Of Course I’m Angry

As his marriage falls apart, Gabriel Cohen has a chance encounter with Buddhism that shows him the anger is his alone, and serves no one.

Gabriel Cohen1 September 2008
Photo by Julian Bock

Three years ago I was standing in a real estate office filling out a rental application when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a big man enter and approach the realtor. The stranger muttered something, then shoved the young man. I thought he was just kidding—a friend roughhousing?—until he pinned the realtor against a wall and started punching holes in the Sheetrock, four of them, circling the frightened man’s head.

Breathless, I ran out to the store next door and urged the woman behind the counter to call the police. “The guy next door is about to be killed!”

I tiptoed back to check on the realtor. Thankfully, his assailant had disappeared, leaving him alive and unhurt, but the man was still trembling.

“Who was that?” I asked. “Some crazy person off the street?”

“No,” the realtor replied. “His ex-wife used to work here. He was drunk, and he was looking for her.”

I walked out of the office into a New York heat wave, a day so hot that the asphalt was threatening to melt. I was in the middle of the worst period of my life: a month before, my own wife had suddenly—without warning or apology—walked out of our marriage.

I thought about that stranger’s anger, and I thought about my own.

I considered myself a generally cheerful person, prone to corny jokes and bad impressions of TV characters, but that jovial self-image had been severely tested during the last few months of my marriage. Our landlord had decided to sell the house my wife and I were renting an apartment in. Though she and I had gotten along well for four years, our search for a new home led to all sorts of disagreements, and then to outright verbal fights (which pointed to other hidden problems in our relationship).

After our marriage fell apart, I trudged through the city streets, praying that I could find an affordable place on my own. I spent endless hours playing a mental loop in which I railed against my ex-wife, her friends, and even her therapist. At around that time, fortunately, I stumbled across a poster for a Buddhist talk. I knew little about Buddhism; I saw it as a foreign, esoteric religion full of rituals and chanting, or a New Age fad for rock stars and Hollywood actors. But the title of the talk grabbed my attention: How to Deal with Anger (not—as my preconceptions might have led me to expect—How to Bliss Out and Pretend You’re Not Really Angry). Under ordinary circumstances I would have passed on by, but I was suffering and desperate. What did I have to lose?

That very first talk turned my whole world upside down—or right-side up. I was greatly surprised to hear that if I was angry at my wife, my wife was not the problem. My problem was my anger.

I used to think of the spiritual path as a detached, solo journey, like Moses trekking up the mountain, or the Buddha wandering off to sit under his bodhi tree. I imagined how challenging it would be to renounce life’s pleasures and meditate in a cave. Now I realize that life offers a much more common but just as powerful spiritual trial: just try getting along with one other person for the rest of your life. Tie the knot. In good times, the rewards are great: the intimacy, the support, the joy of being loved and of loving someone else. Sometimes, though, the positive energy of a marriage seems to derail, to twist, to spiral into a negative whirlwind. It almost appears as if the more good energy you put into a relationship, the more bad feeling can come howling out the other side.

In my case, I was sorely tempted to blame my wife for our problems. After all, I had gone into marriage with the understanding that it would inevitably entail struggling through some hard times; she was the one who had refused to put in the hard work that any relationship requires. I thought she was making me feel angry—and heartbroken, and betrayed, and all that other fun stuff. I mean, I knew my anger was an internal feeling, but it felt as if it was coming to me from her, as if it could leap from one person to the other. I didn’t see my anger as a sign of my own irrationality; I thought it made perfect sense. My wife had behaved unreasonably—of course I was getting upset.

As I mentioned, though, that Buddhist talk rocked my view.

It took place in a yoga studio. The teacher held up a book. “How many of you think this exists independently of your mind?”

Everyone in the audience raised their hand.

As the teacher led us to see, though, our only way of knowing the book was there was by filtering our perception of it through our own minds. And that’s true of every single thing in our lives: the objects around us, the people, our concepts, everything. Our entire experience of life is shaped by how we perceive and how we think.

