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The Wisdom of Anger and the Illusion of Freedom

Anger is a funny emotion, because although it often causes us and those around us suffering, we deep down kind of like it.  We like the feeling of power it gives, the sense of righteousness that sometimes accompanies it, and the feeling of control we can get through it. So although we know we suffer because of it, we often don't really want to change our relationship with it.

Although we believe that our experience of reality is like a camera recording perfectly what it sees, our experience of reality is, in fact, an active creation of our minds.  If we can watch the cause-and-effect nature of our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, we can become more accurate and more competent creators of our experiences.

Emotions affect thoughts, thoughts affect emotions, both affect behavior, and each thought or feeling helps to give rise to the next one.  Thoughts beget like thoughts, which is why positive or negative self-talk is important and also part of why meditative techniques can have powerful effects.

Let’s talk for a bit about the cycle of what normally happens with anger.  You may be going along, minding your own business doing your job, when your boss comes up and says something that really irks you.  This gets an immediate emotional reaction, which begins a cascade of thoughts, which often intensify the emotion, which continue the thoughts, etc.  As noted by neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, any emotional reaction will run its full course physiologically in 90 seconds unless we continue to feed it.  Our attention gets focused, by which I really mean limited. We perserverate on the issue, and even when we try to stop thinking about it and to get some work done, we often find ourselves distracted by rehearsing some aspect of it again, which just keeps the feeling going.  How many of you have had this experience?

The Tibetan word for this stuckness of our emotional reactions is shenpa.  It’s not the emotion itself but the way that our experience of emotion narrows our vision, enhances the feeling of self and other, and captures our attention.  It is related to our past conditioning, in that we tend to have much the same reactions over and over, even to new insults.  

Recall the classic psychological study of conditioned emotions on Little Albert. Although he initially was not scared of small animals, by pairing the sight of a white rat with a loud sound, he learned to fear not only the rat, but other small animals, like white and brown rabbits.  It is likely that for the rest of his life he would have had a habitual reaction to any new white rat or small animal.  He would think that his anxiety is "his."  He won’t remember why he has these feelings, just will accept them as if they are truth and that he's always felt this way.  We do this all the time – we have a reaction that is largely controlled by our past conditioning. The funny thing about it is that we believe it is freedom.

One way karma can be defined is it is an acquired loss of free will (thanks to Ethan Nichtern for this definition).  When we are stuck within the cascade of emotional and cognitive reactions, we are almost always thinking and feeling in ways that have we have practiced many times before.  This is why we have the same arguments over and over with our spouses, parents, children.  We are sick of the argument, and yet we don’t seem to ever find a way out.  If someone tells you that you need to stop reacting the same way, you feel outraged that they’re taking away your freedom.  But are you really free?  The only way to truly exercise freedom is to refrain from doing what you want to do long enough to be able to choose thoughtfully, not based on an emotional reaction or on habit energy.

I do not mean, however, to suggest that we shouldn’t be guided by emotions, nor do I mean to suggest that emotions are somehow bad or that we should learn to reduce or eliminate them. Instead, the Vajrayana view of emotions is particularly useful here -- we need to see that emotions have co-emergent properties of wisdom and confusion.  These two properties co-emerge almost at once when you feel an emotion.  The trick is to learn to separate them and to act only from the wisdom side.

The wisdom of anger is seeing clearly that something is wrong.  There has been some injustice, or some goal has been frustrated.   Notice that this wisdom doesn’t necessarily say what one should do.  Finding the skillful action to take is entirely dependent on the exact situation at that moment, which is why our habitual reactions are almost never skillful. It may be that the skillful action to take is no action.

If we act on the wisdom component, it should usually help the situation.  If we act on the confusion component, it will often harm the situation or the other person.

How can we tell the difference?  First, we have to learn to refrain from following our usual patterns.  Until we do that, we cannot even begin to see how our actions contribute to the problems. People don’t like talking about refraining, because they incorrectly believe it is taking away their free will when, in fact, it is the first step on restoring it to them.

Second, we can begin to watch the course of cause and effect.  Why do we feel what we do?  What exactly do we feel? It’s not usually as simple as simple anger – there’s usually hurt, disappointment, a feeling of loss of control, old resentments, etc. that jostle with it.  We can try to trace where some of these feelings and thoughts come from. We can also watch what happens once we think something – how does it affect our feelings and future thoughts.  Finally, we can watch what happens once we do or say something – how does it change the situation for better or for worse?

Third, we need to begin to understand our motivations for taking action.  Unfortunately, most of our motivations are actually hidden to conscious thought.

