the practical buddhist : essentials

3 valuable lessons from untethering from anger

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A few years back, I gave up getting angry. 

Although I felt I had numerous reasons to be angry, I saw that it served no one.

Ten years ago I was a very angry person. Today I am not. In fact I can say with complete truthfulness, I no longer get angry. This post is about how I arrived at this point in my life.

A decade ago I was fresh out of divorce court with a seven year-old some to raise alone. It was the second time I was going through a divorce. I’d been ordered by a Judge to attend a parenting class called ‘Parenting Without Violence’ that I felt was totally unnecessary since I’d been on the receiving end of domestic abuse and not on the other. Although the class turned out to be extremely valuable and positive for me, at the time it was ordered by the Judge, I was very angry about it.

Not long before this, I’d been fired from a job as a College President. I loved that job and, despite having been fired, I’d been very successful in it. In a world increasingly controlled by profit-oriented individuals, the college I was in charge of was seeing decreasing enrollments over a twelve-month period. I was sacked despite having posted record enrollments and revenues the previous year. I was angry about being fired.

My two children from my first marriage, with whom I only had visitation rights, were being raised by a man who clearly held nothing but disdain for me. I’d left the tribe by this time and had come to the conclusion that religion had no part in my life. The man my ex-wife married was an ultra-conservative Christian who, along with my Ex, fed my children half-truths (to be nice about it) that impacted the relationship I had with them. I was angry about that as well.

Anger breeds more suffering

Over the intervening years, as I gained needed distance from my former spouses, the husband, and the church in general, I came to understand my anger. Inside I was seething with resentment and brooding about lost opportunity; I was raging inside about the injustice of the court’s decision in my first divorce; I was developing hypertension and was headed for the cardiac care unit if I didn’t get a handle on my anger.

For me, anger led to resentment and depression. It became clear to me that my anger didn’t serve anyone. It prevented me from me from moving forward and it was resulting is two disease states: hypertension and obesity.

As I read more Buddhist literature and learned to meditate, I learned some important lessons about anger and about life in general:

Lesson One: The past is powerless over me

I learned that the past, as well as my attachment to the injustices and unfair actions of others, were really powerless, false enemies. I was angry at things that happened years before and my reason for hanging on to the anger generated by those memories kept me in both emotional and professional limbo.  I learned that unless I decide differently, the past has no real power.

The past is like the wake following a boat motoring upstream; it has no power over the boat.

Lesson Two: The present is everything

As I learned about the powerlessness of the past, I learned not to go there. Increasingly I was able to recognize when I was dipping into the wake of the past and how it took me out of the present moment. When I realized I was doing this, I’d stop, take a few deep cleansing breaths, and come back to the present. I saw how the present moment is all we really have…ever.

The past is only a memory and the future just a dream.

Lesson Three: I have the power to choose my state of mind

I learned that I had a choice; that my state of mind wasn’t the result of anything but my own choice. If I allowed anger to rule my life, despite feeling like it was my right, I was, in effect, choosing to be sad and resentful. By contrast, if I chose to be content with the present moment, I was instead choosing to be not sad and not resentful.

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. Within that space is the power to choose.

Loving What Is

I read a marvelous book by Byron Katie called Loving What Is. In this book, Katie asks four questions of those she works with in a therapeutic relationship. When the participant feels a certain negative state, their response to the following four questions often lead to a new understanding.

For example, if my ‘judgement’ of my Ex’s husband is: “My Ex’s husband was wrong for limiting my access to my children,” then I put the four questions to the test.

  1. Is it true? (Yes or No)
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or No, not in every situation.)
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? (I feel angry, my stomach churns, and I’m unhappy and feel depressed.)
  4. Who would you be without that thought? (I’d be happy, not depressed, not resentful.)

Turn the thought around – Turning the negative thought around to see if they are ‘more true’ than the original thought.

Instead of thinking “My Ex’s husband was wrong for limiting my access to my children,” how does it feel if I have the thought, “I am wrong for allowing it to happen.”  or “My Ex was wrong for allowing it to happen.”

Are these thoughts more true than my original thought?

Katie’s work helped me see that there are a multitude of other possibilities for any one negative thought or judgement. It helped me see that my anger was my something I chose to entertain and it had become a tether tying to me a negative state.

Untethering from Anger for Good

After experiencing how much better I felt as I worked through various judgements about people and the experiences in my life, I untethered from anger altogether. I still get frustrated at times with events and people in my life, but anger is not part of the equation.

Anger is a form of attachment and it’s supported by a desire for control.

Attachment to anything is the expression of our desire to control others and life itself. But because everything is impermanent and ever-changing, it’s a fallacy to think we can control anything.

So, when I feel myself getting frustrated with the way my teenaged son is behaving, I have to step back and realize that anger is not a solution. Frustration is a symptom that I’m disappointed in his choice of behaviors. I also realize that me being disappointed is a signal that I’m attached to a different behavior and should examine that behavior.

Untethering from the need to be angry is liberating. I no longer feel that I’m shackled to this unwanted ball and chain.

How To Untether from Anger

If you’ve experienced similar events in your life and feel that you have a right to be angry, I understand. I get that it feels like vindication sometimes to be angry and hold on to resentment. But if this post resonates with you, you have to see that anger is a form of attachment that is supported by an unrealistic desire for control.

Here are some steps to follow to help you untether from anger:

  1. Realize that anger is a symptom that you are strongly attached to a perceived outcome. That attachment is the real problem, not the other person’s behavior. Their behavior might be hurtful and I respect that, but the first problem yu need to examine is your level of attachment to the anticipated outcome.
  2. Identify the desire that is supporting your attachment. Desire for permanence in an impermanent universe is unrealistic. You must, at some point, embrace the concept that you cannot change this and any desire to do so will result in further suffering.
  3. Do ‘The Work’ on your judgments. Study the four questions to look objectively at your judgements about others.
  4. Compare your life with anger to one without it. When you’ve come to step in the process, you will make a wiser choice.

If I can help you with your need for untethering from anger, please get in touch. I’d be happy to help you untether from anger.

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