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Bringing Anger and Aggression to the Path

May 8, 2011

Today, I’d like to welcome Craig Mollins from Mindfulness Anger Management. This is Craig’s first time being part of the Buddho-Blogosphere Article Swap, and I am very excited that the magical hat paired him up with me. To be honest, it was odd that the hat paired us, maybe not odd but “meant to be” to add some cliché pizazz here. His post has really hit home for me, and has helped me understand somethings about myself, I hope you gain as much as I did from Craig’s article.

As a youngster and up until about age 21, I got in many dozens of fist fights. I had some natural talent so most of my fights ended with the other guy flat on his back, cold as a fish. My skill came from a number of factors. One was that I had a laser sharp focus and knew exactly where to hit people. Also, I hit with a sledgehammer strength and one punch was usually all it took to get the job done. But I think the most significant factor was that I had a deep aggressive tendency; I had no hesitation in, and indeed took great pleasure in, the act of hitting someone with every ounce of my considerable strength with a desire to knock them fully unconscious.

Thus it was an unlikely and very fortunate turn of events that I would discover Buddhism when I was 18 years old.

My first encounter with meditation was in martial arts training, where we would sit quietly at the beginning of class to let go of the business of the day and calm our mind. Later I discovered an article on the ‘noble eightfold path’ in a martial arts magazine. That article made so much sense to me and I felt deeply connected and relieved to read it. It was like I had finally come home after wandering around lost for such a long time.

Within a couple of weeks I found myself at a place called the Halifax ‘Dharmadhatu’, which was the early incarnation of what is now known as a Shambhala Center. I was an angry and pretty messed up young guy, and I would show up at the centre once a week for public night. This was in 1982. Everyone would be standing around in the reception area, smoking and drinking tea, and as I walked in people would turn and very calmly say, “Good evening.” They were so dignified, and also for me they were so completely strange. But I loved them, and even though it was mildly terrifying experience, I loved going there, and I quickly took up the practice of meditation on a daily basis.

I remember in the beginning how excited and hopeful I was. I remember thinking, “Within five years I’m going to be so relaxed and calm and become a kind, wonderful person. All my friends will be amazed at how much I have changed, and they will all ask me for advice…” Well, the kindness has come slowly over time, but it’s been thirty years now and I have to report that my friends still don’t ask me for advice… well, at least not that often.

My ‘meditation instructor’ was a very kind and gentle lady named Cheryl. I would go to her house once every few weeks to talk about meditation and Buddhism and how I was getting along. She was always interested and caring with me, and I don’t remember even once having a negative experience in our relationship. One of the things that Cheryl helped me with was my aggression and my streetfighting lifestyle. She thought there was something noble about it, that somehow there was some kind of goodness in the situations I got myself into.

The thing is, I never started the fights I got in. I was a kind of David Carridine figure, and would somehow always end up in situations where someone needed their butt kicked. And I was quite happy to oblige. However it was tricky, because I could easily have removed myself from the potential fight scene, yet I always chose to stay. I liked it because I knew what I had in store for them, and very much looked forward to the engagement. Still, Cheryl’s perspective helped me to let of some of my guilt and shame around the whole thing, and she really got me questioning and thinking about my aggression and fighting.

Overcoming Conceptual Obstacles

That was some 30 years ago. Although it’s been at least 20 years since I’ve hit anyone, my tendency towards anger and aggression has been an ongoing theme throughout my life and my path. It’s nowhere as out of control or powerful as it used to be, and it improves all the time, but I still struggle with a shockingly aggressive mind a great deal of the time.

For many years I felt like a failure and a fraud as a Buddhist. Since Buddhism is a path on non-aggression and we are continually taught and trained to overcome aggressive in our state of mind, for a long time I felt like I just wasn’t doing it right. So on top of having this deep tendency towards anger, now I had a new reason to hate myself for having anger.

I struggled with this a lot over the years, as I had emersed myself into a tradition and a community of people who were dedicated to living with gentleness and non aggression, and yet I was living a life permeated with aggression. I read the teachings and did the practices, but progress was slow, on the scale of decades, and it took me a long time to come to terms with my own angry state of mind, to make friends with myself, anger and all, and to begin embracing the wisdom of “start where you are.”

Inviting Anger Along for the Journey

When I started to ‘lean into’ my anger and my tendency towards struggle and aggression, that’s when things started to lighten up. As long as I was trying to live up to my concept of what I thought the dharma is supposed to be, I was not able to bring aggression to the path. I had been unable to understand how to work with anger because anger was the ‘bad guy’, it was the thing I was trying to get rid of. But my anger seemed insistent on sticking around, and eventually I had to look at it more directly and start to engage with it.

