Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Anger: a naming of parts

"Anger is always poison." I say that a lot. The statement is generally met with polite dissent, and careful distinctions between good (useful, cathartic, motivating) anger and bad (vain, self-aggravating, debilitating) anger. It makes me uneasy to be the person rejecting nuance and distinction, so I come back to it frequently and mull it over.

I don't find myself changing my mind at all. Anger is always a poison. I still think that. But in my last mull-over it occurs to me that I actually I break the experience of anger into several different parts, only one of which I think is poisonous. So here is my naming of parts:

1. There's the event that (in that very telling English phrase) "makes us angry." Let's call it, (dropping a couple thousand years of philsophical debate for the moment), the "external event." Say the assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

2. There's our interpretation of that event, say "Sharon is gratuitously throwing gas on the fire."

3. There's our karmic response to this interpretation, or, as we would say, our emotional response to it. According to both standard Dharma and standard psychology, this response is involuntary. Nothing to be done about it: it arises before volition is in play.

4. There's our reaction to the response. This is where we, as you might say, ratify the anger. We make it our *policy* to be angry about this thing. We take our stand.

It's only the last part, the reaction, that I mean when I say that anger is a poison. That's what I mean when I say "anger."

We customarily lump the interpretation, the emotional response, and the reaction into one big clump, and that's what we ordinarily call "anger." Actually most people most of the time lump the event into the clump too; hence we talk about things "making us angry," as if the progression from step 1 to step 4 were inexorable.

So I often find myself at cross-purposes with people who think that I am saying they should drop it at step two, and interpret all events as beneficial and all actions as benevolent. I'm not saying that. For one thing I'm not sure it would be possible (though I think it's possible to deliberately expand the range of interpretations we give to events, and in particular to expand the range of motives we impute to people). Nor would it necessarily be desireable.

I also find myself at cross-purposes with people who think I am asking an impossibility, namely, that of stopping at point three, and simply having no response. That just doesn't happen (except maybe to old Buddhas, who are not only enlightened, but also have run out all their karma. I wouldn't know, and if you would, then you need no words from me.)

It's not until step 4 that I really want anyone to do anything differently. This is where I identify with my response of anger. I start building vast justifications of it. I freeze my interpretation and consider anyone who threatens to alter it an enemy, a co-conspirator with the object of my anger. I cultivate my anger at that point, whipping it up with further consideration of the other crimes, real or imagined, of both the original object, and of those I've now identified as co-conspirators. I filter my experience so that I notice anything disparaging to these enemies and fail to notice anything to their credit. At this point I've gone way past the involuntary response, and at this point I'm setting up a self-reinforcing cycle. Now I'm looking for things that will make me angry, searching for them.

I can stop at step four. Or more accurately, maybe, I can practice stopping. When the reaction sets in, I can watch it arising, watch myself begin to take ownership of it, to reify it, solidify it. It's possible to just turn the thoughts loose at that point. It's not easy, by any means. But it is possible. Not stomping on the thoughts -- not trying to eliminated them -- that doesn't work. Just letting them go. That's what thoughts do, if I don't cultivate them. They go away. And it leaves my mind far clearer, and my heart less damaged.

I used to think I sort of liked being angry. It felt sort of energizing, I thought. That was because I didn't know how to pay attention. Now it feels horrible, a poison seeping through my body. I want nothing to do with it anymore. I will not harbor this thing.

This has nothing to do with activism or quietism. I am still free to do anything I like in response to my interpretation of events. Since I've been examining my mind more closely, I've seen that my anger in fact has seldom, if ever, actually motivated constructive action. It mostly motivates more anger, which eventually pools up and manifests as depression.