For example, Wayne Warburton and his colleagues have done a series of interesting studies about why people behave aggressively when upset. Here's the general (over-simplified) setup:  First I insult you in some way, so that you are angered.  Then you are put in a room alone and told that you will have to endure a really loud and unpleasant noise for about 30 seconds.  Participants are randomized into a no-control or a having-control condition. In the no-control condition, the noise just comes on at some point. In the having-control condition, you have a button you can press to start the noise when you are ready for it.  In both cases everyone hears the same unpleasant noise.  After hearing it, people are given an opportunity to be mean to someone else (such as the person who insulted them). If they were in the no-control condition, they are much more aggressive than if they had been given a small sense of control from getting to push the button to start the noise.  This (among other experiments they conducted) shows that we will behave aggressively partly to regain a sense of control.  

Given that these motivations to restore a sense of control are unconscious, it takes a lot of work and time to begin to notice what is truly motivating our actions. The story we tell about why we do something is almost never accurate, because it’s designed to show you off in the most positive light possible (both to others and to self).

So if this the steps above will take a lot of training, what can we do right away? We can try to notice the feeling tone that goes with our action, because that’s a little more observable to conscious awareness.  If we are acting with an angry feeling, then whatever action we have chosen is almost certainly coming from the confusion side.  Buddha said that hatred is never solved by hatred.  If, instead, we act out of a feeling of compassion, the action has much a higher likelihood to work from the wisdom side.

Within the Buddhist framework, we build our karma primarily from intentions. So the same action could build positive outcomes and habits or negative outcomes and habits, depending on the intention behind it.

Going back to the example of someone insulting or offending us, we get angry and immediately think of things we would like to say or do in response.  What is our motivation for saying or doing any of them? Although you could spin it in several directions, such as to clarify the others’ mistake, to defend yourself, to get back at him/her, to put the other in his place, to just hit him, etc., they actually have one thing in common – they are motivated by the feeling that they will make you happier if you do it.  So your motivation is driven by a self-motivation. This will almost ensure continued or enhanced division.  This is the confusion aspect of the emotion.

What if, instead, we acted from a motivation of compassion?  This is the wisdom aspect of anger – something is wrong, and we have an opportunity to try to help the situation. So consider the anger that might be built up if one lived with an alcoholic. Tara Brach (Radical Acceptance, 2003, pp. 296-297) relates the story of a family setting up an intervention to send a loved one to a treatment program.  

"I worried about how the participants -- his wife, two sons and elderly father -- were going to manage being 'loving and nonjudgmental' when each one was so furious with him. They were filled with grievances: the sons who couldn't bring friends home from school because their father was such a loose cannon; the wife who had lost a partner she could count on and who treated her with care; the father who never saw his only son. I feared they'd just curse him out, rather than communicate their caring. 

"I was wrong. Harry came into that room and, he later told me, looked around at the faces of those he loved best in the whole world. They were all looking at him, all there for him. Something happened to the air in the room, he said, it seemed to beat like a pulse. After he sank down in a chair, I suggested that Marge, his wife, begin the confrontation. But, instead of reciting his absences, his missed commitments, she just got up and kissed him. 'Thank you for coming, Harry,' she said. Then, to my surprise, each of the others, even the boys, got up and hugged him....When his family did go on to say what needed saying, Harry was listening. Afterward, he took the [space in the treatment facility] that had been saved for him."

Notice that this approach does not try to eradicate anger, but is about learning to use its wisdom and energy in a way that benefits others rather than satisfies the self.

Above I noted that Buddha said that anger and hatred are never solved by hatred. That is only the first part of what he said – he also said what can solve it:

Animosity does not eradicate animosity.
Only by loving kindness is animosity dissolved.
This law is ancient and eternal.

- The Dhammapada (translation by Ananda Maitreya, 1995, Parallax Press)

So loving kindness is the direct antidote to anger, and it can help to solve the problems that are fostered and nourished by anger. This approach, however, doesn't come naturally to everyone, but it IS something that can be trained in anyone (although it again takes time).  The technique is called metta or loving-kindness meditation (for more details, see HERE or HERE). Practicing this can begin to train us to be guided by and act from the wisdom side of anger rather than the confusion side. Gaining relief from our habitual feelings and response patterns truly gives us freedom, rather than the illusion of freedom that we usually have.



Image sources: Herehere, and here.

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Anger is a funny emotion,

Anger is a funny emotion, because although it often causes us and those around us suffering, we deep down kind of like it. essayvalley

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