Key 20. Ask your unwanted thoughts to leave.

‘Write kindness in marble; your injuries in dust.’ 

Persian proverb.

Q. ‘I often find myself thinking negative thoughts. What can I do to stop having them?’
Applying the keys in this book will, over time, prompt you to have fewer negative thoughts. Meanwhile, trying to control our thoughts (and feelings) is problematical, because they come to us unbidden. Rather than stopping them, let’s invite them in to meet them. And listen to what they have to say.

Then we can ask them to leave.

How do we do that?

Consider the following methods and choose the one that suits you. And apply it when needed.



Method 1. Retract each and every negative thought and statement you make.

Retract it whether or not you think it was an accurate thought to have.

For example, if you say to yourself (or say out loud to someone),
‘Gosh, I’m stupid.’

‘That person is so stupid —’
think to yourself, or say out loud, ‘I retract that.’

‘Gosh, I’m stupid – No, I retract that.’

‘That person is so stupid – Wait, I’m being judgmental again. I retract that.’


Unless you want to, don’t argue with your statement. Don’t add, ‘I’m not stupid’ If you dispute your negative comment you might invite an inner conflict. A simple retraction is neutral, which means you are more likely to develop the habit.

The idea behind this method is that after a while, you won’t bother thinking, or stating, the negative thought because you know you will be retracting it anyway.

Method 2. Aim to be accurate. 

Notice your exaggerations and generalisations, and then rephrase them to be accurate. For example, instead of ‘I am such an idiot’ try ‘I made a mistake’.

When you say something like, ‘He is so stupid’, rephrase it to be accurate: ‘What he just said was stupid.’


Generalisations are exaggerations too. When you say or think expressions like:
‘Things never turn out well.’

‘I’m never lucky.’

‘It always happens to me.’

‘Typical.’

‘You never —’

‘You always — ’
rephrase them. Be accurate. 
 Using trite and whiny expressions like these will prompt you to feel powerless, frustrated, discouraged and irritated . . . and they’ll hinder your attempts to take full responsibility for how your life unfolds. Ye, we make those statements because we enjoy making them, and that’s fine, but we then have to rephrase them to make them accurate.

For example, if you find yourself saying, ‘Things never turn out well’, try rephrasing the sentence to be accurate with something like: ‘Things haven’t turned out well in this instance.’ This more accurate statement will help you see the situation in a healthier perspective, and you won’t be undermining your confidence.

In each case, retract what you have said and rephrase your thought as accurately as you can.

‘Why not refrain from saying the statement in the first place?’


Because you want to have those thoughts, and thoughts are hard to corral. Rather than trying to deprive yourself of having those thoughts, have them, and after having the satisfaction of saying or thinking the thought, rephrase it to be accurate.

‘What’s the point of this?’


When we habitually describe a situation accurately (and therefore, without the unnecessary negativity) we become less harsh with ourselves, and with others. We become more relaxed, and trusting of ourselves.



Method 3. Remind yourself that it’s normal to make mistakes, and you are allowed to make them.



Method 4. Combine methods 1, 2 & 3

‘I retract that. I am not an idiot; I made a mistake and I’m allowed to make mistakes.’
‘I retract that. He isn’t silly; what he said was silly. I say silly things sometimes. We all do.’

Method 5. Use imagery. For those of you who can think in pictures try this: If you catch yourself having a negative thought, stand where you are and then walk away while visualising the negative being left behind.
When I do this I imagine a black wisp of smoke hanging suspended in the air where I had been standing. I am no longer there to carry the wisp around, so it dissipates into nothingness. That seems to work, because I begin a new train of thought.
  ‘That sounds weird, Mark.’

Imagery can be a valuable tool. Hey, if it works . . .

More imagery: if you have tried letting the thought drift away but it persists, try pasting the thought, ‘I’m worthless’ onto the side of an imagined cow, and shoo that cow away. Every time that cow blunders in (every time you have that thought) shoo it away again. If the cow won’t leave, let it blunder about while you do something else.
If a cow doesn’t suit you, try something else. Paste the thought to the side of a missile that whooshes away. If the thought comes again paste it to another missile and whoosh it away.
‘Again, that’s weird.’

