These days I’m driving much less than I used to. Many people would like to drive less but for various reasons cannot. So I know I’m lucky. It can be intense on the road, right? One reason I’m driving less is because I’d like to increase the peace in my life. And, since peace is the ultimate goal of practice, when I need to drive I aim to get where I’m going in peace.
Making Peace with Difficult Emotions
Yet, unexpected things happen on the way to peace. Sometimes I find that when I extend well-intended acts of generosity or friendliness to other drivers, my actions give rise to anger. Not in other drivers, but in me.
Here’s an example of what I mean. As I drive I’ll sometimes notice car after car after car passing someone stopped at a stop sign up ahead. So, often when someone is stuck like this I’ll slow down and flash my lights to show I’m willing to share the road. Very simply, I give the other driver space.
Ah, but if the other driver doesn’t step on it, if I have to completely stop to let the other driver in, I sometimes feel an uninvited surge of anger rise up in me. I can get miffed and critical. “What’s wrong with you?” I’ll hear myself think as my temperature warms. “Why weren’t you ready to go? Why don’t you pay more attention?”
Ouch! I don’t like to see this side of myself. Yet being willing to see, own, and work with my own painful emotions like anger, greed, delusion, and jealousy is a big, big part of any spiritual practice.
Let’s Make Peace With Ourselves
We have to see and own these painful emotions as part of the work we do on the path for at least two reasons. First, so we can befriend them. That is, so can we make peace with these emotions. This making peace with anger helps us see that anger is merely human energy. This can be very useful because, for example, anger is intelligent when it’s not part of some aggressive, self-defensive drama I’m creating. Anger can help me understand what my values are. It can help me identify which of my needs aren’t being met in a given situation.
Second, we look at and learn to work with our painful emotions so we can see that these afflictive emotions are not caused by something “out there.” They are in us. The pain is our pain. It’s not caused by anyone else. Seeing this helps us to stop habitually projecting our pain and anger onto the people around us, often the people we love. Seeing this helps us make peace.
We need to do this on the path because we are interested in being a source of peace for our selves and others. Yet, if I fail to see that my anger is my anger, if I’m always blaming the anger in me on someone or something outside of myself, then I’m constantly at odds with those things that I think are causing me pain.
We Can Touch Our Anger With Tenderness
So, what do I do when I come to a complete stop for the other driver and my anger starts to warm to the task? What I do is try to look at what’s really happening. First, I notice that my anger is rising because I’ve interpreted the other person as someone who’s less than I want them to be. In these circumstances I see that I tend to interpret the other driver’s behavior as a sign that they’re less attentive than I want them to be now.
So, with practice, I’ve grown more able to see that my anger arises based, not on what the other person is doing or on who they are, but based on the false story I’m telling myself about what they’re doing and who they are.
The fact is, I have no idea who the other person is. I have no idea why they’re driving that way. The best possible explanation for their behavior is safety. They’re not inattentive. They’re a wise, safety conscious driver. Yet, while I’m projecting my habitual interpretation and anger on the other person, I can’t see the true situation.
Mindfulness does not fight anger or despair. ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Because I can touch my own anger and question my interpretation of what’s going on, I can let go of anger much more quickly now than when I was younger and less practiced. It’s a huge relief to me and everyone around me.
Below I’ve linked to two articles and a talk. This material, either in whole or in part, describes how we can generate peace as we practice with afflictive emotions like anger.
These presentations are from three different teachers in three different Buddhist traditions. Pema Chodron is in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Sharon Salzberg has studied with Tibetan teachers but has primarily a Theravada take on things. And Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen teacher.
Patience has a lot to do with getting smart [when we’re angry] and just waiting: not speaking or doing anything. ~Pema Chodron
You will find that the approach to difficult emotions shared by these three teachers is in perfect harmony. First, we give up going to war with or suppressing our difficult emotions. As difficult as it is, we make time and space for them in our meditation practice and in our experience. We get curious about them. We pay interested attention to what these afflictive emotions and feelings are and to what they are trying to tell us.
Next, we drop the blame games and the story we’re telling ourselves about how outer circumstances or somebody else made us angry or made us jealous. We own and take personal responsibility for our difficult emotions. We learn to sooth ourselves.
Finally, as we do this we experience that it’s through soothing, caring for, and attending to our own anger that we learn compassion for the angry people all around us. We do this regardless of who these angry people are or what they’ve done to us. It’s a tall order. Yet it’s doable. This is our practice.
This podcast by Sharon Salzberg is on Concentration & Insight meditation in general. But from the 8-minute mark to the 13-minute mark she gives a wonderful description of how mindfulness serves to help us see our strong anger much more clearly and accurately: soundcloud.com/beherenownetwork/sharon-salzberg-metta-hour-episode-12-concentration-insight
In Loosening the Knots of Anger Through Mindfulness Practice, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
Mindfulness does not fight anger or despair. Mindfulness is there in order to recognize. To be mindful of something is to recognize that something is there in the present moment. Mindfulness is the capacity of being aware of what is going on in the present moment. “Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me; breathing out, I smile towards my anger.” This is not an act of suppression or of fighting. It is an act of recognizing. Once we recognize our anger, we embrace it with a lot of awareness, a lot of tenderness.
The great teacher Pema Chodron has built a teaching career on helping us work with painful and frightening emotions. I, for one, am extremely grateful for her illuminating, down-to-earth teachings. In The Answer to Anger & Aggression is Patience she writes,
Patience has a lot to do with getting smart [when we’re angry] and just waiting: not speaking or doing anything. On the other hand, it also means being completely and totally honest with yourself about the fact that you’re furious. You’re not suppressing anything—patience has nothing to do with suppression. In fact, it has everything to do with a gentle, honest relationship with yourself. ~Pema Chodron
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