“You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.”
– Buddhist Proverb
There is nothing inherently wrong with feeling anger from time to time. Frustration and anger are perfectly normal human responses to perceived threats, unfair circumstances, unkind words and even the ebb and flow of daily annoyances, like being cut off in traffic or making a simple mistake. Yet it is how we understand our anger and what we do with it that is the problem that ultimately leads to suffering.
Clearly there are vast injustices and truly awful persistent situations that my cause us to stay in anger beyond an initial reaction. But for most of us, it is an underlying fear or painful experience that causes us to “bite the hook”, ramp up our defenses, escalate our aggression and stay stuck in our anger beyond the momentary trigger.
If you are anything like me, trapped in habit, you often latch on to a story that we are being attacked by an outside force, when in fact what is really going on is, deep down, some fear or wound within us is being poked and uncovered. And when we layer on a dose of shame, unresolved hatred or long simmering aversion, we are quickly lost, making matters far worse. Now, if we’ve played out an angry dance with someone we care about, we’ve made ourselves miserable, broken connection in an intimate relationship and likely pushed our friend or loved one away–perhaps forever.
Been there, done that.
How does this serve us or support how we wish to show up in the world? Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron offers sound advice on this topic in her talk The Freedom to Choose Something Different. She suggests that we must embrace three difficult practices.
First, we must notice when we start to bite the hook, that is, when we begin getting caught in habitual patterns that cause us to suffer. We must learn that getting hooked is a natural, spontaneous reaction. There is no suffering in the hooking itself, only in how we respond to it.
Second, and far more challenging, is actually doing something different, or as Pema calls it, “choosing a fresh alternative.” We must practice changing the negative momentum we are so familiar with and learn to avoid speaking and acting in ways that only serve to strengthen our habits of resentment, anger, blaming others and other patterns that entrench us (and those around us) in becoming more and more unhappy.
Third, is to make this difficult practice a way of life. One or two “good” reactions does not change our negative habitual ways. It is impossible to avoid challenging circumstances and we will be faced with many opportunities to bite the hook. Learning to avoid getting stuck there is the real opportunity and what ultimately sets us on a path to freedom.
Deciding not to punish ourselves is, in fact, a choice and a habit well worth breaking.