Is the Dalai Lama an anger avoider?

Mark, You said that people who don’t allow themselves to become angry are anger avoiders. Is the Dalai Lama is an anger avoider?

To find out, I wrote to three teachers of Buddhism. All replied.

Apparently, Buddhists don’t repress or avoid anger, but nor do they indulge it; rather, they don’t allow it to rise. They train their mind to be alert to their emotions and become aware of anger as soon as it begins to arise.

If anger does arise they observe it in a detached way, then address it using a number of methods until it fades. One method is to consciously replace it with a cultivated compassion, or loving kindness, called ‘metta’. Each Buddhist aims to one day be able to cut off anger entirely and feel only loving kindness. ‘This is, if nothing else, a beautiful ideal to aspire to,’ says one teacher.

Their arguments to support this view are strong.  And they claim that even when anger is appropriately and constructively expressed it is still a toxin to the holder of the anger.

Anger management methods are relatively easy to learn and apply, whereas the Buddhist methods, (even though they might be effective in the long run), require training and persistence. My main concern with the Buddhist view is that if the teachings are not applied properly, someone might become an anger avoider. But I could be wrong.

So, is the Dalai Lama an anger avoider? I say no, because he uses compassion instead of anger to address his issues. If you can do that, fine.

The respondents’ arguments are elegant and below, and address the question far better.

The three letters:
1. From Bhante Sujato.
2. From Liz.
3. From Lynne.
(I am seeking the full names of Liz and Lynne, having lost their details.)

Letter 1. From Bhante Sujato:
 “There are a few issues here. One thing to acknowledge is the evolutionary context: anger in animals functions as a fight or flight trigger, prompting immediate and drastic response in order to save one’s life. This kind of response is still hardwired in the human brain, but of course we cannot just act on our impulses in the same way. So the anger reaction is natural and normal, and for most of us is a part of our lives we have to learn to live with.

The key factors for dealing with it are really two: mindfulness and metta. Mindfulness will realize the anger as soon as it arises, and stay with the feeling of anger, alert to the dangers of getting trapped in the spiral of perceptions>thoughts>emotions>perceptions…. Staying with the feeling as feeling allows us to fully understand the anger – the very opposite of repressing or avoiding – and in addition cuts off the spiral of conditions that fuels the anger. It will gradually die out, not by being suppressed, but because that is its nature as a conditioned thing.

When the mind is clear enough, consciously develop metta, through meditation and through daily thoughts and reflections. This will little by little reduce the power of anger to arise and take us over. It is a striking fact that the Buddha quite explicitly stated that mindfulness alone is not sufficient to deal with anger, metta is also necessary.

The beauty of this approach is that it is both pragmatic and transformative. For most of us, this approach will enable us to deal with anger with falling into the two extremes of repression and denial on the one hand, and being a slave to unwholesome emotions on the other. But if we follow the path deeply enough, it will enable us to eventually cut off anger in its entirety, and one can then live with mindfulness and metta as part of our nature. It’s difficult to know when this stage is reached: it is possible through practice to live without experiencing anger, or only very little, for long periods of time, but the seeds are still there. Sometimes only time will tell. It is not true that good people don’t get angry, this happens all the time; but Buddhism does recognize that perfected people don’t get angry. This is, if nothing else, a beautiful ideal to aspire to.

As for how to motivate oneself, well the results tell the story, don’t you think? Yes, anger is great to get you to fight back against the wolf or the tiger, but in accomplishing something valuable in our modern world, we need clear-headed reason. Passionate ranters don’t win a lot of sympathy. The psychologists distinguish between aggression and assertiveness, which seems to encapsulate the difference. As so often, they seem similar on the surface, but there is a world of difference. And the difference is precisely that aggression wishes harm to the other; assertiveness recognizes that one’s own well being and the well being of the other are intertwined. For example, an aggressive wife would seek revenge if her husband beat her; an assertive wife should understand that letting her husband beat her is as damaging to him as it is to her, so she is assertive in seeking protection she needs.

metta

bhante Sujato”

Letter 2. From Liz: “Anger is defined in Tibetan Buddhist psychology (lo-rig) as a mental state having a disturbing effect on our happiness and peace of mind. Anger has both a cognitive and a feeling component. An object appears to our mind (a person, thing, situation or idea) and the mind misconstrues the object itself as a source of suffering, an obstacle to our happiness. The mind then mistakenly harbours ill-will towards the external object of anger, wishing to harm it, eliminate it or, at best, be separated from it. Any ensuing actions of body, speech or mind to harm the object of anger will also have harmful effects for the angry person themselves.

