How can I stop being angry?

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Compassion and wisdom are like two wings, without which you cannot fly.  Each helps reduce anger, by increasing empathy and tolerance.

Anger is one of the most destructive emotions we have.  It gives rise to violence, both physical and mental.  It can spawn revenge, unkindness, deliberate deprivation, abuse of human rights, fighting, war.  It is the primary motivation behind so many things regarded as evil.

Often, it is only when the results of our anger have hurt ourselves, that we see how destructive it can be.  Humans have a habit of ignoring the pain of those who are distant from them.  So, when our wars kill people overseas, we are almost blind to it.  Even when our unkind words make other people’s lives difficult, we often turn a blind eye.

Fortunately, some people set about trying to rid themselves of anger.  The advantage of eliminating anger, or at least reducing it, is that it reduces suffering.

OUR BIOLOGICAL HERITAGE

There is some bad news.  This is that anger is built into our animal nature.  From early evolution, certain survival responses have been embedded in many animals.  The network of related reactions includes: recoil, repulsion, distaste, fear, anxiety, self-defence, territorial behaviour… essentially, we have developed an ability to distance ourselves from difficult things.  And anger, as we know it, is one of the linked responses which has become natural to us.

What does this mean?  It means that eliminating anger is a tricky task, because it is ingrained in our bodies.

OUR TRAINED POTENTIAL

The good news, on the other hand, is that most humans are trainable.  It is perfectly possible, through training and practice, to greatly reduce angry responses.

Although irritable behaviours are hardwired into us, they are not the only ways that our minds and bodies can function.

TWO MAIN METHODS FOR REDUCING ANGER

There are several ways of reducing our anger response, but I suggest they divide, roughly speaking, into two main types of method.  The first method is compassion.  The second method is wisdom.  Although these two methods act together, you may find you have a natural affinity for one or the other, depending on your circumstances and abiities.

USING COMPASSION

The first method for reducing anger is compassion.  This involves understanding, and empathising with, the lives of others, so that your mind understands easily and clearly the problems that they face, and feels on their side.

Anger involves a strong sense of separateness, and of selfishness.  In other words, when you are angry, you inevitably feel separate from the object of your anger, and become selfishly obsessed with protecting your own welfare, even at the expense of others.

If you can make an effort to immerse yourself in others’ experience, then you will feel less separate from them, and feel less need to defend yourself.

You might find it difficult to generate compassion, especially if you feel aggrieved against the object of your anger.  You may think to yourself: ‘They have hurt me, so why should I be kind to them?’  Certainly, if they are likely to hurt you or others in the near future, then you may want to take protective action.  But this does not mean you need to stay angry.

COMPASSION MEDITATION TO CONTROL ANGER

A simple way of cultivating compassion is to meditate on the object of your anger.

  1. Sit somewhere peacefully.  If you are a seasoned meditator, then do your usual preparation rituals.
  2. Hold in your mind the object of your anger.  If this is a person, then think about them.
  3. Try to imagine what their life is like, and the difficulties they face.  Try to forget yourself, and appreciate their suffering.
  4. Whenever you find yourself become angry, focus your attention away from yourself, and towards their suffering.
It can take decades to develop strong enough compassion to counter serious anger issues, but it is possible.

USING WISDOM

The second method for reducing anger is wisdom.  This involves understanding the arbitrary nature of opinion, and appreciating the fact that all viewpoints are essentially only a perspective.

Anger involves a strong sense of the rightness of one’s own position and perspective.  When you are angry, you are convinced that your viewpoint has special privileges.  You can see this in online arguments.  Each side becomes more and more insulting, as each person becomes more strongly convinced that their enemy does not have the right to respect.

Some people find it difficult to generate all-seeing wisdom, because they cannot find the spare space in their minds.  ‘Why should I see their point of view?’ they may think.  ‘I don’t have time.’  Certainly we need to ration our time well.  But if seeing other points of view makes us less angry and destructive, then it can be time well spent.

WISDOM MEDITATION TO CONTROL ANGER

A simple way of cultivating wisdom is to meditate on the emptiness of your own understanding.

  1. As above, sit somewhere peacefully.
  2. Hold in your mind something that you know makes you angry.
  3. Analyse your own reaction, watching it mindfully.
  4. Contemplate the essential emptiness of your viewpoint.  Appreciate it is only one view.
Just as with compassion, it can take decades to dissolve your own angry perspective.  Many people spend their whole lives, until death, unable to forgive or forget certain things.  But it is possible to forgive and forget even the worst of things, and create space in the mind again.

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SUMMARY

Anger is hugely destructive.  The bad news is it is ingrained in our animal nature.  But the good news is that we can train ourselves towards a more peaceful response.

Two key aspects of anger are (1) failure to appreciate the suffering of others, and (2) over-reliance on one’s own viewpoint.  To counteract these two elements, we can (1) meditate compassionately on others’ suffering, and (2) meditate thoughtfully on alternative viewpoints.

If we can train ourselves in this way, we can find ourselves becoming more peaceful as people, because we are less self-grasping, and less opinionated.

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