Buddhists might talk about love, compassion and tolerance a lot, but when even great masters like the Dalai Lama admit to getting angry sometimes, is there any hope for the rest of us? Science might say that feeling anger is totally normal, psychologists advise us to express our anger, and some religions might even have righteous anger. Buddhism, on the other hand, says that anger is always bad.
The 8th-century Buddhist scholar Shantideva described anger as the most extreme negative force, one with the capability of destroying the good we’ve worked so hard to create. Think about that. One moment of anger combined with access to a gun can completely change someone’s future from a life of freedom to a life behind bars. A more everyday example would be how anger can destroy friendship and trust that might have taken decades to build up. Ultimately, anger is more dangerous than all of the world’s bombs and guns and knives put together.
We know that anger is not a happy state of mind, but what can we do about it? Buddhism offers a range of simple methods to help us transform our minds. Be warned – there is no magic pill! Here are our top eight Buddhist tips to deal with anger:
1. That’s Life: Samsara
Buddha’s first teaching 2,500 years ago goes straight to the point: life is unsatisfactory. Guess what? Our lives will never be satisfactory.
We’re born, we die. In between there’ll be good times and bad times, and times we probably don’t even feel much at all: this never ending cycle is what Buddhism calls “samsara.” When we came into this world, no one said life would be nice and easy and non-stop fun, and that we’ll always have things go exactly as we want. When we understand our own situation in samsara, it enables us to understand everyone else’s too.
We’re all in this together. Being angry at situations, others, or ourselves is not going to make anything better. Other people say and do stuff we might not like because – yes – their lives are crap too.
This kind of thinking can radically transform our perspective. Even if each of us might seem to be the center of our own universe, that doesn’t mean that everything has to – or ever will – go exactly the way we want.
2. Be a Hero: Patience
Disturbing emotions are best overcome through their opponent; fighting fire with fire simply doesn’t work. Why? It’s impossible for our minds to hold two opposing emotions simultaneously. You can’t yell at someone and be patient with them at the same time - it just doesn’t work. Patience is often seen by many as a sign of weakness, where you let others walk all over you and get away with whatever they want. The reality, however, couldn’t be more different. When we’re frustrated, how easy is it to simply scream and shout? And just how difficult is it to stay calm and control our emotions? Following our feelings wherever they lead us does not make us heroes – it makes us weak. So next time you’re on the verge of screaming your head off, draw your sword of patience and cut the head off your own anger instead.
How? We could try breathing deeply – a direct antidote to the short, sharp breaths we take when we’re angry – if we notice ourselves becoming tense. We can count slowly to 100, to prevent ourselves from saying things we’ll regret later on. Or, if we’re in a direct confrontation, we might want to remove ourselves from the situation before it all goes downhill. Each situation is different, so you’ll need to use your brain to see which one works best for you.
3. Get Real: Analyze the Situation
When we’re angry, our rage appears to arrive as some sort of protector, like our best friend looking after our interests, helping us on the battlefield. This illusion allows us to think that being angry is justified. But if we look carefully, anger is not our friend, but our enemy.
Anger causes us stress, anguish, loss of sleep and appetite. If we continue being angry at someone, it creates a long-lasting impression on others. Let’s face it: who wants to hang around an angry person?
When we’re accused of something and feel that defensive knot start to tighten in our stomach, we should stop and think rationally. There are only two choices: either the accusation is true, or it’s false. If it’s true, then why should we be angry? If we want to be mature adults, we should admit it, learn from it, and move forward with our lives. If it’s not true, again why should we be angry? The person made a mistake – is that something we’ve never done in our lives?
4. See Your Mind: Meditation
Meditation and mindfulness practices can be extremely beneficial in combating anger. Many people might see meditation as a waste of time – why spend 20 minutes sitting on a cushion when we can be making the most of our day, right? Others think that meditation is a nice escape from real-life, where we can spend time away from the children/emails/husband/wife.
But meditation is so much more – it’s preparation for real-life. It’s no good if we meditate on compassion every morning, but as soon as we get to work, we shout at our employees and complain about our colleagues.
