September 2015: Everyday Precept Practice

The Ninth Grave Precept: Not Holding on to Anger

This month, our precept for study is Not Holding on to Anger. This is probably one of the most multi-faceted and difficult to approach of all the precepts. And what is more, we don't want to approach it. Often times, we would rather adopt the simplistic (and unrealistic) idea that Buddhists should not get angry (period) and that when our practice advances to a certain point, we will not get angry. We spend a lot of time in denial about our feelings in order to achieve the self-perception that our practice has in fact advanced to the point that we simply don't experience anger. Anger can be sneaky and comes in many forms. There are the shades and aspects of anger – resentment, rage. There is the intensity of hatred, which can echo persistently through generations. There is malice and ill will, carrying the intent to cause harm or seek revenge. There is petty anger. There is anger directed toward oneself, there is collective anger and there is the sublime state of compassion, often born of our willingness to embrace a larger anger at the massive unfairness we see around us.

Zen Peacemaker Precept

I will bear witness to emotions that arise. This is the practice of Not Holding On to Anger. I will not create conditions for others to be angry. I will not harbor resentment, rage, or revenge. I will practice with emotions.

The Zen Peacemaker precept, “Not Holding on to Anger” breaks from the traditional precept, “do not get angry” or “Refrain from anger.” in talking about “holding onto anger” has opposed to “being angry.” It addresses four specific areas: 1) bearing witness to emotions (including anger) that arise, 2) not “harbor” or hold on to any of the various manifestations of anger and 3) not creating conditions for other to be angry, and 4) practicing with those emotions, in other words taking specific measures or actions to skillfully rather than unskillfully direct or apply those emotions.

Bearing Witness to Emotions that Arise: In order to bear witness (the second tenet), we must also observe the first tenet, not knowing. In other words, not having preconceived ideas about anger – it's bad, I shouldn't feel it, I'm a bad person because I feel it. This means not filtering our experience through beliefs and judgments such as “I shouldn't feel anger,” “good Zen practitioners do not get angry,” “anger is always bad and destructive.” These filters cause us to not bear witness to what we are feeling, to deny, to repress. We need to be completely open to whatever we are feeling. That is to say, to see it clearly as it is. That is actually key to what action arises from the anger. If we are denying or repressing it, then the action that arises tends to be unskillful – for example, trying to sabotage the person we are angry with, turning the anger against ourselves, developing health problems, or flying into an unconscious outburst of uncontrolled rage before we know what is happening. When we clearly bear witness to the anger, more skillful action arises – we may become aware of how this anger affects our health and is not fruitful and seeing this, are able to refocus it toward fixing the situation which caused us to become angry. Or we may realize the danger and potential consequences of acting on our anger and redirect it before someone we love is harmed (verbally or physically). We will have the space and presence of mind to apply strategies, such as taking deep breaths, counting to 10, etc. We cannot make good choices, however, about our anger if we pretend it is not there.

Not harboring or holding onto resentment, rage or revenge: What really is resentment and how does it arise? Various definitions of “resentment” identify it as “bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly” or “making a decision based on pleasing someone else and then secretly holding that against them.” or “feeling angry that you were forced to accept someone or something you did not want (or denied something or someone you did want.)” All of us could probably list many subtle annoyances or resentments we feel and maybe some of the more intense, even “bitter indignation” we may feel at some times. Can we see these not with shame, judgment or denial, but rather as simply part of the cause-and-effect flow that landed in our court? How we might feel at any moment is shaped by many forces. What feels within our power to consciously do, though, is to be willing to address each of these in the way it needs to be addressed.

Sometimes these feelings or annoyances can be disempowered simply by noticing them. Yes, when I drive in Chicago, people will beep if I don't start immediately, they may not move over to let me into another lane even though that would be by far the easiest solution for all of us, etc. If I can name and notice this annoyance, I can often let it go fairly easily. None of this, however, involves pretending that I am not angry if in fact, I am. Instead, I must note that for the 5 millionth time, I am angry that someone once again did not slow down to allow me into the lane (as in the other 4,999,999 times). With this acknowledgment, I can forgive myself and hopefully the other driver and that's that. Humbling, but true and with that acknowledgment comes peace.

Another example is that as we get to know people, there are invariably qualities about them or habits they have that we find annoying. Especially with people we know the best. Can we just see that the quality is annoying to us (pushes our buttons or however we want to language it) and let it go (let it be)? It's OK, in fact inevitable, that the people we are intimately involved with will have qualities and habits that we find annoying. Or maybe we can ask the person to adjust their behavior if our request is reasonable – the proverbial toilet seat left up, etc. I think what actually gets in our way is not so much the momentary anger as our reluctance to acknowledge it and therefore have a chance to do something about it, even if that is just to see it and move on.

