Emotions - My Experiments with Anger
by Swami Veda Bharati
The author shares his own struggles with the dreaded specter of anger.
One of our deadliest enemies is anger. As an enemy, it begets us enemies. Every spiritual guide and philosopher of the East and the West, from Chang-An to Athens, has admonished us to control and guide our anger. Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor of Rome wrote in his essays: "Democritus laughed and Heraclitus wept, but no philosopher was ever angry with the world."
The spiritual traditions of India are firmly based on a detailed understanding of the mind, its states, impulses, operations, functions and reactions to stimuli. Half of Indian religion (Vedic-Hindu-Buddhist-Jaina-Sikh-Mazdayasnian, et al) consists of pure psychological principles for guiding
relationships. One of these guidelines is repeatedly stated:
akodhena jine kodham (Pali),
akrodhena jayet krodham (Sanskrit)
One should seek to conquer anger with non-anger.
What are the tools one may employ to improve oneself?
The first step is atmavalokana, self-observation. Through self-observation one pulls oneself out of the delusion of denial, "Oh, I never get angry"- uttered in the most angry voice! This is not self-criticism, but simply self-critique.
Self-observation helps one to observe oneself getting angry, realize its futility and note its results in the form of unhappiness caused to loving ones, and damages invited to oneself from the reactions of others - for which one commonly blames those very same 'others'.
Then all it takes is sankalpa, a decision, a resolve, to make oneself sweeter with Upanishadic prayers like:
Jihva me madhumattma
May my tongue be a most honeyed one.
A story here, of this author's own experiments with cultivating non-anger. This being came to some name and fame very early in life. It is very dangerous to be acclaimed a child genius and I became arrogant and demanding, easy to anger. All the while I thought I was the sweetest, most saumya spiritual guide around!
For my first lecture series outside India in 1952, in Nairobi, I was a guest in the home of a well-known political leader of the country's Indian community. In his pride, that more than matched my youthful arrogance, he made a remark that angered me deeply.
Mataji, the lady of the house, who loved me like a son, used to come to my room in the morning to wake me up. She saw that my pillow was colored red with nose-bleed - caused by my anger. In a most loving voice - not critical, not admonishing, just loving and soft - she said, "Such a great vidvan (person of Vedic learning) and teacher, and so much anger?
It touched me. It would have made me defensive if it was said in merely a critical tone. I would have presented all kinds of arguments, "Oh, I was insulted by my host who is supposed to be gracious", "anyone would be angry", and other such stock phrases. But her lovingness made me make a quiet resolve to follow the teachings of the texts from which I had been preaching to others.
Several months later, while lecturing in a sea-side town called Tanga, in Tanganyika (which was not yet Tanzania), I discovered Mahatma Gandhi's The Story of My Experiments with Truth, and read it avidly. In it, I found the tools for accomplishing my sankalpa to conquer anger, as the first step to the yoga teachings of ahimsa. Many practice ahimsa in diet, but not in the way they treat their wives, husbands, children and neighbors.
Once the resolve has been made, self-observation comes naturally: "I am now on the verge of anger; let me replace it with a sweeter thought. Let me think of the pleasant and the good this person opposite has contributed to me in the past, and so on."
The following year, I found myself sharing an apartment with some young people in London. This was a testing time. One of the young men had no use for Gandhi's philosophy; he was a hot-headed revolutionary. Once, as we discussed the matter of anger and the principle of ahimsa, he said, "Well, Brahmachariji, if I slapped you, what would you do?" Knowing my history of the nose-bleed anger, but with a newly gained confidence, I replied, "Try me!"
A few weeks later, as we all sat discussing some philosophical matter, the 'revolutionary' young man got up without warning and slapped me hard on the cheek.
I smiled back at him.
Now, imagine what could have happened to the angry young man. What truth would he have discovered for life?
As to this self - a new self-confidence manifested. I felt, "I can conquer", "I can be a jina". Once you have conquered a new territory in the spiritual realms, you gain a belief, shraddha, in your capability to continue making progress.
But that was not the final accomplishment. Winning one battle doth not a conquest make. Our kleshas, afflictions, lurk in us in pra-supta, dormant states. They wait for the right stimuli to manifest themselves in the udara, wide open, form as soon as they are presented with the corresponding excitants. They have to be attenuated, thinned down (made tanu as per Patanjali) deep within, till they lie dormant no more. The masters of the yoga tradition often expose their trainees to excitants and then expect to see that the disciple shows his mettle in conquering these challenges and maintains equanimity.
Listen. Listen to others when they say "You are getting angry". Do not be trapped by the mind's habit of denying its diseases. Remember, that of the 10 defining characteristics of dharma (dashakam dharma-lakshanam) in the Laws of Manu, the tenth is a-krodha, non-anger.
One needs to remind oneself: I believe in being a spiritual person, dharmic by nature; then how can I infringe the dharma code by being angry?
The further suggestion given in the texts is: if you must be angry, be angry with anger which destroys so much within you and at the same time robs you of your loved ones.
To gain understanding of further tools for this conquest, I would strongly recommend the book on anger by Thich Nhat Hahn (Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames) and Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective by H.H. the Dalai Lama. The latter is a commentary on the sixth chapter of Bodhicharyavatara (The Way of One who Walks on the Path to Enlightenment), a text by the great 8th century Buddhist monk, Shantideva. Swami Rama's two books, The Art of Joyful Living, and Creative Use of Emotions are further recommended readings.
Do not attempt to handle anger by suppressing it. This leads to depression. Suppression is not conquest. Change of heart is. Seek not to suppress but to replace. Patanjali calls it prati-paksha-bhavanam, cultivating the opposites.
Recently I received a most beautiful gift. During a ten-day silence retreat in Minneapolis, USA, I had given an assignment to all participants. Write down each night one pleasant episode, however minor, that happened during the day.
The gift I received recently was that during a three-month practice of silence one sadhaka gave me three beautifully bound volumes of such records of the daily pleasant episodes that had transpired in his life over the past 18 months. With such training of the mind, with such pleasantness filling the mind, how can one find space in the mind to lodge destructive enemies like anger?