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Shambhala Sun | September 2014

EXCERPT

Abandon Hope
& 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 them.

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 problems.

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.



Read the rest of this article inside the September 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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