How Do I Deal With Painful Thoughts of Revenge?

You needn’t give harbor to thoughts of ill will, says Lewis Richmond, no matter how justified they seem to be.

Lewis Richmond
31 January 2017
Art by Mike R. Baker.

Question: Someone did a real wrong to me recently and now I’m haunted by thoughts of revenge. Although I think they deserve it, I know I shouldn’t try to hurt them back. How do I deal with these painful thoughts of revenge while still recognizing the harm that was done to me?

Answer: This situation is quite human. Revenge seems to offer relief, and we are tempted to believe it will help us. As Thrangu Rinpoche, a contemporary Mahamudra master, says, “We think we deserve this anger, we think we have a right to this anger.”

You have already realized that this attitude is not wholesome. In this way you are honoring the Buddhist precept not to “harbor ill will.” But deep ego (the unconscious) keeps bringing ill will up. It knows that it has been wounded and legitimately wants to be healed.

Loving-kindness can help, particularly when directed to yourself: “May I be filled with loving-kindness; may I be free from this suffering.” That can be your prayer—you can say it and think it. Deep ego, like a distressed child, appreciates this comfort.

The lasting way to liberate an instance of ill will is to see directly into its empty nature. My teacher, Suzuki Roshi, taught that when we breathe out, we can let go of affliction; with the next inhale we can start over with a clear, pure mind. For one breath, anyway, revenge disappears. And each time it arises, it can disappear again. Over time it may disappear altogether.

Suzuki Roshi called this practice “beginner’s mind,” and said it was the secret of all Zen practice. Seeing the empty nature of phenomena is the touchstone of all Buddhism, but for it to really heal our afflictions it has to be more than a doctrine or idea. We have to practice it, in meditation and in life. In that way even revenge can be our teacher.

Lewis Richmond

Lewis Richmond

Lewis Richmond is a Zen teacher and author of Aging as a Spiritual Practice. His new book is Every Breath, New Chances: How to Age with Honor and Dignity, a Guide for Men.