It seems this political season is charged with an uncommon level of conflict and anger. Maybe I've just reached that magical age when new music sounds awful, I am never without an umbrella, and politics seem incredibly relevant. It feels like more than maturation, though. We seem to have reached a social boiling point that I can only hope results in a more unified and compassionate world. I am absolutely not here to back any particular candidate, but I would like to talk about practicing patience in the face of anger; for working with the energy of anger so that we can make our best choices from our best selves.
The Dalai Lama talks about practicing patience in his book Healing Anger. He very pragmatically suggests that to work with anger, we have to be skilled in its opposite-- patience. I don't know about you, but I probably heard "be patient" a thousand times growing up, but no one ever told me how. As a child, patience was synonymous with waiting, as if there were any other choice but to wait when dinner wasn't ready, or Christmas was still 2 months away. The Dalai Lama provided these step by step instructions:
1) Develop enthusiasm for patience by deeply acknowledging the destructive nature of anger.
2) Practice patience toward mild discomforts so as to be prepared for more challenging situations.
Many of us rely on anger to feel powerful and effective. The energy of anger is useful, the actions of anger are not. I personally have never acted on my urge to yell at someone, throw something, or punch a wall without some amount of regret. Even if I felt some mild satisfaction at first, ultimately, acting on anger has left me feeling out of control, embarrassed, and small. So what does it mean to say that the energy of anger is useful? Consider the civil rights movement that continues today-- if no one were angry about the unfair treatment of people of color, change wouldn't have happened. Yet many of those angry people demonstrated peacefully, calling calmly for change. They used their anger to motivate effective, non-destructive action. Anger can be the fuel that gets the car going, but it doesn't have to dictate the destination. When we recognize that acting in anger creates more harm than good, and only serves to increase our negative emotion, we can lean wholeheartedly in to patience.
Just like you wouldn't want to learn CPR at the scene of a car crash, patience as a skill must be learned and practiced for mild discomforts. We ultimately practice patience by saying yes where anger says no. Anger tells us that a situation is unacceptable as it is and fights against a painful reality rather than accepting it. You can't fix a problem you refuse to see, which is why acting in anger is so often ineffective-- anger characteristically refuses to accept what is. Patience is accepting a painful reality. If patience could speak to us it would say, "yes, this traffic is moving too slowly for you to get to work on time, and there's nothing to be done about that, so let's watch those negative judgments about how terribly unfair this is without clinging to them, and allow this moment to pass." When we practice patience for minor problems like traffic jams, we increase the likelihood that it will be available to us when we find out our child is smoking marijuana, or when we see an incendiary post defaming our candidate of choice. Patience allows us an opportunity to channel the energy of our anger into actions that are based in compassion and kindness. Instead of telling that so-called Facebook friend how stupid they are, patience creates the space for real listening, real connection, and increases the chances that our actions will have a positive impact rather than deepen division.
When all else fails, when anger has moved our minds towards plans of spiteful, defensive action, FREEZE. The more mindful we become of our triggers to anger, the more time we will have to interrupt the process of experiencing an event, judging it negatively, feeling our anger, and acting rashly. We don't have to be levitating, enlightened monks in order to stop ourselves from slamming that door or hardening our hearts. We just have to become aware and be willing to take three breaths when anger arises. Freezing and breathing helps us get back in to contact with the moment and out of the story of our anger. Patience allows us to interact effectively with our anger instead of being pushed around by it. Patience makes room for our compassion.
"Genuine compassion is based on the rationale that just as I do, others also have the innate desire to be happy and overcome suffering; just as I do, they have the natural right to fulfill this fundamental aspiration. Based on that recognition of this fundamental equality and commonality, one develops a sense of affinity and closeness, and based on that, one will generate love and compassion. That is genuine compassion (Dalai Lama, Healing Anger)."