Some resentment is deeper, more enduring, more serious. We may need help from someone else. For example, in the case of the bitter, strong enduring resentments, we may need a trained therapist to help us navigate our way to letting these feelings go. And by letting them go, we mean really allow ourselves to experience the feelings, ask for what we need (an apology, etc.) or take any other action that may be helpful and necessary (limiting contact with someone who is abusive to us, etc.). Another interesting question is; what is preventing us from letting go of this, why are we holding on? This is not so easy because it requires us to see our own blind spot. We may get something out of identifying with the victim role, or the person's treatment of us (for example not valuing us) may be a reflection of our attitude about ourselves (devaluing ourselves). Or another reason. The point is, though, that we cannot uncover these unconscious motivations if we are not paying attention or if we are too busy filtering and judging ourselves. In other words, we need to learn to bear witness to our own feelings, our own experience. No one else actually can do that for us.

There are horrific and grossly unfair things that may have happened to us and these are difficult to integrate because of their nature – abuse, violence, death of those close to us, and so many more. Our anger about what happened seems wholly appropriate and commensurate to the event. Still, holding on to that only causes us more suffering. For our own sake, we must learn ultimately how to forgive, so that we can move on and not be captured by the state of rage, whether acted upon or smoldering constantly in the background. Dr. Robert Enright of the International Forgiveness Institute is one who has written extensively and eloquently about the elements of the process that may successfully allow us to find forgiveness and its healing of ourselves (whether or not the perpetrator is part of this process in the form of reconciliation or not). Click here to visit his website. We may also be able to transform our anger into compassion, beginning an action which will help others not have to go through the same suffering or have better tools for coping with it. For example, we could start a support group for grandparents who have lost a grandchild, we could volunteer for a suicide hotline, etc.

I will practice with emotions: The Zen Peacemaker precept specifically asks us to work with our emotions. Many of us, who have engaged in Zen practice for years, have often gotten the message that emotions are a weakness in Zen practice. If we just “sit better,” we will not have these emotions. While Shakyamuni Buddha was so clear in his realization that his anger was 99.9% transformed into compassion, we are not at that practice point. Actually, the fact that we are not at that point is what makes us most useful as Bodhisattvas. Our role is to practice with emotions, in fact, to model practicing with emotions for those who are still unaware of the need to practice with their emotions. Once when I took my infant daughter to my pediatrician, he clearly had a cold and did not feel well. Instead of simply acting gruff and venting his discomfort on us, he said “I feel like a bear today.” This made a big impression on me – that a doctor, my children's doctor who by definition held great power, could so honestly admit to less than an “optimal” state of mind. I imagine we could also cite examples of people who's frank admission of their feelings at the moment were remarkable in that 1) it seemed to result in that person being able to then function better in spite of the conflicting emotion and 2) it modeled for us how we might do the same.

In talking about what actions arise out of anger, I think it is important to also point out the fact that sometimes the appropriate response to our anger is actually to temporarily put it aside. For example, professional behavior dictates that we sometimes need to “absorb” someone's outburst toward ourselves without retaliating – an angry customer, a frightened parent, an accusatory patient, etc. Their treatment of us is truly unjustified on one level, and yet we are in a position in which we must be spacious enough to bear witness to their outburst of anger without crowding it out with our own response. Again, this requires strong mindfulness on our part to see our reaction but not outwardly form an action in response. Emergency personnel, such as fireman, law officers and health workers may see horrific things, such as child abuse or domestic violence and feel deep anger and revulsion. However, in order to do their job, they need to be temporarily non-reactive to those feelings or the inappropriate actions that would arise from them. In those case, emotional de-briefing after the crisis is necessary in order to prevent or minimize the serious consequences such as PTSD or compassion burn-out that result.

Thich Nhat Hanh's Precepts of Engaged Buddhism

6. Do not maintain anger or hatred. Learn to penetrate and transform them when they are still seeds in your consciousness. As soon as they arise, turn your attention to your breath in order to see and understand the nature of your hatred.

7. Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. Practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. Be in touch with what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing both inside and around you. Plant seeds of joy, peace, and understanding in yourself in order to facilitate the work of transformation in the depths of your consciousness.

Several of Thich Nhat Hanh's precepts of engaged Buddhism offer useful advice in mindfully working with our anger. In the sixth precept, he uses the expression “do not maintain anger or hatred.” This is very helpful. We must distinguish between bearing witness to our anger (as long as that takes) and actively maintaining it by dwelling on the “story” , continuing to identify with our role as victim, etc. Bearing witness also includes letting something pass when it has run its course. Thich Nhat Hanh also emphasizes the power that mindfulness can have in becoming aware of the anger even before the story and greeting it with the spaciousness of mindful breathing instead of automatic unconscious reactions. What is anger before the story? It is energy – it can even be very helpful as we will discuss in the next section.

