Anger Management from a Buddhist Perspective
by Patricia L. Scott
Over the years Eastern and Western thought has been merging and in the field of psychology, especially so. Eastern thought has much to say about how to have a peaceful mind - and Westerners are very concerned about having a mind that is free from depression anxiety and anger. Buddhism, in particular, has much to say about how to have a peaceful mind. First, We need to know what has western thought been about anger and our current conclusions.How does Buddhist Psychology look at anger? What are causes and the antidotes * (when you ingest a poison you need an antidote) to anger?
Western Psychology has historically looked at anger in many different ways. In Matthew McKay’s book, When Anger Hurts he reviews the following MYTHS about anger:
1. MYTH-Anger is a biochemically Determined Event- Anger is thought to be the result of hormonal changes or activity in the limbic system (e.g. hypothalamus or amygdala) “It is primarily the perception of an event that determines the emotional response and hence the psychophysiological consequences… Anger is a cognitive response that is associated with personal appraisal and interpretation” Anger authority Ray Rosenman (1985) and Deschner points out about the following about the amygdala …the amygdala passes judgment on stimuli that have first been filtered through the conscious parts of the mind”
2. MYTH-Anger and Aggression are Instinctual to Humans- (the Dalai Lama feels Gentleness is instinctual to humans) In 1986, a remarkable group of 20 distinguished behavioral scientists gathered in Seville, Spain. This group included psychologists, neuophysiologists, and ethnologist from 12 different nations. The conference concluded that there is no scientific evidence to support the belief that humans are innately aggressive and warlike. The group concluded that “biology does not condemn humanity to war, and humanity can be freed from the bondage of biological pessimism. Violence is neither in our evolutionary legacy nor in our genes”.
3. MYTH-Frustration Leads to Aggression- According to Freud, individuals are born with an innate aggressive instinct. He further argues that when this instinctual urge is blocked or “frustrated” it will lead to a hostile attack. When the real object of the anger is perceived as being too risky to attack, the anger is displaced. Thus a child displaces aggression towards its parents by fighting with a sibling or talking to a teacher. While frustration may lead to aggression, reports from many different cultures throughout the world indicate that this transfer is my no means inevitable. For example, Kwoma of New Guinea may respond to frustration by submission, dependence or avoidance as well as anger. The Balinese are also unlikely to respond angrily to frustration. A more common response is for the Balinese man to withdraw from all contact and go without food or water for days. The Semai tribe is renowned for their non-violence. Semai children deal with frustration by using their dreams to work out alternatives. In Truth, anger is only one response to frustration.
4. MYTH-Its Healthy To Ventilate- Freud’s “hydraulic model” conceptualized the libido as the source of energy that fuels internal conflicts between the id, ego, and superego. If the energy is blocked or dammed up, it will either find alternative routes of expression or eventually spill over the hypothetical “reservoir” and flood the system. The “catharsis hypothesis” was a way of emptying emotional reservoirs that could be accomplished in a variety of ways. The range of cathartic activities included fantasies, tears, angry words, and the destruction of objects.
This has leads us to encounter groups and Janov’s “primal Scream”. Now experimental studies consistently point out that the popular remedy for anger, VENTILATION, is really worse than useless. In fact, expressing anger tends to make you even angrier and solidifies an angry attitude. But what about the incest victim? The incest victim may experience real satisfaction from confronting her tormentor, but that is not because a psychic reservoir has been emptied. Rather it is because the depth of the victim’s response is an outgrowth of facing and conquering a real situation involving objective instances of conflict and injustice.
Thubten Chodren in her book Working with Anger begs the question “Is anger accurate in its assessment of reality?” Thobten Chodren tells us that anger is caused by our ignorance misconceiving reality. There are several factors that contribute to our becoming angry. These include the seeds of anger in our mindstream (our thought throughout the day) or the low-grade anger that is unobserved. Some people have a strong habit of becoming angry. Some of these habits are formed, as children- we imitate our parents way of becoming angry.
