He said, “Illumination has no emotional afflictions. With piercing, quietly profound radiance, it eliminates all disgrace. Many lifetimes of misunderstanding come only from distrust, hindrance, and screens of confusion that we create in a scenario of isolation.”
That last sentence is very wonderful, I think.
I don’t want to get hung up on the fact that he said, “many lifetimes of misunderstanding.” I think we could easily get hung up on that, and just be thinking about reincarnation/rebirth, and I don’t want to get caught up in that.
I want to talk about how our misunderstanding comes from distrust, hindrance, and screens of confusion that we create in a scenario of isolation.
We misunderstand things because we are in a scenario of isolation. We think of ourselves as limited, and as separate from the people around us. We don’t always realize other people are having the same struggles we do. That’s how we create this scenario of isolation, we think we’re alone in our suffering, and that’s not true. We’re all having suffering, we’re all having problems. We’re all having similar problems, really. That’s the scenario of isolation that we’ve created.
Ram Dass - who is a Hindu spiritual teacher, not a Buddhist spiritual teacher, but he’s someone I like a lot - said, “We are not alone. Not because there are many others, but because there are none.”
I like that. It’s saying that we’re all in this together, we’re all struggling. We all have sickness, old age, and death. That’s a very important thing to remember, and I think we forget that when we get mad at each other. We forget that we’re all suffering, we’re all experiencing sickness, old age, and death. Every human being on this planet, regardless of their views, regardless of whether or not they agree with us on things, regardless of whether or not they do really awful crimes. We’re all struggling with old age, sickness, and death. We’re all seeing people we love get old and sick, and die, and we’re all getting old and getting sick and dying. We’re all in this together.
It’s sort of like we’re in a burning building, and instead of trying to get out, we’re fighting with each other about who’s going to get out first. Life is like a burning building.
That is what the scenario of isolation is and, again, we make that ourselves.
We are filled with distrust because we’ve all been kicked in the heart sometimes. Maybe we’ve all been kicked in the heart a bunch of times, but we’ve definitely all been kicked in the heart a few times. We’ve all been kicked in the heart, and that makes our heart closed, and it’s hard for us to trust others. It’s hard for us to love others. We tend to sort of project that and think, “Well I was kicked in the heart by this person; therefore, I’m going to get kicked in the heart again. Everyone’s going to let me down.”
A lot of the time, that doesn’t serve us. When we bring baggage from our previous experience into our present experience, that often does not serve us. That’s not to say we shouldn’t learn from the past, because we should, but we shouldn’t live in the past. We need to live in the here and now, and to do that is to not revisit bad things that were done to us in the past over and over. We don’t want to live in the past, and we don’t want to keep getting hurt by the same experience in the past over and over, we want to take our experience and we want to learn from it, and we want to move on.
I make that sound really simple and easy, and of course it’s not, but that’s what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about not getting caught up in distrust. We’re talking about having an open heart. We’re talking about practices that help us learn how to open our heart so that we aren’t stuck behind a screen of distrust all the time.
We are confused, and we often don’t see the world as it really is. We see the world through a filter. I like to think of those old-timey 3D glasses when I was a kid that aren’t around anymore, where it’s red on one eye and blue on the other eye. When you put those on and you’re not watching a movie, you just see the world and it looks kind of messed up. I like to think that’s what our perception is like.
Into every experience we are bringing all of our neurosis and all our baggage. We’re bringing that into every experience in our lives, and we’re not seeing the world as it is. We’re seeing the world as we are, or as we expect it to be. That’s what we’re talking about - screens of confusion.
Rarely is the world what we expect it to be. If we can put down our screens of confusion and be in the present moment and just see the world as it is, just for a few minutes, I think it can really transform our lives.
Now I’m going to talk about hindrances. The screens of hindrance that we have. I’m going to talk about that as what we call the poisons - greed, hatred, and delusion. I’m going to zero in on hatred, because I think that is something that we all struggle with. Maybe hatred isn’t the right word, and we could call it ill-will, or we could even call it anger, I think. We think of hatred as something really extreme and that’s not what I’m talking about, I’m talking about when we wish harm on another person, or when we delight at another person experiencing harm. I’m especially talking about when we let our anger get the better of us.
Is anger ever helpful?
I want to first of all say that I think our language around anger is really good. By that I mean, we often say, “I’m angry,” and I think that’s really reflective of what anger is like a lot of the time. “I’m angry” means that anger is taking over my being. I’m not Daniel if I’m angry, I’m angry. I’m not a person if I’m angry, I’m just that feeling of anger. It’s dominating my thinking. It’s making me sweat, it’s maybe making me turn red, it’s making me lash out at things that aren’t related to what I’m angry about. It’s dominating our thinking. We say “I’m angry” because anger has that tendency to just dominate our thinking and shove everything else out.
We could instead use the language, “I’m experiencing the emotion of anger.” If we’ve got a handle on our anger, we’re not angry, it’s not dominating our thinking, we’re just experiencing the emotion of anger.