Again, that’s imagery. It works for some people.

‘Think of your thoughts like pop-up ads on the internet that might be a nuisance, but you don’t have to buy what they are selling.
‘
Unknown.

‘By making the comment come from a cartoonish outsider instead, it makes it easier to say “No, that isn’t true and I refuse to listen to you.”’
Unknown.

Method 6. Remind yourself that your negative thoughts are only one aspect of your personality, so don’t attach too much significance to them.



‘Thoughts about yourself that are dark, brooding and negative are a part of you, not the whole. Don’t allow these to define who you are; it’s an untruth to yourself if you do. Every person is a contradiction and a mixture of light, shade and dark and we each spend a lifetime balancing these aspects of ourselves.’

From the Wikihow site.

Method 7. Honour the part within you that doesn’t believe you are bad.
I once explained to a friend why I considered myself to be a failure. To my horror I (mistakenly) thought my friend was about to agree with me, and I quickly interrupted her. It was at that moment I realised that if I didn’t want my friend to agree I was a failure, it meant that something within me also refused to accept the notion. I was surprised and pleased. I didn’t know what that part was, but I decided to honour it and protect it. I made the decision to never again call myself a failure. I can say I have failed at something, but I will not call myself a failure.
To this day I have honoured that vow. I don’t even feel like calling myself a failure.
So, if like me you are fortunate to find a part of you that sticks up for you, support it. Honour it. It needs your support.



Method 8. Look for your deeper concerns.

A previous key suggested that when we experience an unsettling emotion we search for our deeper concerns:
‘Why do I feel anxious about being unproductive?

 ‘What precisely is it about dogs that I fear?’

We can apply the same procedure to our unwanted thoughts.
‘Why do I often imagine arguing with my boss? What is my deeper concern?’

 ‘Where do my racist thoughts come from? What is it that I fear? Or resent?’

Discovering your deeper concerns will diminish their hold on you.

Method 9. Admonish yourself constructively.
In the next part, Part 5, we find it’s okay to be angry with other people, and with ourselves, provided we express our anger in a healthy, constructive manner. 


Remind yourself of that. Remind yourself that you have every right to be angry, but you are obliged to find a healthy way to express it. That means: no self-blame, no self-insults. You will fulfil the urge to be self-critical without actually being self-critical. You can learn from the incident without beating yourself up.

So, if you want to be angry with yourself, go for it, but express it in a healthy way. For example:
 ‘Gosh, I’m irritated with myself. I feel so dismayed with what I did.’ Then focus on what can be done to rectify the problem to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
 (More on that in Part 5.)



Other methods:

‘When you have a negative thought say to your brain: ‘Poor brain, you’re frustrated,’ or  ‘Goodbye, Thought.’
(From Dr Harris in his book, ‘The Happiness Trap’.) This suggestion was in the earlier chapter about dealing with emotional beliefs. It’s here as well because it’s good for dealing with all negative thoughts. Here’s a reminder:
In the same way you say goodbye to your disabling beliefs, say goodbye to your thoughts:

 ‘Here’s that thought about me being bad. Hello thought. Goodbye.’

‘Here comes the “I’m the victim” story. Hello story. Goodbye.’

‘Hi thought, see you later.’

A suggestion from Amanda McClintock: ‘. . . one of the best things I found was this one lesson, this one week, and I can’t even remember what it was called, but it was fantastic. Basically, I had to pick a thought that . . . would go through my head all the time. And that one thought for me was “I’m not worth it. No one wants me here, I’m just not worth being here.” During the next week . . . every time that thought would come into my head, I had to sing it. Like, say it in a silly voice, put it in an accent. I had to draw it on a piece of paper and put decorations all around it so it looked like a “Happy Birthday” banner up. I had to sing the words “I’m not worth it” to “Happy Birthday” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. It made the thought sound ridiculous. It made it sound like the most ridiculous thing on the face of the earth, so it makes you laugh. . . . “Why would I even think that? It’s just not true.” Putting it in that ridiculous sense made it seem so much less of an issue.’
From the SBS television program, ‘Insight’, with presenter Jenny Brockie. 29th March, 2011.



