Antidote to Anger: Cultivating Patience and Effort
by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo
The Key in Busy Lives
This idea that only formal sitting, doing prostrations, going to the temple, listening to Dharma teachings, and reading religious books constitute practice, and the rest of the day is so much ballast, can cause us to feel very frustrated with our lives.
We may end up resenting our families and our work, always dreaming of a time when we will be free to do “actual practice”. We might spend the best part of our lives resenting those very circumstances which could provide us with the most profound means of progressing on the spiritual path.
Actually, everything we do, if done with total awareness, is spiritual activity. On the other hand, if we perform an action distractedly, with only half our attention, it becomes just another worldly activity. One could be a great master meditating upon a high throne, but unless one is present and conscious in the moment, it is meaningless to sit there. On the other hand, one might be sweeping leaves, chopping vegetables or cleaning toilets, and provided one maintains complete attention, all these activities become spiritual practices.
And therein lies the key for those of us who have busy lives. We can convert actions we normally regard as routine, dull and spiritually meaningless into karma practice, and transform our entire lives in the process.
There are two separate aspects to bringing about this transformation, although they do converge. One is to create inner space. This is an inner centredness, inner silence, inner clarity, which enables us to begin seeing things more as they really are and not how we normally interpret them. The other aspect is learning to open up our hearts.
Practice Starts With Our Family
It’s relatively easy to sit on our cushion and think, “May all sentient beings be well and happy,” and send out thoughts of loving-kindness to all those little sentient beings out there on the horizon somewhere! Then somebody comes in and tells us there is a telephone call and we answer crossly, “Go away. I’m doing my loving-kindness meditation.”
The best place for us to begin our Dharma practice is with our family. We have the strongest karmic connections with family members; therefore, we have a great responsibility for developing our relationships with them. If we cannot develop loving-kindness towards our family, why even talk about other beings?
If we really want to open up our heart, it has to start with those directly connected to us, such as our partners, children, parents and siblings. This is always a difficult task, because we need to overcome deeply entrenched behavioural patterns.
I think this can be especially challenging with couples. He says this, she says that, every time, and each time the responses are so unskilful. They get locked into a pattern. They cause pain to themselves and to those around them, including their children, and they can’t get out. Putting loving-kindness into practice really helps loosen the tight patterns we have developed over many years. It’s sometimes a very good idea to just close our eyes, then open them and look at the person in front of us — especially if it’s someone we know very well, like our partner, our child or our parents — and really try to see them as if for the first time. This may help us to appreciate their good qualities, which will then aid us in developing loving-kindness for them.
Patience: The Antidote to Anger
Patience is the antidote to anger. From a Dharma perspective, patience is considered extremely important. The Buddha praised it as the greatest austerity. We must develop this wonderful, wide, expansive quality. It has nothing to do with suppressing or repressing or anything like that; rather, it’s about developing an open heart. In order to develop this, we need to have contact with people who annoy us. You see, when people are being loving and kind towards us, saying the things we want to hear and doing all the things we want them to do, it may feel great but we don’t learn anything. It’s very easy to love people who are lovable. The real test comes with people who are being absolutely obnoxious!
Shantideva, the seventh-century Indian scholar, wrote that the earth is full of pebbles, sharp rocks and thistles. So how can we avoid stubbing our toes? Are we going to carpet the whole earth? No one is rich enough to carpet the entire earth wall to wall. But if we take a piece of leather and apply it to the bottom of our soles as sandals or shoes, we can walk everywhere.
We don’t need to change the whole world and all the people in it to our specifications. There are billions of people out there but only one “me” How can I expect them all to do exactly what I want? But we don’t need that. All we need do is change our attitude.
Once when I was in South India, I went to see an astrologer and told him, “I have two choices. Either I can go back into retreat or I can start a nunnery. What should I do?” He looked at me and said, “If you go back into retreat, it will be very peaceful, very harmonious, very successful, and everything will be fine. If you start a nunnery, there will be lots of conflicts, lots of problems, lots of difficulties, but both are good, so you decide.” I thought, “Back into retreat, quick!” Then I met a Catholic priest and mentioned it to him. He said, “It’s obvious. You start the nunnery. What is the use of always seeking tranquillity and avoiding challenges?’” He said we are like rough pieces of wood. Trying to smooth our ragged edges down with velvet and silk won’t work. We need sandpaper.
