When we decide that anger, and aggravation, irritation, frustration and similar states of inner discomfort, are no longer welcome in us, what happens when they arise?
What do we do, and how do we handle those feelings? First of all, these feelings are normal human states and happen to everyone. What matters most is how we react or respond to them.
As we can read in depth in The Noble Eightfold Path covered by American Buddhist Bhikkhu Bodhi, we can gravitate to one of two extremes wherein we tend to cope with those feelings: 1) giving in to them and allowing them full expression, and 2) repressing them and escaping their immediate influence. The first may feel great in the moment but creates unease, tension and dissatisfaction within us, the nervous system arousal we experience can be very addictive, and usually this behavior exacerbates or causes problems for us with others. Repressing the emotion only momentarily frees us from the interpersonal inflammation so that we can stay peaceful on the surface and in a state of denial that we are angry at all. The bolus of anger, hot and dangerous, sinks deeper into the psyche to cause damage down below our conscious awareness. When anger is submerged it creates vague distress, depression, anxiety, and apprehension, and these can lead us to self-medicate with addictive behaviors such as substance abuse, compulsive overeating, spending, and other efforts to relieve the anger we don’t even know we have.
Walking the Noble Eightfold Path, also called the Middle Way by the Buddha, puts us at neither extreme but in the middle where we neither express the an ger nor repress it but face it and learn about it and let it go. In Metta meditation we aspire to learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving and delusion in ourselves. We learn to look at what inflames anger within us and see how we can better deal with it. We stop trying to run to or from that anger but sit with it. We let it teach us about ourselves. We welcome it as our teacher but we do not let it control our thoughts or drive our actions.
Recently we attended a community gathering. My husband went to secure our seats while I went to the refreshment area for a cup of tea. Someone I see rarely spotted me and gave me a happy greeting and big hug. But as I moved toward the hot water urn, she said something insulting about my husband, insinuating that if he wasn’t with me she’d be glad. I didn’t engage in that conversation, probably laughed nervously as I moved away. But I didn’t feel very good about it. I was trying to repress the anger. A few moments later I heard this same person tell my husband she had hoped he wouldn’t be at the gathering. He became angry and made a retort that I also tried not to experience. We sat and listened to the lecture, but I was very troubled by the anger I had tried to ignore in myself and by the anger my husband seemed to be feeling as he muttered about the exchange under his breath.
This is how I dealt with this. I focused on my breathing, using the gatha “Breathing in I am calm, breathing out I smile.” After a minute or two I had indeed calmed. I then wished the nine Metta aspirations of my daily practice for myself, then for my husband, and lastly for the individual who had provoked our discomfort. I was able to identify fear and anxiety in myself, and I explored my desire not to be in the middle between angry people and my own indirect avoidance of the conflict without addressing it honestly. I knew this sudden attack had angered my husband, and I felt terrible for him. I also remembered that this person had a history of mental illness with frequent episodes of unwelcome hostility and impulsive blurting, and I wished for her to be free of that affliction. The lecture was a lengthy one, allowing me to get in about 20 minutes of sincere Metta before the gathering broke up. I chatted with others I hadn’t seen in a while, and the troublesome individual hung nearby. I attempted to pass to leave when she walked in front of me to hug me again. I stepped back slightly, and without anger or confrontation in my voice or in my heart, I simply said, “You insulted my husband.” The response was surprising. She stood staring at me for quite a while, silent. Then she said, “I live to insult husbands,” and moved away laughing as we left. I wish her healing, and I hope she can be peaceful, happy and light in body and spirit. When we experience these blessed attributes, we do not attempt to hurt others with our words or our actions.
I am so grateful for my meditation practice and for the Venerable Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh from whom I have learned so much.