The following article was adapted from a talk by Toni Packer on Day 5 of the September 1998 retreat.
Let’s talk about anger. Everyone experiences it at one time or another. Can something be done about anger?
A retreatant reported experiencing lots of energy during sittings, mostly generated by feeling angry about the sitting itself. Thoughts were running about wasting her time here while there was so much work to do at home. “What should I do with all this energy? At times I feel like screaming! Is it all right to scream?”
We have all agreed to maintain outward silence during retreats. Screams are disturbing. If one really feels like screaming that’s OK, but maybe one can find a ravine in the woods where it would not impact others. But it’s a good question, what to do with powerful energy like anger. My immediate response to the questioner was, “Let it be awareness! Awareness is energy!”
Years ago a man came to see me before applying for retreat, asking if it would be all right to express anger during a meeting. I said it was all right. So one day he entered the meeting room with a tense, flushed face, asking if he could vent his anger at me right then and there. I nodded, and quietly asked: “Have you ever looked at it directly?” No answer came just a charged silence. We sat wordlessly for what seemed to be an eternity, and then he burst out laughing: “It doesn’t have to be expressed!” When a powerfully driving emotion gives way to simple awareness, it is like a miracle. What emerged from awareness wasn’t screams, but laughter and insight.
Psychological theories about what to do with anger abound and change with time. I do not know if anger should be expressed or shouldn’t be. The fact is that we do get angry, and it expresses itself instantly, verbally as well as non-verbally, throughout the body. So what is this anger? Can we go beyond the question, “What should I do with it?” and beyond answers like, “I should feel it in my body, or I should express it verbally, physically, or I ought to control it.”
There is plenty to feel when we’re angry. It mobilizes the entire organism, mentally and physically no single cell remains unaffected. Storylines run wildly, keeping the agitation going. Can we feel all these amazing physical and mental manifestations without resistance? If resistance is there, then feel it, look at it. Don’t try to shut it down by telling yourself that it is dangerous to experience anger, or try to convince yourself that we are wholly justified in what we are feeling. We really don’t know. Every thought, every judgment about it intensifies confusion and agitation! Can simple awareness shed light, create space?
Trace anger as it is happening! Why am I getting angry? What is at the base of it? Can it be irradiated with attention? By looking at it, questioning it, observing it in the light of the question, what reveals itself is that we function in rigid patterns that do not want to be interrupted. Memory structures in the brain and throughout the body about how we are, how things ought to be, what is right and what is wrong keep us functioning fairly smoothly, but when they are interfered with, anger results.
These memory structures are wired into us from day one. Even an infant, who does not yet understand the spoken word, understands judgments conveyed by mother’s and father’s voice, eyes, and touch. What brings smiles, warmth, and protection is good, is right, is worth repeating over and over again. What brings rejection, hardness, sadness, or pain is bad, wrong, must be avoided. So, from early on, memory structures solidify organismically about what is right and what is wrong to do, to be, to feel, to think, to say. Schools, churches, and daily living together reinforce these structures. What we want and what has given us pleasure becomes the dominating pattern that needs to be maintained, incessantly fulfilled, and defended against disturbance.
When what we want is interfered with or thwarted, or when somebody transgresses what is deeply felt to be right, the energy that keeps the system intact explodes. “What they did was wrong!!! How dare they!” I could see something like this happening in our grandchildren. Our little grandson was quite obedient, having learned through punishment and reward what his parents felt to be right and wrong, what to do and what not to do, and, above all, what not to touch. Several years later when his little sister came toddling along, playing with the buttons on the stereo that he had painfully learned to leave alone, he would get furious with her, slapping her little hands. He could not tolerate seeing her do what for him had become a rigid pattern of “No!” Anger was the result of the disturbance. And so it is with all of us. Observing someone do what the brain has encoded as wrong triggers an eruption of energy that wants to keep the pattern intact. It feels as though we had been personally injured.
I have been wondering about this for a long time: why do we get angry when someone else acts in a “stupid” way? What reveals itself upon examination is that we easily feel irritated toward somebody who “doesn’t get it,” like a parent or schoolteacher getting exasperated at a child. This sort of anger isn’t questioned very much it seems justifiable. We feel righteous anger toward those whose ways are in collision with our own. Can we question this deeply?
I remember feeling uncomfortable at the Zen Center when we recited the precept not to become angry. How could we make this vow, knowing full well that we would become angry again? And then get angry about having transgressed a vow! I also wondered about the teacher’s saying that there were appropriate, righteous angers not included in the vow. What is anger? This was my query, tracing it to its very foundation. Why do we get angry? Not making explanations or excuses or accusations, but watching directly what is actually taking place. Why do we keep on being angry, what maintains the agitated mood after the explosion has happened? Does it necessarily have to continue for any length of time?
