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Thich Nhat Hanh Helps Us Out With Anger

April 6, 2010

Stumbled across this last night while foraging through YouTube. Timely. Just a couple days ago I was talking with some friends over breakfast about how to deal with anger. Raises big, complex questions about the best way to measure effectiveness. In the short run, expressing anger (i.e. fighting, verbally or physically) might seem like the best or even only way to counteract some harm that is occurring. This is especially true, as my domestic partner Noa pointed out, when dealing with institutional violence, which often masquerades as nonviolent, ‘neutral’ policy. Fighting openly against it, bringing forth the anger it engenders, is almost a necessary first step to naming the harm as harm: bringing symmetry through self-defense. (Or, more aptly, community-defense.)

But if we look closely and objectively at the effects of acting out our anger, we might arrive at different conclusions about its effectiveness. Even if it successfully puts a stop to a particular attack, what cost does it exact on our own psyche? Our own well-being? (After all, this is supposed to be self-defense, right? Not just from external factors, but from internal ones, too.)

TNH isn’t saying we should never get angry. Not at all. He argues that our actions actually become more clear-sighted and, yes, effective, when we can take the extra step of transforming our anger into another, positive energy, like compassion. This conversion neutralizes the toxic effects of raw anger, while conserving its power and precision. Or at least, that’s the claim. Some might find it difficult to believe. Isn’t some energy always lost through a conversion process? Don’t we risk getting stuck, mired and deactivated in all that inward focus?

I don’t have answers, really: I can only speak from my own experience. Which tells me that I’m just as likely, if not more so, to get stuck, mired, and deactivated in my own judgments, irritation, upset, fury, and depression. And also tells me that I’m most capable of speaking and acting with force and finesse when I’m coming from a place of caring, not rage.

An example. A couple weeks ago, I had a confrontation with the boyfriend of one of my Faithful Fools housemates. (We’ll call this boyfriend Rick.) Rick is currently homeless, which is one reason he spends a lot of time at Fools’ court with Kat. One particular week, though, we were hosting a dozen college students for their seven-day Alternative Spring Break and needed as much breathing room as possible. I had told Rick this, and that we would need him to steer clear of the Fools unless he was there for a public event. But one afternoon, mid-week, there he was in the living room, playing piano. He’d also been over the night before, staying with Kat, but I’d let that slide, understanding the desire to hang out and figuring he’d move on by morning.

Anyway, point is, by the time he was fiddling at the piano, I perceived that Rick was doing something that I (on behalf of other Fools, too) had asked him not to do. So I went over and inquired as to when he planned to leave.

He didn’t.

A fight ensues. I yell at Rick. Yell! Me! Mind you, this man is pushing 60: could easily be my father. But he isn’t listening, and I am pissed. Which, of course, means that I can’t listen very well, either.

Back and forth we go. Rick feels he had a right to be here — he’s with Kat. Kat, I remind him, was in on the decision to reserve the house for necessary personnel that week, and should have communicated that decision to him. Even if she hadn’t, I had told him directly. Rick feels that he should have been included in the decisionmaking process, since the outcome affected him. YOU DO NOT LIVE HERE, RICK, etc.

I can tell he’s getting heated too because his eyes are half-closed and sidecast, brows permanently arched. Can you look at me, please, Rick? I finally plead, hands on my hips. He’s still sitting on the piano bench. No, he says, not right now, I can feel myself getting angry and I’m trying to control myself because I like you, Katie, I really do…

And at that moment, I remember the fear inherent in anger. Sure, Rick is being obstinate, using his superior age as a tool for condescension, and generally, as I comment to him, making me feel disrespected in my own home. But there’s more beneath the stubbornness. Here he is, an older Black man clinging to a place of his own, a space to play his music and store his belongings and come home to. And now I, a young Black woman, come along and take it away. He gets the same messages from all sides, every day: “You don’t have the right to be here; get out.” Who wouldn’t want a little control, a little say, over the main place they spend their time?

So I take a chair, putting myself on his physical level, and listen. Not only tell him that I like him, too, but show it. I don’t back down, but I don’t shut down, either. I even joke and play a little. Eventually we come to a compromise; a couple hours later, he leaves. With a smile. And a compliment — he saw what I was made of today, he says, and he likes it.

And of course, we’re on better terms now than ever before. Every time I see him he gives me a kind of knowing grin, and makes some remark or another about my toughness. Buzzed from sangria at the Faithful Fools’ fundraising dinner that capped off the week, he advised Ryan: Marry that woman. She’s a keeper.

And I know I can be straight up with him without fearing the consequences. Confidence and compassion don’t have to undermine each other; they can grow together.