For Buddhists, a habitual pattern of indulging anger and aversion leaves subtle, pernicious traces on the mind. While imperceptible in the moment, theses traces gradually accumulate, a bit like drops of toxin dripping into a well. This makes our mind increasingly self-defensive, vulnerable to impatience or irritation and more likely to become angry again. Without us actively countering this tendency, the toxic buildup does not just result in a lower threshold of tolerance for situations we apprehend to be unpleasant.  It also results in increasing levels of difficulty first in not reacting when things are not always the way we want, second with not viewing our desires as important and third with not losing our cool.  So anger works rather like an addiction: polluting our presence, ruining our happiness and interactions with others. This is why Buddhists view anger as very destructive: the opposite of the unbiased, loving, compassionate mind that treats all beings as equal in their wish for happiness and seeks to do no harm, only benefit.

The actual root cause of the suffering of anger is also habitual, subtle and equally pernicious.  It is a misapprehension of reality, not perceiving it in a clear, balanced way, but viewing it through a distorted, primitive filter that separates self from other. It believes that I exist independently of other and must look after number one to survive, that other people are separate from me and are of less immediate concern. I must be happy and avoid suffering at all times: my needs, desires, pleasures, concerns and problems are the most pressing and serious. By extension, this view then exaggerates the relative value or good qualities of what I see as “mine”- my body, my views, my feelings, my satisfaction, my attributes, my possessions, my loved ones, my friend, my group – sees it as a source of happiness, and cannot bear to be parted from it or for it to be harmed.  This is known as attachment, which cannot tolerate any experience seen as harmful to I or mine or what I see as external sources of my happiness.

The forerunner to anger is a mental state known as inappropriate attention, which zooms in on the negative qualities of the object of anger, the one we see as causing us unpleasant feelings or harm.  Reacting to a few potent details of a person or situation we have aversion to, inappropriate attention exaggerates these details, remembers more faults, superimposes more negative qualities, even projects ones that are actually not there.  Anger is subjective: the end product of this process does not reflect objective reality. People get reduced to a kind of caricature.  They are now acting in an incorrect story, our biased version of events, one we are reluctant to change. But under the influence of anger we don’t feel our story is selective, biased, distorted or exaggerated. We don’t notice it’s our own predispositions dictating the script! We feel we’re right and that it’s the object of anger that needs to change! To convince ourselves of this we often mentally replay our story of injustice or retaliation, just like a cartoon strip with our wronged self as the star!

This sequence of angry thoughts and the range of emotions that go with them are all qualified by Tibetan Buddhists as anger – on a continuum from irritation, annoyance and frustration to distaste, disapproval and resentment, to belligerence, spite, vengefulness, hatred and rage: all of them forms of suffering (try being angry and happy at the same time!)  On the basis of this story, we then act to “relieve” the anger: I must push away or eliminate this object, which I am sure has the inherent characteristic of being the cause of my suffering.

Tibetan Buddhists see anger as both a wrong and a mistaken consciousness: this mental agitation and the wish to retaliate actually don’t arise from the object of our anger, but from the ill-will we have now added to our original aversion.  But anger tells us we need to harm the object where we see the fault lies!  It’s not our fault! Depending on the circumstances, some people might lash out physically or verbally before they know it. Others might internalise their anger, unable to stop mentally ruminating on the negative qualities of the object of aversion, assigning blame. Or they might then go and try to sell their story to others, recruiting support, often sneakily, to validate their view of injustice done.  Any of these three responses agitates the mind even more, inevitably leading to further harm to all parties involved.

All these responses to anger are unsatisfactory. While they appear to protect us from the object of anger or ease the pain we can’t tolerate, they are only temporary relief for our hurt ego, very poor armour for our wounded pride. The fleeting sense of triumph or satisfaction we experience when thinking about how to retaliate is so intoxicating. But if we look closely, it generates more anger in a subtle form: the aversion to the now mentally “defeated” object of our anger. It is also blind to the consequences, the fallout of acting on our anger.  These consequences certainly do not bring us the peace and happiness we wish for. They are inevitably uncomfortable, and all involve internal harm to ourselves.

Firstly, the ill-will generated by revisiting or feeding our anger impairs our cognitive functioning. We develop an internal, rigid, unforgiving, defensive, tense, blinkered kind of mental view about the situation, seeing it as kind of permanent and only seeing things from one angle: ours! (According to psychologists, this is the refractory period accompanying an emotion, which does not allow us to take in new information.) We are so caught up in feeling that we cannot think clearly or rationally, accept the situation, let in any advice or reasonable interpretation contradicting our view offered us by well-meaning people, sometimes even for years! (Look at Israel and Palestine. Or divorcees who can’t reconcile.)

