Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Anger: It's No Way Out

The following post is published with permission. It originally appeared at The Buddha Diaries on March 1, 2010. I was moved by it and believe it holds a lesson for all of us...including association staff and volunteers. I am grateful to Peter Clothier, the author, for his generosity in giving me permission to republish it here. Peter Clothier is the author, most recently of "Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad with Commerce" (Parami Press, 2010), available at Amazon.com.


How often have you heard recently, if you’re a part of the great American electorate like myself, that you are angry? Often enough, I suspect, to make you even angrier.

We are an angry people at this moment in history, we hear constantly. We are angry about “Washington.” We are angry about our government, about our leadership and about our representation in both houses of Congress. We are angry about health care, no matter which side of the issue we are on. We are angry about the taxes we are required to pay, and angry about the way in which they’re used; and at the same time we’re angry about the poor quality of such social services as education, and about our deteriorating infrastructure. We are angry about the economy, angry at Wall Street, angry at the bankers. We are angry about the wars in which we are engaged and angry at those we blame for them. We are angry at each other: I’m angry at you and you’re angry at me.

I’m no psychologist, and I’m no expert on anger or its management, but I do know that anger is nothing more than a feeling, and that feelings by definition are fickle things. They change from moment to moment. I share the anger that so many of us are experiencing and yet, if I watch myself with a measure of awareness, I know that the anger comes and goes, to be replaced by other feelings as they come along. By nature, as a feeling, it’s ephemeral. It only seems like a permanent condition when I get hung up on it and refuse to let it pass. And when that happens, it profits no one, certainly not those around me, who feel its heat; and certainly not myself. It eats at my gut, serving only to increase my level of stress and make me sick. And still angrier.

Like most of us again, I suspect, I’m pretty good at blaming others for my anger. My observation is that I get angry when I don’t get what I want. It’s the reaction of the child, who screams and stamps his feet in fury when his immediate need is not immediately satisfied. When that happens, when rage floods in to overwhelm the rational mind, the easiest—perhaps the most natural—thing to do is to project it out and find someone else to blame. I get mad at mom, for depriving me of my rightful due.

But we’re supposed to be adults. We’re supposed to understand that anger doesn’t get us what we want. Nor are we entitled to “what we want” just because we happen to want it. We’re supposed to be able to recognize the difference between the passing feelings that “move” us this way and that, and the rational thought we use to free us from the reactive patterns they dictate. If insulted, my natural reaction might be to strike out in anger; a moment’s thought, however, brings me back to the reality that this response would result in a still more grievous outcome. What seems to be missing in our culture is the ability to watch our feelings without being controlled by them, the understanding that, while they are an inevitable and necessary part of the way in which we experience the world, they are not the most useful tool in making decisions about actions.

I don’t call myself a Buddhist, but I have learned enough from the Buddhist teachings to recognize their wisdom and their relevance to the way in which we live our lives today. When we allow ourselves to be governed by reactive patterns, they tell us, our actions lead more often than not to unintended, undesirable consequences. The trick is to be able to recognize my anger for what it is at the moment is arises, and to avoid giving it the power to lead me into actions that will help no one, least of all myself, and will more likely cause harm.

Instead, we are all now celebrating anger, as though it were some kind of worthy badge of honor. I am angry, therefore I am. The result of our indulgence in this feeling—our “clinging” to it, in the Buddhist sense—is the hostility and stagnation we are experiencing as a nation. We will not emerge from our current collective snit until we learn to acknowledge our anger—and let it go.

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