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Thich Nhat Hanh on Loosening the Knots of Anger

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Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us how to relax the bonds of anger, attachment and delusion through mindfulness and kindness toward ourselves.


To be happy, to me, is to suffer less. If we were not capable of transforming the pain within ourselves, happiness would not be possible.

Many people look for happiness outside themselves, but true happiness must come from inside of us. Our culture tells us that happiness comes from having a lot of money, a lot of power and a high position in society. But if you observe carefully, you will see that many rich and famous people are not happy. Many of them commit suicide.

The Buddha and the monks and nuns of his time did not own anything except their three robes and one bowl. But they were very happy, because they had something extremely precious: freedom.

According to the Buddha's teachings, the most basic condition for happiness is freedom. Here we do not mean political freedom, but freedom from the mental formations of anger, despair, jealousy and delusion. These mental formations are described by the Buddha as poisons. As long as these poisons are still in our heart, happiness can not be possible.

In order to be free from anger, we have to practice, whether we are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Jewish. We cannot ask the Buddha, Jesus, God or Mohammed to take anger out of our hearts for us. There are concrete instructions on how to transform the craving, anger and confusion within us. If we follow these instructions and learn to take good care of our suffering, we can help others do the same.


The Knots of Anger


In our consciousness there are blocks of pain, anger and frustration called internal formations. They are also called knots because they tie us up and obstruct our freedom.

When someone insults us or does something unkind to us, an internal formation is created in our consciousness. If you don't know how to undo the internal knot and transform it, the knot will stay there for a long time. And the next time someone says something or does something to you of the same nature, that internal formation will grow stronger. As knots or blocks of pain in us, our internal formations have the power to push us, to dictate our behavior.

After a while, it becomes very difficult for us to transform, to undo the knots, and we cannot ease the constriction of this crystallized formation. The Sanskrit word for internal formation is samyojana. It means "to crystallize." Every one of us has internal formations that we need to take care of. With the practice of meditation we can undo these knots and experience transformation and healing.

Not all internal formations are unpleasant. There are also pleasant internal formations, but they can still make us suffer. When you taste, hear or see something pleasant, then that pleasure can become a strong internal knot. When the object of your pleasure disappears, you miss it and you begin searching for it. You spend a lot of time and energy trying to experience it again. If you smoke marijuana or drink alcohol and begin to like it, then it becomes an internal formation in your body and in your mind. You cannot get it off your mind. You will always look for more. The strength of the internal knot is pushing you and controlling you. So internal formations deprive us of our freedom.

Falling in love is a big internal formation. Once you are in love, you only think of the other person. You are not free anymore. You cannot do anything; you cannot study, you cannot work, you cannot enjoy the sunshine or the beauty of nature around you. You can only think of the object of your love. That is why we speak about it as a kind of accident: "falling in love." You fall down. You are not stable anymore because you have gotten into an accident. So love can also be an internal knot.

Pleasant or unpleasant, both kinds of knots take away our liberty. That is why we should guard our body and our mind very carefully, to prevent these knots from taking root in us. Drugs, alcohol and tobacco can create internal formations in our body. And anger, craving, jealousy, despair can create internal formations in our mind.


Training in Aggression


Anger is an internal formation, and since it makes us suffer, we try our best to get rid of it. Psychologists like the expression, "getting it out of your system." And they speak about venting anger, like ventilating a room filled with smoke. Some psychologists say that when the energy of anger arises in you, you should ventilate it by hitting a pillow, kicking something, or by going into the forest to yell and shout.

As a kid you were not supposed to say certain swear words. Your parents may not have allowed you to say these words because they are harmful, they damage relationships. So you went into the woods or to an isolated place and shouted these words very clearly, very strongly, in order to relieve the feeling of oppression. This is also venting.

People who use venting techniques like hitting a pillow or shouting are actually rehearsing anger. When someone is angry and vents their anger by hitting a pillow, they are learning a dangerous habit. They are training in aggression. Instead, our approach is to generate the energy of mindfulness and embrace anger every time it manifests.


Treating Anger with Tenderness


Mindfulness does not fight anger or despair. Mindfulness is there in order to recognize. To be mindful of something is to recognize that something is there in the present moment. Mindfulness is the capacity of being aware of what is going on in the present moment. "Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me; breathing out, I smile towards my anger." This is not an act of suppression or of fighting. It is an act of recognizing. Once we recognize our anger, we embrace it with a lot of awareness, a lot of tenderness.

When it is cold in your room, you turn on the heater, and the heater begins to send out waves of hot air. The cold air doesn't have to leave the room for the room to become warm. The cold air is embraced by the hot air and becomes warm—there's no fighting at all between them.

We practice taking care of our anger in the same way. Mindfulness recognizes anger, is aware of its presence, accepts and allows it to be there. Mindfulness is like a big brother who does not suppress his younger brother's suffering. He simply says, "Dear brother, I'm here for you." You take your younger brother in your arms and you comfort him. This is exactly our practice.

Imagine a mother getting angry with her baby and hitting him when he cries. That mother does not know that she and her baby are one. We are mothers of our anger and we have to help our baby, our anger, not fight and destroy it. Our anger is us and our compassion is also us. To meditate does not mean to fight. In Buddhism, the practice of meditation should be the practice of embracing and transforming, not of fighting.



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