set, of our reflexes of behavior, and of our internalized feeling, our self-conception. We become angry people, which really means suffering people. That is, our suffering takes the form of anger as its mode of expression. This expression merely reproduces and enhances the tendency toward anger as a response. We are producing our own future, our future mode of suffering. We are then merely "going with the flow" of anger and anxiety, rather than digging in, challenging ourselves, taking control and responsibility for own mental states and social actions.


Feelings of hurt, anger, anxiety, resentment, jealousy, etc. are ultimately physically-felt. That is, the feelings of anger appear as symptoms located in the body. Seeing this, and understanding this experience, immediately increases a sense of mindfulness, and actually diminishes the intensity of the anxiety. By practicing this awareness, one can begin to separate from the pain, anxiety, anger even as you point your awareness directly at it, even as you allow yourself to experience it fully, without resistance. Tightness in the throat, gripping of tense muscles, flushing of the face, tension in the stomach, a pain in the neck, etc. all become "mere feelings" that are now gaining a distance from the mental trigger point. You see them for what they are — mere physical feelings and body-reactions that come and go. Paradoxically, as you point your awareness at the anger-in-the-body, as you consciously explore your feelings, a lessening of their sting may begin to occur. You witness them from a place of curious, but passive, observation and calmness. They become phenomena which you observe, and this moment of distancing allows for a space between you and "they." The feelings are no longer projected into the words of provocation, so your response need not be automatic. These feelings are something that are passing through you, like your internal weather. You have the ability to let them pass — not necessarily to suppress them, unless you want to — but really to experience them, as fully as you want, for they are now your phenomena of study, they are yours to enjoy! Perhaps you choose to redirect, or just let them go, remembering that anything and everything can become part of your practice of mindfulness. Actually, you can let the stormy weather have its way with you. But you need not revel it, but also need not fight it, hide from it, and especially need not let it take you away into hurtful reaction. In a sense, it all becomes your responsibility. It is like... someone hands you a burning torch. Are you going to hold the torch by the burning flame? The torch is already burning — do you want your hands to be burning as well?


Someone may come along and insult you, call your life a charade, even denounce you for your attempts at mindful living, your observations, your commitments, your struggles, your seeking to better yourself, your practice, path, daily life, your beliefs, your loves. Well, so what? Why obsess about another's state of mind, or their deluded perceptions? Consider this story:

"Once a man came unto me and denounced me on account of my observing the way and practicing great loving kindness. But I kept silent and did not answer him. The denunciation ceased. I then asked him, 'If you bring a present to your neighbor and he accepts it not, does the present come back to you?' The man relied, 'It will.'

"I said, you denounce me now, but as I accept it not, you must take the wrong deed back upon your own person. It is like an echo succeeding sound, it is like a shadow following object. You never escape the effect of your own evil deeds. Be therefore mindful and cease from doing evil."

Our actions do not just effect others, but effect ourselves as well. Our actions are creating the person we are in the present, and the person will be tomorrow, and the circumstances and conditions we will face in the future. If everything is a result of causes and conditions, then our being-in-the-present will take part in the casual conditioning that brings into existence our being-in-the-future. Our transgressions upon others will echo throughout our own life as well.


When provoked or attacked (verbally), if possible do nothing for at least 24 hours. Actually 24 minutes might work too, or even 24 seconds, or even 2.4 seconds. The point is to not react in the midst of "heat" — because distortion, misjudgment, or over-reactivity will most likely escalate an out-of-control situation. The time necessary to regain perspective and a sense of calm depends on the quality of mindfulness and self-presence. Violence, even verbal violence, will not come to an end by way of more violence. It will only reproduce itself, and most likely your "righteous" reactivity will carry an intended weapon of aggression and hurtfulness, all of which will invite a like-response. Violence begets violence. But a peaceful response can also be a clear and powerful response, peacefulness does not mean passivity. Words and actions can be selected for wisdom-effects, and a "transformation of the game" can hopefully be brought about. If not, well you tried your best. And still, you have the victory of achieving your own sense of integrity, well-being, and mindfulness. Your own practice advanced, even if your tormentor learned nothing from the experience.


