July 13, 2010

The Thin Line Between Anger & Compassion.

How to get past the razor’s edge of anger.

Fundamentally, we are all striving to be happy and to avoid suffering. This is the unifying truth at the core of all actions. What differs are the paths in which each individual takes to succeed in this pursuit.


An interaction between two cars where both perspectives are represented.

Perspective 1:

You are driving down the highway on a gorgeous morning, warm, fresh air against your face and peaceful music setting the tone for what should be a wonderful day. After a quick glance down to change the song on your iPod, a car whips in front of you with millimeters to spare and slams on the brakes. Every loose item in your car goes crashing to the dash as you lay on the brakes to avoid rear-ending them. The reckless car then switches lanes again, just as erratically, now to the far right lane heading to the off ramp. You are able to pull up right next to them before they exit.

Do you pull up in a fit of anger or calmly drive past sending compassionate blessings?

Perspective 2:

Driving down the highway on what would normally seem like a gorgeous day, however, this morning, the sun is hiding behind a cloud of devastation. The cell phone rings with the news that your child, who was in somewhat stable condition when you left at 2 a.m., is not expected to survive another 10 minutes. As the news hits your ears, your heart shatters into a million sharp shards. The fear of not being able to hold that tiny, warm hand again becomes all-consuming. Aware of the urgency to get to the hospital, you swing over to the next lane. The only thought pounding through your head is “please let me look into those little eyes one more time and tell him that I love him…” Distraught and disoriented, you shift lanes again to the off ramp. Through tear clouded eyes, your focus then moves to a car who has pulled up next to you as you near the hospital exit.

Did anything change with this new perspective?


Have you ever noticed that thin line that separates anger from compassion?

How quickly anger can spark from a simple misunderstanding or lack of perspective. The razor’s edge of those elusive elements cut through attempts at cultivating compassion.

The power behind that energy and emotion nurtured within is grossly underestimated. Stress and anger has been scientifically proven to cause cancer and other physical and mental ailments. On the flip side, the benefits of fostering and sharing love and compassion are blatantly evident to anyone who has ever been the recipient or bestower of such beautiful gifts.

This is not new news. Why then do we allow fits of anger over inane encounters to depress our mood and radiate negativity outward? It is solely our own personal responsibility to assume control over our emotions. I believe the key to that control resides within the perspective which, unfortunately, is too easily obscured by the ego.

When armed with the view of another person’s perspective, we can empathize with their condition. Interactions are amongst people…real, precious, people. There is always a unique and special individual behind the wheel, on the other end of the phone, or behind the title of a company.

Unlike the above example, the knowledge of people’s circumstances, individual perceptions and reactions are not provided. Considering all the missing variables, it takes conviction and practice to assume a view which overrides our own ego in order to foster compassion.

“There’s a direct connection between selflessness and compassion: as one becomes more powerful, the other strengthens.”

~ Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

The ego serves as a filter through which we see the world. Events are processed based on their effect or impact, and thus are sometimes skewed to serve the interest of the ego, which feeds on stimulus: whether it is conducive or detrimental, real or contrived, and gives preferential treatment to that which pertains specifically to its personal plight.

In other words, to varying degrees, we are all egocentric.

Intentions and circumstances may be unknown; however, what is known is that those hurtful actions will be rooted in some self-gratifying goal. When thinking about these exchanges within this context, the anger begins to diminish.

After struggling with my own inability to foster compassion in the face of anger, I established my own practice to initiate a mental shift. This shift has granted me greater control of my emotions, enabled me to be more mindful, and has allowed my compassion practice to flourish off the meditation cushion.

I started by putting my own egocentrism in check by calmly emphasizing that their actions are not personal attacks against me. I then choose which one of three categories best reflects the reasoning behind their self-serving action.

  1. The person was too caught up in their own personal turmoil/crisis to even care that they had wronged me (as in above example). In which case, I feel compassion towards that person for whatever it is that is tainting their lives, clouding their view, or monopolizing their attention.
  2. Whatever they did to wrong me was completely unintentional. This person was confused or uninformed. They were only looking at the exchange from only their perspective. In which case, I feel compassion towards this person for their confusion, closed-mindedness, or naivete.
  3. The malicious action may have been intentional, however, the short-lived joy will not come from the hurt that it causes, it stems from the feeling of superiority that results from the exchange. This could also be viewed as confusion. In which case, I choose not to partake in the exchange (it takes two to play in a power struggle), and I feel compassion for this person who is in need of a false sense of self-love and security.

It is merely the act of putting the ego on hold long enough to not only entertain but also understand a different perspective.

This is certainly not an uncommon or unfamiliar practice; however, this tends to to be forgotten when emotions are heated.

Fundamentally, we are all striving to be happy and to avoid suffering. This is the unifying truth at the core of all actions. What differs are the paths in which each individual takes to succeed in this pursuit.

That being said…may our paths converge along this universal pursuit in peaceful understanding. If by chance we intersect in a dark haze of confusion, I vow to honor our common aspirations by nurturing your endeavor with the light of my compassion.

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