Once, in the Christian church I was then attending, the priest told the story of how, when Jesus was close to death, his students asked him to sum up his teachings. “Love one another,” Jesus told them.
When I heard this, I wanted to ask Jesus, “But how do I do that?” Sure, I wanted to love and be loved. I wanted to never think mean thoughts, never be impatient, never be angry again. I knew my anger was chasing people away. But the people in my life were such idiots! How could I love them?
Since then, I’ve learned from Buddhism that the opposite of anger isn’t love. It’s patience. Zazen meditation is basically patience, and after so many years of Zen practice you’d think I’d have mastered patience by now. But no. It’s true I’m no longer seized by uncontrollable anger, like I used to be, yet anger is still there, always available. Anger is patient too.
When I went to see my haircutter for a trim last week, she was late, not late like, “Please excuse me, I’ll get to you as fast as I can,” but late like, “I forgot about you.” Although I couldn’t get over my irritation, I didn’t say anything—I needed the haircut.
When she finally got to me after half an hour, she said I didn’t have to pay her. I said I wanted to and gave her the money I owed her. But the next day, she sent me a long text saying she didn’t want to cut my hair anymore on the grounds I had been disrespectful to her. That’s right—she had seen the anger I was trying to hide, and I got fired. I thought of telling her, “If you knew how hard I worked to control my emotions, you wouldn’t fire me. You’d give me a gold star!”
Days later, I went to my ophthalmologist. I have early-stage macular degeneration, and the last time I saw the optometrist she said it looked like the disease was progressing. When I arrived at the office, her assistant told me they were running late. She checked in with me frequently while I waited, and even brought me three bite-sized candy bars because she saw on my chart it was my birthday. I read my book, eating my candy bars, for an hour and a half. Finally, when the doctor looked at the eye scan and then at my eyes, she told me my macular degeneration wasn’t progressing. That was a great birthday gift!
Why was I so irritated by the half-hour wait for the haircutter, but not by the ninety-minute wait for the eye doctor? The answer was that the haircutter first ignored me, then insisted I forgive her. What she couldn’t know—and I only realized while writing this—is that I wasn’t even reacting to her. It was my mother, the woman who ignored me for most of her life, who I was upset with. At the doctor’s office, on the other hand, I found the good mother who reassured me. Feeling seen, I was happy to wait.
So, what if I’d been able to wave the haircutter’s mistake aside, as she wanted me to? That would be an easier way to navigate the world, but it’s not me. Of the three hindrances of greed, anger, and delusion, I most often revert to anger.
The late Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi taught that we must learn to live with our problems, because they’ll always be with us; we can’t use meditation practice to create a happy life forever. On the other hand, who doesn’t come to spiritual practice seeking relief from the “problems” causing pain? Although living with our difficulties is a nice idea, it’s easier said than done.
The Buddha said that for each painful situation we face in life, we are struck by two arrows. The first arrow is the painful situation itself, while the second arrow is the way we rail against the pain of our situation and wish that things were different. The first arrow is outside of our control, but we inflict the second arrow on ourselves, and it is this second arrow that is the true source of our suffering.
In my case, the second arrow—the reason my problems are such problems—is not that I get angry, or even that I haven’t yet resolved my argument with my mother, but that I think I shouldn’t be this way. The real problem is I’m always trying to find a life without problems.
I know people think we meditate so we’ll be calm. I, however, don’t think that’s it at all. I meditate to learn the workings of the mind—to see that it wasn’t the haircutter I was reacting to. I can mumble endlessly about peace and compassion, yet if I don’t see how my mind works, my small self-traumas will keep running the show, and I’ll never be able to know the unconditional love that is the great awakening.
Asking myself why I practice is a good question to spend some time with when I’m struggling with anger. I can say Zen is a process of whittling away at the ego, but am I actually willing drop my defenses and stand open in the world? I talk about saving all beings and being useful, but am I just repeating the party line as a way to soothe myself? Do I want to learn tricks to bypass anger when it arises, or do I want to face it and learn from it? Do I want comfort, or do I want liberation? Do I want to save myself, or do I want to save all beings? Can I do both, or do I have to choose?
Finally, the question becomes: Am I able to agree with Jesus and love all my neighbors, including my dead mother and even myself, just as I am?
For years, when I’ve talked about wondering how to follow Jesus’ teaching to love others, I’ve said that I learned the answer when I was taught how to meditate. And maybe that’s actually true. Trusting life to be life and dropping my vain attempts to control it—this is love, or at least a portal to it.