Secondly, anger impairs our general health and general wellbeing.  Habitual anger gives rise to an underlying subtle mental agitation which  also robs us of our general happiness, wellbeing and good qualities, our discriminating intelligence, our ability to be undistracted or unpreoccupied, our concentration and our memory.  It is a big component in many stress-related health disorders like high blood pressure and heart trouble, or anxiety, depression, paranoid fears and insomnia (they did this to me, I did this, I will do this, what are they thinking about what I did when I was angry and what are they going to do back?)

Thirdly, anger is isolating and harmful.  Humans are social animals; people avoid or tune out bad-tempered people.  When angry we also isolate ourselves and others.  We can ignore and destroy years of positive contact, company, hospitality, help, care and friendship we may have had with someone else, even cutting them out of our life. We may suffer further retaliation by our “enemy out there”: a refusal to forgive or apologise. Then there is the suffering of  loss of contact, possessions, trust, respect, reputation, opportunities, relationships, popularity, and status.

Lastly, the painful feelings that flow from anger disturb our emotional resilience and confidence. These feelings may range from a very subtle nagging self-doubt to worry, discomfort, dismay and embarrassment through to loneliness, rigid pride, hatred and contempt or to shame, anguish, remorse and regret. Long term, the failure to forgive can lead to tight feelings of obsession, victimisation or resentment, which, if fed over time and not intervened on, can lead to other disorders. More sadly, the fallout from anger may manifest as a kind of despair on realising how much hurt we have caused: the burning desire to reconcile with someone who no longer wants to talk to us, the prospect of a gaol sentence or even the decision to commit suicide.

If we deeply analyse the nature of anger itself, as well as its effects, with the aim, as you say, of honestly getting to know ourselves, we will reach the conclusion that our real enemy is actually the mind of anger itself, not its object. Despite its promises, anger always betrays us and ultimately delivers no advantages at all.

You mentioned that some people think that identifying anger, then “expressing it in a healthy constructive manner will make a child less fearful of confronting other people and more able to stand up for himself.” This seems to echo a rather narcissistic, ego-based view nowadays prevalent in modern society, reinforced by the mass media and still favoured by some schools of psychotherapy, that there is such a thing as healthy anger generated by attachment to I and mine. This view holds anger to be a source of power and strength, even of self-esteem, and that expressing it is a sign of these, because it shows “you have violated my boundaries or my values” (again, the key word here is “my”, not “our”.)

This view pre-supposes an adversarial or competitive view of the world, not an interdependent one, which is the foundation of the Buddhist desire not to harm.

You were asking about the Dalai Lama’s view of compassion as a response to harm. He states this very simply: just like us, everyone wants to be happy and avoid suffering. He stresses that the sources of power and strength and confidence are tolerance, compassion and an unbiased, empathic positive view of everyone, understanding that strangers, friends and enemies alike all have the same wish, which an angry conflict will destroy. He considers that in the 21st century, treating the other person as an adversary and using force to get our way is a very outmoded concept!

I would like to emphasise here that it is not against Buddhist principles to express disagreement with an action assertively, as long as it is calmly, kindly and respectfully done with the main intention to act out of wisdom and benefit the other party. Nor is it wrong to carry out punishments with the same mindset. Buddhists say that it is the motivation behind any action that determines whether it is positive or negative. However anyone wishing to express “warranted” anger would very carefully have to check the situation from several angles then examine their motivation to be sure it was not self-serving! If children follow popular “healthy” communications skills formulas as a response to anger and say things like “When you took my toy I felt upset”, they would need to be very careful that the statement was neither blaming or self-serving and then gently spoken.

The Dalai Lama has often stressed the value of resolving conflict by engaging in ongoing dialogue, and sees the early teaching of this skill from kindergarten level up as a very important way of attaining world peace. It is important to teach children to be assertive and stand up for their rights and the rights of others, not to be afraid to speak the truth, to be courageous and fair. It is also very important that they be able to do so by mobilising emotional intelligence and rational thinking, with a good heart, a sense of unbiased perspective, a calm mind and gentle speech. The Dalai Lama believes that teaching children how to investigate and train in these qualities will, through practice and familiarisation, give them a grounding in the skills of non-violence so that it becomes second nature. A confident, kind presence in a difficult situation is immediately palpable, attractive and comforting. When combined with goodwill and a determination to face and solve problems it has the power to transform them and, ultimately, lessen conflict in the world. As the Dalai Lama says, world peace starts with the individual.

Tibetan Buddhism holds that anger comes from the mind, and that the antidote to anger is retraining the mind. We all have anger: it can’t be avoided.  Even the Dalai Lama says he experiences the occasional brief flash of it.  But he has patiently trained in overcoming it, with impressive results! He emphasises how we all have the inner potential to retrain the mind, how it is important to firmly face and avert anger when it arises, how anyone can train the same way he has in how to respond to anger in a non-violent way, children and adults alike.  They just need a strong wish to stop suffering, inspiring teachers, proven methods, conviction in their abilities, effort, determination, time and patience.