Anger is inaccurate in its assessment of reality because, by definition, it is based on exaggeration or superimposition of negative qualities. Holding onto and nurturing a fixed, inaccurate opinion of someone breeds suspicion and continual unhappiness.
Example: You get into a disagreement with a coworker, you are furious, he is now a horrible mean person and you think you should never speak to him again. Then you begin to think about it and it he really is a good person you just don’t agree on this one thing and you realize that in reality you have grossly exaggerated his faults and spent a day being angry with him and maybe have damaged your relationship with him.
Anger is also inaccurate in its assessment of reality in that it views though the distorted filter of “me, I, and mine”. When we are angry we view the situation though the filter of our self- centeredness. Example: If your manager criticizes your coworker, you may say to the coworker, “ Oh, don’t worry, he’s just having a bad day”, but if the boss criticizes me then it’s really serious. The words the manager said are the same but because it happens to me it is much more important than if it happened to someone else.
We select a few negative details and form a limited self-centered view that we are then reluctant to change. Anger does not promote happiness. We don’t get up in the morning and say, “Oh, I think I want to be angry today”. Years of trust can be damaged by a few moments of uncontrolled anger. Anger result in people shunning us. Maintaining anger over a long time fosters resentments and bitterness within us. The fact that we became angry doesn’t mean we are bad people. It means that a harmful emotion temporally overwhelmed us.
Another factor is inappropriate attention. Our attention is focused on what made us angry. We can’t stop thinking about a problem; we attribute negative motivations to someone. We think that person made me angry purposely. We write melodramas all the time. These melodramas grow more and more exaggerated in our minds.
Anger is also fueled by the projection of positive qualities- attachment. When attached to an object, we imbue it more worth than it actually has. Then, we cling to it, thinking we must have it in order to be happy. The “object” of our attachment may be a material possession, place, person, goal, or idea. We love our new car – we might hit someone who even accidentally damaged our new car.
We may also be attached to being right, being good, or doing things in a certain way, as well as reputation, image, approval rules, religious doctrine, or political beliefs. Anger and attachment are based on inaccurate projections and operate on the assumption that happiness and suffering come from external source objects and people who, by their nature, are transient and cannot provide lasting peace and happiness. Our car, our home, our wife or husband, our job, our beliefs will change or grow old, none of these attachments are permanent in our life.
External factors can also contribute to our anger. These may be persons, ideas, conditions or situations, which appear unpleasant, friends that re-enforce our anger, and certain verbal and written stimuli. We may need to take a “time out” or leave until we are able to think more clearly. We need to make sure our friends do not reinforce or encourage our anger. Verbal, written and visual stimuli, such as books, magazines, television, the Internet and radio may also activate our anger are often created to excite the viewer may re-enforce our judgmental mind and anger.
The Kadampa Buddhist Temple recently had a series of classes about Anger. The talks were based on teaching from a book called How to solve Our Human Problems by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. These teaching are very simple yet quite profound. Anger is a response to feeling of unhappiness that arises when we meet unpleasant circumstances.
These circumstances are:
1. When we are prevented from fulfilling our wishes
2. When we are force into a situation we dislike
We can’t prevent unhappy thing from happening to us. Since it is impossible to fulfill all our desires or to stop unwanted things happening to us, we need to find a different way of relating to frustrated desires and unwanted occurrences. We need to learn patient acceptance.
Jealousy is a great source of anger. Jealousy is a delusion that feels displeasure when observing some else’s good qualities or possessions. They have something we want. Often day and night, we think about the object of our jealousy. The antidote to jealousy is to rejoice at the happiness of others. Show our appreciation of others.
