Based on a talk given at the IMS Forest Refuge in Barre, MA, last winter.
‘‘Look how he abused me and beat me,
How he threw me down and robbed me.”
Live with such thoughts and you live in hate…
Abandon such thoughts and live in love.
In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.
Hatred, indeed, has never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. Hatred just leads to revenge, and revenge leads to more hate. A cycle of suffering is set in motion that can go on and on. Many places in the world today give sad evidence of this truth.
Hatred is an extreme form of anger. The Buddha’s teachings take anger very seriously, because anger causes so much suffering.
Even when anger is not acted out and is apparently controlled, a person who is inwardly angry can instantly change the atmosphere of a room when he enters. He brings an invisible chill with him. Anyone nearby tightens up and draws back, becomes less spontaneous and more guarded. This happens without any conscious doing. It seems simply a response on the cellular level to the quality of energy that anger gives out.
When anger is not contained but erupts into violence, the damage is all too obvious. Some years ago, the Cambodian monk Maha Ghosananda observed that “When this defilement of anger really gets strong, it has no sense of good or evil, right or wrong, of husbands, wives, children. It can even drink human blood.” This was his sad comment upon a long civil war that had torn Cambodia apart and had killed almost everyone he knew.
What is often overlooked about the disastrous effects of anger, however, is the harm it does to oneself. The first person hurt is always the one who is angry. An angry mind is a suffering mind. An angry mind is agitated and tight. It is constricted and narrow. The quality of consciousness changes. Judgment and perspective vanish. All good sense disappears. One feels restless and driven. Nothing is satisfying. Sleep is difficult. The body is tense.
The sense of self is very large, and so is the sense of the other. One reason anger is so very painful is that it instantly creates such sharp separation between self and other. A line is drawn between the two that cannot be passed.
The first person hurt is always the one who is angry.
But anger can also be pleasurable. There is a strong feeling of self-righteousness. Self-justifying thoughts take over. As the verses from the Dhammapada say, “Look how he abused me! Look how he threw me down!” There is a feeling of defiance and rectitude: “I am right!” But underlying the pleasure of those self-justifying thoughts is the pain of a mind so tightly constricted that it is closed to human connection.
The results of anger are sobering. Anger acts as a poison in the mind. It generates unwholesome karma. Every intentional thought or word or deed has an angry after-effect.
We sometimes think that when we do something, especially when no one else knows of it, the act just disappears. This notion is rather comforting if we’re uncertain about the goodness of what was done.
The act does apparently disappear. The thought has been thought. The word has been spoken. The deed has occurred and it’s gone. But that act has set in motion a chain of after-effects that linger on. Just as ripples are sent out in every direction when a stone is thrown into a pond, so each intentional act has resultants that move out in space and time and affect whatever they touch. We are stuck with what we’ve done, and with effects of what we have caused. We are, in other words, the heirs of our karma.
Each angry moment deepens the imprint of anger in the mind stream.
If the intention in the mind was wholesome, happiness will follow. But if the intention was unwholesome, that is another story. The results of an act are always of the same nature as the intention that brought them about. Just as when you plant an apple seed, the only kind of tree that will grow is an apple tree. And that tree will bear only one kind of fruit—an apple. An apple seed does not produce an orange or a peach.
So, likewise, if a seed of anger has been planted in the mind, suffering is sure to follow. For one day when conditions are right, that angry seed will ripen and bear angry fruit. And when the appropriate moment comes, the effects of anger will come back like a boomerang and strike us once again.
Anger is often likened to fire. It burns all its supports and then apparently goes out. But fire can sometimes lie latent, hidden, until circumstances come together and cause it to erupt again.
I understood this analogy much better after a trip to Durango, Colorado a few summers ago. A big forest fire had recently burned out of control in the mountains above the town. I went up to see the blackened hillsides. There was no green anywhere, only charred trees and ash. It was a very sobering sight. But even more sobering was the comment of a forest ranger. He said that although there was no longer any sign of fire, fire was almost certainly smoldering somewhere underground among the roots, and even winters of heavy snow might not put it out. He said, “We don’t know where or when it will reappear, so we have to be very watchful.” In the same way, when conditions are right, the after-effects of anger will reappear.
The law of karma also says something else that is sobering. It says that over time our personality and character are molded by what we think and say and do. Each angry moment deepens the imprint of anger in the mind stream. This means that each time we are angry, it is easier to become angry again. An angry reaction, repeated frequently, gradually becomes a habit. We begin to find less to like about our life situation and less to like about others, and we become increasingly irritable and negative. Not surprisingly, people begin to avoid us, and we feel isolated and lonely. Meanwhile unpleasant things keep happening, and we don’t understand that they are actually the results of our own doing.