‘I would just play devil’s advocate with my own thoughts. “That’s rubbish, that’s ridiculous.” Sometimes I would say things out loud to myself or just do something to interrupt that thought pattern so I could then move on and that fear would dissipate.’
Kate Warner, from the same Insight program.



‘Force yourself to concentrate on something else until the urge passes.’

Guy Winch.



‘When a person becomes unusually depressed about an event in her life, it’s often because of three mental distortions: (1) she feels that the situation is permanent; (2) she feels that it is critical, meaning that it’s more significant than it really is, and (3) that it is all-consuming, that it will invade and pervade other areas of her life. When any or all of these beliefs are present and elevated, it will dramatically increase her anxiety and despondency.
 Conversely, when we think of a problem as temporary, isolated, and insignificant, it doesn’t concern us at all. By artificially inflating or deflating these factors in the mind of another, you can instantly alter their attitude toward any situation, be it positive or negative.’

David J. Lieberman, in his book, ‘Never Be Lied To Again.’

So, you have a heap of methods to choose from. Choose one and give it a go!

 

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Part 5. Be angry.

Anger is an invaluable emotion to have. It helps subjugated people revolt, it gave women the vote, it can help you stick up for yourself when you are bullied. It can energise us. It’s a good motivator for when change is needed.

Yet many of us believe anger is a bad emotion to have because we have seen on the news what angry people do. Or, as children we may have endured a violent, raging parent, and concluded that anger is bad. Or, perhaps our parents punished expressions of anger, so we learned to avoid expressing it.

Whatever the case, many of us avoid being angry, afraid that if we let ourselves be angry we might look foolish, or undisciplined, or lose control and do something awful. ‘Good people don’t get angry’, many of us think, so we aim to never be angry.

However, anger is a normal, healthy part of being human. So, when we become angry and pretend to ourselves that we’re not angry, the anger squeezes out in other ways. For example:



1. Masked anger.

People not acknowledging their anger can end up turning their anger onto people in masked ways. They might:
▪ slash train seats,
▪ pick fights,
▪ snipe at a spouse,
▪ be a chronic complainer,
▪ be often sarcastic,
▪ be grumpy,
▪ become defensive,  or
▪ punish a partner with silence.

Or they might turn their anger on themselves and
▪ become stressed, or
▪ self-critical,
▪ resentful and bitter,
▪ they might become a doormat, living only half a life, or
▪ lose sleep,
▪ harm themselves,
▪ be anxious, or
▪ even implode into depression.

2. Explosive anger.  Some anger avoiders suppress their anger until they eventually explode at something trivial. They lash out physically or verbally, and surprise everyone including themselves. Then they feel ashamed and guilty, which reinforces their belief that anger is bad. So, they strive even harder to avoid feeling anger, bottling it up even more for the next explosive outburst.

Or, they don’t feel ashamed. Instead, they lash out, having found that it helps them get what they want. They might even enjoy the adrenaline rush. They and their loved ones live troubled lives.

3. Chronic anger. Anger has become a habit, and feels normal. The people suffering chronic anger are the grumps, the bigots, the unforgiving, the righteous.



‘Often with anger there are other emotions underneath that a person either hasn’t been able to face or they don’t have the permission (from others or themselves) to face or they don’t even know are there. My question comes from a sense of curiosity about why they think anger is a bad emotion in the first place. So, if a person says “I think anger is a bad emotion to have” and if I ask what is bad about it . . . I will get some information. Valuable information. If I ask them to use another word it can give an insight into the feelings underneath the anger. A person might equate anger with losing control; another might equate anger with cruelty; another might equate anger with being unfeminine, weak, scary, childish, overpowering, inadequate – these are all different and thus provide different ways in to help someone deal with their anger.’

Gay McKinley, psychotherapist.

