When anger becomes the mood of human societies, the quality of fire (or the primitive and destructive intent of the frustrated ego) invades the plane of humanity. That fire is expressed as all of the aggression and competitiveness of humankind, including all of the ego-based politics of confrontation. And that ego-fire is, finally, summarized in the acts of war…. The fiction of separateness—and the denial of the universal characteristic of prior unity—is a mind-based illusion, a lie, a terribly deluding force, and a profoundly and darkly negative act.
—Adi Da, Not-Two Is Peace
The only means for realization of Truth is Ahimsa….I must reduce myself to zero.
—M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth
Philosophically, existentially, and spiritually, there used to be an East and a West on this planet—a Western (Occidental) and an Eastern (Oriental) way of living and viewing life. However, the cultural globalization of the past century nearly reversed these psychospiritual polarities. No longer does a person need to go to Tibet for enlightenment: The West has been churning out its own lamas and gurus with the same production intensity as it once did with Model Ts. And yet it still makes sense to speak of the difference between the Eastern and Western worldviews, particularly in the context of anger management. The Eastern, or mindfulness-based know-how of anger management, is a rich and still largely untapped goldmine of therapeutic ideas. I wish to offer you a cursory review of some Eastern techniques that hold much clinical promise. Some of these methods are readily recognizable (e.g., vipassana). Others (e.g., syādvāda) are essentially unheard of. Consider this post as a kind of flea market of potential anger management ideas and tools. Enjoy rummaging.
One of the shiniest little trinkets on this Eastern bazaar of self-regulation is, of course, vipassana meditation. A common psychological souvenir of Eastern equanimity, vipassana meditation has become essentially synonymous with the concept of mindfulness and has been repeatedly rubber stamped for safe clinical use by the Western customs control of empirical validation. Vipassana means “insight.” “Insight into what?” you might ask. Insight into the nature of the mind and into the nature of reality. Reality—whether inside or outside—is fluid, ever-changing, dynamic, and variable. Put differently, reality is impermanent. So, how does vipassana meditation accomplish this insight into the impermanence of existence? Through breath awareness. By watching breath, a practitioner rather quickly becomes aware of the ebb and flow of one’s experience: Sensations come and go, thoughts come and go, feelings come and go, impulses come and go, attention wanders and returns, all passes. Before too long, it dawns on us that everything is like that! With this insight comes a certain liberation from the world of form, a profound lifting of the veil, a seeing of reality “as is.” Naturally, this philosophical nonchalance is accompanied by a certain emotional distancing, by a certain letting go and nonattachment. This essentially metacognitive distancing is a useful antidote to anger.
Here is one of my favorite descriptions of mindfulness from Asokananda (aka Harold Brust) that highlights, among other things, the impulse control value of mindfulness meditation:
You are going out of your house. Nobody is at home. You lock the door. In your living room, a tape recorder is running. The telephone rings. The ringing is recorded on the tape. Somebody is ringing the doorbell. That also will be registered by the tape recorder. Someone is in front of the door and shouts your name. The tape recorder registers the shouting. It registers, and registers, and registers…. But the tape recorder doesn’t react. It doesn’t answer the phone call. It doesn’t open the door. And, what is even more important, the tape recorder doesn’t judge whether the caller in front of your door is a friend or somebody whom you rather wouldn’t welcome. The tape recorder only states the simple fact of telephone ringing, doorbell ringing, shouting, etc. This in simple form is the principle of vipassana, which the Buddha in his sermon on mindfulness, said is the only path to realization. It is the principle of bare observation. (1993, p. 19)
The Eastern view of anger is that it is a mental affliction, an impurity of consciousness, an obscuration of awareness. Vipassana meditation, thus, doesn’t just offer control of anger—it offers a process of informational purification from anger and, more importantly, a kind of preventive perceptual filter for not getting emotionally hijacked in the future. This perceptual filter is the idea that “this too shall pass.” For that reason, there is no need to control the impulse of anger—it’s already on the way out. The river of the mind takes care of its own psychological garbage, moving the experiential debris of our reactions down the stream of time. When reality rings your name, awareness is enough of an answer (most of the time). So, do not walk past this Eastern bauble of wisdom—you and your clients can get a lot of anger management mileage out of this ancient invitation to sit down and stay for a moment.
