Transforming fear and aversion
You’re working on a project, minding your own business, when a colleague comes over and tells you you’re incompetent. She had entrusted you with an important job, she says, and you did it poorly. Listening to her harsh words, anger slowly yet forcefully rises in your mind and body. You lose your temper and tell her she has no right to talk to you like that. Overcome by anger, you say whatever comes into your mind, even if you know it isn’t completely true. She shouts back at you, and soon everyone nearby knows what is happening.
Generally when we’re angry or hurt we feel like victims of others’ harmful deeds. We see ourselves as innocent people who unjustly have to bear the brunt of others’ actions. We’re hurt or angry because we think other people are wrong or bad. Both the anger and the hurt refuse to accept what has happened.
Many people live with a “victim mentality,” constantly feeling helpless, mistreated and fearful. However, the more we understand the working of our minds and the functioning of cause and effect within our mental continuums, the more we’ll understand that our present interpretations, as well as our past actions, have played vital roles in the evolution of what we experience. We are in some way responsible for what is happening to us. Knowing this, we then take responsibility and act in order to improve our situation.
To help us understand disagreeable situations and assuage our anger about them, we can ask some key questions. In examining our interpretation, we may ask, “Am I perceiving the situation accurately? Is anger an appropriate reaction?” By considering the function of cause and effect, we ask, “Why is this happening to me? Do I repeatedly find myself in similar situations? If so, why?” Let’s look at these two points more in depth.
Questioning our interpretations
Are we perceiving the situation accurately? How does anger arise in us? When someone tells us our faults, it appears to us as if the pain we experience comes from the other person into us. Her words are painful in and of themselves, and we merely perceive the pain inherent in them.
If this were true, then we should be able to locate the pain in the words. She says, “You are incompetent!” Where is the unpleasant sensation? Where is the pain? Is it in “You”? In “are”? In “incompetent”? Her voice saying “You are incompetent” is sound waves. Where is the unpleasant sensation in those sound waves vibrating through the air? If you are asleep and she insults you, do you feel upset? If she says it in Mongolian (assuming you do not know that language!), do you feel hurt?
How does the pain from harsh words arise? It isn’t just because our ears pick up the sound waves of a voice. We also understand their meaning. But their meaning isn’t painful in and of itself, for if they were directed at someone we didn’t like, the words’ ‘You are incompetent!” wouldn’t be unpleasant to our ears.
The pain comes from our thinking, “She is talking to me! Me! How dare she talk to ME like this?” “I” and “me” get bigger the more we think about what happened. We look at the situation from one side-MY side-and think that’s how it exists in reality. We believe our biased views are objective.
Any situation has many perspectives from which it can be viewed. When we look at a cup from above, the shape appears differently than when we look at it from the side. It would be difficult to prove that the views of our self-centered minds are the only correct ones. Thinking like this deflates our anger.
Another way to subdue our anger is to remember that something else could have happened to prompt the other person’s harsh words. He may be having difficulty in another aspect of his life, and we happen to be the one he vents his anger on. It’s nothing against us, so there’s no reason to take it personally and be angry.
Is anger an appropriate reaction? The person who insulted us is a living being who wants to be happy and avoid any problems just as we do. The method he’s using may be confused. But his wish is the same as ours: to be happy. By enlarging our perspectives and forgetting about ourselves for a minute, we’ll see an unhappy human being who is angry and upset. We know what it’s like to be unhappy. We know how miserable he feels right now. Why be angry at someone who is unhappy? He should be an object of our compassion.
If indeed we did make a mistake and someone points it out, why be angry? If someone tells us that we have a nose on our face, we aren’t upset, because what he’s saying is true. Similarly, if someone notices our mistake, what he’s saying is true. The mistake is ours and we owe him an apology. He’s showing us how to improve ourselves. On the other hand, if he’s unjustly accusing us, why be angry? If someone says that we have horns on our head, we don’t get angry because we know it’s not true.
We often get angry when something we consider undesirable happens. But what use is this anger? If we can change the situation, then let’s go ahead and do it. There’s no need to be angry. It’s very useful to think like this when confronted with social problems and injustice. They can be changed, so rather than be angry, it’s wiser to work calmly to improve the society.
On the other hand, if the situation can’t be changed, anger is equally useless. Once our leg is broken, we can’t unbreak it. All of the corruption in the world can’t be solved in a year. Getting angry at something we can’t alter makes us miserable. Worrying about or fearing something that hasn’t happened immobilizes us. Shantideva said in A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
Why be unhappy about something
If it can be remedied?