Q. ‘Does anger come in other forms?’

Irritation. Impatience. Resentment. Frustration. Indignation . . .  All are forms of anger.
When we are not aware of our anger we are destined to remain grumpy, or stressed, or doormats. But when we can accept that anger is a normal, natural part of being human and allow ourselves to be angry in a healthy, constructive manner, we can make choices and change what needs to be changed.
Further, we become less stressed and more relaxed than someone who doesn’t allow themselves to get angry. That’s because we aren’t afraid of our anger – we know we can handle it.
We even might decide an incident isn’t worth being angry about, and let it go.
Or, we might conclude that displaying tolerance and compassion, rather than anger, is a more appropriate response to a situation.
There’s a bonus: when we realise that anger is not such a bad emotion to have, we cope better with another person’s anger. Instead of dismissing their behaviour as bad and irrational, we can focus more on what they are saying.

The keys in this section are about allowing ourselves to feel angry, and about expressing it in a healthy constructive manner – two big steps towards resilience.

‘The anger avoider’s pledge: Beginning today, I will allow anger to be part of my family of emotions. Anger has a place in my life, along with sadness, joy, and all my other feelings. I promise to listen to my anger, to use it to help me figure out what to say or do, and to let go of my anger when the situation is better.’  
From‘Letting Go of Anger’, by Ron Potter-Efron.



‘Trying not to get angry affects relationships as well. If you can’t get angry, you and those around you don’t know who you are. They don’t know how you feel, nor do they understand the limits of your tolerance. Anger gives you borders and definition.’

Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark nights of the soul’.



Q. ‘Mark, anger causes heaps of trouble. You only have to look at the news.’

Poorly expressed anger causes problems, yes. That’s why anger has such a bad reputation. But if the people making the news had expressed their anger in a healthier manner they wouldn’t be making the news. They would have suffered less, been less stressed, and might have solved their problem while earning people’s respect.

Q. ‘Anger creates conflict, and conflict creates stress. We don’t want to feel stressed.’

If you avoid necessary conflict with another person you will develop an inner conflict, and you will get stressed. That’s the last thing you want. No one likes conflict, but if you have the capacity to meet it head on in a constructive manner, problems get solved and you get over the discomfort.



Q. ‘Surely, if we practise being angry we will become angry more often?’
If you practise being angry inappropriately, yes, that will happen. Yelling and throwing things about is unhealthy, and will probably trigger chemical reactions in your body. You don’t want that, because you will you feel stupid and guilty afterwards, and you might develop a short fuse.
Anyway, getting yourself in a rage won’t make you think clearly. You could end up saying or doing something you wish you hadn’t.
‘So, you’re suggesting . . ?’

I’m suggesting an expression of anger that aims to rectify the situation.



Q. ‘You said anger can make people doormats. How?’

Doormats let people walk over them because they’re fearful of how they might behave if they stood up for themselves; they are fearful of losing control. Or of being seen as weak, or bad. So, they put their own needs aside and spoil their relationships in the process.
And, because they are in denial about how they are treated they lose a big part of themselves. They exert no real influence in their relationships, and feel powerless. That leads to anxiety.



Q. ‘When my sister gets angry at work she cries, but instead of taking her anger seriously, the staff think she’s weak.’
I’m not surprised. Crying is another unhelpful way to express anger.



Q. ‘Ranting and raving can be enormously satisfying to an angry person. Can ranting and yelling be a healthy way to express our anger?’
It can be a release, reducing the intensity of the anger (as can swearing). The trouble begins when we come to believe that yelling is the best way to be angry. Some people work themselves into a yelling and ranting fit, believing it’s required to solve the problem. Instead of aiming to reduce the intensity of their anger by yelling or swearing, they aim to increase the intensity by yelling and swearing, and that’s counter-productive. Each time they work themselves up they get better at it, and eventually develop a short fuse. They become angry over trivial things.
So, yes, a good, brief yell can be enormously satisfying (as is swearing), but you will still need to think things through and determine the best way to deal with the incident and your anger.
’So, it’s okay to yell and rant if it’s a quick relief?’

A brief yell and cuss at no one in particular can be helpful when expressing disappointment and frustration, but don’t vent on someone.  If you vent on someone their reaction won’t lessen your anger, and a ‘feedback loop’ can be created. That won’t help you or your relationship. And, with your prolonged yelling, your brain will become proficient in creating the ‘anger chemicals’. You will develop a short fuse and get angry often.
‘So, venting at someone is bad?’