An example of what I mean. If you’ve had small children you know there are times that, for no reason, they push back. When you tell them to put on their shoes, or put on a jacket, or finish their dinner. Whatever you’re doing, there are times when kids push back for no reason. And that is irritating. There are times when children push back, and I become angry. There are times when I don’t become angry, but I experience the emotion of anger. When I become angry, I’m going to yell at them, and the secret truth is that yelling at them doesn’t really accomplish very much. Maybe some kids respond really well to being yelled at, but the kids in my house do not. They push back harder, and it escalates.
That is unskilful anger. It is unskilful anger if it escalates. It is unskilful anger if I yell at someone and they yell back, or I yell at a child who’s not listening and they don’t listen even harder. That doesn’t help anybody. That is a situation where becoming angry is not useful. I don’t always remember that, but I try to always remember that.
I think we could have all sorts of experiences like that in our lives, outside of children. Of course we could have difficult co-workers, or of course sometimes we get angry at our significant others. That’s natural. If you’re around someone all the time, or you’re very close to someone, you’re going to get angry at them sometimes.
The question that I want to ask, and I’m wondering if we can answer is: Does it help? Does it help us?
I know I’ve heard people saying, “I had a right to be angry in this situation. This person was really awful to me and I have a right to be angry.”
I don’t want to think in those terms. I don’t think it’s about having the right to be angry. Why is it about rights? It’s only about, “Is my response to this situation helping me?” Getting angry - and I want to advocate trying to experience the emotion of anger rather than getting angry - but in both cases I think we can really ask ourselves, “Is this response to the situation helpful to me?”
Because it is a response. Getting angry or feeling the emotion of anger, feeling any emotion is a response to a situation. It’s not about, “I have the right to get angry,” because I think emotions by their nature, we always have a right to have a feeling. I don’t think of feelings as justified or not justified. I think that’s a silly way to look at emotions, because it doesn’t matter. Feelings are not right or wrong, they just are. Feelings just are. When they arise, we can try to manage them and try to kind of have a moment to pause and say, “Is this feeling helpful to me?” Or, “Is lashing out helpful to me? Or should I hold back?”
Rarely does lashing out in anger help anyone. It almost always ruins whatever situation you’re in. It almost always escalates and makes things worse, and makes you less happy. I don’t want to make a huge blanket statement and say anger has never helped anyone; it would be unfair to say that. I do want to say that it very rarely helps anyone. It almost always hurts.
I think maybe when we think we’re really one hundred percent right in a situation, then maybe lashing out gives us a feeling of pleasure at the time. I think that’s a thing that happens, but that kind of pleasure is fleeting. Ultimately it may give us a sense of pleasure but that doesn’t mean it’s helping the situation. That doesn’t mean it’s helping anyone.
I think we need to be very careful, and I think that’s why in Buddhism, anger is listed as one of the three poisons. It can really ruin things for you. You can lash out for one second in anger and it can ruin things for a long time. It can ruin a friendship, it can ruin a conversation, it can ruin a relationship. Anger can do all those things, and that’s why it’s listed as a poison. It’s not listed as a poison because it’s always bad, it’s listed as a poison because when it is bad, it’s really problematic. It really hurts a lot.
The truth is that extremes of all kinds hinder our ability to see the world clearly. You see what I did there? I didn’t say they prevent us from seeing the world clearly, and I didn’t say they make it impossible to see the world clearly. I am saying they hinder our ability to see the world clearly, and we need to have that in mind.
I think if you drink three beers in a row, it hinders your ability to see the world clearly. It doesn’t completely destroy your ability to see the world clearly, but it hinders it. Probably a lot of things we put into our body do, right? If I drink a bunch of coffee in a row, it also hinders my ability to see the world clearly.
I think we need to think about that. So that we know, and we can reflect and say, “Am I seeing the world clearly?”
I will not say it’s not okay to be angry, but I will say that we need to have a lot of care. A lot of self-care around anger. If we start to tell ourselves that it’s okay to be angry, we could run into trouble. And again, it's not about good or bad, we have the experience of anger because we’re experiencing anger.
We have the power to learn how to have a space in between what’s called stimulus and response. The stimulus is somebody doing something that upsets us a lot, and the response is how we handle that. If somebody says or does something that makes us angry, we can have that space where we think, “Am I going to escalate if I do something? Should I do nothing? Is doing nothing worse than doing something?”
We can have that space to think about that, and try to be clear headed. Although it’s hard, we can try to be clear headed.
It’s also suggested that anger is addictive, that it’s chemically addictive in our brains. That is kind of a scary thing to think about, right? It’s addictive because when we’re angry, we really think we’re right. We love to think we’re right. That gives us feelings that kind of bring a sort of pleasure into our minds. I think, “Because I’m angry, I must be right.” That’s kind of what we convince ourselves sometimes. Being right feels really good, therefore it’s addictive. And that is really dangerous.
I think the more we give in to anger, the more we are likely to give in to anger in the future. There are these pathways in our brain, and we strengthen these pathways when we indulge them. The more we give in to anger, the more likely we are to give in to anger. The more we create space and try to strengthen our ability to see the world clearly, and the more we engage being in the present moment, the more likely we are to do those things, too. That is how the brain works. We want to strengthen those pathways that are helpful to us, and we want to not strengthen the ones that get in our way.
Anger gets in our way. Not always, but often.