The seventh Precept of Engaged Buddhism is very helpful in another way – a proactive way. Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes the regular cultivation of joy through “being in touch with what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing, both inside and around you.” A mind which is nurtured by joy and healing in this way is so much more able to handle anger in a productive rather than destructive way. We need to care for ourselves in this simple but essential way to avoid caregiver burnout, to make ourselves more useful by increasing our capacity and resilience through nourishing ourselves with the beauty, wonder and playfulness that surrounds us, even in this time of so much suffering. Balance is key in our Path of the Bodhisattva. This is not a martyr's path.

Not creating conditions for others to be angry: We can create conditions for others to be angry in many way. This could be through our unfair treatment of someone in gross or subtle ways: not allowing them resources or opportunities, mistreating them in any way, not valuing them or their contribution, being impatient with them, harming them physically or emotionally to name a few. Not only our actions, but our words are very powerful in fostering anger in others. When our actions or words do cause anger in others, it is useful to be curious about why this occurred? Was this intentional on our part, accidental? Our anger-causing action may well point back to anger within ourselves that we are not handling skilfully and instead allowing to spill over onto others. Maybe we shout back at the angry customer and thus escalate the anger between us. It would be quite interesting to spend a day simply bearing witness to our causing anger in others and what that is about when it does occur. And of course our action does not absolve the person who became angry from responsibility for their response. That is their work to be aware of. Yet we can still be very mindful of how we interact with others, particularly when giving critical feedback, setting limits, etc. --- how the way we do this can engender anger in another or whether it engenders more intention on their part to do better. Maybe it is necessary, even compassionate, to engender anger in another, for example to spur them to take better care of themselves and their emotions. This can only be done skilfully however if we have very good awareness of our own emotional state and intentions. Much food for thought and practice!

Thich Nhat Hanh's Precepts of Engaged Buddhism

8. Do not utter words that can create discord and cause the community to break. Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

Thich Nhat Hanh also points out, in his 8th precept, that making “every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small” is important. Some couples have a guideline for themselves to never go to bed angry with each other. It takes great courage, too, to go directly to someone with whom you are angry, and clearly and non defensively state how you are feeling. Affective or “I” statements are useful to mention here. By saying “I feel angry when you tell me I am not doing enough to help” puts someone less on the defensive than if you say “You make me angry when you tell me I'm not doing enough to help.” In the latter statement, you are crediting the person with the responsibility for your reaction which is not quite true. What they said may have indeed been anger-provoking, but your reaction comes from you.

Anger as compassion/ as a catalyst for change

So far, we have been talking about the anger primarily related to ourselves and our personal/interpersonal situations. We also feel anger about the ill treatment or bad circumstances of others. There is so much injustice and suffering in the world, some of it – too much of it – truly horrific. We cannot help but feel tremendous anger toward those causing the suffering of others. This is not a bad thing. Anger is really a wake up call, an energy that we can also use for great good.
But we have to use it in the right way. Simply being furious and upset about injustice in the world and looking for someone to blame is really counterproductive. Instead, we need to be able to channel our anger into useful energy. We need to be able to feel compassion for all parties involved, even those causing the suffering. Having compassion does not mean that we think what the perpetrator/s is/are doing is OK. What compassion does do is allow us to open our heart even to the perpetrator. This in turn allows us to see the tremendous suffering inside that person that causes them to act in such a terrible way and also to see the suffering they continue to bring upon themselves by their unskillful actions. We can see that pinning the blame on one particular person is not really the answer, but rather we have to consider the whole process that is going on and the role that each of us plays in it. That is the only way that real, enduring change can happen: when we carefully bear witness to all facets of the story, everyone's perspective, everyone's role in what is going wrong. Instead of assigning blame, we try to get a whole, complete picture so that what could actually help becomes more clear. Then it is not as hard to see what needs to be done in response to the problem. This is what is meant by “on account of my beginningless greed, hatred and delusion” that we chant as part of the Gatha of Atonement.