Our personality, and our very lives, are shaped—and continue to be shaped—by the karmic choices we make. It is therefore so important to reflect on our own responsibility for the way our lives unfold. Our actions are the one thing that we truly possess. We inherit their results and reap whatever we sow.
Getting Free of Anger
Yet…we are not doomed to repeat the past. At any given moment the pattern can be broken. For when we are mindful, we see that every moment gives a choice. Shall I react in anger? Or shall I respond in kindness, with love?
The more we practice, and the more we reflect upon our own lives and the lives of those around us, the more we begin to understand the profundity of the law of karma. We come to see why we should never respond to anger with anger. A Tibetan lama has remarked that to meet another person’s anger with anger is like following a lunatic who jumps off a cliff. If it is crazy for him to do it, it is even crazier for me to follow!
In the quiet here, there is continuing opportunity to observe the mind and our ways of relating to the world. There is a chance to see how often resistance arises to what we don’t like. Anger is a form of resistance to the present moment. When we don’t like what is here, we tighten against it and try to get rid of it by pushing it away.
Anger has many different shades and takes many different forms. These include irritation, frustration, rage, hate, bitterness, sadness, cynicism, and impatience. Then there is judgment. Judging mind is a frequent one—judging oneself, judging others. And guilt, too, is a form of anger. It is anger at oneself.
All these different types of aversion can be called negative emotions. But negative here doesn’t mean bad. A negative emotion is simply one that negates or denies. When anger says, “I don’t like this. I don’t want it!” it is saying NO to life. For life at this moment is a particular way, and that way is being rejected.
Life keeps presenting us all the time with things we never would have chosen if there had been a choice. It can be a painful sitting, an upset stomach, a biting wind, bad news… The question, then, is how not to react with aversion, how not to be automatically angry or sad or afraid.
The entire practice that we are doing leads to freedom from anger and from every form of aversion. But tonight I would like to focus on two particular ways: the development of loving kindness, and the development of mindfulness. These two ways can be pursued simultaneously. Let’s look at mindfulness first.
We need to observe our minds attentively. We want to catch anger, if we can, when it is small, just as it begins to unfold. If the very first feeling of unpleasantness is noticed, it may disappear before it grows into irritation. Or, if it is already irritation, it may be noted and checked before it grows into anger. Or if it is already anger, if it is seen, it can be caught before it spills out into some act we will later regret—a cross note, sharp words, or a slammed door. Rage and hate don’t just appear out of nowhere, full blown. They develop from a momentary unpleasant feeling that went unnoticed and rapidly escalated in intensity.
The point at which we become aware of anger depends upon the quality of attention. The earlier we tune in and know anger is present, the easier it is to control and abandon. But if we are lost in thought, lost in some story about ourselves, there is no contact with what actually is happening now.
I was once in a traffic jam. A long line of cars was motionless, stuck. I saw a man in a car in another lane, who was not only honking his horn but bumping and hitting the fender of the car in front of him, trying to get it out of the way. The man was red-faced and shaking his fist at the other driver, as a policeman came to stop him. That man was so lost in anger, he didn’t even realize that the driver in front of him was just as stuck as he was.
Rage and hate develop from a momentary unpleasant feeling that went unnoticed. The point at which we become aware of anger depends upon the quality of attention.
Working with Difficulties
Now what I am going to say about working with anger is true for any afflictive emotion, so if anger isn’t your particular issue right now, and desire or fear or jealousy or something else is, please listen carefully, for these same words will apply.
If you are sitting and suddenly wake up to the fact that you are angry, very angry—step out of the story that is going on in your mind. Let thinking go. Pause and be with the feeling of anger, uncomfortable as it may be. It may feel totally repellant, a confused, heavy, hot, burning mass. Every emotion has its own particular feel, and when it takes over, seems a solid, substantial entity that will go on forever.
In fact, anger is not solid, but is made up of different components: thoughts, which are spinning out the story; a particular emotional tone; and numerous body sensations. All of these, just like the anger itself, are transient. They arise and pass, arise and pass.
Try to let the thinking go. Drop the story that’s going on in the mind: “He did this, she said that, it’s not fair…” Those thoughts are both an expression of anger and also are feeding the anger. Let them go, and bring attention to the sensations in the body. Allow yourself to feel, fully feel, the emotion directly. Look to see what is going on. Is there heat, is there pressure, is there tightness, is there contraction? Where in the body are these sensations being experienced? Do they move? Do they change? What is your relation to them? Is there resistance to them? If there is resistance, stay with the resistance and feel it.
