Shambhala Sun | September 2014
& Other Surprising Slogans to Help You Handle Anger
In our September 2014 magazine, Zen teacher NORMAN FISCHER applies five mind-training
slogans to anger and other strong emotions.
Read his introduction and his teaching for the slogan, "Work with your biggest problems first" here.
To practice with anger—rather than simply being a victim of
it—is to make the effort to respect and understand it. This involves being
willing to look more deeply at the complex of negative emotions, which
naturally arise as part of our human condition. It requires that we take
responsibility for these emotions so we can begin to do something creative with
Buddhism is justly valued for its many effective and
sensible ways of working with anger. All these ways depend on basic
mindfulness, the ability to create the inner space necessary to investigate and
be fully present with an emotion. Strong emotions, especially negative ones
like greed, anger, jealously, and so on, spin us around. Mindfulness gives us a
chance to be present with an emotion before we start spinning or even while we
are spinning. Rather than being propelled and likely blinded by what we think
we want, we are present and willing to see more widely and openly what is
actually happening. Such seeing changes what we experience, how we behave, and,
ultimately, the sorts of things that happen to us.
In addition, Buddhism offers more intentional, active
practices that support and are supported by mindfulness. In recent years, I
have been practicing the lojong, or “mind training,” teachings of Tibet.
This is a collection of practices to transform negative emotions into sympathy,
love, and compassion.
The most famous of all the lojong texts, The Root Text of
the Seven Points of Training the Mind, is based on a list of fifty-nine
practice slogans. These slogans are memorable, often humorous aphorisms that
point us in an advantageous spiritual direction.
My Zen-inflected method of working with a slogan is to copy
it again and again in a notebook and repeat it to myself silently during
meditation. I stay with the slogan until all my ideas about it become boring
and there is only the slogan itself, like a good wise friend, urging me on.
When you practice like this, the slogan will start to pop into your mind
unbidden, a substitute for the many other mindless thoughts that otherwise
would be popping up. And every time it does, it reminds you of your practice
and of the necessity of working with your emotions not just when you’re
meditating and feeling spiritual but all the time, especially in the midst of
Work With Your Biggest Problems First
Working with our biggest problems first is the opposite of
what we want to do. Usually we prefer to take on something easy and work our
way up to the tough things, but operating like this we never seem to get to
that tough stuff.
This slogan says turn first toward what is really difficult.
Screw up your courage and go there right away. This will take all the
mindfulness you have been able to cultivate from your time on the meditation
cushion—and more. It will also take forbearance, one of the most powerful and
least appreciated of all spiritual practices. Forbearance is the capacity to
patiently stay with something unpleasant or difficult and face it rather than
to do what comes naturally, which is to turn away. Forbearance requires that we
develop the capacity—in our body, in our breath, in our heart—to stand firm and
aware without acting, at least for the moment.
When we’re angry, we typically blame and lash out. Most of
us are not courageous enough to lash out at the people we are actually angry
at, so instead we lash out at someone else who is safer, take potshots, gossip,
or just grouse and feel indignant in the privacy of our own minds. Yet these
activities probably don’t hurt the target of our anger at all. They do, though,
hurt us and other people plenty.
Working with the biggest problems first means that when
we’re angry, we turn toward the anger. Instead of leaping to blame,
recrimination, or distraction, we feel the anger in our body, in our breathing,
in our racing thoughts. When we practice like this, we will calm down, see more
of what is actually going on, and, eventually, be able to act wisely.
Norman Fischer is the founder of the Everyday Zen
Foundation. His most recent book is Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings
on the Practice of Lojong.