An Experiment With Anger, Buddha-Style

Monday, July 7, 2014 - 7:19am
Photo by Taylor Hill

An Experiment With Anger, Buddha-Style

I am not interested in playing Farmville with the girl who told me to get a nose job in sixth grade. And no matter how much I honor her humanity, I just can't imagine that changing.

OK, so perhaps the Zen teaching hadn't sunk in quite as deep as I'd hoped when I began scrolling down the list of my Facebook friends, trying to come up with something positive to say about all 892 of them. But inspired by the wide-wandering conversation with Buddhist teachers Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman, I, for one, was not going to dwell on the sartorial choices of this "friend" years later. Her baby is cute; her reading list diverse; she, too, recognizes the latent wisdom of the movie Clueless.

When Ms. Salzberg began studying Buddhist meditation in Burma in 1985, her teacher instructed her to think about people she had different (read: not positive) feelings for, and to see if she could come up with one good thing about each of them:

"My very first thought was 'I'm not going to do that. That's what stupid people do. Go around finding the good in people. I don't even like people who do that.'"

Within the traditional teacher-student dynamic of the monastery however, instructions were instructions, and she had to find something to like about people who do that too. And as a teacher now herself, Ms. Salzberg remembers the exercise as formative to her practice, and foundational to her approach to Buddhist-Zen kryptonite: anger.

I'm curious. What happens when we try these meditation exercises outside a secluded Burmese monastery, and in the most social of social spaces? I decided to try, though, I should admit: I am no Zen Buddhist.

The idea of relentless positivity sounds maddening. Sure, I'm of the mind that the world could use some good news. But loving thy parking-spot-stealing neighbors? For real?

I wasn't sold. That is, until a comment from an On Being listener jolted me into the realization that I might be a part of the problem. Angry after a layoff, the commenter (who goes by the alias Color Me Enlightened) wrote, "The disappointment, sadness & anger is making me exhausted & not a fun person to hang around with."

Oh yeah. Anger is exhausting. And what intrigues Ms. Salzberg and Mr. Thurman is not just conflict writ large but the everyday, intimate, rote sort of negative energy that add up to larger, capital-E exhausting issues. The kind of energy that consumes an office worker who just can't stand the way her cube-mate chews her gum. The friend who adds an emoticon to every single text message (er, totally kidding ;-p). The house guest who criticizes his host's messy closets.

The least effective response to these irritations? Mr. Thurman and Ms. Salzberg say it's more unbounded irritation, which, left unchecked, can turn a human into a gum-cracking, emoticon-abusing, closet-chiding monster (even when the said houseguest is the Dalai Lama). The only way out? The complexity that comes with reflection on the positive, otherwise known as the practice of love and kindness.

The anger and irritation funneled through an endless churning of a news-cycle of "Who did wrong this week?" creates endless anger and irritation. I am a gum-chewing journalist trained in the school of "no news is good news." And, after a week of bad news from healthcare woes to child-cyborg warnings, I am irritated with irritation. So irritated that I've become one of those people: I decided to search for some positivity. It had to be there.

So I searched on Twitter. Exactly 27 tweets down, I found out that the second season of House of Cards premiered on Valentine's Day 2014. Romance!

And I searched on Facebook. I realized that my newsfeed is also a more or less comprehensive listing of the people who have touched my life. So, while I can't really put words to why I'm sure my little brother's ex-girlfriend has a kind soul, I can say that she nursed him through a bad cold. And, hey, even if we never meet, I'm glad she was there.

Rachel Naomi Remen holds a fruit called "The Buddha's Hand."

(Trent Gilliss / On Being.)

I looked on Instagram. They say Buddha himself had a hand in this.

What happens when you search for positivity? How long does it take you to find good news, of the personal or public variety?


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Ariana Tobin

is a digital producer for Marketplace. She's a former Fulbright scholar in Belarus and has worked at St. Louis Public Radio and The New Republic.

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The concept of forgiveness has led to a profound experience for me. Understanding that the things people do that piss me off, are the same things I do that undoubtedly piss others off. Since, I know why I do these things, I can further understand why others do as well. The practice also helps me forgive myself as I fail to do things that would have a positive effect on me and those around me.

I loved this article because it points to several things that I think are prevalent in our westernized views of 'spiritual" practice. First of all actually integrating the teachings into a secular daily life is Hard! It requires willingness to be accountable and actually take action that leads to the end of suffering. Not taking the "Right" yoga class or finding the "right" teacher or going on the "right" retreat, etc...but actually choosing to take skillful and directed action. Second, pointing out the resistance that arises in all, (or most for us), when the instruction is to leave your comfort zone, be vulnerable and look for the good in the world.
The Buddha saw the sea of causality we all reside in and clearly pointed out that is NOT phenomena arising that causes suffering but rather OUR RELATIONSHIP to suffering. By noting what we project is good in others we can see that in ourselves. I say these things are prevalent as I work with them as well. I am a meditation facilitator in the Dharma Punx lineage, teach at Naropa University, having sat for 35 years. I am a somewhat cynical musician and student of Buddhism and my practice seems to be trying my best to live the teachings, regardless of my resistance. It seems to me so many are looking for a path of integration and action and it is not easy finding clear instruction and then actually living it.
The thing is, that I really actually truly want to end suffering for myself and others, and so I will return, again and again, to my best effort and attempts at a skillful life.
What happens for me when I seek positivity? Most often I find disillusionment or my own resistance to see in others I am "challenged by" any redeeming qualities, and yet each time I hope, and sometimes there are glimmers and gestures and reminders and always hope, because the lineage of teachers and those who have made this effort shows me that most of what I like and don't like in others are projected aspects of my own relationship to Life.
I look out and see so many suffering and I also recognize my own disappointment and anger with the world and the way it seems to work, and I also know that as my heart opens and I see positive things arise in those who challenge me the most I can also find compassion for them and myself as fragile human beings doing the best we can.
Thanks for the inspiring reminder!

