In these days of Covid-19, there is a lot to be angry about.
Angry that the pandemic arrived. Angry we are on lockdown and have to practice “physical distancing.” Angry we can’t go out, see friends, travel. Angry that we have had to cancel all our plans. And angry there is no end in sight.
I have been lucky to learn a practice that has taught me how to manage my anger and not let it overwhelm me.
It started in the year 2008, when I attended a five-day retreat held in Delhi and led by the Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (or Thay as his followers fondly call him), offered by the India-based Ahimsa Trust. The basis of his teachings was the practice of mindfulness, as a way of life.
Thay’s teachings on mindfulness were new to me, and I was struck by his simple message. His discourses on how to be mindful were powerful. There was no grand plan of resolving the world’s problems. It was about opening our hearts to love, compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. It was about being here and now and living every moment fully and completely.
The practice helped me become more mindful about what I was thinking, saying, and doing. I learned ways in which I could change my behaviour, simply by being mindful. I learned to be more compassionate toward others, their situations, and their suffering. I started by being more compassionate toward myself.
The practice, individually and in the sangha (the community of practitioners), helped me to become a better person. It helped me to think about my past actions that were not mindful, and because of which I had alienated friends and relationships. I had suffered.
I got in touch with my anger—anger at not getting my way, or at people not seeing things my way, and about many other things. And, how acting out on the basis of this anger made me unhappy.
Following the practice, I spent some time in repairing these relationships and working to ensure that I would not allow this to happen in the future. This has not always been easy, as you can imagine, because I had to admit to myself and others that I was wrong. But I benefited from the exercise as I felt I had done the right thing. I felt less guilty and more—to the point—joyful.
As my practice deepened, in and out of the sangha and Ahimsa Trust retreats, I found myself happier and more content. I am not saying I don’t get angry, but I am able to understand and manage my anger by being mindful of it being there, accepting it, and trying to understand the roots of my anger.
By breathing into the anger, by stepping back and taking a moment or several moments, I find that most of the time I can deal with the anger. Later, in meditation, I often revisit these incidents and give myself credit for managing the situations mindfully, and if I haven’t, I resolve to do better.
Over the years, I have taken initiative—with people I know and don’t know—to resolve conflict. When I see conflict or situations where people are blinded by their rage over a perceived affront to them, I try to intervene by calming them down. I feel it just takes that one person or a sentence to bring calm, and then it is possible to work to resolve the conflict, without pointing fingers or ascribing blame. When the situation is resolved, I feel good about myself in that I have made a ridiculously small contribution toward a more peaceful world.
“It is important to recognize that we always have the Buddha in us. Even if we are angry, unkind or in despair, the Buddha is always within us. This means we always have the potential to be mindful, to be understanding, to be loving. Then everything will be fine. The Buddha recognizes. The Buddha embraces. The Buddha relieves, and the Buddha looks deeply into the nature of anger. The Buddha understands. And this understanding will bring about transformation.”
In his book, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thay writes about our consciousness and the blocks of pain, anger, and frustration called “internal formations” or knots—because they tie us up and obstruct our freedom.
When someone insults us or does something unkind to us, an internal formation is created in our consciousness. If we don’t know how to undo the internal knot and transform it, the knot stays there for a long time. And the next time someone says or does something to us of the same nature, that internal formation will grow stronger. As knots or blocks of pain in us, our internal formations have the power to push us, to dictate our behaviour.
After a while, it becomes exceedingly difficult for us to transform, to undo the knots, and we cannot ease the constriction of this crystallized formation. The Sanskrit word for internal formation is samyojana. It means “to crystallize.” We all have these formations, and with the practice of meditation, we can undo these knots and experience transformation and healing.
Not all internal formations are unpleasant. There are also pleasant internal formations, but they can still make us suffer. When you taste, hear, or see something pleasant, then that pleasure can become a strong internal knot.
For example, when the object of our pleasure disappears, we miss it and begin searching for it. We spend a lot of time and energy trying to experience it again. If we smoke marijuana or drink alcohol and begin to like it, then it becomes an internal formation in our bodies and in our minds. We cannot get it out of our minds. We will always look for more. The strength of the internal knot is pushing and controlling us. So, internal formations deprive us of our freedom.
Thay speaks of falling in love as a huge internal formation. He writes:
“Once you are in love, you only think of the other person. You are not free anymore. You cannot do anything; you cannot study, work, or enjoy the sunshine or the beauty of nature around you. You can only think of the object of your love. That is why we speak about it as a kind of accident: ‘falling in love.’ You fall. You are not stable anymore because you have gotten into an accident. So, love can also be an internal knot.”
Pleasant or unpleasant, both kinds of knots take away our liberty. That is why we should guard our body and mind carefully, to prevent these knots from taking root in us. Drugs, alcohol, and tobacco can create internal formations in our body. And anger, craving, jealousy, and despair can create internal formations in our mind.
Thay talks about the energies of concentration and insight. He writes:
“The energy of mindfulness contains the energy of concentration, as well as the energy of insight. Concentration helps you to focus on just one thing. With concentration, the energy of looking becomes more powerful.”
Because of that, it can make a breakthrough that is insight. Insight always has the power of liberating us. If there is mindfulness, and we know how to keep mindfulness alive, there will be concentration. And, if we know how to keep concentration alive, there will be insight.
So, mindfulness recognizes, embraces, and relieves. Mindfulness helps us look deeply to gain insight. Insight is the liberating factor. It is what frees us and allows transformation to happen.
This is the Buddhist practice of taking care of anger. This is how I am taking care of my anger. What about you?