Anger is a difficult emotion to work with. To begin with, as western dharma practitioners we inherit our cultural confusions and stigmas, and we have plenty around anger. Then as work with the dharma, it is easy to compound our confusion by misinterpreting the teachings of non aggression and end up ignoring our anger altogether. For example in Toronto there is a beautiful Tibetan Buddhist temple in a prominent location, and for a number of years in one of their front windows they had a sign, one of those black circles with a diagonal slash through the middle, with the word “Anger” inside the circle. I never did visit that temple.

So how do we work with anger as Buddhist practitioners? The teachings as always, are vast and varied, and as I am no scholar or teacher I won’t attempt to summarize them here. But as a dharma practitioner with chronic anger problems I’ve wrangled with and explored this question for many years, so I’ll offer a little of what I’ve come to understand.

In order to bring anger to the path and begin working with it, the first step is to learn how to actually ‘contact’ and ‘connect with’ our anger. We need to experience anger, ‘as it is’, as a first gesture in our quest to get unstuck from anger. This is a powerful first step, because especially for those of us with habitual anger problems, our tendency is to do everything ‘but’ allow ourselves to actually ‘feel’ our anger. Our habitual response is to act it out with blame and attack, or to suppress in inwards, both of which distract us from having to feel anger and deal with it.

Anger is powerful and vivid and uncomfortable, so understandably we don’t want to feel it and work with it. But until we do, until we slow down enough to contact anger and be with it directly, we’ll struggle and won’t know what to do with anger. In my own journey the two best methods I’ve discovered to get in touch with feelings of anger are mindfulness meditation and body awareness/relaxation processes.

Mindfulness and Anger

Mindfulness trains us to slow down and be ‘right there’ for whatever is happening, so it is a powerful tool for cutting through the distracted and seductive speed of anger. Both on and off the cushion, the simplicity and openness of mindfulness connects us with our inherent strength of mind, providing an anchor to weather the stormy energy of anger when it arises. Because anger is so powerful, normally we are easily swept away by its force. But mindfulness training gives us more access to an ‘inner fortitude’, a quality of stability which helps us to hold our seat and not get sucked in by the momentum of anger.

Another way mindfulness meditation helps with anger is that as we sit with ourself we spend some quality time with our negativity, in vivid technicolor. Over time this helps because we become more familiar with our anger, and we see it for the transitory experience that it is. This in turn helps us to soften and relax with anger, and to stop being angry at ourself for being angry. We develop understanding and love towards ourself and this in turn lessens the burden of chronic anger.

Depending on how deeply rooted our chronic anger is, this can take time. In my own practice it was many many years, over twenty of them, before I began to noticeably relax with and befriend my angry mind. I don’t know if that’s because I was ‘doing it wrong’ or if I just had to go through that to ‘wear out the shoe of ego’ as the expression goes. But in any case as we know, in working with habitual patterns we can’t go around; we have to go through.

Becoming More Present in our Body

In addition to formal mindfulness meditation, learning to be more fully present in our physical body is a great help in working with anger. Body practices provides a more solid foundation for working with the elusive energy of anger when it comes up. Emotional energy arises and moves in our body and mind, and when we’re not connected with our body we lose touch with some of our natural emotional intelligence. As Buddhists we’re taught that everything is mind, and there is a danger that we can misinterpret this to mean mind ‘as apposed to body’. I made this mistake for years, and regularly still do, and I find it a great support for my meditation practice and for working with anger to do body processes such as yoga, qi gong, and simple relaxation practices. Yes mind includes body, but the concept means nothing unless it’s true in our practice.

The Direct Approach

One other tool I have found helpful over the years is to simply let go of anger on the spot. This one is interesting, because it is at the same time the easiest and most difficult of approaches to working with anger. The technique is just to stop on the spot and cease all activity and struggle. In Suzuki Roshi’s words, “Don’t move.” There is nothing in the anger to avoid or change or correct, if we can in fact realize that right there on the spot. When we are able to be with anger in this naked fashion we are left with the pure energy of anger, which is illuminating and awake. Sometimes in my practice I find myself able to be with anger in this direct manner, without any adornment. It’s really nothing at all except being honest on the spot, there is no technique really. But of course, having the strength of mind to practice with no technique usually means we have dedicated a lot of time and energy practicing with techniques.

Anger is powerful and painful to experience, and it feels like a threat to everything we hold dear as travellers on a path of non-aggression. But we can learn to make friends with anger, to befriend what is, after all our very own self. Anger is not outside of us, and it is ourself and ourself alone who can come to terms with our anger, to understand how anger operates in our own body and mind, and learn how to bring it to the path.

May all beings be free of escalated or suppressed anger.

Craig Mollins writes about and promotes a mindfulness approach to anger management.

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