I keep reading this concept about how annoyances we feel towards others are a direct or mirrored reflection of either our own issues we need to address or learning forGiveness, patience, tolerance towards the idiosyncratics of I'm writing my thoughts aloud to see my argument in black & white, hoping that something I write, and/or a comment from another will ring some truth.

I'm no saint... making that clear, yet I keep trying harder to figure out how to relate to unconscious loved ones. I'm very logically minded, but also on a spiritual path trying very hard to learn to associate & communicate in relationships with loved ones who are...not..very aware, nor do they care to be. They are 'good' people, yet very narrow minded in regards to any other perspectiives.

This is not me. Nor do I judge or disrespect the paths of others. Therefore I can accept that they are where they are, and this is their path.... it's just terribly difficult to be disrespected.....

I just found my own answer, thank you. I've been beholden to them for several years now because of some health & financial challenges; having always been successfully independent in my life, I've had to swallow a lot of pride and ask for I'm beholden to them. I'm working really hard to pay for my keep, but the harder I try, the less I'm respected.

I read something recently about trying to be too helpful, and how others may perceive that as having alterior motives, (I was even accused of using my hard work as trying to manipulate one)....

In temporarily lost my ability to function in my life long career capacity as an accountant, but I enjoy working physically hard & it doesn't take much thought. So I'm trying to repay for my keep by doing housework, yardstick, painting, estate sales, etc. But I seem to keep pending & stepping on toes.... would really be nice to be understood & appreciated instead of angering those I'm beholden to.

I'm nearly back to 100% now; building clientele back up again, so I'll be back on my own before winter. But I don't want to burn bridges or leave with hard feelings. Some of the things said & done have just broken my heart....I just hope if they need me in the future, what I've been through can happen to anyone at any time in their lives, that they know I'll always be there for them, abd I would never treat anyone of them disrespectful just because of their circumstance.

So no... were not always a direct reflection of others.

I have been studying and practicing since the 1980s and still feel that in this life, I am a dharma beginner. Lately I've been beset with anger and sadness, after a year-long focus on positivity, compassion, and loving-kindness. Finally tonight, I reached out to my social network and simply asked for positive messages. The response is overwhelmingly what I needed. Once again, the end of suffering is found in loving-kindness - to give as well as to receive.

Good Buddhist teaching to listen to along the line of our thoughts and mind: go to Vimeo and listen to Mind and Mental States by Kentrul Lodro Thaye Rinpoche! Our anger changes through our own minds and how we see the world!

Forgiveness is a slippery fish to catch bare-handed in a clear pond. You must account for your own distorted perception to grasp it. Sometimes the distorted perception comes from my judgment of others. This judgment can be about very small points yet, it gets in the way of engaging with whole hearted loving kindness with others and myself.

So good to read the comments of others here.

A slippery fish indeed! Perception and judgement make us forget we are all part of a single glorious fabric, each simply being the same depending on how the light shines.

Ariana, I mean no disrespect to the seriousness implicit in your blog or in that of your other responders, but your post made me think of a relative who was having such a hard time with his superior at work. He finally found at least three good reasons for that person's existence: 1)He had never been in prison 2) He paid taxes and 3) He was bio-degradable.
LOL (Sorry about the twisted humor but hey ... what's family for?)

I enjoyed your piece and the peace you invite us into.

The issue us that if he sees him as superior that makes your relative perceive himself as an inferior by default. And that at least for me has been a great source of problem...until I realized it's just an illusion, instilled by years of brainwashing about authority that starts since our school years. I brainwashed myself to the point to see everyone as an associate, as a resident on this planet just as I am, irregardless of the titles and attributes that the so called authority fancies himself. Is all a bluff and frankly shame on us that we buy into it....

Just last night, I left work after going in only to update my next schedule. I found a change in my current schedule which, though I had asked for it, now, after an initial "no can do," upset my plans. I left very irritated, dramatizing the event. In the parking lot, I gave it to God. This morning, I called work to talk about it "No problem! I can switch you back..." plus some other needed information. Giving people the chance, the opportunity, to mean well and do good goes a long way to our mental/spiritual homeostasis. Thank you for this insightful article.

Depends on the anger clouding my judgement. This morning I found it on this site with the Icelandic flashmob song. It somehow helped me realize how hurt I was under the anger I felt since yesterday. Anger is protection against hurt. It's better (physically and emotionally) to understand the hurt than to keep the anger. Metta Meditation has been very helpful.

Forgiveness like love if considered a concept has no power, it is only from the heart space that forgiveness offers us the gift that we give after we have received it.

Reading this piece, I found myself "irritated" by the writer's practiced, tiresome devi;'s advocate game so many jaundiced hacks find themselves adopting and adapting and, in time, becoming: Critical for their own sake. Which is say, she is a lot like me and seeing it in print makes me want to stop being the one who always has to have a snarky viewpoint and a smark alecky comeback to otherwise benign intrusions on my self-entitled "king of cool detachment. Journalists are hardly unbiased; I'm one. A journalist without a point of view is rare as a carpenter with missing thumbs. To observe without intruding is the hardest practice and at all. Last year I told myself to "just show up and be nice and see what happens." When I did, nothing happened. Which makes me suspect that I, like this writer, am a bit of a drama queen.