Buddhist tools can be very beneficial to both adults and children here and are attracting increasing attention in the modern world. Tibetan Buddhist practices in particular look at gradually and patiently building up a kind of cumulative immune response to pain and anger. This is a kind of “middle way” in transforming our anger: we cannot avoid anger, but we do not indulge it either. Rather, we observe it in a mindful but detached way, change our reaction and view of it, and ultimately pacify it.

Since we partly experience anger cognitively, we need to train in an awareness that mental states arise in dependence upon the thoughts we have about any object, and that it is possible, using logic, investigation and analysis, to recondition our mind to think less negatively and more compassionately about a troubling person or situation.  Since we also experience anger on a feeling level, we need to cultivate positive emotions to overpower the habit of anger in the long term, influencing our basic motivation before we act. So how can children do this?  The methods below are the basis of a series of Buddhist meditations, but could also be done with children through discussion or investigation.

Firstly, Tibetan Buddhist practitioners for centuries have contemplated analysing the disadvantages of anger, which I mentioned earlier. Children could look at examples of how anger destroys our happiness: how when angry or unforgiving a child appears ugly and unattractive to their peer group, creates stress and tension around them, destroys relationships, is avoided, loses social opportunities, networks and support, feels alienated, lonely, unpopular, insecure and underconfident.

The second antidote to anger is accumulating a kind of unbiased, tolerant empathy towards all beings. To counteract blame and promote empathy, children could be encouraged, for example, to practise thinking outside themselves and their group.  If we really deeply feel that even our apparent enemies, difficult people have the basic wish to be happy and not to suffer, and stop viewing them as people whose feelings don’t count as much as ours, this inspires compassion in us: I have hurt and made mistakes too. I am like that too. We are the same. Anger doesn’t discriminate: everyone experiences its pain. We need to train in making the distinction between the person and their afflictive emotions, which harm them as much as us. Children could investigate whether hating, hurting, excluding or not considering other children actually feels good long-term from their own perspective.

The third antidote to anger is an understanding of how an angry mind tricks us into seeing any situation as a narrow, limited, exaggerated, permanent thing.  Children can build optimism, resilience, confidence and kindness by broadening and modifying their view of anger (This situation isn’t satisfactory, or they did this to me and now it’s “made” me angry.) Anger is not due to just one cause we can point at and conveniently blame from our viewpoint. Any disturbing emotion is an interdependent co-production between our mind and the “world out there”:  an aggregation of background factors and mental pre-dispositions, perceptions, views, biases, concepts, memories and reasonings meets with external circumstances and objects.

Conflict is something way more than it appears from our angle: just someone nasty doing something mean to me, making me feel bad and permanently affecting my happiness alone, so I should give them the flick or teach them a lesson. I feel children would be very much helped if they could look at how this blaming, unforgiving attitude flies in the face of reality. If we hang onto past hurts and injustices, it is usually because we don’t realise that the past only exists as a present memory, so we only hurt ourselves by recycling it.  We don’t realise that the person who hurt us was suffering too, and hopes to be understood and forgiven just like us, even if they’re cold-hearted, lacking in empathy, unforgiving, or in complete denial about having done a harmful action.  We forget about the very precarious way we discriminate between people, hoping for happiness: we categorise people as friends out of greed or attachment because they benefited us, enemies out of aversion because they harmed us, and strangers out of indifference because they haven’t done either yet! Children could also think about how this grasping at these concepts is unreliable: over time our relationship to others is actually in flux, not fixed. Strangers become friends, friends become enemies, but enemies can also become friends again. So we need to encourage children to take perspective and forgive past hurts.

The fourth antidote to anger is cultivating loving-kindness (the wish for all beings to be happy). Tibetan Buddhism holds that all happiness comes from others, and all suffering comes from the self. Children could think about how receiving and giving kindness makes them feel, and try to practise that with people known to them, then extend it to strangers, and even one day to people they didn’t like!  Focusing on loving-kindness brings the realisation that we are all the same in our desire to be happy, a kind of affection for everyone. The benefit of promoting and cultivating loving-kindness is that it increases the capacity for care, concern, generosity, altruism, happiness and other positive mental states.

The fifth antidote to anger is cultivating compassion, the wish for all beings to be free from suffering. Learning to use their imagination and put themselves in another person’s shoes helps children to empathise with the different forms of suffering of others that might underlie anger, especially the ones they don’t know from their own experience. This breaks down their self-centred view of the importance of their own suffering and motivates them to be more altruistic, less harmful, less violent.  Eventually, after practising thinking like this about friends, then extending to strangers, they may reach the point where they cannot tolerate seeing the suffering of others and act spontaneously to help them out of compassion – even their enemy.

