Don't get mad, get mindful!

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(This reproduced article is taken from Eastern Horizon, December 2000 Issue No. 3)

The next time you become angry, note it! By noting, I mean become fully aware of the anger quickly – if possible, instantly – by acknowledging that anger has arisen. Mentally say: “Anger, anger,” or “I am feeling angry,” or “Anger has risen in me.” Or if you do not wish to label as such, just know and observe the anger as it is.

Observe the feeling. How does it feel? Could it be one of these: Heart pounding, veins in the head throbbing, nostrils flaring, tightness or constriction in the chest or stomach; suffocating, choking; feeling flushed, blood “boiling”; feeling about to burst or explode; feeling a great tension in both mind and body?

Then watch your mind, too. What sorts of thoughts are coursing through your head? You may be screaming at the person in your head, thinking violent and angry thoughts. Thoughts of hitting back, of hurting, of making him (or her) pay. It is interesting to watch our mind and body, isn't it? – how we react and respond, how we get all worked up and ruffled.

As you observe the anger, perhaps you will realize how you are only hurting yourself and causing yourself much suffering by losing your cool. And you will probably realise, too, how unskillful or silly it was of you to get so angry since it won't do you or your heart any good!

You might be surprised that by just noting and observing your anger in this manner, the emotion becomes weaker rather than stronger. This is because you have “caught” the anger by being aware of it. If you are not mindful of it arising, it will surely run its normal course, with you giving vent to anger – and probably regretting it when the anger is all spent and it's too late for you to do anything about it.

Another reason why mindfulness can help check anger is that it diverts your attention from the person (or thing or situation) you are angry with to the anger itself. If you continue to focus on the person that has provoked your anger, you will only get angrier: You might glare or stare daggers at the person, and you might start verbally abusing him, or yelling at him or her. And, of course, in extreme cases an angry person might physically assault another.

So by diverting your attention from the person to the emotion of anger itself, you are helping yourself to cool down. It is like you are now dousing out the fire in your own house instead of chasing after the person who had set fire to it. So actually you are being smart and skilful by turning inwards in this way.

Now, there is a school of thought that maintained that anger should not be bottled up but should be expressed. They contend that suppression of anger can create illness in the body. But then expressing the anger is harmful, too. It can hurt both body and mind, too. So expressing the anger, that is,s letting it out, snapping, shouting and yelling and so on, is also not the solution. According to the Buddha, it is better to control or suppress anger than to express it, even if we have to make a forceful effort to curb it. But an important point to mention here is that mindfulness is neither suppression nor expression. It is mere observation and acknowledgement. You observe the anger as it is, you closely examine its effects on your mind and body at the very moment it arises or is present. And in so doing, lo and behold, you find that the anger can actually dissipate and dissolve. First it will weaken, then with a little effort and wise reflection, it could be further curbed and eliminated.

From mindfulness to reflection

So as you become mindful of the anger, you can also check it through wise reflection. Think: What good does getting angry do? Am I not hurting both myself and others? Is anger the only way out of this situation, the only solution? Is it the response of a mature or wise person? Is there no other skilful way of responding to this situation?

Why should I allow another person to upset my mind in this way? Won't it be better to tame and conquer my own mind than to conquer that of another? Did not the Buddha say that self-conquest is the highest conquest?

You could also reflect on how the other person feels: Will he not lose respect for me or think less of me for losing my temper? And even if I were to apologise to him later, what if he cannot forgive me or, if he does, what if he cannot forget? Will our relationship be irreparably damaged because of these few moments of anger, because of my not being able to control myself at this moment, because of my losing my temper?

You could even look at the situation this way: If the other person intended to provoke me, won't I, by becoming angry, fall into his trap? Or you could try another tact: Think about the good qualities of the other person, how he may have helped you before. Or even if he may not have helped you much, you could think about his kindness to others – perhaps he has helped a lot of other people, too. When you consider his goodness, you might think less badly of him and you might then cool down. To give an example, if a person is annoyed with his parents, if he were to think of all his parents' love and kindness for him, all the sacrifices they have made for him, he would surely want to overcome his anger and cultivate love for his folks.

There are other wise ways of reflecting to check that red haze: Consider what you look like when you are angry. If you were to whip out a mirror and look at your face when you are angry, you might be horrified to see how wild and terrible you look! Consider that according to the law of kamma, anger is a cause for ugliness in your future rebirths. And why should this be surprising when you consider that even in this very life, anger has the immediate result of distorting our features.

Even thoughts of death can check anger. Just consider: Life is too short for us to get upset in this way. If we know that we are going to die tomorrow, would we still want to get mad in this way? Is it not better to live at peace with oneself and others?

Consider also why anger arises? Is it not because of our identification with a self or an ego? Is it not pride that makes us think we are somebody, so how come this person does not respect us / how dare he insult us? Realising that conceit, pride and ego are the roots of our anger, we might learn to let go of our attachment to the ego and learn nor to get upset when we are offended. Really, sometimes it is good to be insensitive in certain ways, such as not being able to be angry, no matter what.

Then consider also the virtue of patience. Patience means not getting angry. Whenever we are provoked or tested, we can tell ourselves this is the time for us to practise patience. The person taunting us is our tester. Will we pass the test or not? If we lose our temper, then we have failed. If we don't, we have passed the test of patience. Make non-anger your priority, such that you rather not succeed in something and keep your cool, rather than accomplish something but vented your anger in the process.

So there you are – you can think and reflect in various ways – in fact, in any way you know how – as long as it helps check anger.

Good vibes

Another wonderful way of reducing anger is to practise metta or loving-kindness meditation. What you do is radiate thoughts of love and goodwill to all those around you.

You can recite mentally again and again: “May all beings be happy. May they be free from harm and danger. May they be free from mental suffering, free from physical suffering and be able to take care of themselves happily. May they be peaceful, healthy, wise, enlightened,” etc. You can put it in your own words, coin your own well-wishing phrases for others. You can radiate the good wishes to a particular person or to all beings in general.

What's wonderful is that you can practise loving-kindness meditation anytime, anywhere – not only in a formal sitting meditation posture but also while walking about or doing things, or when you are caught in a traffic jam, or simply waiting anywhere. While no one may know that you are radiating good thoughts, in your heart you will know that you are wishing others well. And, who knows, others might actually feel your positive mental vibrations and feel better! One should not under-estimate the power of the mind: our mental vibrations can and do affect the environment around us. Furthermore, as you make it a habit to radiate goodwill, others may also feel more kindly disposed towards you.

Practising loving-kindness meditation frequently can weaken the root of anger in us. You'll find to your surprise and delight that you won't get angry so easily anymore, you'll have more patience and tolerance and even empathy and compassion for others.

The world can surely do with less anger, hatred and violence. Checking your anger will contribute to a kinder and better world. May all beings everywhere be well and happy. May they live in peace and harmony. May they be fully enlightened and liberated from suffering.

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Visuddhacara has been practising Vipassana (Insight) meditation since 1982. He was a journalist and later a Theravada bhikkhu for some years. He is presently teaching meditation and Buddhism as a lay person. This article first appeared in the Lifestyle section of The Star online on June 28, 2000. It had been further revised by (then, Venerable) Visuddhacara for the December 2000 Issue No. 3 of Eastern Horizon.