If thinking is so strong that it keeps pulling you back into the story, make a little mental note “thinking, thinking.” The mental note keeps mindfulness alive and is a thread of sanity. It reminds us of what actually is happening right now—which is, quite simply, that angry thoughts are arising in the mind.
When anger is strong and it is hard work to stay present, take some deep breaths, breathe into the anger, and then return to the body sensations as you can. Above all, be accepting of the fact that anger is here. Open to it. Allow it, with gentleness. Being upset and angry with anger only increases the anger and increases the pain.
The ease that comes from complete attention is beyond compare.
If the emotion is too strong to sit with, do walking meditation. Walk fast. Bring mindfulness to walking. Or stop and rest in nature. Look at the fields, and the trees against the sky. Look at the birds and the little creatures around the feeder. But don’t indulge thinking. Be mindful. For when we are truly mindful, there is no anger. Anger disappears. This is true for any negative emotion. When attention is whole hearted, negativity simply disappears.
Just a Small Leaf…
Many years ago, I had an experience of this that turned my understanding of practice around. It was at a time when I was very sad. I felt as though the end of the world had come. Someone whom I dearly loved had gone away and wasn’t likely to return.
Walking up the garden path to my front door, I absentmindedly picked a leaf from a bush. And then, for whatever reason, I paused and looked at the leaf in my hand. My attention was somehow caught by it, and I began to study it with care. I stood still, looking at the little leaf, at its veins, its delicate edges, its smoothness, its shininess, its deep, deep green. And suddenly I realized that the heavy black sadness that had been so weighing me down, was gone. My heart was completely light and at ease.
The contrast was so strong between being swallowed up in sadness, and the sudden release into lightness and ease that the thought arose: “Is this leaf magic?” I didn’t understand at all what had happened. The change was so great, so total, that I assumed it had to be caused by something outside myself. And I carefully brought the leaf into the house. I didn’t in any way realize that the change from misery to ease had come about simply because for a few moments my mind had been focused and fully attentive.
The next morning, I plucked another leaf to see if it had the same power, as though happiness rested in a leaf. Of course, it didn’t work. I didn’t understand until much later that when mindfulness is total, there is no sadness, there is no anger—for there is no thought.
It is thinking and indulging the cycle of thinking, letting it go on and on, that makes us miserable and keeps us miserable. When thinking is cut, the mental afflictions vanish. Dukkha is replaced by the happiness of an alert and quiet mind.
That moment with the leaf was a big teaching lesson for me. For from it, I came to see the extraordinary power of mindfulness—its power to heal. When attention is fully with something, anything, there is no room in the mind for sorrow or anger or any negative emotion at all. There is just attention attending. And the ease that comes from complete attention is beyond compare.
If it had been possible to transfer the kind of close attention that had been given the leaf to whatever I was doing, and sustain that attention, sadness would never have returned. But of course, it did. That moment of full presence was only a rest for my mind.
It was an astonishing reprieve, but it did not, could not, end my pain. To do that, something else was needed.
The next time sadness arose, instead of searching for the magic cure in a leaf, as (to be honest) I continued to do for several days, I should have turned to the feeling of sorrow itself. I should have been present to it and allowed myself to feel it fully. Unless it is possible to be completely mindful all the time, which I was not able to be, the only way finally to resolve any afflictive emotion is to meet it head on, open to it, and bring it fully into consciousness. When it is completely known, it will dissipate and disappear. It isn’t usually possible to do this straight away, of course. It can be too painful. So we have to respect our needs and go at an appropriate pace.
At the same time it is important to understand, when we are in an unpleasant situation that can’t be changed, that the sooner resistance is abandoned, the sooner we’ll be at ease. That is only common sense. Otherwise, we keep on struggling to live in a world that doesn’t exist, a fantasy world of how we wanted things to be and they are not. We’re out of tune with what is currently happening, and suffering is inevitable.
Letting go, surrendering to the reality of the present, is the only realistic thing to do. To accept a given situation doesn’t mean you have to like it. It simply means that, like it or not, it is here.
A Remarkable Life
The life story of Maha Ghosananda, the Cambodian monk whom I mentioned earlier, beautifully illustrates everything I am trying to say. Ghosananda knew first hand the very worst that anger can do. Ghosananda experienced the horrific effects of anger, and out of despair determined to learn to love.