Samadhi, according to James Austin, the author of Zen and the Brain, is “a slippery subject.” It is a “word so many-sided that it poses major semantic problems. It suffers in translation, as will anyone who tries to tag it with but one meaning. Some render it as ‘concentration,’ others as ‘absorption,’ still others as ‘trance,’ ‘stillness,’ … I reserve the term for complex states of extraordinary absorption” (2001, pp. 473–474). Samadhi comes from samatha, which translates as “calming down, cooling down.” Depending on the school of meditative thought, the practice of samatha is an aspect of vipassana or a precondition for it or a by-product of it. At any rate, samatha and vipassana go hand in hand. Whereas vipassana is a kind of open-ended, unfocused attention, the practice of samatha is a form of attention training, a concentration practice, a specific focusing and deployment of the mind with the explicit purpose of calming yourself down.
So, there’s another little jewel of bottom-up (somatically focused) emotional self-regulation for you from the Eastern swap meet of psychological know-how. It goes without saying that it is perfectly suited for anger management objectives. How does this widget of self-regulation work? Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) is one way to operate it. Mantras— cues used for focusing—are another way. Chanting would be yet another path. The bottom line here is that you do whatever you need to do to calm down your mind, to still the torrential flow of your mindstream, to tame the flame of consciousness. All of this is, of course, a crude oversimplification of this method. The real explanation of it is to be only understood experientially.
What else do we have here in this yard sale of wisdom? Well, I can tell you this much: If you grab a handful of books about Eastern philosophy, you won’t have to flip through too many pages before you stumble upon the idea of ahimsa, an oldie but goodie. Ahimsa is an ancient Indian doctrine of nonviolence. (The word means “no harm.”) Jains (pre-Vedic Indian atheists) were the first to come up with this ethical dictum. It was the Jains who invented vegetarianism. It was the Jains who first promoted the idea of respecting all sentient life. Ahimsa is not a technique but an ideology. It’s a philosophical platform of nonviolence. Nonviolence is, in and of itself, a form of courage—a very Eastern form of courage. To the Western eye, nonviolence seems like passivity, like cowardice, like surrender. Fact is, it’s anything but that. In the context of anger management, ahimsa is a powerful pacifist antidote to the attitudinal axioms that drive the hot thinking of anger mentality. One way to think of ahimsa is that it is a kind of philosophical empathy training, a conceptual foundation for cultivating love, acceptance, and compassion for the world in which we live. So my advice to you, weary picker of ideas, is do not walk past this ancient philosophical genie in a bottle. When this particular cork pops, you become drunk with love and the envy of the angry mind that only dreams of such intimacy with the world at large.
Metta meditation is a big psychospiritual import from the East. Metta means loving-kindness, benevolence, friendliness, love, compassion, amity, kindness, and goodwill. As a meditation, metta is a form of active imagination in which you expand the radius of your compassion from self to a person of significance, to someone neutral, then on to someone difficult (e.g., someone at whom you might be pissed off) and eventually to the whole human tribe and all the sentient beings and even the whole universe. Whereas the other meditative technologies from the East are mind opening, metta is about opening your heart. It’s more than empathy training: It’s a training in love. An angry mind is a love school dropout. Metta meditation is just the right remedial course of clinical retraining.
Mantras are the chewing gum of Eastern self-regulation. By filling our mouths with soulful sounds, syllables, and words, mantras fill our minds with psychologically transformative ideas. In the context of anger management, think of mantras as snacks of calmness for the mind or as cue-conditioned self-regulation or as praying to the gods of mental health. Mantras are intuitively simple and straightforward. As such, mantra use is a quick and easy awareness-building and habit-modifying coping technology of the East, easily customizable for anger management purposes.
Lama Surya Das defines tonglen as “giving and receiving”—“a breathing meditation that exchanges self for others”—and adds that it is part of the Mahayana “attitude transformation tradition” (2005, p. 102). Sounds familiar, right? Indeed, tonglen is a kind of ancient attributional retraining by way of active breath-focused imagery.