I think this is what TNH means when he talks about caring for our anger. The art of converting an enemy into a friend.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Khadijah permalink
    April 6, 2010 4:49 pm

    Beautiful, educational story-post! <3 & gratitude.

  2. April 6, 2010 5:10 pm

    Wow! Felt myself getting wound just reading that account. Your insight into his situation made such a difference – and yet also not backing down from the decision that was already made about the space and group needs. And he also had a turning point which was important. I sense that you already had some level of trust and support for each other, even if there were other issues present.

    This gets at the struggle I come to with all of this – when you don’t have much of a connection with those who are “in opposition” – it’s seems that much harder to get beyond anger and violent reactions. The same if the relationship with those “in opposition” has been terribly damaged in the past for some reason or other. (I think of my workplace on a small scale, and all those groups out there who have been fucked over by people in power on a larger scale.)

    It seems to always come back to some grounding in trust as well as compassion – and I find that to be a great challenge for all of us.

  3. erica permalink
    April 7, 2010 5:54 am

    Thanks for this beautiful post Katie! I love how you were able to be present in a way that let the moment be a teacher to you and Rick. How wonderful! And I love hearing news from the TL. Please send folks there my love. Thank you for doing what you do.

  4. April 7, 2010 9:26 am

    Gosh, thanks, y’all!

    Khadijah, you and I have definitely got a big Venn-diagram-of-the-minds thing going on. ;)

    Erica, for sure I’ll relay your love to the TL. Thank YOU for saying hello!

    And Nathan, I definitely hear you on the trust issue. I think it resonates with what I was saying a couple of weeks ago about responding to lines from guys in a way that preserves the possibility for trust, rather than squashing it immediately.

    More to your point, though, I think that when a relationship is already poisoned, sometimes a burst of friendliness from our side can transform things. A friend of mine on Facebook, after reading this post, shared an awesome story of her own. Once, at a party, she answered the doorbell with a huge, warm grin on her face, expecting it to be a good friend of hers, and instead it was an enemy. But the enemy was so taken aback by her smile, that he smiled back. And they ended up dating for two years! So there’s always that side of things, too: letting go of our own anger in order to allow for the possibility that our own perceptions of people’s character are not the full truth, and anyway people change.

    But even with all that, there are still situations where our best, friendliest, most compassionate and human efforts are met with unyielding violence or the same old patterns of neuroses.

    At this point, the way I understand it, TNH’s argument for nurturing our anger becomes less of an efficacy problem, and more of an existential question. Does it feel better to remain angry, and act out our anger? Or does it feel better to convert it into insight, compassion, etc.? How do we minimize our own suffering in these situations of harm?

    Even if I don’t have a personal connection with an opponent, I find myself suffering when I stay mad at them. So for me, the ideal stance is the one that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi adopts toward her own oppressive government: refusing to back down, and refusing to hate them. I don’t know if this pertains to your situation at work, but with intractable problems, I really find that the more I work on myself, with my own reactivity and anger, the more spaciousness I introduce to the situation, which helps me and may also help the ‘opposition,’ too.

    I don’t think we’re disagreeing here, but it’s just a matter of shifting the deeply-rooted notion, common to all of us, that active anger is a natural, inevitable, and useful response when we’ve been wronged. That it protects us, and serves us in our resistance. But if we believe that fostering and expressing raw anger only harms us more, then we begin to take greater responsibility for caring for it ourselves, regardless of the external situation. (Which it sounds like you’re definitely doing in your own work/life.) That’s my take on it, anyway.

  5. nathan permalink
    April 7, 2010 1:34 pm

    Hi Katie,

    Thanks for the generous answer. And I love your new post on generosity/scarcity :)

    I very much agree that when we cling to our anger against others, it just harms us more. I have softened some in regards to my work situation, but there’s still some resentment and general irritation hanging around. I think Thay is right that in the end, we have to convert our anger into something more beneficial because raw anger is just too sloppy and often destructive.

    I like the element of surprise in the story you shared. Shifting anything, and allowing for surprise to occur seems so important in conflict situations.

    Best,
    Nathan

  6. April 7, 2010 2:09 pm

    Hello Katie,

    I am so moved by your story, it is a wonderful example of how to work with anger. To be in that place where you are lucid and not get swept away in the hot energy of anger in the moment, but to listen and respond from a space of loving-kindness.

    Thanks for sharing and for the link to that video with these wise teachers.

  7. April 12, 2010 10:32 am

    Dear Katie,
    I think blogging is presenting itself in a truly mindful way in this case: acknowledgment (public publication) of anger/thought of anger) which allows you to sit with that experience, and then a moving-through. It’s wild, really, that I can read this blogpost and in one screen have both that anger and the compassion and care – “see” them both at once. Yeah!

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