The Dalai Lama says that tolerance and compassion, contrary to their appearance, are not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. The last and the strongest practice acting as an antidote to anger is patience: the ability to tolerate the unpleasant, (training first in tolerating and not complaining over little things, not retaliating when we could, practising mindful forbearance in the face of adversity, and applying mind training in the above antidotes to impatience and anger.) To develop patience after harm, children can be encouraged to train in taking a wider perspective on harm: trying to understand the internal suffering that led someone to harm them, reflecting on any good qualities or past kindnesses done to them by that person.  This often breaks up hostile feelings.

Children can be encouraged to train in being patient and tolerant over little things, small frustrations, and then to build more and more tolerance and patience.  They can be encouraged to start practising this with family members, then friends, then expand their patience more widely thinking that reacting impatiently will harm everyone. Children can also contemplate the qualities of patience as a very stable, attractive, unshakeable, calm mindstate, which gives us a pleasant appearance, hones our intelligence as well as our ability to discriminate between positive and negative actions and make rational, balanced decisions. It acts as a basis for achieving many other good qualities, calms previous habitual inner agitation and creates an attractive, peaceful attitude which affects those around us.

These very powerful thought transformation techniques I have outlined, when practised together, are gradual but very effective antidotes to anger. My feeling is that it is important to teach children how to cultivate these human values of awareness of self and others, of interdependence of actions and their results, of kindness, compassion, patience and empathy.  With repeated application, they will cause the habit of anger to gradually lose its strength. Emphasising them as a kind of social and emotional intelligence can promote non-violence, non-harm and a better world.

Liz.”

 Letter 3. From Lynne:

“Dear Mark,

Thank you for your letter asking for clarification on anger and a healthy response to it. For a happy peaceful world, it is very beneficial to teach children about anger, its nature, how it works and how to respond to it in a positive way.

Anger is defined in Tibetan Buddhist psychology (lo-rig) as a mental state having a disturbing effect on our happiness and peace of mind. Anger has both a cognitive and a feeling component. An object appears to our mind (a person, thing, situation or idea) and the mind misconstrues the object itself as a source of suffering, an obstacle to our happiness. The mind then mistakenly harbours ill-will towards the external object of anger, wishing to harm it, eliminate it or, at best, be separated from it. Any ensuing actions of body, speech or mind to harm the object of anger will also have harmful effects for the angry person themselves.

For Buddhists, a habitual pattern of indulging anger and aversion leaves subtle, pernicious traces on the mind. While imperceptible in the moment, theses traces gradually accumulate, a bit like drops of toxin dripping into a well. This makes our mind increasingly self-defensive, vulnerable to impatience or irritation and more likely to become angry again. Without us actively countering this tendency, the toxic buildup does not just result in a lower threshold of tolerance for situations we apprehend to be unpleasant.  It also results in increasing levels of difficulty first in not reacting when things are not always the way we want, second with not viewing our desires as important and third with not losing our cool.  So anger works rather like an addiction: polluting our presence, ruining our happiness and interactions with others. This is why Buddhists view anger as very destructive: the opposite of the unbiased, loving, compassionate mind that treats all beings as equal in their wish for happiness and seeks to do no harm, only benefit.

The actual root cause of the suffering of anger is also habitual, subtle and equally pernicious.  It is a misapprehension of reality, not perceiving it in a clear, balanced way, but viewing it through a distorted, primitive filter that separates self from other. It believes that I exist independently of other and must look after number one to survive, that other people are separate from me and are of less immediate concern. I must be happy and avoid suffering at all times: my needs, desires, pleasures, concerns and problems are the most pressing and serious. By extension, this view then exaggerates the relative value or good qualities of what I see as “mine”- my body, my views, my feelings, my satisfaction, my attributes, my possessions, my loved ones, my friend, my group – sees it as a source of happiness, and cannot bear to be parted from it or for it to be harmed.  This is known as attachment, which cannot tolerate any experience seen as harmful to I or mine or what I see as external sources of my happiness.

The forerunner to anger is a mental state known as inappropriate attention, which zooms in on the negative qualities of the object of anger, the one we see as causing us unpleasant feelings or harm.  Reacting to a few potent details of a person or situation we have aversion to, inappropriate attention exaggerates these details, remembers more faults, superimposes more negative qualities, even projects ones that are actually not there.  Anger is subjective: the end product of this process does not reflect objective reality. People get reduced to a kind of caricature.  They are now acting in an incorrect story, our biased version of events, one we are reluctant to change. But under the influence of anger we don’t feel our story is selective, biased, distorted or exaggerated. We don’t notice it’s our own predispositions dictating the script! We feel we’re right and that it’s the object of anger that needs to change! To convince ourselves of this we often mentally replay our story of injustice or retaliation, just like a cartoon strip with our wronged self as the star!