When we are more able to approach a situation from compassion instead of raw anger, we can ultimately be more helpful. I am reminded of Ofelia Rivas, a Tohono O'odham elder and founder of O'odham Voice against the Wall, an organization resisting the building of the border wall between the United States and Mexico across the  O’odham territory.  Ofelia was a speaker and spirit holder at the recent Native American Bearing Witness retreat in South Dakota. She spoke about all of the horrible effects of the militarization of the borderlands between the U.S. And Mexico, particularly on the O'odham people, who regularly cross the border to pay respect to sacred burial sites of their ancestors. Ofelia said that after she visited with the Dalai Lama and experienced his profound calm and compassion, she realized how much her constant anger had clouded her ability to do effective activism work in the borderland areas. When she became more calm herself, she was then more able to effectively engage others. While it was understandable that witnessing the cruelty of border guards and the reckless violence of the drug cartel runners and leaders would foster feelings of great anger, Ofelia found that by remaining calm and grounded, she was better able to handle the extraordinary challenges.

Collective anger/rage

There is also collective anger held by people due to unfair treatment of them as a group. The collective anger manifests sometimes as uncontrolled rage, producing violence. But when channelled into positive action, the anger is useful, essential, in fact in bringing about the change that is needed to address the situation. In his article “The Rebirth of Black Rage,” author Mychal Denzel Smith talks about the value of “black rage” as a catalyst to bring people together in a common cause and motivate action:

“At its best, black rage speaks to the core concerns of black people in America, providing a radical critique of the system of racism that has upheld all of our institutions and made living black in America a special form of hell. But that anger has not only drawn attention to injustice; it has driven people to action, sparking movements and spurring them forward. At the very least, the public expression of black rage has allowed communities and people who have felt isolated in their own anger to know that they are not alone.”

Smith, Mychal Denzel. "The Rebirth of Black Rage." The Nation. N.p., 13 Aug. 2015. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.

Smith makes the case in this article that anger over the slow response to Hurricane Katrina, particularly in the predominantly poor and black parishes of New Orleans, and famously articulated at the time by Kanye West, eventually gave birth to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Smith explains:

“But [Trayvon]Martin's death and [George] Zimmerman's acquittal also represented a turning point. The generation that heard Kanye West say “George Bush doesn't care about black people,” then pushed the vote for the first black president, then watched America continue to not care about black people, simply has had enough. As the deaths of young, unarmed black people continue to become headlines, and social media holds more hashtag funerals, the hope has turned to despair and the despair into rage...” (Smith, 2015)

With this movement, came a shift in consciousness to recognize that racism had in fact not disappeared in the United States, but continued to undermine and destroy lives despite the occasional events – appointments of black secretary of state, a black secretary of defense, election of a black president – that provided some temporary sense of mollification. It was the anger over racially motivated event after event that finally made “life as usual” no longer an option and has according to Smith, re-kindled the causes championed in the Civil Rights movement of the 60's in the form of Black Lives Matter.

Truly anger can help wake us out of indifference, see the widespread suffering around us and spur us into some action to achieve justice for not just some, but all. As another Native American Bearing Witness spirit holder, Charmaine Whiteface noted, peace without justice is tyranny. To stand by doing nothing when unacceptable conditions exist for some people – any people – is tyranny. There is no neutral position. Our non-action is also harming. The energy of anger may be one of the few things that can shake us out of complacency and bring us together to address the challenges we collectively face – so that there is justice for everyone. The power of anger to unite people is undeniable. As with any power, whether it is used skilfully or not depends on the ability of the group to see clearly, to reject conceptual stereotype in favor of genuine knowledge, the knowledge that comes from bearing witness.

Bodhidharma's One Mind Precept

Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous.
In the Dharma of no-self,
Not postulating a self
Is called the precept of refraining from anger.

Dogen Zenji's Kyojukaimon

Not proceding, not retreating, not real, not unreal. There is an ocean of bright clouds; there is an ocean of sublime clouds (when there is no anger).

As we can see from the previous discussions, it is the self-centeredness that keeps anger in its form as anger. As we look around ourselves with a wider view, and bear witness to the suffering of all beings, our anger transforms into compassion, holding the truths of the world in a space of clarity and allowing appropriate action to arise.

As we let go of our tight grip on our narrow perspective, we become aware and grateful of another fact, too. That we are all really working for each other's liberation, even if we don't realize it. As members of the black community bear witness to violence and fear driven experience of being young and black in inner city America and share this clarifying vision, it helps us wake up from our dream of white suburban privilege and the mountain of shame and guilt underlying it as well. As each of us begins to see beyond the stereotype of our own life and of the “other,” however we painted it, we help each other to awaken from their dream as well. Best of all, ignoring the needs of each other becomes, thankfully, more and more inconceivable. Noted author Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his recent book, Between the World and Me, points out that the concept “race” is just that – an arbitrary designation based on hair and skin color. Race grew out of racism, not vice versa, he says. In our Buddhist parlance, it is another way of “postulating a self,” of creating an “other” who becomes the object of our hatred and scorn. There are many shades of skin color, but there is no “other,” there is no “self.”

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