Patience and compassion are antidotes to anger, techniques to neutralize the poisonous emotion of anger. And through patience we are able to overcome the obstacles to compassion. Thubten Chodren describes patience as tolerance, internal calm, and endurance. We are dissolving the energy so it is no longer there, then with a clear mind we can decide what to do. Patience is not passivity. One must be firm - not able to be overwhelmed by adverse situations or conditions that one faces. It is an internal attitude, not an external behavior. It is calmness that gives us space to evaluate situations clearly.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist Vietnamese monk, likens anger to a howling baby. “Anger is like a howling baby, suffering and crying. The baby needs his mother to embrace him. You are the mother for your baby, your anger. The moment you begin to practice breathing in and out, you have the energy of a mother, to cradle and embrace the baby. Just embrace your anger, just breathing in and out, that is good enough. The baby will find relief right away.”
Patience is the practice of accepting we are angry, thinking about not only ourselves but also others (realizing that when one act in anger we are and other person also is acting from deluded thoughts), and learning not to retaliate. Compassion is the wish that others be free from difficulties and confusion. It is the state of mind that is nonviolent and nonharming, or nonaggressive. There are two types of love or compassion. There is a compassion that is based on an attachment or love that you have to someone who is near or dear to you. And there is genuine compassion that recognizes that you wish all others to be happy and avoid difficulties. Compassion recognizes that the desire of other’s to be happy are just as worthy of respect as our own. Wisdom or intelligence will determine the intensity or depth of one’s compassion.
Compassion is forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean tolerating damaging behavior or staying in an abusive situation, nor does it necessitate sharing our forgiveness with the other person if that person would misconstrue it or resume their harmful behavior. Forgiveness stops the victim/ perpetrator cycle. In Buddhist practice on Western Ground Havey B Aronson, PhD, He makes the distinction between underexpressors and overexpressors. Underexpressors deny their anger but will talk about being empty or depressed or having unexplained physical problem or complaints, while he overexpressors will not be aware of their anger before they explode. The teaching of mindfulness of breathing helps both types to become more aware of their physical sensations.
Many teens that come into therapy seem to have a razor sharp awareness of hypocrisy and are seeking out the truth about life in their worlds, the world of their family, and the outer world around them. Their developmental drive is to find their own identities and separate from their family of origin. They often, through this process of separation, have lost their capacity to show compassion to their parents, and their parents have lost their ability to show their love for their teenage children. It is essential that both parent and child reengage and remember their love. The child, the teen may be open to the idea that if they want the rewards of being an adult, staying out later or using the car, they need to have the wisdom to act like an adult and show their parents that they care about them and showing respect. Respect is a very large notion for teens. Teens are very capable of gentleness especially with underdog teens. I work very carefully cultivating this ability to show respect and gentleness and carefully incorporate this into the dynamics of their relationship with their parents. In Diana Winston’s book Wide Awake she offers teens ways to work on strong emotions, judging and how to meditate through the teaching of Buddhism. In Dharma Punx by Noah Levine, tells the story of a confused quest that led to addiction, violence, and eventually jail and finally his discovery of Buddhist meditation.
I ask that they not yell at each other and when they find themselves wanting to yell to take a time out.
I ask that they not use foul language or call each other demeaning names.
I ask that couples refrain from analysis on their partner, speaking from a place of describing their own feelings only.
I ask them to commit to giving up angry habits.
I ask them to be willing to listen and compromise.
I ask them to give up notions of being right is always best.
I ask them to hug their partner and look into their eyes when they speak to them.
I will ask them how they first fell in love and to remember this often.
Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Anger, Wisdom For Cooling The Flames talks about the “Peace Treaty”, a written note to your love one. “Darling, I need your help. Please help me. Darling, I suffer, and I want you to know it. Darling, I am doing my best. I’m trying not to blame anyone else, including you. Since we are so close to each other, since we have a commitment to each other, I feel that I need your support and your help to get out of this state of suffering, of anger.” The couples can rewrite this in any language they prefer but often this will being a movement towards more compassion and understanding.
First, I would like to say a few words about what meditation is and is not. The goal of meditation is to awaken the mind. It may be relaxing but it is not a relaxation exercise, nor do you go into a trance while meditating.