As a young monk, Ghosananda first studied the suttas [discourses]. When it was time for him to begin the practice of meditation, he was sent to a monastery in Thailand. It was in Thailand, in a place of safety, that he first heard about the outbreak of fighting in Cambodia. He learned that his parents and all his brothers and sisters had been murdered. He was told, over time, of the death of many of his fellow monks and nuns. And of course, he said, he wept for so many losses. He wept for his country. He wept, he said, every day and could not stop weeping. But his teacher urged him to stop. “Don’t weep,” he was told. “Be mindful.” That may sound unsympathetic, but it was good advice.
“The present is the mother of the future,” he said. “Take care of the mother. Then the mother will take care of the children.”
“Having mindfulness,” his teacher said, “is like knowing when to open and when to close your windows and doors. Mindfulness tells us when is the appropriate time to do things… You can’t stop the fighting. Instead, fight your impulses toward sorrow and anger. Be mindful. Prepare for the day when you can truly be useful to your country. Stop weeping, and be mindful!”
Ghosananda said he sat for a long time and reflected upon the killings, and upon what his teacher had said. He realized that the dead were dead. They were in the past. Gone. All his family, all his friends, were gone. He thought about the future, and saw that it was totally unknown. He decided to do the only thing that he could do, which was to take care of the present just as well as he could. “The present is the mother of the future,” he said. “Take care of the mother. Then the mother will take care of the children.” So he went back to practice, back to his breath. For, as he said, “Breathing is not past or future. Breathing is now.”
The weeping stopped. “There is no sorrow in the present moment,” he explained. “How can there be? Sorrow and anger are about the past. Or they arise in fear of the future. But they are not in the present moment. They are not now.”
For nine more years he went on with his practice in the Thai forest, secluded in a hut, and there he gained the clarity and stability of mind, the understanding and the love, that are the fruit of very deep meditation.
When the fighting was dying down, he made his way back to Cambodia. Millions of civilians had died from the bombings and from starvation and imprisonments and torture. It was a land of hate and fear and misery. Ghosananda went into a refugee camp near the border. It was jammed with people fleeing the opposing armies. Sewage flowed in open gutters. Food and water were scarce. People were desperate, not knowing what to do. He oversaw construction of a large makeshift temple made of bamboo.
Eyewitnesses say that thousands of refugees gathered together and wept as this single Buddhist monk in his saffron robes chanted the words “Hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible.” He went on to say, “now it is time for peace, for no more hate. Let there be no more violence…”
He went straight to work to help reestablish the broken society, rebuilding temples, leading peace marches, encouraging people to end their hostility, to abandon anger and live in peace. Almost overnight he became a public figure, and is now known throughout the world as a spokesman for nonviolence and reconciliation. He is sometimes called “the Gandhi of Cambodia.”
To put down the past and accept its losses is painfully hard to do. But to cling to sadness and self pity and continue to grieve for what has been, or for what never can be, simply erodes strength. It takes away all creative energy for living.
The king of Cambodia was deeply depressed about the immense suffering in his country. Ghosananda was asked what advice he gave the king. Cambodia, of course, is (or was) a Buddhist country, and it was quite natural for the king to ask a monk for advice.
To accept the unacceptable actually turns out to be a relief. It means there is no need to struggle any more… It is the only realistic thing to do.
Ghosananda said: “We always remind the king to be in the present. He always thinks about the future, he always regrets the past, and then he suffers. If he stays in the present moment, he will be happy. Life is in the present moment. Breathing in, present moment. Breathing out, present moment.
We cannot breathe in the past,” he said. “We cannot breathe in the future. Only here and now can we breathe.”
I like this story about the king because it is so simple. The advice that is given a king is the same advice that is given to you or to me. Be present, be mindful, and sadness and anger will disappear.
Healing the Wounds
To turn to the present and accept the unacceptable actually turns out to be a relief.
If you’ve ever done this, you know what I mean. It means there is no need to struggle any more. A burden lifts that we hadn’t even known we were carrying. Things are the way they are. We accept them because they are a fact. It is the only realistic thing to do. And so we move on with life.
This takes time, of course. As Ghosananda said, “Wars of the heart always take longer to cool than the barrel of a gun… We must heal through love..And we must go slowly, step by step…” Perhaps acceptance can happen only after one has known the full misery of loss and disappointment and despair.
But even so, healing isn’t easy. For what is required is nothing less than a transformation of mind. Forgiveness is needed if hatred and aversion are to be let go and replaced by love. The past must be forgiven, life itself must be forgiven for being the way it is. And mettā, or loving friendliness, must be roused.