The people who annoy us are our sandpaper. They are going to make us smooth. If we regard those who are extremely irritating as our greatest helpers on the path, we can learn a lot. They cease to be our problems and instead become our challenges.
A tenth-century Bengali pandita named Palden Atisha reintroduced Buddhism into Tibet. He had a servant who was really awful. He was abusive to Atisha, disobedient, and generally a big problem. The Tibetans asked Atisha what he was doing with such an awful guy who was so completely obnoxious. They said, “Send him back. We’ll take care of you.” Atisha replied, “What are you talking about? He is my greatest teacher of patience. He is the most precious person around me!”
Patience does not mean suppression, and it doesn’t mean bottling up our anger or turning it in on ourselves in the form of self-blame. It means having a mind which sees everything that happens as the result of causes and conditions we have set in motion at some time in this or past lives. Who knows what our relationship has been with someone who is causing us difficulties now? Who knows what we may have done to him in another life! If we respond to such people with retaliation, we are just locking ourselves into that same cycle. We are going to have to keep replaying this part of the movie again and again in this and future lifetimes. The only way to break out of the cycle is by changing our attitude.
I met a Tibetan monk who had been imprisoned for 25 years in labour camps. He had been tortured and treated badly, and his body was pretty much a wreck. But his mind! When you looked into his eyes, far from seeing bitterness, brokenness, or hatred in them, you could see that they were glowing. He looked as though he had just spent 25 years in retreat! All he talked about was his gratitude to his captors. They had really helped him develop overwhelming love and compassion towards those who caused him harm. He said, “Without them I would have just continued mouthing platitudes.” But because of his imprisonment, he had had to draw on his inner strength. In such circumstances, you either go under or you surmount. When he emerged from prison, he felt nothing but love and understanding towards his captors.
Once I read a book by Jack London. I can’t remember the title. It was called something about the stars. It was a story about a college professor who had murdered his wife and was in San Quentin prison. The prison guards did not like this guy at all. He was too intelligent. So they did everything they could to harass him. One of the things they did was to bind people in very rigid canvas sacking and pull it tight so that they could hardly move or breathe, and their whole body would feel crushed. If anyone stayed in this for more than forty-eight hours, they died. They would continually put the professor in this for twenty-four or thirty hours at a time. While he was wrapped up like this, because the pain was unendurable, he began to have out-of-body experiences. Eventually he began to go through past lives. Then he saw his interrelationships in past lives with the people who were tormenting him. At the end of the book he was about to be hanged, but he felt nothing but love and understanding towards his tormentors. He really understood why they were doing what they were doing. He felt their inner unhappiness, confusion and anger which were creating the scenario.
In our own modest way, we too must develop the ability to transform negative occurrences and take them on the path. We learn much more from our pain than from our pleasures. This doesn’t mean we have to go out and look for pain — far from it. But when pain comes to us, in whatever form, instead of resenting it and creating more pain, we can see it as a great opportunity to grow — to get out of our normal thinking patterns, such as, “He doesn’t like me, so I’m not going to like him.” We can begin to transcend all that and use this method to open up the heart.
Applying the Four Efforts
Applying the four efforts — the effort to prevent the unwholesome from arising, the effort to discard that unwholesomeness which has already arisen, the effort to create the wholesome which has not yet arisen, and the effort to cultivate and maintain that wholesomeness which has arisen — is another way.
Cultivating wholesomeness, sometimes also translated as skilfulness, means developing states of mind such as understanding, love, generosity and openness of heart which create within us and around us a state of harmony and peace. This is in contrast to the unwholesome, or unskilful, states of mind such as ignorance, greed and aversion which create within us and without us states of conflict.
So, part of maintaining our awareness is to be aware of the states of our mind and where they are coming from. We must have discernment. We have to recognise those thoughts and emotions that are rooted in the negative factors. It’s not a matter of suppression; it’s a matter of recognising them, accepting them and letting them go. We don’t maintain them, and we don’t follow them.
