Since our attitudes color the way we perceive the world, we may be able to get at the root of anger by examining our view of the world with the aim of replacing critical, impatient, and intolerant attitudes with patient, tolerant, and forgiving ones. When we do, we automatically find the world -- and help to make the world -- a less irritating place.
First of all, most of us have highly developed critical faculties. That is to say, we have views and opinions about everything and everyone. Because of this tendency to judge, we are continually deciding whether we approve of or like each experience as it occurs. Wherever we go and whatever we do, our internal "critic" is saying, "I don't like this," or "I don't approve of that."
Constant judging predisposes us to experience irritation, annoyance, and anger. I'm sure you can remember many times when your negative judgment or disapproval of even a trivial event -- an umpire's call at a baseball game, an off-hand remark by a business associate -- made you feel annoyed, irritated, or even angry.
Reducing Our Tendency To Judge and Softening Our Critical Attitudes
The more intolerant and demanding we are, the more irritation and anger we experience. It is impossible to change the world so that nothing we encounter arouses our disapproval. Working consciously to reduce our tendency to judge and to soften our critical attitudes is the only solution. To make this point, my teacher would often tell the story of the mangy dog:
A dog with the mange sought relief from its affliction by running from one place to another. First, the dog would lie in the shade, but it would soon feel uncomfortable and go and lie in a bush. After a short time, it would feel the irritation again and run off to sit in the open. But nothing brought relief. Wherever the mangy dog went, it was miserable, because it was not the place or the conditions, but the disease that caused its discomfort. If it could be cured of the mange, the dog would be comfortable anywhere.
The dog's mange, of course, is a metaphor for any attitude that causes us to react negatively and create misery. Changing our attitude to become less critical does not mean that we abandon our appreciation for good and bad, or right and wrong, and start living irresponsible lives. It simply means that we become a little more tolerant and patient.
It is unrealistic to expect everything and everybody to be exactly as we want them to be at all times, and yet we often approach life with this attitude. Little wonder, then, that we experience so much irritation and anger!
People Are Like Trees, They're Not All The Same
A traditional example of the attitude we want to overcome is the story of the man who thought it would be marvelous to cover the whole earth with soft leather so that he could walk everywhere without hurting his tender feet. It was a nice idea, but completely impractical.
A wiser man would make a pair of shoes that allowed him to walk wherever he liked without pain. We cannot change everything and control everybody to satisfy our whims and wishes. But we can change our attitudes and learn to accommodate a variety of conditions and situations without becoming upset, irritated, or angry.
My teacher would say to us,
"Look at the trees in the forest. Do you see that some are big and tall while others are small, and that some are straight while others are crooked? People are like trees; you cannot expect them all to be the same."
This teaching reminds us that if we can be a little more accommodating of the people around us, we experience less anger and conflict. At other times, my teacher would hold up his hand and say,
"Look at these fingers. They are all of different lengths and thicknesses, yet they can coexist in harmony, each fulfilling a purpose. Even this little pinky is useful for scratching inside the ear."
Indeed, variety enriches life, and not everything needs to be the way we think it should be. By learning to allow for differences and to accommodate diversity, we reduce our risk for irritation and anger.
We All Make Mistakes: Allowing a New Start with Hope for the Future
Another important attitude for diminishing negative states of mind is forgiveness. Either intentionally or through carelessness, we all make mistakes. Learning to accommodate human imperfections lessens our tendency to nurse grudges or harbor resentment and helps us forgive others as well as ourselves.
Forgiving mistakes does not mean that we condone mediocrity or evil. It only means that we are willing to allow a new start in the present with hope for the future. Forgiveness is a soothing ointment applied to a wound so that healing can take place. It is an essential part of a healthy attitude and conducive to a peaceful and harmonious life.
In his book No Future Without Forgiveness, the Reverend Desmond Tutu illustrates the healing effect of forgiveness with some very powerful examples. For instance, he tells the story of a mother whose seven-year-old daughter was kidnapped during a family camping trip in Montana. The kidnapper was eventually caught, but not in time to save the child's life. Even faced with such a horrible tragedy, Tutu reports, the mother refused to become a victim of hatred:
"Though I readily admit that initially I wanted to kill the man with my bare hands, by the time of the resolution of his crimes, I was convinced that my best and healthiest option was to forgive...." Victim families ... who retain a vindictive mind-set ultimately give the offender another victim. Embittered, tormented, enslaved by the past, the quality of life is diminished. However justified, our unforgiveness undoes us. Anger, hatred, resentment, bitterness, revenge -- they are death-dealing spirits, and they "will take our lives." . . . I believe the only way we can be whole, healthy, happy persons is to learn to forgive. (155-156)
This discussion on changing your attitudes may help you view life in a new light. Instead of seeing everything in a cold, critical way, you begin to see that it is possible to soften your perspective and see experiences in a way that is less abrasive.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
The Meditative Path: A Gentle Way to Awareness, Concentration, and Serenity
About the Author
John Cianciosi, a student of the late Venerable Ajahn Chah, was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1972 and served as spiritual director of monasteries in Thailand and Australia. He now teaches at the College of DuPage near Chicago.