Anger suddenly arises when something happens to us that we didn’t want to happen. The root cause, as identified in Buddhist psychology, is attachment – our attachment to people, to outcomes of events, to products, to reputations and so on. A simple example is when a machine we purchase doesn’t work as we expected. We get angry because we spent our good money on something that didn’t work as we expected. More complex examples include – unjustified criticism, the withdrawal of love, or someone taking the credit for our work. As a result of these actions, anger quickly arises, followed by action and we feel justified because ‘these things shouldn’t happen to me’.
Outside our control
However, often the events which trigger anger are outside our control. Consider for the example the anger that suddenly arises when someone jumps in front of us in a queue. We don’t have control over this person’s actions, yet we typically respond with anger. In this situation, if we respond with a sarcastic comment, there is the risk of an argument that can quickly get out of control. Suddenly we find ourselves acting in a way that is not appropriate and we end up looking foolish. If we do nothing, our anger turns back on us. We feel weak and frustrated, and question our own confidence and abilities.
So becoming angry does not make us feel better or lead to a positive outcome. It is, in fact, a sign that we have lost control and are about to act in an irrational and most likely inappropriate way. We have allowed old habits to take control and predictable, unsatisfactory results will follow. Instead, we need to find a way to liberate ourselves from this harmful emotion.
Breaking the chain
The way to break this chain of events leading to inappropriate behaviour, is to use some of the skills we have learned in our mindfulness training – to bring what we are practicing into the world away from the cushion.
In our practice we learn to recognise the subtle signs of the arising of this emotion. We learn to identify the tightening of the mind and the disturbance to a calm state. We also learn how to return to a relaxed body and calm mind so that emotions and other objects of the mind are allowed to pass by without sticking.
So now, when external circumstances cause a feeling of anger to begin to arise, our first step is to relax our body. Start by identifying and relaxing parts of our body that are holding most of the tension – usually our neck or shoulders. Move attention to these parts of the body, feel the tension and relax the muscles. Notice the tension start to soften and notice how our breathing begins to slow down.
Next, move the focus from the body to the breath. Just pay attention to the sensation of the breath as it touches our skin while passing through the nostrils. The anger now moves to the background and starts to dissolve. Anger is a strong emotion, so allow a few moments for the anger to dissipate fully.
Acting from a calm mind
Now, after establishing a calm mind, it is time to consider appropriate action.
Is it within our control?
First, consider if we have any control over the situation. If we don’t, it’s simple – just accept and let go. Let the urge to act drop away in exactly the same way that in our practice we allow thoughts and other mind objects to move and not become attached. Trying to change situations where we have no control will ultimately only hurts us and achieve nothing positive.
Is it important?
Next, consider whether this action or event is important. Remember your list of things that matter and consider whether the action or result of the action that has caused anger to rise is important. If they’re not, then again it’s simple – accept and let it go.
Is it the right time for action?
If however, we can see that the implications are important and that it is within our control to take action, then appropriate actions must be considered and then acted on, but only from a calm mind. When ready, in your own time, consider the options and take what you consider is the right action. To help you in this, it’s a good idea to recall your guiding principles .
Freedom from anger
So when we become aware of the rising of anger, let’s remember our practice and take action to establish a calm mind. From this calm place, we have the opportunity to choose a response that is appropriate to the situation, that is in keeping with our guiding principles and which advances the achievement of one or more of the things that are important.