As our awareness grows, we become more acutely conscious of our mental states and are able to see, for instance, when aversion or anger creeps into our mind. We can recognise it. We can even name it and say, “This is anger.” But we don’t identify with it. We just see that this is an angry state of mind. We accept that is what it is. But knowing that it’s not a helpful state of mind, we can also drop it. On the other hand, when positive states of mind come, we can recognise them, we can acknowledge them and we can try to help them remain, to grow, to be appreciated. So, it’s not just a matter of blaming ourselves for all our negative thoughts. There’s no blame here. It’s recognising what is there and being able to let go. And when it’s positive, it’s recognising it and encouraging it. It’s dealing with knowing, knowing what is in the mind, without getting caught in our conflicts.
Mastering the Mind
It’s not our emotions, even our negative emotions, which are the problem. The problem is whether they control us or we control them. The best way to control is through seeing, and the best way to see is through developing awareness. Once we are conscious and aware of our emotions, of our motivations, then we have the wish-fulfilling gem in our hands and everything can be transformed. As long as we are unknowing, as long as we identify with our thoughts and emotions, as long as we are controlled by our thoughts and emotions, we are slaves. So it’s a matter of learning how to master the mind. Who is going to be in control here — our emotions or us? (Whatever ‘us’ may be — we’re talking on a relative level here!)
Most of us are complete slaves to our emotions and thoughts. When we are angry, we are the anger. When we are jealous, we are the jealousy. When we are depressed, we are the depression. We are complete slaves to our desires, our anger, our aversions, our jealousies, our hopes and our fears. We’re not in control at all.
First, we have to learn to be in control of our own minds. After all, our mind is the closest thing we have; it’s how we perceive everything. External circumstances are nothing compared to the internal circumstances of our mind. So if we want to benefit ourselves and others, we have to master our minds. The easiest and quickest way to do that is to develop this moment-to-moment awareness of the mind. By doing this we can find the space to see what is happening within us and to select that which is helpful. That which is not helpful, we can drop. All our Dharma practices are directed towards attaining this mastery and understanding. First we have to understand. Then, through that understanding, we can gain mastery.
The Buddha said that someone who kills a thousand times a thousand men on the battlefield is nothing compared with one who is master of himself. He who conquers himself is the greatest warrior. So we have to learn to conquer ourselves. But we don’t conquer ourselves by creating an inner battlefield; we conquer ourselves through developing understanding, insight and awareness. This takes enormous effort because the inertia of our mind is so deep, so entrenched.
Emptying Ourselves First
Our layers upon layers of opinions, interpretations, elaborations and memories distance us from what is actually happening, who is actually in front of us, what is actually occurring inside ourselves.
A great Thai master was once asked what his main problem was with people who came to him for instruction. He said that the main problem with them was that they were already so full of their own ideas and opinions, they were like a cup filled to the brim with dirty water. You can’t pour anything on top because if you do, it will just become dirty too. First, you have to empty out the cup and clean it, and then you can pour in the ambrosia. And so, for us too, we need to clear out; we don’t need to add more at this time. We need to start peeling off all our opinions, all our ideas, and all our cleverness and just remain very naked, in the moment, just seeing things as they are, like a small child.
If we do that, then it gives some space for the innate intelligence to which we all have to surface. And with that intelligence comes a genuine openness of the heart. But if we try to do all these practices on top of all the junk which we already harboured in our mind, nothing is ever affected. We just distort; no real transformation will take place.
Seeing As If For the First Time
Sometimes people ask me what I gained from living for so many years in a cave. I say, “It’s not what I gained, it’s what I lost.” I think that in Dharma practice it is very important first to really have a period of dropping rather than building up. This is why a practice like Shamatha, just quietly sitting, can be so very, very beneficial because it gives us space to begin to peel off and empty out.
Also, during the day, as much as you can, try to bring the mind back into the present and try to see things as if one is seeing them for the very first time. This is especially valuable with people we are very connected to — our spouse, our children, our colleagues at work. Try to look at them as if seeing them for the very first time with completely fresh, new eyes.
Moment to moment, we are. After a while, we become so heavily habituated we don’t see any more. All we see are our own ideas, impressions and memories. It’s very important that we should practise now so that at the time of our death we can think, “Well, I tried. I did the best I could and so I can die without regrets.”