And what is the use
of being unhappy about something
If it cannot be remedied?
Considering cause and effect
The working of cause and effect is a central idea in Buddhism. This will be explained more fully in a later chapter; however, the principal meaning is that our actions bring results. All the results of an action aren’t immediately known to us, for just as it takes time for a seed to sprout and become a tree, so too is time needed for our actions to bear their results.
As we come to understand the functioning of cause and effect, we’ll understand that the situations we encounter in life don’t happen to us by accident. They result from actions we have done in the past. Just as a boomerang circles around and returns to whoever threw it, so too are we treated the way we’ve treated others. The Buddhist explanation of cause and effect is similar to the Christian idea “As thou sow, so shall thou reap.”
If we examine how we’ve acted towards others, we’ll see that our own attitudes and behavior haven’t always been exemplary. We’ve broken up friendships, insulted, abused and gossiped about others and taken their belongings. Is it any wonder we receive harm ourselves? Maybe we didn’t recently mistreat the particular person who harms us right now, but we have harmed others in the past. When the fruits of our own actions ripen, there’s no benefit in becoming angry or wallowing in self-pity, for ultimately our own energy put us in that situation. As the great Indian sage Shantideva said:
Why did I previously commit those actions
Because of which others now cause me harm?
Since everything is related to my actions
Why should I bear malice towards those
(who harm me now)?
This isn’t suggesting that we become masochistic and aggressively blame ourselves. Rather, we’ll recognize our role and will learn from it. If we don’t like the results we’re experiencing now, we’ll make a strong determination to stop creating causes for similar things to occur in the future. This will make us mindful not to harm others. The next time we’re about to lose our temper, we’ll think twice. Learning from the situation, we’ll make a strong decision to improve ourselves. By doing this, we’ll transform a disturbing situation into a beneficial one.
Do we often find ourselves in similar situations, repeatedly reacting in similar ways? If so, why? We can examine to see ifwe’re habitually careless, obliging others to correct our mistakes. If this is the case, the other person is in fact kind to point out our mistake, for it gives us the opportunity to improve. The fact that he may be doing so in a loud voice isn’t relevant. The point is we need to be more aware of how our actions affect others. This person is helping us to develop such awareness.
We can also observe whether we habitually feel hurt or angry when we face criticism. Sometimes we’re too sensitive and easily offended. If someone acts in a way we don’t particularly like, we exaggerate its importance, making it concrete and unforgettable. Then we carry a grudge with us for years. This is the root of many a family feud.
Our holding a grudge doesn’t hurt the other person, for she may have forgotten about the incident long ago. But our grudge makes us miserable for years. The other person said the words once, but we say them over and over for years, causing ourselves pain each time. For our own benefit, as well as for harmony with others, it’s advantageous to be less sensitive and to let things go.
Pushy or passive?
Does that mean we let people push us around? Do we let someone harm himself or others because stopping him would involve raising our voice or striking him? No. Being patient doesn’t mean being placid. A patient person is one whose mind is serene. The actions following from a patient mind may be forceful or mild.
First we must free our mind from anger. When we notice we’re regarding the situation through the narrow outlook of ME, we’ll stop and spend some time enlarging our perspective. We’ll think about how the situation appears to the other person and what is important to him. We’ll reflect on how our own actions in the past and present drew us into the situation.
Once our anger is stilled, there will be space for compassion and patience. A clear mind, free from short -sighted and turbulent anger, can realistically examine alternative ways to act and decide which is best for everyone concerned.
To communicate effectively we sometimes need to speak forcefully. Speaking strongly but with a compassionate attitude in a situation that calls for it is an important skill. It’s quite different than shouting with uncontrolled anger when it would have been more skillful to be silent, to apologize or to respectfully explain our side. The motivation, which is our internal state of mind, isn’t to be confused with the verbal and physical actions we use to communicate to others.
Whenever possible we should avoid violent actions. If, to stop someone from harming himself or others, the only solution is to strike him, then, with compassion for the harmed and the harmer, we should do only what is required to stop him. Thus, it’s important to have a peaceful mind before acting. If we act under the influence of anger, we’re likely to use physical or verbal force when it’s not necessary, or when it is, to use more than is required.
In order to communicate we may sometimes have to speak fIrmly-to state our understanding of what is correct and incorrect, beneficial or not benefIcial. This can be done without anger. But ifthe other person speaks falsely or angrily and we do too, who is right and who is wrong? Anger corrupts what we say and do. A calm mind can deal with the situation in a beneficial way.