It is necessary to develop mettā for ourselves, mettā for those around us, mettā for our situation in life. How to develop a heart full of mettā becomes the central question. The way to begin is to reflect and be clear that this is what you really want to do, put misery behind and be kind to yourself and kind to others. A clear intention that is frequently repeated sets the mind in the direction that we want to go and helps to keep us moving.
The Dalai Lama speaks of a phrase which he repeats every morning upon awakening. “May all my thoughts and words and deeds today bring no harm to anyone, but be of benefit to all.” With time and repetition, that phrase begins to serve as an underground current in the mind, silently redirecting intention away from harming and toward the expression of love.
It is helpful also to reflect upon the disadvantages of anger, to reflect upon all the different reasons why we know that negative emotions cause harm. Reflection lifts their damaging effects into consciousness and strengthens determination to avoid any form of aversive expression.
To practice intensive mettā meditation over a long period of time can be helpful, or to practice it for even an hour a day. Or you can begin each sitting with phrases of mettā. If you are often angry with yourself, full of self-criticism and self-judgment, you could begin each sitting with the traditional phrases of mettā sent just to yourself. This may seem a small thing to do, but if it is repeated faithfully, in time it will have a significant impact. In time there may come to be less self-judgment, less self-condemnation and more self-respect.
To feel mettā for oneself is not only important, but is necessary if practice is to progress. And in turn practice heightens the feeling of mettā. For with practice, trust and confidence in oneself begin to grow. And that growing confidence gives a sense of self-worth and appreciation, which enables one to turn more easily toward others with the same respect and appreciation.
Mindfulness and Mettā
The most important source of mettā, and this may be a surprise to hear, is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is closely allied with mettā, and even has an aspect of mettā within it. For to be mindful is to be completely open and receptive to whatever is present. A Chinese Zen saying likens mindfulness to a host who is opening his house to friends for a gathering. The host stands at the door, greeting each guest as they enter and saying goodbye to each guest as they leave, fully attentive to each in turn. There is no preference for one over another, no disliking one or another. There is only genuine interest and care for whoever comes or goes through the door.
Total attention is a very great gift. When you give someone your full attention, you are offering him or her your respect. To give unqualified attention to another is to accept that person totally and acknowledge their value. In such a moment of bare attention, a deep human bond is felt. The other person feels this sympathetic interest and is likely to respond.
Over time, the practice of mindfulness changes old ways of perceiving. For in a moment of mindfulness, memories and past conditioning fall away. Every moment of mindfulness is a moment of purity in which, for that instant, we see with new eyes the wonder and beauty of what is here.
This is true not only for living beings, but for inanimate objects as well. Krishnamurti, an Indian spiritual teacher, once said that if you pick up a stone from the ground, just any ordinary stone, and put it on a table in your living room and then look at that stone with great care every time you go in or out of the room, by the end of a month you will see the stone as sacred. The power of mindfulness takes us beyond the surface to the essence of what is.
To feel mettā for oneself is not only important, but is necessary if practice is to progress.
As mindfulness becomes more constant and precise, someone with whom in the past we have been angry will come to be seen not as an enemy but as a being who is hurt and confused. (And if we know ourselves at all, we know that we too are often hurt and confused.) We come to understand that just as I am seeking happiness, that person too wants to be happy—but doesn’t know how.
We must put ourselves in the other’s place. As the American Indians used to say, we must walk a mile in that person’s shoes, and then ask ourselves the question: “How would I respond from there?” The honest answer might well be that we would do the very same thing. For the more we sit in silence and observe the mind, the more the unhappy discovery comes that we ourselves are capable of every kind of harming thought.
This does not mean that we should not stand up and oppose wrongdoing. But it does mean that we do so not with anger, but from a standpoint of mettā as resolution of the issue is sought.
To learn to love one’s enemy is not easy. As Ghosananda wrote, “I do not question that loving one’s oppressors may be the most difficult attitude to achieve. But it is a law of the universe that retaliation, hatred and revenge only continue the cycle and never stop it. Reconciliation does not mean that we surrender rights and conditions, but rather that we use love in all of our negotiations.”
To do this requires great humility. For, as he says, “We (must) see ourselves in the other. What is the opponent but a being in ignorance, and we ourselves are also ignorant of many things…Only loving kindness and right mindfulness can set us free.”
All references to Maha Ghosananda are to be found in The Future of Peace, Chapter 6, by Scott A. Hunt, Harper Collins (2002).