Anger and Vengeance from the “JuBuSto” Perspective
Ronald Pies MD
In my last posting, I discussed my ongoing project, “The Three-Petalled Rose,” and its foundational premise that Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism have many features, in common. I coined the somewhat clunky term, “JuBuSto” as a condensation of these three great traditions. In the last posting, I suggested that compassion is at the core of Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism. I’d now like to suggest that the elimination of anger and vengeance is also a shared “JuBuSto” value.
Buddhism understands anger (vyapada) as the result of our natural human tendency to “identify” with external events and their associated emotions. For example, somebody cuts you off in traffic, and you feel your heart pounding and your head throbbing. If someone were to ask you how you feel at that moment, you would probably say, “I am angry!” But Buddhism teaches us that, by linking “I” and “angry” with a form of the verb “to be,” you are basically saying that you and the anger are one.
The Buddhist teacher, B. Alan Wallace (in Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up) suggests that if you “attend” to the anger rather than identifying with it, the anger will dissipate. That is, you can say to yourself, “Aha, the event of anger has arisen again!” This separation of you from the anger and the inciting event gives you a kind of cognitive “breathing room.” This separation maneuver requires you to exercise “mindfulness”–and you may recall that the seventh stage on Buddhism’s “Eightfold Path” is called, “Right Mindfulness.” Anger arises when we fail to exercise right mindfulness. But when we make use of this faculty, we find ourselves suddenly “freed up”. For example, you can choose whether to ignore the obnoxious driver; chase him down; take down his license number; or put on the radio to distract yourself. Furthermore, as Wallace points out, for anger to persist, it needs to be “fed.” You might, for example, keep your anger alive by imagining all the nasty things you’d love to do to avenge yourself against that guy who cut you off. Or, you can stop focusing on those revenge fantasies, and shift your attention to something else.
There is a wonderful mental exercise that the Buddha prescribes, for times when we feel overcome by anger. As paraphrased from the writing of the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh (in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching), the exercise has five stages:
- Recognition: Saying to yourself, “I know that anger is in me.”
- Acceptance: You “own” your anger and do not deny it.
- Embracing: You imagine that you are cradling your anger in your arms, the way a mother cradles a baby.
- Looking deeply: You try to understand what brought about your anger.
- Insight: You begin to see that there were many causes and conditions for your anger, and many reasons why the “baby” is crying out.
This exercise may seem like an elaborate variation on the old saw, “Count to ten when you’re angry!” But it clearly goes much deeper—it is a way of realizing that when we become angry, we are failing to understand that its root causes are ultimately within us. Anger arises because we are not exercising “right mindfulness.” Similarly, Buddhism sees vengeance as another failure to realize right mindfulness.
Judaism and Stoicism also take a rather dim view of anger, particularly when it reaches the level of rage and subsequent vengeance. (Dissatisfaction over injustice is a different and more complicated matter, but suffice it to say, none of the three traditions counsels apathy or inaction in the face of genuine injustice). The Talmud warns that “The person who loses his temper forgets his learning, and…gradually becomes more and more foolish.” “Anger,” the rabbis continue, “deprives the sage of his wisdom, [and] a prophet of his vision.” Yet the rabbis understood how difficult it is to suppress our anger, much less not to feel it in the first place. The Talmud teaches that “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty…” (Pirke Avot 4:1). Notice, though, that the Rabbis of the Talmud did not expect us to eliminate anger entirely. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that even God Himself prays that He will restrain his wrath! God says, ‘May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy…”
The Stoics, too, understood the futility of anger. In one of his letters, the Roman philosopher Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) asks, “What’s the use of overcoming opponent after opponent in the wrestling or boxing rings, if you can be overcome by your temper?” Seneca also reminds us that we often become angry over the most trivial events; e.g., “Because you are given a less honorable place at the table, you begin to get angry at your host…What difference does it make on what part of the couch you recline? Can a cushion add either to your honor or your disgrace?” (On Anger).
In short—like cognitive-behavioral forms of psychotherapy–all three traditions call upon us to examine and “re-think” our anger. To do that, however, we must first become “mindful” of our own emotions. Once we understand the nature of our anger, we are faced with the choice of what we “do” with it—especially when we are tempted to wreak vengeance on someone we blame. Thich Nhat Hanh provides an intriguing suggestion. “Instead of trying to punish the other person,” he says, “offer him exactly what he needs. The practice of giving can bring you to the shore of well-being very quickly.”
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