Practicing Mindfulness - A Cure for Anger
Updated: May 1, 2019
“They who always practice well mindfulness of the body, who follow not what should not be done and constantly do what should be done, of those mindful and reflective ones the corruptions come to an end.” (The Dhammapada)
The Challenge of being Mindful
To abandon all delusional interferences and view oneself true-heartedly is no easy task. The effort required is tremendous. And when this process of self-observation and self-evaluation is to be extended to every moment of one’s waking life, the effort required becomes herculean. To practice mindfulness is to look honestly at how one feels and reacts to one’s daily encounters. Here the word encounter shall be construed in the wider sense: encounters are not limited to interactions with people and situations. Thoughts that arise incessantly in our minds are also encounters, except in this case we are encountering not individuals but our own mental proliferations. In fact it is this latter category of internal turmoil that needs taming, for our actions are nothing but manifestations of these internal seeds. True mindfulness practice sets in when the arising of wholesome thoughts are cultivated, and the arising of evil thoughts are subdued or even eliminated.
The Curse of Anger
In a cut-throat city like Hong Kong, where the majority of its inhabitants live in close contact with each other, where the streets are crowded and polluted, where the population is divided into the haves and have-nots, where the motto of the city is “time equals money”… such conditions constantly fuel one’s feelings and emotions to the extremes. In such an emotionally charged environment, many are ready to literally explode with the slightest trigger. How many times, when we read a local newspaper, do we see stories of strangers fighting in public, couples killing each other, teenagers jumping off buildings, and so on? We are indeed fettered squarely and fully by the “three poisons” mentioned in Buddhism, that is, greed, aversion, and ignorance.
Volumes and volumes could be (and have been) written about each of the three poisons, or defilements. For me personally, the mental defilement of aversion particularly in the aspect of hatred or anger, is most vivid. Take a brief period of time in the morning as I take the MTR to work. Despite the efficient train system we have, any wait for more than a few minutes triggers irritation; when the train does arrive, I would turn the anger to fellow passengers as they scramble to board the train like hoards of hungry wolves; inside the train, anger arises again as I observe the ugliness and selfishness of humanity in full swing: young people seated while the elderly stands; loud and rude conversations on mobile phones; and all sorts of other uncivilized behavior.
In his article "A Refuge in Awakening", Ajann Dhammadharo says anger is like a burning fire. If one is not mindful to the state of one’s mind, and instead thinks only of the object or person that incited the anger, one is like setting oneself on fire. This simile brings out one important point: in most cases, anger or hatred arose from within, not without. For instance, the person who is screaming foul language over his mobile phone normally does not do so for the purposes of irritating others (whether or not he has manners is another discussion). He might be having hearing problems, or he might have had an awful day, or he might not be aware of the volume of his voice, etc. It is the listener who is getting attached to the sounds; it is the listener who fell into the trap of aversion and hatred. Instead of allowing aversion to arise, would it not be a lot smarter to just accept the thusness of the situation? Or better yet, could the listener mindfully cultivate a filter which can restrict the arising of (unskillful) feelings due to ear contact?
The Path to the Cessation of Anger
While the arising of anger is relatively easy to notice, the cessation of anger is more complex. How does anger fade away? Does anger simply subside with the passage of time? Over ten years ago I received a very rude comment from somebody. While the initial outburst of anger might have passed, the seed of hatred seems to have remained in the sub-conscious. From time to time certain events still stir the memory, and the same anger towards the same person can still be recalled. Therefore the passage of time is clearly not a reliable cure for aversion.
In comes the concept of metta which runs to great depths in Buddhism; and just like the concept of aversion, much has been written on metta. I find that Acharya Buddharakkhita explained metta in a very comprehensive way:
"The Pali word metta is a multi-significant term meaning loving-kindness, friendliness, goodwill, benevolence, fellowship, amity, concord, inoffensiveness and non-violence. The Pali commentators define metta as the strong wish for the welfare and happiness of others… an altruistic attitude of love and friendliness as distinguished from mere amiability based on self-interest… True metta is devoid of self-interest. It evokes within a warm-hearted feeling of fellowship, sympathy and love, which grows boundless with practice and overcomes all social, religious, racial, political and economic barriers. Metta is indeed a universal, unselfish and all-embracing love.
To develop metta is to develop good will to all living beings without any kind of discrimination, a lofty ideal which seems completely out of reach for the wordly person. Then how about compassion? In its everyday meaning, compassion is synonymous with care, sympathy, empathy, kindness, consideration, and so on. Surely even the most hard-hearted person would at certain times exhibit some of these characteristics? The rowdy teenager, who decisively occupied a seat in a train compartment, just might, upon seeing a frail old lady, be drowned in a feeling of empathy and offers his seat? Compassion, however, must be distinguished from sorrow. Its function resides in not bearing others’ suffering. It is manifested as non-cruelty. Its proximate cause is to see helplessness in those overwhelmed by suffering. It succeeds when it makes cruelty subside and it fails when it produces sorrow.
A Shift in Perception?
For instance, when I simultaneously ride in a crowded train and fell into the trap of listening in on heated foul language debate, it is completely fruitless to develop anger and animosity. Instead, I can try to cultivate the idea that the loud-voiced man is himself suffering (e.g. from a bad day), thus anger should not be developed and directed towards him. This kind of thinking can be said to be a form of compassion. Often, a “flip” in the trail of thought in the mind is all that is required to adjust one’s feelings. Nevertheless for many, the flip normally goes in the wrong direction: from peace of mind to chaos of mind. The challenge is to flip in the proper direction: to nurture wholesome feelings in the face of unwholesome situations.
The state of equanimity is an additional tool. On the surface, the word equanimity may convey a sense of nonchalance. Recently, in the much debated incident in China whereby a young toddler who suffered from a fatal traffic accident was simply left helplessly on the road after being hit by a vehicle, the passersby, who did not display any concern for the injured girl, were definitely not displaying equanimity. They were in fact displaying utter selfishness. Therefore equanimity and apathy must be distinguished.
A truly equanimous person under the same circumstance would demonstrate compassion and assist the child until proper help has been established. To ignore or to show lack of concern, or to be dispassionate and idle are not the same as being equanimous. In the context of anger, when hatred arises, one should become aware that the feeling is a product of one’s mind. Therefore one should study one’s mental proliferation closely. Am I angry because of the person “committing” the coarse act, or am I angry because I chose to pan my eyes in the direction of the act, and allow my mind to go berserk? Why did anger arise? What good is it to have this anger? How can I make this anger cease? In other words, the rowdy crowd who pushed and shoved, the man who screamed foul language, and the misbehavior of the teenagers are the actions of others. While one should not turn a blind eye to gross public misconduct (such as theft or sexual harassment inside a train), one equally should not allow any trivial event to disturb one’s peace of mind. If anger is compared to fire as suggested by Ajann Dhammadharo, then the question “why set oneself on fire?” must be asked whenever the slightest arousal of anger is detected. More often than not, anger is triggered by one’s own wrong views, which are quickly led to mental proliferation. Therefore, one must learn to barricade anger before it arises, and in order to do so, the (constant) practice of mindfulness becomes very relevant.