This sequence of angry thoughts and the range of emotions that go with them are all qualified by Tibetan Buddhists as anger – on a continuum from irritation, annoyance and frustration to distaste, disapproval and resentment, to belligerence, spite, vengefulness, hatred and rage: all of them forms of suffering (try being angry and happy at the same time!)  On the basis of this story, we then act to “relieve” the anger: I must push away or eliminate this object, which I am sure has the inherent characteristic of being the cause of my suffering.

Tibetan Buddhists see anger as both a wrong and a mistaken consciousness: this mental agitation and the wish to retaliate actually don’t arise from the object of our anger, but from the ill-will we have now added to our original aversion.  But anger tells us we need to harm the object where we see the fault lies!  It’s not our fault! Depending on the circumstances, some people might lash out physically or verbally before they know it. Others might internalise their anger, unable to stop mentally ruminating on the negative qualities of the object of aversion, assigning blame. Or they might then go and try to sell their story to others, recruiting support, often sneakily, to validate their view of injustice done.  Any of these three responses agitates the mind even more, inevitably leading to further harm to all parties involved.

All these responses to anger are unsatisfactory. While they appear to protect us from the object of anger or ease the pain we can’t tolerate, they are only temporary relief for our hurt ego, very poor armour for our wounded pride. The fleeting sense of triumph or satisfaction we experience when thinking about how to retaliate is so intoxicating. But if we look closely, it generates more anger in a subtle form: the aversion to the now mentally “defeated” object of our anger. It is also blind to the consequences, the fallout of acting on our anger.  These consequences certainly do not bring us the peace and happiness we wish for. They are inevitably uncomfortable, and all involve internal harm to ourselves.

Firstly, the ill-will generated by revisiting or feeding our anger impairs our cognitive functioning. We develop an internal, rigid, unforgiving, defensive, tense, blinkered kind of mental view about the situation, seeing it as kind of permanent and only seeing things from one angle: ours! (According to psychologists, this is the refractory period accompanying an emotion, which does not allow us to take in new information.) We are so caught up in feeling that we cannot think clearly or rationally, accept the situation, let in any advice or reasonable interpretation contradicting our view offered us by well-meaning people, sometimes even for years! (Look at Israel and Palestine. Or divorcees who can’t reconcile.)

Secondly, anger impairs our general health and general wellbeing.  Habitual anger gives rise to an underlying subtle mental agitation which  also robs us of our general happiness, wellbeing and good qualities, our discriminating intelligence, our ability to be undistracted or unpreoccupied, our concentration and our memory.  It is a big component in many stress-related health disorders like high blood pressure and heart trouble, or anxiety, depression, paranoid fears and insomnia (they did this to me, I did this, I will do this, what are they thinking about what I did when I was angry and what are they going to do back?)

Thirdly, anger is isolating and harmful.  Humans are social animals; people avoid or tune out bad-tempered people.  When angry we also isolate ourselves and others.  We can ignore and destroy years of positive contact, company, hospitality, help, care and friendship we may have had with someone else, even cutting them out of our life. We may suffer further retaliation by our “enemy out there”: a refusal to forgive or apologise. Then there is the suffering of  loss of contact, possessions, trust, respect, reputation, opportunities, relationships, popularity, and status.

Lastly, the painful feelings that flow from anger disturb our emotional resilience and confidence. These feelings may range from a very subtle nagging self-doubt to worry, discomfort, dismay and embarrassment through to loneliness, rigid pride, hatred and contempt or to shame, anguish, remorse and regret. Long term, the failure to forgive can lead to tight feelings of obsession, victimisation or resentment, which, if fed over time and not intervened on, can lead to other disorders. More sadly, the fallout from anger may manifest as a kind of despair on realising how much hurt we have caused: the burning desire to reconcile with someone who no longer wants to talk to us, the prospect of a gaol sentence or even the decision to commit suicide.

If we deeply analyse the nature of anger itself, as well as its effects, with the aim, as you say, of honestly getting to know ourselves, we will reach the conclusion that our real enemy is actually the mind of anger itself, not its object. Despite its promises, anger always betrays us and ultimately delivers no advantages at all.

You mentioned that some people think that identifying anger, then “expressing it in a healthy constructive manner will make a child less fearful of confronting other people and more able to stand up for himself.” This seems to echo a rather narcissistic, ego-based view nowadays prevalent in modern society, reinforced by the mass media and still favoured by some schools of psychotherapy, that there is such a thing as healthy anger generated by attachment to I and mine. This view holds anger to be a source of power and strength, even of self-esteem, and that expressing it is a sign of these, because it shows “you have violated my boundaries or my values” (again, the key word here is “my”, not “our”.)