There are different types of Meditation
1. Observing your anger- noting your physical or mental sensations, emotional pain, hurt feelings, disappointment, or unfulfilled expectations
2. Analytical Meditation- Look at your thoughts, feelings, perceptions. Are they accurate or beneficial? We can change the way we describe or interpret the situation. It helps us to stop exaggerating and projecting negatives.
3. Meditations on Love and Compassion- strengthen these positive emotions in our minds and hearts
How to Begin the Practice of Meditation
The best place to practice Meditation is peaceful, pleasant place, where there are few distractions, where the mind can be calm and the body comfortable, and where we can feel alert, spacious and happy. Place a meditation cushion or chair there for your use. Create a sacred space by making a simple altar with a flower or sacred image. Chose the quietest room of your home, during a time when there will be few disturbances from the telephone, children, roommates, spouse or friends. Have a regular time for practice that suits your schedule or temperament.
Begin with ten to twenty minutes at a time; later you can sit longer or more frequently. Find a posture on the chair or cushion in which you can easily sit erect with being rigid. Rest your hands gently in your lap, right hand over left, with tips of thumbs touching, and palms up. The elbow should be slightly away from the body. The chin is lowered. The mouth is slightly open with the tip of the tongue is touching the upper palate. Your eyes can be gently closed or lowered. Then begin to gently let go of any tension, thoughts or plans. Bring your attention to sensation of your breathing. Sense where you can feel the breath most easily, as coolness or tingling in the nostrils or throat, as movement of the chest, or the rise and fall of your belly. Let your breath be natural. When you notice your mind begin to wander, simply come back to the breath. It can be shocking how fast the mind moves. Like training a puppy, gently bring your self back a thousand times. Just stay with it. As you do, listening deeply, you will find the breath helping to connect and quiet your whole body and mind.
In Jack Kornfield’s book A Path with Heart called Stopping the War Within. In Thubten Chodron’s Book Working with Anger she suggest a meditation on patience for beginners. She suggests practicing this meditation in a tranquil environment; remember a situation where you exploded with anger or an event that brings back feelings of hurt or hostility. Rerun a mental video of the event, but practice thinking differently within it. Envision ourselves responding to other people differently with patience.
A very well known and powerful Meditation is the Loving /Kindness Meditation. Both the Loving /Kindness Meditation and the Forgiveness Meditation are in Jack Kornfield’s book A Path with Heart. Healing Meditations by Tulku Thondup is a wonderful book that gives many examples of guided meditations and the use of visualization in meditation.
Treatment of Anger:
Aronson, PhD, Harvey B., Buddhist Practice On Western Ground. Shambhala, Boston and London, 2004
Chodron, Thubten, Working With Anger. Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York, 2001
Dalai Lama, Healing Anger, The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective. Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York, 1997
Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang, How to solve Our Human Problems. Tharpa Publications, Ulverston, England, Glen Spey, New York, 2005
Hanh, Thich Nhat, Anger, Wisdom For Cooling The Flames. Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. New York, 2001
Levine, Noah, Dharma Punx. HarperSan Francisco, 2003
McKay, Matthew, When Anger Hurts, Quieting The Storm Within. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 1992
Welwood, John, Toward A Psychology of Awaking, Buddhism, Psychotherapy and The Path of personal and Spiritual Transformation. Shambhala, Boston and London, 2000
Winston, Diana, Wide Awake, A Buddhist Guide for Teens. The Berkley Publishing Group, New York, 2003
Books on Meditation:
Arpaia, M.D., Joseph, and Rapgay, Lobsang, Tibetan Wisdom For Western Life. Beyond Words Publication, Inc., 1999
Levine, Stephen, A Gradual Awakening. Anchor Books/ Doubleday, 1989
Kornfield, Jack, A Path with Heart, A Guide Through The Perils And Promises Of Spiritual Life. Bantam Books, New York, 1993
Thondup, Tulku, Healing Meditations, Simple Exercises for Health, peace, and Well-being. Shambhala, Boston, 1998