Memes are informational genes—ideas that get passed on, infect the collective mind, and, if useful, survive from generation to generation. “Beginner’s mind” is one such meme, one such cutesy jingle you might overhear when shopping around the philosophical East. Beginner’s mind is a simple idea that calls on us to open our mind to learning the way a beginner would. And who’s the teacher, the mentor, the guru here? Reality, of course. Reality issues updates about itself every moment if we care to notice. Beginner’s mind is a reminder call that our sense of certainty is illusory. As such, “beginner’s mind” is a form of knowing patience, a patience to know, a patience to undergo a process of knowing. An angry mind is usually an expert’s mind, a mind that insists on knowing that it knows. A beginner’s mind, on the contrary, is a mind of a wise novice, a mind of calm inquiry—a perfect antidote to the certainty-obsessed mind of anger.
One of the pleasant side effects of shopping at an Eastern market is a lingering smell you bring back on your clothes. Usually, it’s the smell of spices. Koans— zesty Zen Buddhist riddles—are a kind of spice for the mind. Psychologically speaking, koans are a unique way to inoculate a human mind to the frustration of uncertainty. Uncertainty and ambiguity can be infuriating! When an angry mind encounters uncertainty, it is first stumped and then enraged. Uncertainty frustrates us with its enigmatic nonsense. Koans, in their unanswerable quality, effectively simulate such moments of uncertainty. If we take on a koan, we soon realize that there is no solution, and we settle into a beginner’s mind. This is a moment of epistemological humility: It prompts you to accept your limitations, which is, of course, counter to how an angry mind operates. An angry mind can’t stand not knowing: It clings to certainty. Thus, the potential anger management value of koan work is frustration tolerance training and an epistemological reality check. Koan work resets the expectations for clarity and certainty and in so doing preempts frustration and anger. Koan work teaches how to let go of the unknown instead of angrily banging your head against it. It is a big precedent for the angry certainty junkies among us. As such, a touch of koan training—as part of anger management—is a simple yet intriguing way to humble a mind on fire.
The breathing know-how of the East is bewildering in its nuance and complexity. The great variety of yogic breathing is—excuse the pun— breathtaking. Pranayama is a form of controlled breathing. Pranayama needs little if any introduction in the yoga-crazed West. Howard Benson has been hard at work popularizing the psychosomatic benefits of this ancient Eastern self-regulation know-how. But as is often the case with common psychological goods, they tend to be taken for granted and underutilized. So grab yourself this all-too-familiar souvenir of the Eastern equanimity, just in case, as you shop for exotic anger management ideas. Pranayama is full of hidden layers for you and your client to explore. And it makes a good stocking stuffer: It’s hard to go wrong with breath focus training when working with anger.
Wuwei is a non-coercive relationship with the world that “allows us to leave the world as it is” (Ames & Hall, 2003, p. 44). Wuwei is an attitude of acceptance, a going with the flow that allows you to establish a “frictionless equilibrium” with reality (p. 40). Incorporating this Daoist platform into anger management is tricky. You get a lot of blowback from the angry folks: They see wuwei as passivity and cowardice. It isn’t. Ames and Hall explain:
Wuwei [is] often translated (unfortunately) as “no-action” or “non- action,” [but it] really involves the absence of any course of action that interferes with the particular focus of those things contained within one’s field of influence. (p. 39)
Wuwei is not passivity. Wuwei is the wisdom of not controlling that which cannot be controlled. We already know that by way of the serenity prayer, don’t we? So, as Eastern as it sounds to a Western mind, this idea is anything but foreign.
Wuzhi is a related Daoist attitude. Wuzhi is a kind of “unprincipled knowing.” Sounds unethical, doesn’t it? But it’s not about ethics—it’s about epistemology again. Wuzhi is:
the acceptance of the world on its own terms without recourse to rules of discrimination that separate one sort of thing from another. Rules of thumb, habits of mind and action, established customs, fixed standards, received methods, stipulated concepts and categories, commandments, principles, laws of nature, conventions—all of these prejudices require us to intervene [with reality], resulting in … a “hardening of the categories.” (p. 41)
Wuzhi, then, is an encounter with here-and-now reality without the referencing of any prior knowledge or prior categories and without making any sweeping generalizations about the future of reality. Wuzhi-like knowledge of reality is always moment specific, local in scope, and, thus, unprincipled, unmediated, immediate, intimate, and fresh. Just like wuwei disposition, wuzhi attitude is an antidote to frustrated know-it-all anger that insists that reality is wrong just because it does not conform to one’s expectations that are based on the past experience or future projections. Wuzhi, koan work, and syādvāda constitute a kind of epistemological fine- tuning of the angry mind.