This view pre-supposes an adversarial or competitive view of the world, not an interdependent one, which is the foundation of the Buddhist desire not to harm.

You were asking about the Dalai Lama’s view of compassion as a response to harm. He states this very simply: just like us, everyone wants to be happy and avoid suffering. He stresses that the sources of power and strength and confidence are tolerance, compassion and an unbiased, empathic positive view of everyone, understanding that strangers, friends and enemies alike all have the same wish, which an angry conflict will destroy. He considers that in the 21st century, treating the other person as an adversary and using force to get our way is a very outmoded concept!

I would like to emphasise here that it is not against Buddhist principles to express disagreement with an action assertively, as long as it is calmly, kindly and respectfully done with the main intention to act out of wisdom and benefit the other party. Nor is it wrong to carry out punishments with the same mindset. Buddhists say that it is the motivation behind any action that determines whether it is positive or negative. However anyone wishing to express “warranted” anger would very carefully have to check the situation from several angles then examine their motivation to be sure it was not self-serving! If children follow popular “healthy” communications skills formulas as a response to anger and say things like “When you took my toy I felt upset”, they would need to be very careful that the statement was neither blaming or self-serving and then gently spoken.

The Dalai Lama has often stressed the value of resolving conflict by engaging in ongoing dialogue, and sees the early teaching of this skill from kindergarten level up as a very important way of attaining world peace. It is important to teach children to be assertive and stand up for their rights and the rights of others, not to be afraid to speak the truth, to be courageous and fair. It is also very important that they be able to do so by mobilising emotional intelligence and rational thinking, with a good heart, a sense of unbiased perspective, a calm mind and gentle speech. The Dalai Lama believes that teaching children how to investigate and train in these qualities will, through practice and familiarisation, give them a grounding in the skills of non-violence so that it becomes second nature. A confident, kind presence in a difficult situation is immediately palpable, attractive and comforting. When combined with goodwill and a determination to face and solve problems it has the power to transform them and, ultimately, lessen conflict in the world. As the Dalai Lama says, world peace starts with the individual.

Tibetan Buddhism holds that anger comes from the mind, and that the antidote to anger is retraining the mind. We all have anger: it can’t be avoided.  Even the Dalai Lama says he experiences the occasional brief flash of it.  But he has patiently trained in overcoming it, with impressive results! He emphasises how we all have the inner potential to retrain the mind, how it is important to firmly face and avert anger when it arises, how anyone can train the same way he has in how to respond to anger in a non-violent way, children and adults alike.  They just need a strong wish to stop suffering, inspiring teachers, proven methods, conviction in their abilities, effort, determination, time and patience.

Buddhist tools can be very beneficial to both adults and children here and are attracting increasing attention in the modern world. Tibetan Buddhist practices in particular look at gradually and patiently building up a kind of cumulative immune response to pain and anger. This is a kind of “middle way” in transforming our anger: we cannot avoid anger, but we do not indulge it either. Rather, we observe it in a mindful but detached way, change our reaction and view of it, and ultimately pacify it.

Since we partly experience anger cognitively, we need to train in an awareness that mental states arise in dependence upon the thoughts we have about any object, and that it is possible, using logic, investigation and analysis, to recondition our mind to think less negatively and more compassionately about a troubling person or situation.  Since we also experience anger on a feeling level, we need to cultivate positive emotions to overpower the habit of anger in the long term, influencing our basic motivation before we act. So how can children do this?  The methods below are the basis of a series of Buddhist meditations, but could also be done with children through discussion or investigation.

Firstly, Tibetan Buddhist practitioners for centuries have contemplated analysing the disadvantages of anger, which I mentioned earlier. Children could look at examples of how anger destroys our happiness: how when angry or unforgiving a child appears ugly and unattractive to their peer group, creates stress and tension around them, destroys relationships, is avoided, loses social opportunities, networks and support, feels alienated, lonely, unpopular, insecure and underconfident.

The second antidote to anger is accumulating a kind of unbiased, tolerant empathy towards all beings. To counteract blame and promote empathy, children could be encouraged, for example, to practise thinking outside themselves and their group.  If we really deeply feel that even our apparent enemies, difficult people have the basic wish to be happy and not to suffer, and stop viewing them as people whose feelings don’t count as much as ours, this inspires compassion in us: I have hurt and made mistakes too. I am like that too. We are the same. Anger doesn’t discriminate: everyone experiences its pain. We need to train in making the distinction between the person and their afflictive emotions, which harm them as much as us. Children could investigate whether hating, hurting, excluding or not considering other children actually feels good long-term from their own perspective.