Not always. Sometimes we can have controlled venting, with a friend as a soundboard. Sometimes we need to vent to open things up, to find out what is going on inside. Just make sure you have a plan in mind and have the other person’s permission.



‘One problem with merely venting anger is that the raw emotion may contain memories of many violations and humiliations. You may be angry with many people and for many reasons. To vent this conglomerate of feelings in the presence of a single person is to swamp that person with all your accumulated feelings, most of which have nothing to do with him. Rage turning into violence feels impotent and accomplishes nothing, because you aren’t dealing with the real object of your anger. You are simply giving other people good reason to be angry at you.’
Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark nights of the soul’.



Q. ‘Is there a place for yelling?’
Sure. Someone is kidnapping your sister . . .

Q. ‘What if I am really angry with someone? What should I do? Write a letter to my Member of Parliament?’

When experiencing such a strong emotion take time out. Leave quickly. When you have calmed down think about the incident thoroughly, and from all angles. When you are ready, deal with the situation.



Q. ‘What’s wrong with screaming and shouting at someone? That gets results. A squeaky wheel gets the grease.’

You might get compliance, briefly, but you haven’t truly solved the problem, so it’s a short-term victory. The respect you will lose will be far more telling. And from now on, the other person will lie to you to avoid your anger. You don’t want that.



Q. ‘I’ve heard that punching a punching bag is a good way to express anger.’
From what I gather, when you deal with your anger that way you create chemicals in your brain. Do that often and you will become good at creating those chemicals, and develop a short fuse.
‘I feel a lot better after punching a bag.’

It’s the adrenaline and endorphins you are creating that are making you feel better. How about looking into yourself and discovering precisely why the incident angers you? What buttons have been pressed? Modify your life to ensure it doesn’t happen again.



‘If you are angry at your spouse or partner, hours of workout at the gym are not going to be nearly as effective as letting your partner know how you feel.’

Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark nights of the soul’.”

Q. ‘When is it okay to get angry?’

It’s always okay to be angry. If you’re angry, you’re angry. That’s fine. You can feel any emotion you like, whenever you like. What is important is how it is expressed.
‘I mean, when is anger a good thing to have?’

When change is needed. Anger is a good motivator. It gives us the strength to stand up for what is right and make changes for the better. Anger can be the impetus for courageous acts.

This part is about using anger to make positive changes in our life. Getting that helpful skill adds to our resilience.

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Key 21. Be angry with yourself.

Let’s not confuse anger with self-blame and harsh self-criticism. Anger is a wonderful emotion to have provided we express it in a healthy, constructive manner. So, the next time you are angry with yourself, go ahead: be angry, but ensure you express that anger in a healthy, constructive manner. That means: no self-blame, no insults, no blurting, ‘Oh, I’m so stupid, what an idiot I am!’

How do we express it in a healthy manner?

1. Label it. Say to yourself, ‘I’m angry with myself, for good reason. I didn’t think things through before I —’
But no self criticism. No insults. If you do insult yourself, remind yourself that it is an unacceptable way to express anger. But saying to yourself, ‘I’m angry with myself because I made that poor decision’ is good. It’s making the observation without the judgement.



2. Be specific when you label your anger. Are you furious? Miffed? Peeved?

‘I’m furious with myself! . . . No, I’m irritated with myself.’  Good response. When we are specific we can gain a healthy perspective, and perhaps reduce the intensity of what we are feeling.



3. Am I feeling other emotions as well? Resentment? Despair?
‘I am so disappointed with what I have done. I feel so frustrated!’  That’s good! If you can say it out loud, do so. Express what you need to express in a healthy manner.

4. Be less harsh with yourself. ‘I am so disappointed with myself. And irritated with myself.’ 
 These statements are a distinct improvement from the self-insults you might be used to. Consider: it’s not fair to criticise every aspect of yourself when only one aspect of yourself did the wrong thing. After all, in life you have done many other things correctly. If you are going to be angry with yourself you also deserve leniency. Take into account all the times you did things right.
Plus, remind yourself that it’s not the end of the world. Mistakes can be rectified. Time will pass. Try to nurture yourself. After expressing your frustration, you might add something like, ‘I guess I can be allowed this mistake.’