Samma vaca is Buddhist for “right speech,” the third of the eight precepts of the Noble Eightfold Path. Speech can unite, or it can divide. Buddhist practice calls for kind speech, or non-divisive speech (i.e., speech that does not divide). When it comes down to the art of communication, all kinds of things matter: Timing matters, not lying matters, clarity matters, relevance matters. But what matters the most, according to the principle of samma vaca, is good intent, the intent of goodwill behind speech. Donald Altman, in his book The Mindfulness Code: Keys for Overcoming Stress, Anxiety, Fear, and Unhappiness, explains the latter: “To speak with goodwill … means to speak with intention and from the heart” (2010, p. 249). In other words, to speak with goodwill means to speak mindfully and consciously, to choose to speak and not just run our mouths in anger, to speak from the heart—with warmth, in a manner that “fosters friendship and deepens understanding” without judgment and blaming. Altman sums it up well: “Speaking in this way doesn’t mean you can’t be assertive, but it does mean that you avoid bullying and aggressive language.” Altman’s advice is to keep reflecting on our verbal conduct and misconduct and to be kind with our own selves if we feel we had verbally transgressed. Kindness begets kindness.
We are almost at the end of our browsing: We’ve been all around this Eastern bazaar of ideas. But let us not leave just yet. There are just a couple more psychological curios to examine. One of them is the meme neti, which is Sanskrit for “not this,” and the accompanying phrase, “neti, neti,” which means “Not this, not that.” “Neti, neti” is a mantra of disidentification. It allows you to realize that you are not your false self, you are not your public self, you are not your reputation or your circumstance or what you have or don’t have. The “neti, neti” mantra allows you to know what you are by knowing what you are not. As such, this mantra of disidentification immunizes the mind against a variety of symbolic threats. Some of the most common triggers for anger are disrespect, disapproval, and invalidation from others. Realizing that you are not others’ thoughts about you, that you are not others’ attitude toward you goes a long way in diffusing and even preventing anger from common interpersonal frictions. In my 2010 book, Lotus Effect, I talk about a so-called informational detox, a process of shedding suffering and rediscovering an invulnerable sense of self. This kind of work is particularly well suited to anger management, because angry folks tend to be easily wounded and vulnerable, despite their abrasive facades.
Sometimes when you walk around an Eastern bazaar, you might suddenly stumble upon an item of militaria—perhaps a samurai sword or a Kalashnikov. One such philosophical bazooka is the Eastern doctrine of nonduality. You can pretty much forget about importing that into anger management, except for that elite intellectualizing client who is narcissistically opposed to any simple solution. So, if it’s a “complexity to the rescue” kind of situation—one of those situations in which you have to first impress a narcissistic mind with a lofty discourse before you are allowed the privilege of helping him or her— then a presentation of the nonduality doctrine as an antidote to fear and, thus, anger might be in order. I’ll let Jerry Katz (2007) explain what this is: “Nonduality is the experience of our true nature, the taste of being. But when we try to describe what this true nature is, the written word often falls short” (p. 3). Well, that didn’t stop Katz from writing the book on nonduality, One: Essential Writings on Nonduality. And I am glad he did.
And it won’t stop the fool that I am from trying to explain how nonduality fits in with anger management. The basic idea is that subjectively, we live in a world of plurality—a world of multitudes, a world of Many. We seem to be surrounded by people and objects, and we understandably feel separate (individual) from this perceived mess. Well, as the nonduality literature suggests, sometimes you get to experience yourself not as separate from all that is but as being one with it all.
These experiences of oneness are a powerful antidote to fear and pretty much render anger spiritually and philosophically pointless. If, indeed, you are convinced that all is one, then by whom are you to be threatened? Of whom are you to be afraid? Against whom are you to angrily defend yourself if there is not even a you as a stand-alone entity? While I myself have been chasing this state through meditation (and have possibly approximated it once or twice), I have come to realize that merely understanding that reality is logically a boundless oneness can be quite useful in the context of anger management. When you think it through all the way to oneness, the realization that all logically has to be one pulls the rug from underneath the angry mind.
