We live in a violent, strife-filled era. Even Buddhist monks are prey to intolerance, nationalism and violence. Terror and fear surround us. This provokes all kinds of difficult feelings and emotions, especially anger and hatred. Yet it’s not what happens to us but what we make of it that actually makes all the difference. Just because the wind is blowing doesn’t mean we have to be blown away by it, or even driven helplessly in that direction; we can certainly learn how to understand the situation better and even to navigate and reset our sails. This is the secret of self-mastery, autonomy and freedom.
I personally have found that fear, anger, impatience and irritation are like an affliction, and a serious impediment to open communication and healthy relationships of all kinds. Discovering methods to deal with these challenging emotions is essential in leading a healthy and well-balanced, happy and harmonious life. I believe that it is important to realize that anger has its own function, intelligence and logic, and we should not entirely try to suppress or eradicate it — even if we could. Anger is not synonymous with aggression and violence, at least not yet. It is a feeling and emotion we can learn to simply experience, feel in our body, and process, before deciding what if anything to do about either now or later. After much trial and error, I have come up with my own self-awareness practice for regulating strong emotions, which helps me be more patient and authentically responsive through six steps to mindful anger management and intentional responsiveness. Conscious, intentional, principled responsiveness is far from that blind reactivity that so often leads us to regrettable actions.
Mindfulness cultivation is a spiritual practice that an act as pacific medicine for all that afflicts us, a soothing balm for our troubled times as well as the antidote to illusion and confusion. The virtue of patient forbearance and acceptance is one of the most helpful virtues when it comes to finding peace, harmony, and insightful wisdom in life. Anger is one of the most virulent poisons disrupting our happiness, serenity, and also our effectiveness.
Buddhism teaches that there is neither good nor bad, only the wanted and the unwanted. Shakespeare also expressed it: “…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” The Buddhist virtue called kshanti means patience and forbearance even in the face of harm. It also includes learning to develop acceptance, openness, tolerance and a more broad and long term view of things, uncoupled from temporary pleasures and pains, losses and gains, praise and criticism. Anger can make us sick; patient forbearance heals our hearts. In this practice, we can learn to remain centered in the eye of all such storms and disturbances, which are actually only temporary weather conditions. Even emotional flux and flow are merely intermittent internal weather conditions, temporary and dreamlike. To practice patient forbearance in the face of upset, disappointment, or irritation simply ask yourself: “How much will this matter to me several months or years from now?” Then repeat the mantra, “This too shall pass.”
Patience means not retaliating with anger for anger, or harm for harm, and voluntarily bearing up under difficulties in order to live more harmoniously as well as progress on the path of spiritual awakening. Everything can become grist for the mill of awakefulness. The real question is how to actually be able to cultivate such patience? How to slow down our conditioned knee-jerk reaction to unwanted and provocative stimuli while speeding up our conscious mindful awareness? How to mind the gap between stimulus and response, to contemplate various actions rather than just falling into the habitual conditioned reactions? Finding this gap takes clarity, resolve, motivation and practice. It takes mindful awareness and alert presence of mind — paying attention, moment by moment — the antidote to sleepwalking dreamily through life.
We can find this clear open space and conscious awareness through practicing what I call the Six Rs of Intentional Responsiveness: recognizing, recollecting, refraining, relinquishing, reconditioning and responding. In combination, these six gestures of freedom are like a cool, fresh breath of mindful awareness, helping us to relax and let go, releasing a great deal of built-upon negativity amidst the tumultuous bumper car ride of stressful modern living. They can profoundly free us from falling into all kinds of regrettable reactivity and the inevitably undesirable outcomes usually caused by impulsively retaliating in kind to anger and harm — what is usually called giving tit for tat.
My Six Steps to Freedom and Intentional Responsiveness
1. Recognizing: Notice with equanimity a familiar stimulus that habitually pushes your hot buttons and triggers an unfulfilling, retaliatory response — such as harsh words or unfair treatment, which might very well provoke retaliation in kind. Stop for a moment, however brief, simply to breathe, collect yourself, reflect, and relax.
2. Recollecting: With re-mindfulness, remember the downsides and disadvantages of returning hatred with hatred, anger with anger, harm with harm. Buddha said, “Hatred is not appeased by hatred. Hatred is appeased only by love.” And recollect the upside — the significant advantages — of practicing patience, forbearance, tolerance and stoic acceptance of karma and its repercussions. In this second step, find and mine the sacred pause. Rest in it. Breathe, relax, center and smile. Take a breath break; do yourself a favor.
3. Refraining and restraining, through reframing: See things through the other’s eyes/point of view; cultivating feelings of genuine compassion for those who harm you, knowing that they are merely sowing the seeds of their own unhappiness and bad karma. Examine things from the others’ perspectives: Turn this over like a gemstone to see all sides, recognizing others’ predicament, mentality and suffering. To take it one step further, practice recognizing the adversary or critic as a teacher, a friend, an ally in helping us develop patience and overcome unconscious, habitual, and unproductive reaction patterns. The most difficult person or situation can become our greatest teacher, our greatest opportunity.
4. Relinquishing: Give up habitual conditioned reactivity and let go of impulsive urges in favor of more consciously chosen intelligent responsiveness. Accept the fact that such urges arise, don’t suppress or indulge them. Let them be without acting on them, reflect upon them, and watch them pass by and dissolve. Change is the law. It’s not outer things that entangle us; it’s overmuch attachment and fixation which entangles us.
5. Reconditioning and deconditioning habitual reactivity through remindfulness: Recall the entire situational dynamic you have now reviewed, while refraining, relinquishing and reflecting on how little it will matter in a few months and years, and letting go of unwholesome reaction patterns.
6. Responding appropriately, intelligently, consciously, choicefully — proactively, rather than reactively: In some cases, this may translate into doing nothing or in other cases responding with equanimity; ultimately making wiser, more skillful decisions based on conscious awareness and experience.