The third antidote to anger is an understanding of how an angry mind tricks us into seeing any situation as a narrow, limited, exaggerated, permanent thing.  Children can build optimism, resilience, confidence and kindness by broadening and modifying their view of anger (This situation isn’t satisfactory, or they did this to me and now it’s “made” me angry.) Anger is not due to just one cause we can point at and conveniently blame from our viewpoint. Any disturbing emotion is an interdependent co-production between our mind and the “world out there”:  an aggregation of background factors and mental pre-dispositions, perceptions, views, biases, concepts, memories and reasonings meets with external circumstances and objects.

Conflict is something way more than it appears from our angle: just someone nasty doing something mean to me, making me feel bad and permanently affecting my happiness alone, so I should give them the flick or teach them a lesson. I feel children would be very much helped if they could look at how this blaming, unforgiving attitude flies in the face of reality. If we hang onto past hurts and injustices, it is usually because we don’t realise that the past only exists as a present memory, so we only hurt ourselves by recycling it.  We don’t realise that the person who hurt us was suffering too, and hopes to be understood and forgiven just like us, even if they’re cold-hearted, lacking in empathy, unforgiving, or in complete denial about having done a harmful action.  We forget about the very precarious way we discriminate between people, hoping for happiness: we categorise people as friends out of greed or attachment because they benefited us, enemies out of aversion because they harmed us, and strangers out of indifference because they haven’t done either yet! Children could also think about how this grasping at these concepts is unreliable: over time our relationship to others is actually in flux, not fixed. Strangers become friends, friends become enemies, but enemies can also become friends again. So we need to encourage children to take perspective and forgive past hurts.

The fourth antidote to anger is cultivating loving-kindness (the wish for all beings to be happy). Tibetan Buddhism holds that all happiness comes from others, and all suffering comes from the self. Children could think about how receiving and giving kindness makes them feel, and try to practise that with people known to them, then extend it to strangers, and even one day to people they didn’t like!  Focusing on loving-kindness brings the realisation that we are all the same in our desire to be happy, a kind of affection for everyone. The benefit of promoting and cultivating loving-kindness is that it increases the capacity for care, concern, generosity, altruism, happiness and other positive mental states.

The fifth antidote to anger is cultivating compassion, the wish for all beings to be free from suffering. Learning to use their imagination and put themselves in another person’s shoes helps children to empathise with the different forms of suffering of others that might underlie anger, especially the ones they don’t know from their own experience. This breaks down their self-centred view of the importance of their own suffering and motivates them to be more altruistic, less harmful, less violent.  Eventually, after practising thinking like this about friends, then extending to strangers, they may reach the point where they cannot tolerate seeing the suffering of others and act spontaneously to help them out of compassion – even their enemy.

The Dalai Lama says that tolerance and compassion, contrary to their appearance, are not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. The last and the strongest practice acting as an antidote to anger is patience: the ability to tolerate the unpleasant, (training first in tolerating and not complaining over little things, not retaliating when we could, practising mindful forbearance in the face of adversity, and applying mind training in the above antidotes to impatience and anger.) To develop patience after harm, children can be encouraged to train in taking a wider perspective on harm: trying to understand the internal suffering that led someone to harm them, reflecting on any good qualities or past kindnesses done to them by that person.  This often breaks up hostile feelings.

Children can be encouraged to train in being patient and tolerant over little things, small frustrations, and then to build more and more tolerance and patience.  They can be encouraged to start practising this with family members, then friends, then expand their patience more widely thinking that reacting impatiently will harm everyone. Children can also contemplate the qualities of patience as a very stable, attractive, unshakeable, calm mindstate, which gives us a pleasant appearance, hones our intelligence as well as our ability to discriminate between positive and negative actions and make rational, balanced decisions. It acts as a basis for achieving many other good qualities, calms previous habitual inner agitation and creates an attractive, peaceful attitude which affects those around us.

These very powerful thought transformation techniques I have outlined, when practised together, are gradual but very effective antidotes to anger. My feeling is that it is important to teach children how to cultivate these human values of awareness of self and others, of interdependence of actions and their results, of kindness, compassion, patience and empathy.  With repeated application, they will cause the habit of anger to gradually lose its strength. Emphasising them as a kind of social and emotional intelligence can promote non-violence, non-harm and a better world.

I hope my letter answers your questions. I could refer you to further reading, should you be interested. I wish you every success with your projected book.  May it bring peace, great benefits and every happiness to you and all who read it.

Lynne.”

 

This entry was posted in 6. Is the Dalai Lama an anger avoider? and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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