Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by Thich Nhat Hanh It’s hard to summarize the lessons I learned from the book of Anger by Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh, because there were so many. Much of it was like finding the words for things I already knew,...
Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by Thich Nhat Hanh
It’s hard to summarize the lessons I learned from the book of Anger by Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh, because there were so many. Much of it was like finding the words for things I already knew, subconsciously or not. Like the profound relief we gain when we feel heard. Or how we want to punish others when we suffer. (Why does this even make sense and yet is so horribly true?)
One of the oft-repeated mantras in the book is about compassionate listening and loving-kindness speech. It seems obvious that listening with compassion is a good thing. But the fact that it can help the other person suffer less is not as apparent. If we can allow the other person to express herself and find relief from her suffering, then we have accomplished the one and only goal of compassionate listening.
Of course, keeping compassion alive the entire time we listen is not easy, especially when we are implicated in the other’s suffering. The desire to defend oneself, or to criticize the mode of expression is both deep and diabolical. Both those can instantly undermine any positive effects of compassionate listening.
TNH suggests a practical if formal template for how to approach anger, both in ourselves and in others. The first step is admitting our anger. We can’t pretend that we don’t suffer: “In true love, there is no pride.” Second, we can’t claim we are doing our best unless we practice. And last, we have to let the other person in.
“Darling, I suffer. I am angry. I want you to know it.”
“Darling, I am doing my best. I am taking good care of my anger. For me and for you also. I don’t want to explode, to destroy myself and destroy you.”
“Darling, I need your help. I cannot do this without you.”
Of course, the success of this exchange depends on mindfulness, on mindful breathing, walking, sitting, speaking, listening. On digging deep to find the roots of our anger. On never saying or doing anything out of anger, but waiting until we are ready to listen compassionately and speak with loving-kindness. As TNH so wisely puts it, “If your house is on fire, the most urgent thing to do is to go back and try to put out the fire, not to run after the person you believe to be the arsonist.”
I appreciated the reminder to wait until we were cooler headed, but even more so, I loved the entreaty to come back after 24 hours, or even by next Friday. In the meantime, we are to write a peace note to the other person. As someone who greatly suffers from the so-called silent treatment (and the subsequent ignoring of said conflict), I was relieved to know that there was another way to approach things. A dear friend calls it throwing the other person a lifeline. You tell them you’re upset and you need time to come back to it with love and good energy, but that you will. The Buddha himself says that a monk has the right to be angry, but not for more than one night. We can’t all be monks, so I’m willing to give it more than 24 hours, but I desperately need the coming back together in order to move on.
This next seems a lesson I will keep learning my entire life: “We should not be sure of any perception we have.” According to TNH, anger mostly comes from incorrect perceptions. He says to write on a piece of paper, “Are you sure?” and hang it up in your room. And even if you are sure, check again.
Anger is defined in the book as an energy, with seeds that may have been watered too frequently over the years. The counter-balance is to water the positive seeds in you—the seeds of love, compassion, and understanding. I’ve been practicing this a little by writing in a gratitude journal every night before I go to sleep. Any practice of positivity keeps us in touch with elements that don’t constantly express suffering: the trees, flowers, children, art—whatever is refreshing, healing, and nourishing. As TNH says, “Let your friends rescue you.”
Along those lines, the book emphasizes that happiness and well-being are not individual matters. We are not separate from each other, from our parents, our ancestors, our friends. And not only that, our self is made of “non-self” elements, like the sun, the air, the earth, the food we eat. I love this psychedelic sense of connection, of selfhood as a universal - even cosmic – concept.
One way to save yourself from being overwhelmed by anger is by writing a Heart Sutra. When you feel very grateful for the other person in your life, TNH says to withdraw and be alone and immersed in those feelings. Write them down as an act of gratitude, enlightenment, mindfulness, intelligence. This is your Heart Sutra, meant to be read in times of need.
I also loved the idea of gift giving as a way to transform your feelings of hurt and anger at someone into wanting to make them happy. TNH advises not waiting until you’re angry to buy a present. He says to buy it when you feel the love. Have the luxury of two or three presents stashed secretly in your drawer, ready to be gifted. I haven’t done the advance buying yet, but I know that the general idea works. Doing something nice for someone, even (especially?) someone I’m mad at, invariably makes me feel better.
Over and over, TNH reminds us that the energy of mindfulness is the key to transforming the energy of anger. Suppressing, fighting, or ignoring anger will do no good. It must be recognized and embraced, often with great tenderness, in order to be transformed: “Hello, my little anger, I know you are there. My old friend.”
Far from reducing anger, punching a pillow (and acts like it) only rehearses it, trains you in aggression, strengthens and grows the seed of anger inside you. The danger of venting feels intuitively correct to me. I don’t want to project any semblance of violence, even on something as “forgiving” as a pillow. Our enemy isn’t the other person. Our enemy is the violence, ignorance, and injustice in us and in the other person. So we practice mindfulness to look deeply for the roots of our anger, to gain insight, which has the power to liberate us and allow transformation.
In the end, our emotions are just that. Emotions. And this might be the hardest lesson of all. We are more than our anger, more than our suffering, more than our emotions. All storms pass, and we have to remember that, and have hope. And in order to take care of our emotions, we have to go back to the body. We lie down, and we breathe: “Breathing in, I calm my whole body, breathing out, I calm my whole body.”
It doesn’t matter how intelligent we are, how much knowledge we’ve gained, how young or old or alone or stuck. Changing our habit energy (and we all have it) requires practice. We don’t have to wait for anyone else in order to start practicing. Transforming ourselves makes reconciliation possible, no matter how resistant the other person is. And either way, we are making space for compassion, for connection, for calm, for love, for kindness, one mindful step at a time.