Anger

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First, let me say that I mean no disrespect to the Dalai Lama or anyone who reveres him by posting this meme.  For me, it illustrates a very important belief that I’ve always carried around about anger, which is that if you make me angry (and underneath that anger, at least for me, is usually hurt of some kind, often based in fear), I have to retaliate.  I have to defend.  I have to strike back.  And I usually did.

But why?   I’ve had such a problem with anger.  And I’ve had it for a very, very long time. As I started to explore Buddhism, I found a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, simply titled “Anger.”  In it, he wrote this simple piece:

When someone says or does something that makes us angry, we suffer. We tend to say or do something back to make the other suffer, with the hope that we will suffer less. We think, “I want to punish you, I want to make you suffer because you have made me suffer. And when I see you suffer a lot, I will feel better.”  Many of us are inclined to believe in such a childish practice. The fact is that when you make the other suffer, he will try to find relief by making you suffer more. The result is an escalation of suffering on both sides.  Both of you need compassion and help. Neither of you needs punishment.

When you get angry, go back to yourself, and take very good care of your anger. And when someone makes you suffer, go back and take care of your suffering, your anger. Do not say or do anything. whatever you say or do in a state of anger may cause more damage in your relationship.

Most of us don’t do that.  We don’t want to go back to ourselves. We want to follow the other person in order to punish him or her.  If your house is on fire, the most urgent thing to do is to go back and try to put out the fire, not to run after the person you believe to be the arsonist.  If you run after the person you suspect has burned your house, your house will burn down while you are chasing him or her. That is not wise. You must go back and put out the fire.  So when you are angry, if you continue to interact with or argue with the other person, if you try to punish her, you are acting exactly like someone who runs after the arsonist while everything goes up in flames.

It’s that bit about the “house on fire” that really got me.  I’d much rather run after the arsonist and beat the shit out of him instead of tending to the house of my person – my mind, my emotions, my body – and getting that fire under control, so as to minimize the damage being caused.

As soon as I started to meditate on this, an interesting thing happened.  I stopped getting so angry at everything.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  Some people can still push my buttons and get me in a fit of rage.  However, it’s not nearly as bad as it was.  For example, it used to be that whenever some slow schmuck wouldn’t get out of the left lane so I could speed by, I’d ride his tail aggressively, and when he finally did pull over, I’d glare hard at him.  Now, not only do I not do that, but I find that I don’t even speed as much.  Well, most of the time, anyway.  What I discovered, and this probably isn’t any big surprise to anyone but me, is that the only reason my house was burning is that I had been dousing it with gasoline.  So, whenever any spark came close to it, it practically exploded.  My house was burning because of me.  It wasn’t on fire because of an arsonist.

Now, my house is covered in flame retardant material.  Now, if someone lights a match near my house, either intentionally or while just being careless, it’s far less likely to burst into flames.  That material is created by mindfulness and meditation.  By taking care of myself like I never have done before.

It’s nice to not be governed by anger all of the time.

On the beginnings of meditation practice. Or, I’m Dug.

ImageI attended my first Buddhist retreat in Wisconsin this past June. It was at the Windhorse Retreat Center (windhorse.shambhala.org), located near the Kettle Moraine State Forest, about an hour north of Milwaukee.  I really had no idea what to expect and I was a bit nervous.  Being a “beginner’s retreat,”  it was focused on introducing the practice of meditation to participants.  Now, meditation, for those who may not know, is a strange sort of thing for a lot of westerners.  You plop your fat ass down on a cushion and adopt a particular posture.  I won’t describe the ins and outs of the posture here, but I’m told that every aspect of it has been introduced due to it’s efficacy in helping practitioners meditate.  Then you sit there.  In silence. Focusing on nothing but your breathing.  The first thing that popped into my head was a line from a college friend of mine: “don’t tell me how to breathe, I’m alive, ain’t I?!?”

So we sat there.  Breathing.  Being mindful.  Of our breathing.  In, I’m aware that I’m breathing in.  Out, I’m aware that I’m breathing out. The first couple of minutes were fine.  Then I got a cramp.  OK, keep breathing, just adjust yourself a little.  In, I hope that fucking cramp goes away, we only just started and I won’t last another two minutes if it keeps cramping.  Out, oh thank you fat, happy, smiling Buddha that my cramp is now gone.  In breath.  Out breath.  Wow, it’s really quiet in here.  In.  Out.  You know that dude behind me that said he’s Jewish?  He totally doesn’t look Jewish.  Oh come on, concentrate, goddammit.  In.  Out.  In.  Out.  You know, the chick leading this retreat is sort of cute.  And she is SO sweet.  But Christ on Crutches, the food here is terrible.  I don’t know if I could ever be a vegan like everyone else here.  Where’s my bacon?  Ugh, my mind is all over the damn place.  OK, c’mon, focus.  In.  Out.  Feel the breath come in over your teeth and in your nose.  Feel the breath leave your body.  In.  Out.  Yeah, I can do this.  Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy.  Wow, that’s a funny expression.  I wonder who came up with it?  It’s sort of sing-songy.  I love how my five year old says it all the… dammit, there I go again… In.  Out.  Oh man I have to fart.  And I bet it’s going to really smell.  And all of these other retreatants are totally going to know it was me and they are going to pass out.  In…. don’t breathe out, don’t breathe out… please God don’t let me fart out loud… OK I have to breathe out or I’ll faint…