When we express anger with ourselves in a healthy way we will fulfil that urge to be self-critical without actually being self-critical. That way, we can learn from the incident without beating ourselves up.

Further, by not insulting ourselves we come to accept that we are not such a bad person after all. We come to trust ourselves more, and accept ourselves more. We become easygoing and relaxed.

So, if you want to be angry with yourself, go for it. Just express it the right way!

Q. ‘Self-criticism is good for us, isn’t it? We evolved it to prevent us from repeating mistakes.’
Self-criticism is like a dog barking: it’s trying to help, but doesn’t know when to shut up.

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Being angry with no-one in particular.

‘How do we deal with our anger when no one is at fault? Or if we can’t complain to the person who is at fault? Or if the incident is long gone, but the anger remains?’

It’s awkward. I injured my leg and although no one was to blame I was angry. I just didn’t know what to be angry with.

Consider any of the following methods. (Some won’t appeal; it depends on the person.)


1. Label your anger.  Say it out loud, even, but find the right words. Be specific. Are you miffed? Vexed? Outraged? Irritated?
And, look for other emotions: frustration, resentment . . .
Just labelling those emotions can give some relief.

2. Visualise your anger in your body as a shape. Then answer the following questions:
What shape is it, precisely?
Which parts of your body does it occupy?

What colour is it?
Is there more than one colour?

What is that anger made of? Wood? Metal? Plastic? Something else?

What temperature do you estimate it to be? 

What is it like to touch?
Is it smooth, or rough?

If you prodded it, would it resist your finger or yield?

Is that shape moving?
Is it growing?

Once you have a thorough understanding of the anger, ask it if it would like to leave your body. If it declines, accept its decision. Comfort it. Make a place for it.
Cease the experiment but monitor the anger at times to see how it’s going.
 If the anger you have visualised consents to leave your body, visualise it doing so, drifting up out of your body and floating away. Watch it dissipate in the atmosphere.

3. Express your anger in words, or in art. 
In his book, There are No Rules, John Hegarty points out that Picasso painted his Guemica in outrage after the Nazis and Italian Fascists had bombed the defenceless Spanish town, killing thousands of people.
I’m guessing that Picasso found that cathartic. Writing, painting, sculpting . . . might work for you, too.

guernica

4. If you have access to a fire you might try this exercise. I do it about once a year.
Step 1. Write a word or two on a piece of paper about a troublesome incident you would like to fade into the past. For example:  Watson’s Bay    or   Susan  (Enough to remind you of the incident.)
Do that for each incident you want to forget. Five incidents: five pieces of paper.

Step 2. Make a small fire in your backyard, if it’s legal. (If you are a kid, do it with your parents’ supervision. That’s fair to them and fair to me. I don’t want fire brigades telling me I’m the reason houses burned down.)
‘Would a gas stove do?’
I don’t know. Would a witch’s spell be effective if she used a microwave instead of a cauldron? There is something primeval about fire. It can destroy or purify. It’s the stuff of rituals. So, a gas stove may not do. (But you can try it.)

Step 3.  Take your pieces of paper and sit by the fire. Read one and think about the incident. Feel the pain one more time. If it’s anger, tell yourself something like, ‘I am angry and have every right to be angry. My anger is justified. If I want to, I can continue to be angry. The trouble is, it is not serving me. I cannot change what happened. I can continue to be angry because I have every right to be angry, but I have chosen to let it go. Etc. until finally: ‘Thank you, Anger, for being my true and loyal friend, and now I must say goodbye.’ 

You can ramble on until you have squeezed every bit out. Then throw the paper into the fire. As you watch it burn murmur ‘Goodbye.’
(If you prefer, speak to the anger directly: ‘Anger, I have chosen to let you go. I will not continue to hold onto you, even though I have every right to do so. Etc.’)
 You might feel relief, sadness, indifference . . . Whatever you feel, that’s fine.
By placing the paper into the fire you relinquish the incident to the fire and the fire transforms it. As the fire consumes the paper on the physical level it consumes the incident on a psychological level. (At least, that’s the idea.)

