What is anger and what is anger not?

Feb 13, 2020

From the Buddhist perspective, attachment is a neurotic neediness to get what I want every second, and the moment it’s thwarted anger is what arises. Because attachment is a fantasy it’s not sustainable, the bubble has to burst, and it has nowhere to go but to aversion, the state of mind that underpins anger (or to boredom, indifference, and uncaring).

In our never-ending efforts to keep the panic at bay, we hungrily seek the right sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, thoughts, words, but the split second we don’t get them, aversion arises, exploding outwards as anger or imploding inwards as depression, guilt, hopelessness, self-hate.

Anger is a minefield. In order to maneuver our way through it, it’s good to strip away the layers surrounding this intense emotion and analyze what it’s not.

Anger is not physical. Anger is part of our mind, and, for the Buddha, our mind is not physical. It exists in dependence upon the brain, the genes, the chemical reactions, but is not these things.

When anger’s strong, it triggers huge physical symptoms: the blood boils, the heart beats fast, the eyes open wide in panic, the voice shouts. Or if we experience aversion as depression, the body feels like a lead weight; there’s no energy, a terrible inertia.

But these are just gross expressions of what, finally, is thought: an elaborate conceptual story existing at the level of assumption that exaggerates the ugly aspects of the object of our anger – the person or event or oneself.

Anger is not someone else’s fault. This doesn’t mean that the person didn’t punch me; sure they did. And it doesn’t mean that punching me is not bad; sure it is. But the person didn’t make me angry. The punch is merely the catalyst for my anger, a tendency in my mind. If there were no anger in my mind, all I’d get is a broken nose.

Anger does not come from our parents. We love to blame our parents! Actually, if Buddha is wrong in his assertion that our mind comes from previous lives and is propelled by the force of our own past actions into our mother’s womb; and if the materialists are right in asserting that our parents created us, then we should blame them. How dare they create me, like Frankenstein and his monster, giving me anger and jealousy and the rest! But they didn’t, Buddha says. (Nor did a superior being – but we dare not blame him!). They gave us a body; the rest is ours (including our good qualities).

Anger is not only the shouting. Just because a person doesn’t shout and yell doesn’t mean they’re not angry. When we understand that anger is based on the thought called aversion, then we can see we are all angry. Of course, if we never look inside, we won’t notice the aversion; that’s why people who don’t express anger experience it as depression or guilt.

Anger is not necessary for compassionate action. The Dalai Lama responded to an interviewer once, who suggested that anger seems to act as a motivator for action, “I know what you mean. But with anger, your wish to help doesn’t last. With compassion, you never give up.”

We need to discriminate between good and bad, but Buddha says that we should criticize the action, not the person. As Martin Luther King said, it’s okay to find fault – but then we should think, “What can I do about it?”

It’s exactly the same with seeing our own faults, but instead of feeling guilty we should think, “What can I do about it?” Then we can change. Anger and guilt are paralyzed, impotent, useless.

Anger is not necessary. Often we think we need anger in order to be a reasonable human being; that it’s unnatural not to have it; that it gives perspective to life. That’s a bit like thinking that in order to appreciate pleasure we need to know pain. But that’s obviously ridiculous: for me to appreciate your kindness, you first need to punch me in the nose?

Anger is not at the core of our being. Buddha’s fundamental finding is that attachment, anger, jealousy, and the other neuroses are not at the core of our being. Being delusional states of mind, lies, misconceptions, it’s logical that they we’re not stuck with them.

This is liberating and can inform our daily practice of seeing our minds clearly, hearing the elaborate stories that underpin our neurotic emotions, learning to not believe them, and thus gradually loosening their grip.

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