Buddhist teachings say that at the heart of the vicious cycle of samsara, the wheel of becoming, are the three poisons, the three root kleshas: greed, hatred and ignorant confusion. The main klesha that fuels this whole dualism of attachment and aversion which drives us is ignorance, or delusion and confusion. From ignorance comes greed – avarice, desire, lust, attachment and all the rest. Also from ignorance comes anger, aggression, cruelty and violence. These two poisons are the basic conflicting forces within us—attachment and aversion. They come from ignorance, and they’re really not that different: “Get away” and “I want” are very similar, just like pushing away and pulling towards; and both cause anger to arise. Anger is often singled out as the most destructive of the kleshas, because of how easily it degenerates into aggression and violence.
However, anger is easily misunderstood. It is often misunderstood in our Buddhist practice, causing us to suppress it and make ourselves more ill, uneasy and off balance. I think it’s worth thinking about this. Psychotherapy can be helpful as well. Learning to understand the causal chain of anger’s arising as well as the undesirable, destructive outflows of anger and its malicious cousin hatred can help strengthen our will to intelligently control it. Moreover, recognizing the positive sides of anger – such as its pointed ability to perceive what is wrong in situations, including injustice and unfairness – helps moderate our blind reactivity to it and generate constructive responses. As the Dalai Lama says, “Violence is old-fashioned. Anger doesn’t get you anywhere. If you can calm your mind and be patient, you will be a wonderful example to those around you.”
It can sometimes feel that the most frightening thing in the world is to honestly face ourselves. How do we deal with these difficult emotions like fear and rage when they arise, like a tsunami or a volcano? It is good to start by examining ourselves first in a somewhat less stressful situation, starting first with the little forms in which the difficult emotions arise, like during meditation. When we are alone in daily practice, or maybe in a Dharma center, yoga studio or meditation retreat–where everything’s perfectly arranged for your protection, comfort and security–it’s hard to get too overwhelmed by anger. But still there are the little irritations, like mosquitoes buzzing around the ears or traffic sounds from outside. Perhaps somebody inadvertently steps on your toe in the lunch line, or the person sitting next to you keeps coughing and shifting around; or maybe the teacher says the wrong thing for your hypersensitive ears? How do we deal with that when anger, aversion and judgment when it flares up? Do we just keep a stiff upper lip and suppress it, mistaking this stony pseudo-serenity for calmness, detachment and equanimity when it’s actually violence against your own nature—violence in the form of suppression, repression, and avoidance? This kind of avoidance and repression is similar to more blatant forms of aversion, such as in the gesture that pushes undesirables away. Some people can seem very cool, calm and collected, yet they may be seething inside—and some of us may be those very people! Maybe our fangs and claws are not out, visibly pointed towards others, as in the case of some short-tempered individuals; but those jagged weapons may be pointed inwards towards ourselves, as in the case of low self-esteem, self-loathing and self-hatred, which are all common strands of depression. Denial is one of the largest rivers running through our heartland. We would do well to consider our little subterranean upsurges of anger and hatred along with the occasional larger outbursts, and not pretend they’re not there, if we want to be in a better position to deal with them. The seeds of anger are in all of us. There’s no shame in that.