A Buddhist thought-experiment to help you turn anger into compassion

Can we talk about anger today? 

I mean, specifically, what to do when you are really, really angry with someone. Not just for the first 5 minutes or 5 hours after the thing happened to set you off, but for days on end. And you can feel that your anger is starting to mess you up inside, only you can’t seem to let it go.   

Sometimes my clients show up like this, looking for support as they figure out how to manage the difficult relationships in their lives. 

I’ve been there too. 

Many years ago, someone came into my life who triggered a whole lot of anger and dislike in me. 

For weeks, I watched this person boss other people around to get their own needs met, seemingly without regard for what anyone else wanted.They weren’t trying to mess with me, and the other people didn’t seem to mind the way I did. But I felt so angry, it was eating me up on the inside. I didn’t know what to do. 

Right around that time, I was taking a class on Buddhism. One of the textbooks was this book by Shantideva, an Indian monk who lived 1300 years ago, called The Bodhicaryavatara (“Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life”). 

(Quick definition: In the Buddhist tradition, a bodhisattva is someone who has looked deeply into the way things are, and that knowledge has filled them with so much compassion, they decide to devote themselves completely to healing the suffering of the world. It’s a pretty amazing ideal.)

Shantideva’s book is a how-to manual for people who want to be bodhisattvas, people who want to be fully wise and compassionate and aren’t fully there yet.

In other words, pretty much all of us!

This was the book that fell into my hands just when I needed it. I remember the day I read Shantideva’s words:

Whatever transgressions and evil deeds of various kinds there are, all arise through the power of conditioning factors [meaning, all the events and circumstances that have shaped people, beyond their control], while there is nothing that arises independently….

Therefore, even if one sees a friend or an enemy behaving badly, one can reflect that there are specific conditioning factors that determine this, and thereby remain happy….

Some commit offences out of delusion. Others, deluded, grow angry. Who among them should we say is free from blame, or who should we say is guilty?

Bodhicaryavatara, ch. 6

I read this passage and thought, whoa! He’s talking to me!

I’d been so angry at this person who had come into my life. But now, here was Shantideva telling me: Hold on, you have to step back and get some perspective. 

If you look deeply, I heard him saying, you’ll realize that the harmful things this person is doing have come about because of everything that has come before in that person’s life, and in the lives of the people that have influenced them, and so on and so forth, all the way as far back as you can imagine.

Right now, you’re blaming that person for their harmful actions. You’re angry at them. But, when you look deeply, why are you so angry with this one person? You might as well blame the entire history of the world.

He had my attention then.

He still has my attention today.

It seems like anger is everywhere in our world today. And I’ll be the first to admit, that first rush of self-righteous anger at someone else can feel pretty good. But where is it getting us? Is it bringing more healing to our relationships, or more wisdom to our communities? 

Not so much.  

I thought about Shantideva’s words, and my own anger toward this person I had to deal with. And I realized this person actually was doing their best in their relationships with others. I didn’t like what was happening, but that didn’t mean they and the others involved weren’t also doing the best they could. 

That realization dissolved my anger into sadness, and also compassion. Yet another lesson that it’s hard to be a human being, and none of us are doing it perfectly.

And when the time came that this person pushed my boundaries with their behavior, sure, my first reaction was anger. But, remembering Shantideva’s words, I was able to calm down pretty quickly. And I was able to let the person know what I could and couldn’t do, and what I needed from them in return.  

I won’t say everything went perfectly from then on. The relationship continued to be a rather bumpy one. But I knew they were doing their best, just as I was. And looking back, that felt so much better than my self-righteous anger ever did. 

I hope this story helps you on your own journey with anger and challenging relationships. And I’d love to hear what it brings up for you. Feel free to email me and let me know!

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