We may assume that we continue being angry because of a deep reservoir of rage established within us over time that can only be depleted over time. But I have actually observed that physical agitation dissipates amazingly fast if the personalized picture story about what has happened to us is clearly seen as story, and is understood as the culprit that keeps the anger burning. With ever-fresh insight the brain can actually cease composing agitating scenarios, abstaining wisely from picturing ourselves as sacrificial victims of other peoples’ stupidity or meanness. Without clear insight, incendiary storylines keep running, fueling the anger time and time again.
With insight we may realize that there exists a tenacious attachment to our stories and to the resulting anger. We actually feel good in this powerful release, even though remorse may set in when the storyline changes: “After this they won’t like me anymore!” But, it is an ever-amazing discovery that emotions can dissipate when the story is seen and ends in the seeing. Some physical sensations may linger for a while, but need not become a problem. Watch the stories and let them go! The body has an amazing ability to establish harmony when left alone.
You may be thinking right now, “Aren’t there situations in which we ought to stand up for what is right, feel outrage against exploitation or abuse?” I do not know what we ought to feel, ought to do. Establishing oughts and trying to live by them doesn’t lead to insight into what is. What does happen when we are exploited, abused, humiliated, made fun of, or when we see it happening to others?
We have never learned a wise way to deal deeply with this stuff because we are so used to either putting up with it, suffering from it, fighting it, or exploding over it. Either we continue darkly in our conditioned patterns, or there is an awakening of interest in what is going on for all of us, the abuser as well as the abused. This has nothing to do with sanctioning hurtful behavior, excusing it, or allowing it to continue.
Can we simply behold each other as we are from moment to moment? See ourselves, see everyone, as results of millennia old conditioned patterns which have rigidly governed our behavior even though we do not consciously want it to be so? Not just an intellectual understanding of this, but direct insight into the power of our overwhelmingly strong conditioning. Then, maybe, we can begin to question things together and communicate with each other in a new, intelligent, and compassionate way. Anger, with its chemical toxins, is not conducive to clearly examining and investigating. On the contrary, it spells confusion in the mind.
What is needed is unpolluted looking into what is happening for all of us. Out of clear insight comes the energy to act in a clear way. Such action is difficult for us because we are so heavily conditioned in our patterns of reacting that we are not even cognizant of them most of the time. But that is not an immutable state of affairs. There can be ever-increasing awareness of how we react and how others react to us because of our reactions to them. We are all entangled together in chain reactions! Bring them to light! Realize that when you talk to someone with an angry demeanor they are likely to respond in kind, triggering further irritation in you and, then again, you in them, and on and on.
Most of us are scared of people who are angry, shouting, attacking, blaming. Out of fear, we respond angrily ourselves. This immediately touches memories of our childhood, years of helplessness and utter dependence on adults who often exploded in incomprehensible ways. Fear of angry people makes us not want to be near them it is too upsetting, too intimidating. So, turning it around again, can we question, while we are angry, whether we are actually upsetting and intimidating other people? Maybe we don’t really want to upset other people. A moment of clarity and insight brings astonishing sensitivity and care.
As a child I was very scared of my mother’s anger, particularly when it was vented against my brother or the cook or nanny. I was deeply attached to all of them. My brother was often sullen, moody, obstinate, and did poorly in his schoolwork. I felt excruciating pain every time he was scolded, punished, or humiliated. Later, in my teens, I told my mother that I had been afraid of her anger all my life. She was visibly shocked. She didn’t realize at all that I could have felt that way. It obviously did not fit the image she had of herself.
Memories now arise of times when I was not afraid of mother. We would sometimes go together into town to do shopping. We often walked quite a distance, and she would hold my hand, and it was such a wonderfully happy feeling. Sometimes I would arrange my small hand in hers in a special way, and she would go along with it. One time we were walking through a department store, passing through many narrow isles with merchandise tables left and right, and I felt my mother’s deep sadness, looking for something she couldn’t find.
Just to complete that story, we visited my parents in Switzerland after I was married. One day I saw my mother in the dining room alone, looking toward me, and suddenly there was just this beautiful woman standing there without any images. So much love in this moment without images. No feeling that I had to be anything she may have thought of me. It was completely natural. From that moment on, our relationship changed.
So, can we have infinite patience with our own anger and the anger of others? Can our habitual reactions for or against someone be replaced with a wondering awareness that does not know? Can we try to understand each other on the deepest level, without images? We are the only laboratories for unfolding this understanding anger wells up in all of us. Why? Not that it shouldn’t, but just WHY? Let it reveal itself fully in awareness beyond limitation.