Talks and thoughts

Don't be angry

By paulcrummay, Jan 26 2018 12:40AM

Some reflections on “Do not be angry (precept)”

“it is not good to overwhelm another person with argument even when he is wrong and you are right. Yet it is also not right to give up so easily, saying ‘I am wrong’ when you have every reason to believe you are right. The best way is to drop the argument naturally, without pressing the other person or falsely admitting that you are wrong. If you don’t listen to his arguments and don’t let them bother you, he will do the same and not become angry. This is something to watch carefully”.

Dogen, Shobogenzo Zuimonki

There is a Chinese zen story that goes something like, “What is Buddhadharma practice?” asks a student of a Master. “Appropriate response” comes the reply.

What is appropriate, then? Well, there is life in a nutshell. How do we decide?

These two little passages jumped out at me for several reasons. Not necessarily to use it as a stick to beat others with, which of course is the enticing temptation- look how he or she is holding on and insisting they are right, and look how I am above all that”, kind of thing. Not the point at all.

This passage landed with me as a guide to responding in a situation of dissent or polarization, when teaching, or caught in an argument with a near and dear one, or when they have been caught in an argument with someone else and seeking my support, all of which has been happening recently.

There is a middle way buried in it somewhere, based not on passivity or aggression but on recognizing where our habits come from and finding an appropriate response.

I was brought up where my father would indeed overwhelm me with the rightness of his religious view. It led to serious and long-lasting breakdown in our relationship that was never really mended before he died. And not realising the connections, for many years I would habitually use the same tactic, having been taught it unconsciously by him as a way to win. Only in latter years through sitting zazen have I come to realise I was perpetuating the same behaviour that I myself had found so painful to be on the receiving end of. I still fall into it as habit when my views are tested and I resort to ‘self' protection and my righteousness.

So how to deal with anger, either within oneself or when the subject of another’s fierce and angry insistence of being right and you being wrong?

Well, first there is that feeling of righteousness that arises, along with affront to one’s self, which I quite enjoy, I realise. It’s a rush. It makes me have something to go at and feel alive with. And I only get angry if I know I am right and the other person is so, so wrong. At some level I want to be angry. Of course it seems that anger arises apart from my self. But it doesn’t address the issue in a realistic way.

How then to deal with this? The first thing is to notice it arising but not to act on it. Looking closer, the real source of anger is that my sense of self is threatened. By that I mean my views, beliefs, my status, my rules of how life should conduct itself, of how other people should or should not behave. Not suppressing the feeling, but suppressing the action that follows, word or deed. And not getting into the content of the event that has pissed me off, but the actual anger itself. Can I really say it was the comment, or the behaviour of the other person that set me off, or is it way deeper than that? What is the need I feel to prove I am right? Why is it important to have others agree with me? And even if I am right, are they likely to change their belief just because I insist more vehemently on being right? Will this not lead to more frustration and anger on both sides of the issue?

Recently on a sesshin, I noticed almost for the first time a persistent low level of stress in me, even though there was no issue to associate it with. And sitting with this over a couple of days, I could glimpse how it was the perpetual ‘on-guard’ state that arises along with thoughts and feelings of the ‘selfing’ activity.

When sitting zazen these days, I can more often see directly how I create ‘self’ moment to moment out of all these thoughts and feelings. On that level, love and hate are just two sides of the same coin of right and wrong, of happiness and misery. Real hate is insisting on being separate from the rest of reality, on holding on to “my right vs your wrong”. Our whole society can be seen in this mirror, from our politics, to our social media, from our tv dramas to our international relations,

And real love is to see everything as a seamless whole. Here I can see why it is so hard to let go of anger or righteousness. I have to give up my ‘self’ even at the moment of threat, and it is even more difficult to do that when it feels threatened.

Sitting teaches me to not react, to be and embody, to let through and let go, thought by thought. Living and dying if I want to put it more dramatically. Not to stop it but to see it for what it all is. To find an appropriate response of acknowledgement of my experience but not necessarily act from it. Or if to act, then to act in a way that expresses the seamlessness of reality.

I now realise that an appropriate response is one that comes from the whole, not the part, that recognises how much I want the world to be the way I want it, rather than how it actually manifests. This helps me to let go, to be somewhat more forgiving and remember that there is always more to the story than my bit of it. As behaviour it looks like and sounds like not like taking one side against the other, ( frustrating for the person who wants validation of the rightness of their cause) but to uphold the unity and flawed nature of all habitual reactions and not take them so personally, either my own or someone else’s and gently embody the seamlessness of reality here and now; to BE the appropriate response. There is no pre-determined right thing to think of doing beforehand.

When dealing with anger, either in another that threatens my sense of rightness, or in myself when faced with the obvious wrongness in the other person, has to start with this sitting-with and de-selfing. The appropriate response may well still be to point out how someone’s action has hurt or whatever, but it will have a very different quality to it, and will recognise the entire situation rather than the focus being on me, me, me and my protection of my self against you, you you and your self. It may be to walk away.

That is not to say we open ourselves to abuse or that nothing matters. But it will appreciate the difficulty of letting go of the habit of overwhelming someone by arguments for the other person too, as they also are in the grip of self-protection in that moment, and it is not the real situation. And by not feeding into the need to self-protect, the argument will just stop, and maybe real exploration can then begin.

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