Non-expression of hurt, or even an ongoing situation of non-expression of a point-of-view, experience, ideas, etc. can lead to depression. In fact, there is a direct relation between repressed expression and depression. To not express to someone can eat away at you as it creates within you a feeling of not being present, of missing opportunities, of not being yourself, of being repressed, and therefore unhappy. In fact the anger of others often acts as a deterrent to your own valid need for expression and communication. So becoming mindful of your anger, feelings, ideas, is very important, and it does not mean not expressing, or not defending, yourself.  The practices of mindfulness, self-witnessing, and conscious self-possession can go a long ways toward achieving a sense of clearness and intimacy with your capacities and self-worth. You give yourself the space to stay in touch with yourself and then to develop a strategy of encounter that moves beyond mere anger-discharge. Skillful means may help achieve meaningful results, if not ultimately with your tormentor, at least with yourself. Shared wisdom is both the weapon and the target. Aim carefully and use with abundance.


Whenever someone is harming, abusing, verbally attacking us, we should remain aware that that they are hurting us because of their own deluded mind, their own lack of insight, patience, awareness. By doing this action, they are creating their own painful present and future, reproducing their own reactive tendency to manifest harm, violence, suffering, in others, but also in themselves. Anger can so dominate a person's behavior and self-control that they essentially lose freedom of choice and freedom of action. It then becomes unreasonable, even foolish, for us to express hostility towards such a person under the sway of such anger. When we have trained ourselves to see the reality of this situation, then compassion may spontaneously arise within us, as our impulses toward anger and retaliation subside. Such an ability to practice non-retaliation will require prior mental preparation, and that is our practice.


The procedure is an ongoing practice of mindful awareness and self-observation, through both meditative insight and in daily encounters, relationships, events. Mindfulness indicates the presence of awareness that remains activated between provocation and reaction, or rather, that it relaxes or redirects the tendency of reaction. Remember that all provocations are the result of cause and conditions, such as those that manifest as aggression, the will-to-harm, retaliate, etc. Understanding this, we should direct our "anger" at the actual cause of our ensuing pain: the delusion of anger itself. The issue revolves around the question: What do I do with these feelings and mental states that result from harm being inflicted upon me? The practice is all about patience and compassion. But compassion does not just mean sympathy for the other person who is inflicting the pain, though it does mean this. But actually, this is about compassion for oneself, because the practice is also about protection, safeguarding, and the cultivation of one's own mind, which also means an ongoing awareness of suffering, the causes of suffering, and the path to ease, and eventually dissolve, all manifestations of suffering.


Mindfulness of causes, conditions, implications, effects of harmful actions can bring about a reversal and dissolution of a potentially harmful chain reaction. One could ask who benefits and who suffers in the acts of verbal violence and anger? What does the attacker experience in the acts of attack? Surely, the generation of terrible feelings of aggression, violence, hurt, fear of retaliation, pain-infliction — in fact, all the feelings and actions that we are trying to overcome through our mindfulness. These suffering feelings will be active in the moment, and will continue manifesting in the future —   as learned traits and modes of behavior. A pattern of suffering continues to reproduce. Given this situation, can we really be angry with the pathetic anger-inflictor who is caught in such a web of suffering? Compassion seems like a more aware and enlightened response. And further, along with our feelings of compassion, we may actually be thankful. Our tormentor has actually provided us a precious gift — the wonderful opportunity to engage our mindfulness and to practice our patience. Such an "enemy"  has allowed us to accumulate experiences — the experiences of non-violence, patience, awareness, insight — and the cultivation of meritorious energy to enhance our practice. Our adversary is thus a great benefactor, and for that we should be grateful! Perhaps we can now "retaliate" with the gift of mindfulness, and a sharing of the path that might ease their own suffering.


Mindful non-retaliation has yet another benefit — which is that it goes against the grain of so much of our current behavior and conditioning. We all live-out our tendencies, habits, reactions, "righteous" feelings, self-defenses, self-inflation, ego-centricities — all of which actually hide, disguise, and cover-up feelings of insecurity, fear, threat, hurt, and lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. These basic instabilities are manifested within us as individuals, in our current alienated social situations, and even can touch on some basic existential condition of being a human being — a suffering being in a life-world of impermanence, uncertainty, frustrated desire, sickness, and death. So, our practice of mindful non-retaliation can be a part of a general practice of "deprogramming" ourselves, so as to put us on a path toward a truer kind of freedom — of choice and action, beyond the choice-less choices of anger, violence, and the reproduction and escalation of aggression, and all other other modes of individual and socially-inflicted suffering. By practicing mindful patience. we begin to transcend our conditioned limitations, perhaps eventually becoming enlightened kinds of beings. We develop and extract meaning and purpose as we create in ourselves more compassionate ways of living, wasting no more time in the mindless spinning of the wheels of self-inflicted suffering.


