Thursday, May 14, 2009

Anger- Book Review

A couple of weeks ago I gave you a sneak peek at a book I was reading "Anger- Wisdom for Cooling the Flames" by Thich Nhat Hanh. In case you don't know, Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who knew Martin Luther King and who has been very active in the peace movement for several decades. He writes in a very simple, easy to understand style (I think typical of practitioners of Buddhism) and has become one of my favorite authors. Anger is a short, easy read. But, I think is best read slowly. No more than a chapter at a time, maximum. It must be pondered over and reflected on as you read it. It's a book to be savored, not devoured.

I'm afraid to begin pointing out the highlights in the book because it's one of those where I could easily end up retyping the whole book over again. But, I'll try to restrain myself. A couple of keys to dealing with anger (or any negative emotion) is first of all to not deny it or fight it. This is counterintuitive and possibly counter-cultural. We are to embrace our emotions, acknowledge them and treat them like our baby. We turn our mindfulness to them and view each emotion, even the negative ones as something we can turn into something good. Thich Nhat Hanh equates negative emotions to garbage or compost that can be used to make a garden grow. Nothing is to be thrown out. But, the things that are negative must be transformed. We do this through mindfulness, focusing our attention on what our emotions are, calming and soothing them and through compassion for ourselves and for others.

Something that might bug some Christians are references to the spirit of the Buddha that is within all of us. But, this is a matter of semantics, IMO. The Budda nature, mindfulness, the mind of Christ, the Holy Spirit are all different words for the same thing. If hearing Hanh talk about turning to the Buddha within you bothers you, when you're reading his books, just substitute the word "Christ" for Buddha and I think you'll get the point. The point is the mindfulness that can transform our anger, our fear, our despair, whatever is accessible to all of us. Atheists, Buddhists, Christians alike can tap into this transforming power and change themselves and the world.

Nhat Hanh gives some great practical ways to deal with anger, including making a peace treaty with our loved ones. This is not a treaty made after you are angry. It is a standing agreement about how you are going to face your own anger, own your own anger, acknowledge your anger to yourself and your loved one, take ownership of your part of the misunderstanding and work to resolve your anger. He gives examples of how to write a peace letter to someone you are angry with and set up an appointment in the future to deal with the issue. There is a chapter titled "No Enemies" which lets us know that we are not truly separate individuals and that we can be neither happy, angry or anything else completely independent of others around us.

Some have accused Eastern religions of being too "me" centered and not focused enough on serving others. That is either a misunderstanding or a lie. But, it's not true. To love others, we first have to love ourselves. To have compassion for others, we must first be compassionate with ourselves. To help someone out of quicksand, one doesn't jump into the quicksand, one must be standing on firm ground. I love this passage from the book:

A pregnant mother can be very happy every time she thinks of the baby inside of her. The baby, although not born yet, can give the mother a lot of joy. Every moment of her daily life, she is aware of the baby's presence, so she does everything with love. She eats with love, she drinks with love because she knows that without her love, the baby may not be healthy. She very careful all the time. She knows that if she makes a mistake, is she smokes a lot, if she dinks a lot of alcohol, this will not be good for the baby. So she's very mindful, and she lives with the mind of love.

Practitioners have to act very much like a mother. We know that we want to produce somthing, we want to offer something to humanity, to the world. Each of us carries within ourselves a baby-- the baby Buddha, and it is the baby Buddha within us that we can offer. We must live in mindfulness in order to take good care of our baby Buddha.

As I was reading the book, I quickly realized that the practices Nhat Hanh was talking about can be applied not only to anger, which is not my biggest issue but to the emotions of fear, despair, etc. Any negative emotion must be treated with compassion, mindfulness and can be transformed. I also realized that dealing with anger in the way he prescribes requires a great deal of humility; humility that many of us lack. It's not easy to admit to ourselves that we are angry, let alone to our loved ones. As one who tends to be passive aggressive, it takes a great deal of mindfulness for me to do this practice. Taking ownership in our part of the disagreement also requires humility. Admitting what we did wrong and asking for forgiveness for our lack of skillfulness puts us in a position of vulnerability if the other party instead of reciprocating decides to jump on us with the blame game. While these things are extremely simple, that does not mean they are easy and practicing this way will be difficult for people who have not yet begun to overcome their egocentricity.


I liked this book so much that before I finished it, I ordered "No Death, No Fear" by Thich Nhat Hanh. That will be the third book of his I've read, the first being "Living Buddha, Living Christ". I cannot recommend Anger too highly. Ty and I have made an appointment to study this book together (only the second one we've ever done that with). If we can both put into practice what this book teaches, it'll make us better partners, parents, friends and members of our community. So, we plan to read and discuss it together so that we can help each other practice. That's what a sangha does.




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