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The Emptiness of Anger

Fighting it doesn't work, but paradoxically, once you accept the anger, it's easier for it to pass. This, I think, is a taste of freedom.
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I called him Shakey, because he couldn't sit still. About forty-five or fifty years old, with thick white hair up front and a bald spot on the crown of his head, Shakey sat near me in the meditation hall for forty days. He moved constantly: shifting his posture, moving his feet, scratching -- and always making noise. He made me angry.

A little context: this was a six week long, silent, 'insight meditation' retreat conducted in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition. Each day consisted of seven "sits," of either 45 minutes or an hour each, interspersed with periods of walking meditation. During the sits, practitioners are asked to sit absolutely still (some people don't even swallow) and place the attention on the arising and passing of breath, and on what distracts you from it. Remarkably, just doing this, for twelve hours a day, leads to deep, life-changing insights into the nature of mind, the nature of reality, and the causes of our personal pain and suffering. Try it sometime.

Now, in this context, a little noise -- or even a lot of it -- shouldn't be a problem. It's just a different thing to notice, right? No reason to get upset, right? In theory.

In practice, though, I wasn't just noticing and noting. I was getting lost. I spun out long, pointless stories about maybe he was disabled somehow, or had ADD, or maybe he was just clueless, or maybe there could be some way, somehow, that I could talk to the teachers.... Blech.

Now, like Shakey, all this anger and thought is theoretically just another object of attention. It arises, it passes. It causes suffering. It's not really "me." So by seeing how it unfolds and goes away, you can directly see some of the core insights of Buddhist philosophy. Moreover, working with anger in a retreat context is very useful, because most of us encounter it outside that context all the time. Personally, I struggle with anger a great deal: my father had a bad temper, and I have trouble with controlling my own. So actually, I learned a lot from Shakey. ("Shakey," by the way, is actually Neil Young's longtime nickname. Apologies to Neil -- the name just stuck.)

First, I learned new ways of "being with" the anger I experienced. I came to know it as a physical phenomenon -- a heat, or a quaking of the arms, together with constriction of the jaw, tension in the mind, and an increased heart rate -- rather than as a story about what's wrong with the world and why I'm right to be pissed off about it. This little shift has huge consequences. Usually, anger is about thoughts, feelings, and stories. But really, what's going on is a physical phenomenon together with some thinking. And amazingly, when you just focus on those presently-arising phenomena, even if they are unpleasant, an indescribable feeling of equanimity and peace often arises.

Second, I noticed that my problem with Shakey had little to do with the physical sounds that he was making. One morning, a truck (propane? gas?) parked itself right outside the meditation hall and made a truly irritating noise, whining and varying its pitch, for about half an hour. I had no problem. The truck was just doing what it had to do, the motors were running the way they were supposed to, and, while perhaps an unfortunate bit of timing, it was really no big deal. It was actually kind of funny.

Rather, my anger had to do with all kinds of facts. Shakey was doing something wrong, where the truck wasn't. Trucks are not inconsiderate, but Shakey was. Shakey was a long-term problem, not a one-off: I couldn't really complain to the teachers -- they'd probably just tell me to watch my mind and note my anger. I just had to sit there and take it, every day. And it all seemed so unfair. Why should I sit there and take it, while he, a lousy, inconsiderate jerk, gets to go along his merry way, oblivious to the harm he's causing? I was being disciplined, and he was being a putz. So really, this wasn't about the sounds, was it?

Nor was the anger continuous. Often, I had a lot of compassion for Shakey, because if you keep moving around like that, you never gain the stillness of body and mind necessary for deep concentration, inner peace, and spaciousness of mind. So many times I felt care, even love, for him. And even those times when I felt angry, it was always interrupted by other things: breath, pain, thinking, whatever. They perforated the anger, so to speak, with a thousand little holes.

I also noticed how the conventional approach to anger -- figuring out why I was angry -- totally failed. There were too many causes to count, and even knowing and cataloging them didn't really help. On the contrary; probing all these causes for anger, I fed its flames. What was the point of knowing the causes anyway? To judge whether it's okay or not? Is that really helpful? Would the judgment make it go away?

Nor was it possible to will myself to be more loving and compassionate. Kicking your own ass is not the way to liberation, and no amount of guilt-tripping about being a bad Buddhist was really going to help. I tried feeling compassion for Shakey, or compassion for me for having to deal with him, but when I tried, it didn't arise.

But here is what did work.

First, I saw how much of the concept self was involved in the whole drama. I should be more compassionate; he should be more considerate. I'm triggered in this way; he's doing this stuff. But these ascriptions of agency to "I" and "he" were not ultimately accurate. Really, if you look closely at whatever thought or feeling you're having right now -- and I mean really closely, in a way that requires stillness and clarity -- you'll see that it's entirely conditioned by hundreds or thousands of other phenomena: You learned these words, learned how to think them. You have genetic predispositions, educational backgrounds, tastes, distractions, preferences -- none of these are "you," right? Yet they are what dictate all of our actions.

This insight deepened over the retreat. All that was happening was the great series of empty, conditioned phenomena -- including Shakey moving, including the truck, including every sound and vision. Of course, we each have ethical responsibility for our actions, but ultimately, Shakey moving is no different from the heater coming on is no different from the birds chirping outside. All are just what some Buddhists call "empty phenomena, rolling on." Or what some Western mystics call God.

Perhaps most importantly, I saw how what arises inside of my mind is part of the circuit too. When the conditions for anger are present, anger arises, just like an itch, or just like the sound that arose when Shakey's feet scraped the floor. It was all just as mechanistic, just as much non-self -- if you like, just as much God. This was a sweet surrender: no more judging myself for being angry, for not being a good Buddhist or good Jew, for failing to meditate properly. The conditions were present, the anger arose. Why make things more complicated?

Now, it's not like the anger stopped arising -- on retreat or since. Being awake does not mean that the chains of causality will be broken. Even the Dalai Lama gets angry sometimes, according to statements he's made. And of course, some kinds of anger -- righteous indignation at injustice, for example -- are better than others, and all the usual rules apply for not venting anger inappropriately. Meditation is not a free pass.

But there is this loosening that happens -- not by trying to be less angry, but by seeing clearly, accepting, surrendering. Fighting it doesn't work, but paradoxically, once you accept the anger, it's easier for it to pass. It comes as a result of these conditions, it feels like this, it does these things. Eventually it passes. This, I think, is a taste of freedom.