Everything that happens, everything that we observe, is the result of a seemingly infinite complex process of causes and conditions. That is the nature of our world. If someone has provoked or verbally attacked you — to whom or what are you going to direct your anger? If someone hits you with a stick — do you get mad at the stick? At their arm? Their nervous system? Muscles? What about the mind? Are you angry with someone's mind? But what are those conditions that rendered this mind into this state of aggression? Perhaps someone's physical condition, or life in general, or parents, or disappointments, or abuse, or capitalism, or crisis, or the threats and disappointments that surround and impinge from all directions. Maybe there is a stone inside a shoe, or a bad cup of coffee in the stomach, or an allergy causing a low-grade headache, or maybe it was you. Can you enliven  in yourself a sense of compassion for this suffering being? Is this aggressor not also trapped in a web of reaction and suffering? Perhaps through your mindfulness there can come a shared sense of new possibility. Can you awaken together?


All phenomena are inherently empty of ultimate existence because all things are involved in a universal web of events. Things come and go, and everything is tied into everything else. The world is a total, unfolding event in which everything takes part. So again, who are you about to strike? And who, as in, you, is about to do this striking anyway? Where is the solid, inherently existing basis that provides the ultimate striking point between victim and aggressor? Aren't all things, as we normally experience them, all intertwined, and also, in a sense, a product of a reifying conceptual overlay that we project upon the flow of existence and its events? Why involve yourself in these imposed, auto-forming reifications? Why not instead bathe in the cool flowing river of the emptiness of phenomena? Make yourself empty, because, in a sense, you already are. Your immanence is a flow, here now, and now, gone, a game of hide-and-seek. Relax, nobody was harmed unless you choose to reify yourself into victim. Take a deep breath, let it flow, become this breathing.... We are all in the midsts of myriads of worlds, always in the center, always dependent and independent, moment after moment.... Take a deep breath, let it flow, become this breathing.... With this experience, with this practice, you may achieve an absolute sense of personal freedom, as you let go and transcend your inner demons and enemies.


A student approached his teacher, who was mindfully observing some gentle waves moving across the surface of a mountain lake. The student said he was having problems with anger and resentment...Did the teacher have any advice? The teacher smiled and held up a cup, and asked the student to fill it with lake water, and the student complied. The teacher reached into a little bag and emptied its contents of salt into the cup. Now, he said, have a drink of this water! Again, the student complied. Now, asked the teacher, "How did that taste?" "Salty! Bitter!" was the reasonable reply. Now, said the teacher, pour the water into the lake and swish it about, and the dutiful student carried out this instruction. Now, said the teacher, "Fill the cup with this lake water, and then take a drink!" The student did as told. The teacher then asked, "Well, how did that taste?" The answer came: "Refreshing! Sweet! Wonderful!" When your little mind is full of bitterness, or being salted with your own anger-tears, remember, you have a choice. You can be a little cup, or a lake. You can fill your little self with salty bitter tastes of anger and resentment. Or you can be as large, and calm, and sweet, and as pretty, as a beautiful mountain lake. You are that already. See your reflection? It is everywhere you look....


Anger and violence should not be inflicted upon others, and also, not upon ourselves. This path of self-transformation will not be easy, but it also need not be experienced as an imposition. But it does require mindfulness, presence, commitment, and a sense of living now, in our immediately felt and experienced reality. If one takes on this mental-training, it will surely happen, again and again, that one will get lost in reaction and forgetfulness, and often come-up short, perhaps disappointing oneself, again and again. This is a to-be-lived path of experiment, assessment, and self-cultivation. It is not merely a conceptual understanding. The secret is mindful practice, and a kind of conscious shift in awareness. It involves a close examination of feelings, intentions, and actions. This honesty with oneself can soon develop into a "knowing that I know." A typical fruitful insight begins with a simple:  "Oh, I recognize this feeling. This is anger! I can feel it, in my body, in my flesh, on my skin, in my stance toward the world, and in my lost sense of composure. I feel it, right behind my eyes, and I see it aimed at my target.... But I can watch it move through me, it is actually a separate phenomena from me, and really, now that I see it, I know it can do me no harm, and I will not allow it to harm anyone else as well!." So while every experience can be felt from within, felt as suffering, we can also become aware, and assess, redirect, transcend. A sense of "knowing that you know" arises. Perhaps fleeting, ineffable, often lost, and but also regained.... It is also a remembrance of something else, something precious, mysterious, wonderful. With persistence, your mindful awareness returns, it fills your presence. It is like the dawn, a shining light, arising within your being, or a soft breeze, a warm wind, and a compassionate love. It is a refuge of peace that is your deeper self. It is really your nature, and it always has been.... Yes, you are beautiful.... Like a clear mountain lake... bathed in the light of awareness.

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