Step 4.  Give the fire time to digest your incident. When you are ready, repeat with your next piece of paper.

Step 5.  When you have finished with the fire ensure it is properly out. Don’t leave a fire to burn out. A breeze can reignite embers and carry them away to start a fire elsewhere. (In rare instances you can start an underground fire.) Tip buckets of water onto the fire.



Step 6. Continue to live your life. Don’t purposely think of the incident again, because you have chosen to let it go. But when you are reminded of it, note the ‘wince factor’ and ask yourself: ‘Is the feeling less painful now?’  If the answer is yes, congratulate yourself for doing the exercise and consider doing it again with other unwanted feelings. If your answer is ‘No’, then for you this exercise has been a waste of time.

 

 

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I feel angry with someone. What do I do?

Q. ‘I feel angry with someone and will be speaking with them tomorrow about it. What do I do?’

1. Be aware of exactly what you want to happen. Ask yourself, ‘What is my goal?’



2. Don’t exaggerate. For example, don’t see the situation as awful when it is merely inconvenient.

3. Talk about it with a friend. (That in itself could make you feel better.) Also, prepare what you want to say by writing a letter, or listing your complaints. You don’t have to send the letter, but it will help get your thoughts in order.
Consider sending the letter instead of meeting with the person. That way, you can avoid unnecessary conflict yet still ensure the recipient is clearly aware of your concerns. The recipient can digest your letter and respond to it in their own time. (And hopefully, thoughtfully.)
Face-to-face is better with knotty issues, because you can observe the non-verbal cues.

4. Try to anticipate the other person’s response and prepare for it. (You might get a different response to the one you expect.)

5. Before you meet the person face-to-face, visualise yourself calmly and firmly stating your case. (Expect to show some signs of nervousness, and forgive yourself in advance for them.)

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If an incident occurs and I am immediately angry . . .

Q. ‘If an incident occurs and I am immediately angry. What can I do?’



My answer can’t take into account the countless permutations of all the possible situations. Use the steps below as a rough guide.

In the heat of the moment you won’t remember the steps anyway, but you might remember one thing that will help.

1. First, be aware of your anger. Label it. Tell yourself ‘I feel angry’ or ‘I feel miffed’ or whatever. Look for the right words to describe exactly what you are feeling.

2. Gather your thoughts by:

(i) Reminding yourself that the purpose of your anger is to rectify the situation.
(ii) Remind yourself of the person’s good qualities and their past kindnesses, if that’s applicable.
(iii) Make sure you have the facts right.
(iv) Look at the incident from the other person’s point of view. How do they view the situation? What does the person want from the situation?

Is it possible that the other person is feeling pain too? Remember, we all want the same basic things: encouragement, recognition, affection . . . and none of us want loneliness, rejection or anguish. Everyone wants happiness, so if the other person is acting badly it’s because their method of finding happiness is mediocre. Remember, we are all in this boat together, in this stormy sea.

3. Do it.

(i) Slow yourself down. That will help you choose your words carefully.
(ii) State how you feel and state your concerns. Explain clearly what you want to happen.
 ‘I feel angry with what you have done.’

4. Recover.

You might want to:
(i) Aim to let go of the incident. More on that later.
(ii) Ask yourself: ‘How important will this be to me in a week from now? Or a year?’
 That might at least diminish the intensity of your feelings.
(iii) Congratulate yourself. For example: ‘I handled that well. Even though I felt annoyed, I didn’t raise my voice too much and I think I got a better result because of it.’
Praise yourself for the things you did right and you are more likely to do them next time.

Once you feel confident that you can express your anger intelligently, you lose your fear of being angry. That’s because you know that you can use your anger to effect change, rather than be a victim of it. That confidence adds to your resilience.

Posted in If an incident occurs | Leave a comment

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 isn’t avoiding being angry; instead, he has become adept at being aware of any anger growing within him, and adept at dealing with it before it gets a chance to grow further. 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.”

 

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