There seems to be a contradiction at the heart of mainstream culture’s attitude toward
anger. On the one hand, people are often encouraged to be angry and, indeed, they are regarded in some quarters as fools if they don’t blow up at certain situations. If your new car gets stolen, your partner cheats on you, or you are unfairly overlooked at work, many people would say that you ought to brim with rage. In schools, coaches often try to entice their players to anger at the opposing team because they hope that antagonism will aid in victory. And often people are encouraged to feel fury at a disease from which they are suffering. On the other hand, though, the culture well recognizes that anger causes a lot of problems between and among people, which is why people with histories of violence are often referred to anger management classes.
The idea in the mainstream seems to be that in some situations, anger is right and
appropriate, whereas in others, it is a problem. Buddha offers some clarifying wisdom: all anger is a problem because its only function is to harm. As such, it destroys the happiness of the person who succumbs to it, as well as all who are its victims. From a Buddhist point of view, the objective is not to “manage” anger: it is to eradicate it, in all its permutations, from murderous rage to simmering resentment to low-level frustration.
All of us can see that the now-routine tragedies of mass shootings cause nothing but
devastating misery. Virtually every one of us knows someone whose home was not a safe
environment due to the anger of one or more family members, and again we can easily perceive that there was no benefit to the anger, that it produced nothing but anguish, hurt, sorrow, and fear—and perhaps, more anger.
Well, but surely a little justifiable anger is okay? If we grant that anger’s purpose is to
harm and destroy, we then have to ask, Is a little harm and destruction okay? Can I do a little
damage to my relationship with others and to myself? Of course we can if this is our choice, but at the moment, we are not even making a free choice because we don’t have very good control over our minds. In other words, we typically get angry as an automatic reaction, and often when the anger has passed, we feel remorse and shame and even shock that we acted in such a way.
Buddha’s teachings offer us a way to intervene in our habitual modes of thinking and
behaving. Overcoming our anger might seem like a tall order, but actually with some training
and practice, we can start to see results very quickly. Soon we will notice that we feel happier, freer, and more in control of ourselves as we gain confidence that we can maintain our equanimity even when circumstances are challenging. We will notice that when we are not under the influence of anger, we have much greater ability to respond skillfully to those challenges. And we will also gain the satisfaction of seeing our relationships with others improve as people’s trust in us deepens.