Is this feasible for therapy? Yes, particularly in the context of philosophical counseling. In my experience, this idea of oneness is generally well received and can trigger a microepiphany. But even if it doesn’t, the mere explication of the logic of nonduality provides a powerful conceptual support for a nonviolent worldview (such as ahimsa). Furthermore, such basic ideas as “you are not apart from this world, you are a part of this world” or “all is interconnected” can, if only for a moment, allow a narrowly focused angry mind set a precedent of cosmopolitan, big-picture thinking. With that comes a promise of compassion.
The planet spins around its own axis, around the sun, around the center of the galaxy. East and West, the Occident and the Orient are but culturally arbitrary ways to orient our consciousness. You, me, your anger management clients—we are all global citizens; moreover, citizens of this Universe and of this here-and-now Reality. An angry mind is a provincial mind, a parochial mind—psychologically, of course, not geographically. It thinks small; it thinks local; it’s stuck in trivial and pedantic distinctions without difference. Anger management as a clinical modality is a rehab of consciousness. It’s a zooming out, a panning out of perspective. It’s a refocusing on similarities instead of differences. It’s an opportunity to transcend our fear-based myopia. It’s a chance to upgrade our evolutionary presets of paranoia to a more cosmopolitan mind. Such a mind does not get pissed at the symbolic: It feels safe and at home in this world, the world in which it lives.
Sutra on Anger & Fear
I want to end this post with my own sutra (teaching) on anger and fear. Some circles need to be broken, and some circles need to be completed:
Life is scary, so we are naturally afraid.
Fear is normal.
Evolution has prepared us to be afraid, to be somewhat paranoid and on guard.
Defensiveness is normal, even necessary (up to a point).
But paranoia and defensiveness divide “what is” into “self ” and “other.”
This self-other division gives rise first to fear and then to anger.
This self-other dualism, for all intents and purposes, is inevitable and, thus, normal.
Yet, as a species, we are safer than ever: The saber-toothed tigers have alldied out. Thus, most of what we fear is symbolic threats, “paper tigers.”
Fear of symbolic threats is normal.
Anger is the flipside of the fear coin, the “fight” part of the flight-or-fight self-defense system.
Anger is a form of self-defense; it is fear based.
Anger is a response to fear, a response to a perceived or real threat.
Anger is normal.
Anger feels like fearlessness, but it isn’t.
The fearlessness of anger is misleading: Anger is fear based.
We are not just afraid of what’s outside; we are also afraid of what’s inside.
We are afraid of our own feelings.
We are afraid of being afraid.
Anger is a release of all these fears.
Anger is a consolidation of a feeling of fear into action, the beginning of an escape from “what is.”
When faced with real threats, anger is a legitimate self-defense solution.
Anger, just like fear, is an impulse to run, just in the opposite direction.
But even if you are running toward the threat (to confront it), running is running.
When faced with symbolic threats (threats to our ego, to how we are seen or thought about), we also have the impulse to run—to run away from others’ thoughts about us or from our thoughts about others’ thoughts about us. We feel threatened by disregard, disrespect, and disapproval, so our fearful egos act out by getting angry at others.
The solution to this kind of anger is to stay with the fear (of the symbolic, because the symbolic is safe).
Only by staying with the fear do we learn not to be afraid of being afraid.
Fear itself, the feeling of fear (be it of the real or of the symbolic), is safe.
Fear of fear is normal, but so is nonfear of fear.
When you are not afraid of being afraid, you don’t need anger.
Anger isn’t a tool for dealing with ego threats; it’s a tool for dealing with bodily threats.
Fear passes, anger passes, fear of fear passes, anger about anger passes.
There’s never been a feeling (or a mind state) that didn’t eventually go away.
Ultimately, because all feelings pass, there is absolutely nothing to do but to witness “whatever is” transform into “whatever was.”
Staying with “what is” is the true fearlessness
Adapted from Anger Management Jumpstart (Somov, PESI, 2014)