If you’re like me, there are any number of moments throughout the day that can deeply trigger anger. Someone flakes out on an arrangement you made. You get passed over for an honor or promotion that you really wanted. You get your hopes up about a new romantic partner, and they really, really let you down. When those things happen, you feel deep anger, and you might even lash out at people in your life. But what if you could stay with that powerful emotion without acting out in harmful ways?
There is a beautiful Buddhist text dating back to the 14th century known as the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Bodhi can be translated from Sanskrit as “open” or “awake,” while sattva can be translated as “being,” so a bodhisattva is an open-hearted being. A meditation master known as Ngulchu Thogme composed these verses to teach us how to live full lives with open hearts, in order to be helpful to those around us and to show up more for our day-to-day lives. One particular verse offers advice on how to look at our anger, as well as those people who have caused it:
If you have not tamed the enemy of your own anger,
Combating outer opponents will only make them multiply.
Therefore, with an army of loving kindness and compassion,
To tame your own mind is the practice of a Bodhisattva.
Here Ngulchu Thogme is saying that there are a few ways to relate to our anger. One way is to lash out at these “outer opponents”—people who may or may not have wronged us, whom we have dubbed our enemies in the story we tell ourselves. Perhaps you’ve done this before: someone cancels on you at the last minute, and instead of just sitting with your anger you immediately text them something horrible and regret it minutes later. Now you have the pain of your anger, plus someone else is angry right back at you, and your problems have only multiplied.
Our friend Ngulchu Thogme advises that instead of acting out on our anger right away we can learn to tame it by sitting in the midst of that difficult storm. One way we can do this is by dropping the storyline we have woven around whatever situation has arisen and letting ourselves feel whatever we feel. Easier said than done, right?
Here’s a short exercise to sit with your emotions. Begin by sitting in a relaxed but uplifted posture. Focus your attention on the breath. This is less about thinking about the breath, more about feeling it. Notice the natural cycle—however you normally breathe is fine. After a few moments of this you may notice that the particular storyline around what angers you shows up. Gently acknowledge that story, then guide yourself back to relaxing with the breath. Same storyline comes back up? Return to the breath once more. If it’s helpful, you can even silently say “thinking” to yourself, just to acknowledge that you’ve drifted off and ought to come back to feeling your body breathing. The more we are able to sit with the emotion, without generating a lot of storyline around it, the quicker we are able to see our way through it. Here we are seeing our feelings and emotions not as defilements we need to be rid of, but as valid communication arising out of us remaining embodied.
Ngulchu Thogme advises us to go one step further. Yes, it’s good to see our anger as it is—an emotional state—without perpetuating the stories we tell ourselves around it. But we can also practice loving-kindness and compassion in response to this strong feeling.
In any traditional loving kindness practice we begin by offering a sense of kindness to ourselves. In other words, can you give yourself a break? When you are meditating on the breath, can you not beat yourself up for having thoughts? We have thoughts all day long, but somehow think that the moment we try to meditate they will evaporate. That’s not the case. To ask the mind to stop thinking is akin to asking the heart to stop beating; it’s just not going to happen. So our task in meditation is to become very kind to ourselves each and every time we notice that we have drifted off in thought.
Then we can shift the focus from ourselves to those who have angered us. We offer them loving-kindness and an open heart. One traditional phrase that is often used in this practice is “May you enjoy happiness and be free from suffering.” Even the difficult people didn’t wake up thinking, “Maybe I should be a jerk today.” They may have woken up with a heavy heart though, physical ailments, or perhaps emotional pain. Then they acted out on those burdens in inappropriate ways, leading you to be angry with them. If we can open our hearts to them just a little bit, in order to see their suffering, then we may be able to move beyond our anger.
When we see the suffering of the people we’re upset with, then we see the birth of compassion and empathy. Empathy is not you sitting up in your high tower thinking you’re more spiritually evolved, feeling pity for the jerks in your life. It’s seeing that they suffer and, knowing intimately the various ways that you suffer, feeling a sense of connection to them. In your suffering you are equal.
The more we are able to tame our minds in meditation and through specific techniques in loving-kindness and compassion, the more we loosen the bonds anger has on us. We can feel it fully, acknowledge it, sit with it, but not let it control us. As a result, we live a life marked by more levity and joy. Things will still come up that spark anger, but we are quick to see our way through that strong emotion.