What is anger and what is it not?

Jul 28, 2022

A perfect question. And the perfect answer, “Anger is the response when attachment doesn’t get what it wants.” Attachment just can’t stand problems. It only wants what I want, it only wants everything to be lovely. So anger’s like a panic attack. We just can’t cope.

And, crucially, it’s a conceptual story deep in the mind that exaggerates the bad things, either in ourselves or out there. It’s not a valid assessment of the facts. It’s a misconception.

The bare bones of anger is called aversion.

But what is it not?

Anger is not the same at finding fault. It’s good to see one’s own faults, but instead of getting angry with ourselves, or angry with the terrible things that happen in the world, think, “What can I do to fix it?”

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

There’s an inextricable relationship between the body and mind, but for the Buddha they’re separate.

When anger’s strong, it triggers huge physical symptoms: the blood boils, the heart beats fast, the spit comes out the mouth, 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. And then, when we boost our serotonin, the body feels good again.

But these are just gross expressions of what, finally, is purely thought: a story made up by our conceptual mind that exaggerates the ugly aspects of 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, 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 isn’t 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, because a thousand times a day our attachment does not get what it wants and then the next millisecond, there is the aversion, but often experienced mildly as annoyance, frustration, irritation and, eventually, when it builds up, as depression.

Anger is not necessary for compassionate action. His Holiness the Dalai Lama responded to an interviewer 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, right and wrong, 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, how can I help?”

Anger is not natural. We say that anger is natural insofar as we’d be unnatural if we didn’t have it. We totally factor it is as a normal part of a normal person. But Buddha’s telling us that, along with the other delusions, it only causes us suffering – not to mention it causes us to harm others – and that we can get rid of it. Because –

Anger is not at the core of our being. Being a delusional state of mind, a lie, a misconception – albeit habitual to the point of instinctive – it’s logical that anger can be eliminated. If I think there are two cups on my table, whereas there is only one, that’s a misconception. What to do with the thought “there are two cups on my table”? Remove it from my mind! Recognize that there is one cup and stop believing the lie. The confidence in the facts eliminates the lie, just naturally.  

Of course, the misconceptions that I’m self-existent, that delicious objects make me happy, that ugly ones make me suffer, that my mind is my brain, that someone else created me – these lies have been in my mind since beginningless time. But the method for getting rid of them is the same.

What’s left when we’ve removed the lies, the delusions, is the truth of our own innate goodness, fully perfected.

That’s what’s natural!

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