Q: How can I deal with impatience and anger? My young children and my business partners often make me irate, and I really don’t know what to do – even though I have been meditating almost daily for the last few years. I asked a Tibetan lama, and he just said not to get angry because it is all like a dream. I know I should be kind and loving, but how do I do this when my buttons keep getting pushed? Do you have any practical advice for me?
I find that fear, anger and irritation are a big burden, and a serious impediment to communication and relationships of all kinds. It is important to realize that anger has its own function, intelligence and logic and so we should not entirely try to eradicate it. At the same time, experiencing such emotions with wisdom is the best advice I could offer. After much trial and error, I have come up with my own practice for regulating strong emotions and being patient and more authentically responsive through these six steps to mindful anger management and intentional responsiveness.
The Peace Master Shantideva said: “Anger is the greatest sin; patience is the greatest austerity.” The Fifth Chapter of his book, The Bodhisattva Way, a timeless Buddhist classic, is all about cultivating the virtue of patience of kshanti paramita, patient forbearance. I consider this one of the most helpful virtues when it comes to finding peace and harmony in life.
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. In this practice, we can learn to remain centered in the eye of all such storms, 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 some upset, disappointment, or irritation simply ask yourself: “How much will this matter to me several months or years from now?”
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. 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 the habitual conditioned reactions? Finding this gap takes clarity, resolve, motivation and practice. It takes mindful awareness – the antidote to sleepwalking dreamily through life.
We can find this space and conscious awareness through practicing what I call the Six R’s 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 kindsof 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.
What are the Six Steps to Freedom and Intentional Responsiveness?
1. Recognizing: Notice with equanimity a familiar stimulus which 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, to breathe, reflect, and simply relax.
2. Recollecting: With remindfulness, 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—thesignificant 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.
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 stone to see all sides, recognizing others’ 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 and you will find that they ultimately dissolve.
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; 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.
And in case of emergency – use these quick tried and true remedies:
Breathe, smile and relax
Say “This too shall pass.”
Chant (aloud or to yourself) “Like a dream, a fantasy, a sitcom.”
Hang in there and wait to catch the next wave, even if you get tumbled over by this one.
This is simply an elaboration of our kindergarten teacher’s instruction to “Just stop and count to ten.” Applying these six steps, instead of just “hitting back,” can significantly help us to create a space between the habitual, familiar stimulus-response pattern. Then we provide ourselves with more present awareness-time to skillfully choose how, when, if and in what matter and to what degree we shall respond to any particular experience, wanted or unwanted. Remember that from the point of view of mind training, attitude transformation and spiritual refinement, in awareness practice there are really no good or bad, positive or negative feelings, sensations, emotions, thoughts or circumstances, but only wanted and unwanted ones. Everything is subjective. External circumstances do not determine our karma, our character, and our destiny; it’s how we relate to those circumstances that makes all the difference. Regardless of what kind of cards lifedeals us, it’s how we play the hand that determines the outcome. This is the essence of inner freedom, peace and self-mastery.
The gift of patience, finding the sacred space, is a gift of yourself that does not in any way diminish you, the giver. Instead, you share your strength with someone else and become stronger yourself in the process. Please keep in mind these wise words on patience from the Dalai Lama: “When we talk about patience or tolerance, we should understand that there are many degrees, starting from a simple tolerance, such as being able to bear a certain amount of heat and cold, progressing toward the highest level of patience, which is the fearless type of patience and tolerance found in the great practitioners, the Bodhisattvas. One should not see tolerance or patience as a sign of weakness, but rather as a sign of strength coming from a deep ability to remain steadfast and firm.”
These are six practical steps toward anger management and intentional responsiveness that I hope you find helpful. My own mentor in France, Tulku Pema Wangyal Rinpoche always used to say so sweetly and at the same time implacably as he led our intensive three-year cloistered retreat, “You can get used to anything.” Whenever I feel upset or discouraged, I can still hear his voice in my head… creating the sacred pause and a route to the wisdom of intentional responsiveness.