So, it hit me during this retreat.  I’m Dug.  You know, from the movie, UP.  Always distracted by squirrels.  Hell, we all are when we first start to meditate.  And I guess that’s the whole point:  To begin to look at what is in there.  To work on quieting the mind.  To learn to focus and be still so that we can liberate ourselves from attachment and delusion and ignorance, all of which cause suffering.   But man, the beginning can be rough!  The woman who led our retreat told us that the beginning of meditation, where one’s thoughts seemed so scattered, where they crashed in from every direction, was often described as being immersed in a thunderous waterfall.  What an apt description.  The noise in my head was a cacophony of voices, songs, thoughts, half-finished conversations, and a thousand other things, all vying for attention.  However, she also said that, with tenacious practice, it would be like emerging from the waterfall and standing beside it.  Then, eventually, it would be like sitting next to a rushing river.  Then, a more tranquil river, then a calm sea.  A calm, smooth, tranquil, deep sea.  And that thought brought peace.  That someday, with practice, my mind could be sharp, focused, calm, and filled with peace.  Simply by meditating.

Since then, my practice of meditating has been pretty inconsistent.  I *have* bought lots of books on Buddhism and meditation, however, which should account for something. 😉   Like any new habit, it’s hard to get into.  Especially since, at first, it’s a bit maddening.  But, from those I’ve met who have stuck with it, the payoff is great!  So, I’ve found a Sangha, which is the Buddhist term for a congregation or a group of like-minded practitioners, which will certainly help in being consistent.  I’m also trying to be more mindful in other things I do throughout the day as well – being present, being focused, being IN reality, since the here and now is all we have.

Becoming Buddhist

baby buddhaMy decision to “become a Buddhist”  occurred slowly (as if one every really “becomes” a Buddhist, when in reality they adopt Buddhist practices – “Being a Buddhist is more of an action than a state of being, at least IMO).  I had been having such a very had time with the faith I was raised in: Catholicism.  Well, perhaps not with *that* faith per se, but with the whole concept of God, especially as He is presented in Catholicism specifically, and in western religions generally. 

See, I just didn’t *get* God.  Or maybe “He” didn’t get me.  Intellectually, I understood the concept of a creator, an un-created being, a deity, a non-contingent reality.  And for most part, I still buy into that concept.  Where I couldn’t quite connect, as say, my wife could, or many of my friends, was the whole concept of a “personal” God.  “Someone to hear your prayers, someone who cares,” as Dave Gahan sings.  Sure, I’d had what I *thought* were real experiences of this God, this Lover of Souls who “knows you better than you know yourself,” but when I look back on these experiences now, it’s easy to think that these were just fabrications created by my mind, made to feel more real due to emotional impressionism and a desire, a wanting, them to be real.

Maybe they were.  I really don’t know.  How can I?

What I DO know is that I have very real, very tangible doubts (can a doubt be tangible?) about the existence of a loving, personal God.  I’m not saying that He *doesn’t* exist.  To say such things would be the height of hubris.  But what I *have* been saying, at least to myself, is that I desperately want to know.  I crave understanding.  But how can I get that understanding?  Ultimately, I can’t.  I’m convinced, at the present time anyway, that there simply isn’t any way to know – and I mean to know in an experiential way – that He *really* exists.  And so, what am I to do?  Well, what I *did* do is seek out a philosophy that made sense to me.  That “met me where I was at,”  (I sure hate that expression) and what I found was Buddhism.

What struck me about Buddhism, as a practice, as a manner of living, as a philosophy, was that it is highly experiential.  Observable.  As one’s sitting practice of meditating develops, one can directly see peace, tranquility, and a calm mind developing. And it doesn’t rely on faith in some God “out there,” to provide grace in order for one to wake up, become enlightened, become actualized, whatever term you wish to use.  Now, there may BE a God out there providing grace but Buddhist practices don’t rely on one’s supplication and sacrifices to that deity.  Just practice.  Meditation.  Calming the mind.  Detaching from one’s attachments.  Practicing compassion for others.  Loving one’s self and other living things.  It’s all very simple.  No dogma, no infighting about this doctrine or that tradition.

What a breath of fresh air this has been!