Meditation familiarizes our mind with positive thoughts – patience, love, compassion – and it’s something that we can do anywhere, anytime. If we spend half an hour of our morning commute listening to our favorite tunes, the least we can do is spend ten minutes of that time generating thoughts of loving-kindness for others – something that’s effective at reducing anger and making us into a person that others want to be around.
5. Bow Down: Learn from Your Enemy
Buddhism often teaches us to do precisely the opposite of what we’d normally do. When we’re angry with someone, our urge is get revenge. The result? We’re left just as, if not more, miserable than before. It seems counterintuitive, but doing the opposite gives the opposite result: the path to happiness.
It sounds crazy, but think about taking your object of anger as your teacher. If we want to become better – that is, more patient, more loving, kinder, happier people – then we need to practice. We all know that it takes time and effort to become a world-class football player or violinist, so why would it be any different with our mental exercises? If we’re always surrounded by people who do and agree with everything we want, we’ll never have any challenges.
In this way, the person we’re angry with becomes extremely precious, giving us the opportunity to really practice patience. This immediately stems the rising tide of angry feelings, because it changes our perspective from what they’ve done to us, to what they’re doing for us.
6. Remember Death: Impermanence
You’re going to die. I’m going to die. We’re all going to die. So when that person we just can’t stand does something that truly annoys us, stop and think: “When I’m on my deathbed, will I care?” The answer, unless we know that the person is really hell-bent on taking over and destroying the world, will probably be a resounding “no.” This little tip is so simple, yet helps ease many of life’s little annoyances.
We all know that we’re going to die, but it obviously isn’t something that we really know. Death is an abstract, far-away concept that happens to other people – the old, the sick, those involved in freak accidents. But that’s not reality. Young people die before old people, healthy people die before sick people, every single day.
When we focus on our definite future death (tomorrow? in a year? in 50 years?), a lot of the things that would normally set us off, literally, become nothing. It’s not that they won’t annoy us anymore, but that we’ll recognize there’s no point in wasting our precious time, breath or energy on them.
7. What Goes Around: Karma
People say, “What goes around, comes around,” or, “It’s his karma – he deserves what’s happening to him,” implying that people reap what they sow. This is not quite the Buddhist understanding of karma, which is much more complex and subtle. Still, while people seem quite happy to point out that others’ suffering is their karma, most are reticent to see that when they’re in a sticky situation themselves, it has also arisen from their karma.
Everything we experience – from the incredibly joyous moments to the depths of despair – arises from causes. These causes don’t simply fall out of nowhere onto our laps, but are created by ourselves. So, when we’re experiencing some awful situation, instead of letting anger take over, we can stop and think: where did this come from, and do I want to make it worse?
Karma is about how we behave compulsively, reacting to things in the same old way that we always have. If we understand how karma works, we’ll see that we have the ability to change our future experiences with what we do now – and here that means to practice patience when anger bites.
8. It’s Not Real: Emptiness
While patience might be the direct antidote, emptiness is the strongest antidote, not just to anger, but to all of our problems and difficulties. In fact, it doesn’t matter how patient we are, if we haven’t understood emptiness, or voidness, problems will continue to rain upon us like an Indian monsoon.
If we take a moment to analyze our minds when we’re angry, we’ll notice something: a strong sense of “me” or “I.” “I’m so angry about what you said to me. I can’t believe what he did to my friend! I’m definitely right about this, and she’s definitely wrong!” Me, me, me.
When we’re angry, we’ve got the perfect chance to analyze this “I” that appears so concretely. It doesn’t exist! We’re not saying that we don’t exist or that nothing matters, but that when we try to find this “I” – is it in our mind? our body? in both? – there’s no way that we can say, “Yes, there it is!”
This one is difficult for people to comprehend, but the fact is that when we start to analyze reality, it radically changes our perspective. We’ll see there never was anything we can pinpoint to be angry about in the first place.
It doesn’t matter how many times we repeat “I won’t get angry”; without actual effort, we’ll never achieve the peace of mind we all wish for.
The above points aren’t just a nice list – they’re actual tools we can use to free ourselves from our frustration, anger and sadness. With practice, any of us can do it.