Normally, we believe that we need to reshape our external circumstances to improve how we feel (more money, a better job, a more accommodating spouse), but that’s a huge, never-ending, continually frustrating quest. Buddhism recommends a much more feasible, achievable goal: we can transform our lives by changing how we think about them. As the eighth-century sage Shantideva put it, if we want to avoid stepping on thorns, we can’t possibly cover the whole world with leather—but we can cover our own feet.

Somehow, I realized early on that being pissed off at my ex was not making me feel better. I needed to find a more positive way out of my suffering. The fact that my emotions only existed inside my own head was great news; it meant that they were not dependent on my ex-wife, or how the legal proceedings developed, or on any other external factors. I could improve my experience of divorce by taking responsibility for my feelings, and by learning how to train my mind. And so—like millions of Buddhist practitioners before me—I set out on a journey of internal exploration, observing my thoughts like a scientist peering at electrons buzzing around inside a cloud chamber. I made some fundamental discoveries.

I found that I was not “an angry person”—I was simply a person experiencing angry thoughts. Like all thoughts, they were just temporary, just passing through my head like storms through a clear blue sky. They didn’t have the power to damage the inherent clarity of my mind. And they couldn’t force me to act in an angry way. I learned that it was possible to put a little pause, a breathing space, between an external event and my reaction to it, in order to discover a broader range of options.

As I probed deeper, I realized that—in almost every case—my anger arose out of a deep, internal sense of hurt. That feeling was uncomfortable, often intolerable, and I would try to get rid of it by projecting it outward. That seemed to offer some sense of relief, but it had pained my wife and damaged our relationship.

Often, my hurt arose out of a perceived sense of injustice. Like legions of foolish men before me, I believed that being right was the essential thing. When conflicts arose, I argued like an expensive trial lawyer. I won some battles, but I lost the war.

I don’t want to overstate how angry I was. My wife and I actually got along very peacefully and lovingly for the great majority of our time together. I’m generally pretty upbeat and laid-back, and I have friends who say that they can hardly even imagine me angry.

On the other hand, that Buddhist talk made me realize that I was probably underestimating how angry I—and most people—really are, much of the time. We tend to believe that anger is an aberration, an emotion that only arises in exceptional circumstances. But pick up any newspaper and you’ll see how prevalent it is in the world at large: abuse, assault, murder, war. And it’s pervasive in our daily lives. We’re peeved that it starts raining just as we decide to go out for a walk. We’re disappointed that we didn’t win the lottery (even if we didn’t buy a ticket!). We’re irate because our parents didn’t love us enough, or loved us too much. We’re aggrieved that our life is not turning out as we wish or believe it should. Some of us can’t acknowledge our anger; we suppress it and become depressed, or try to salve it with alcohol or food or shopping—or we run away. (If you doubt that there’s an unacknowledged current of anger underlying your daily existence, just notice how it flares up the instant someone cuts you off in traffic or steals your parking space. Did it arise out of nowhere, or was it already there?)

Among all our spurs to anger, why is a failed marriage so especially powerful? Partly, it’s because our expectations are so high and unrealistic. We buy into a fairy tale that our spouse will relieve us of all our existential suffering and loneliness; we believe that they should make us happy all the time. As Buddhism points out, that’s not love; it’s an ego-based delusion called desirous attachment. When that false ideal falls apart, it’s quickly replaced by disappointment and hostility. It’s much easier to blame our spouse than to acknowledge the fundamental wrongness of our own view.

It’s not a thin line between love and hate; Buddhism says that true love is never the cause of suffering. It’s a thin line between unreasonable expectations and the stinging disenchantment that arises when they can’t be met. A big part of the solution is learning to let go of our expectations of what should happen, and to be more accepting of what life actually brings. As the thirteenth-century Zen teacher and philosopher Dogen beautifully put it, “A flower falls, even though we love it; and a weed grows, even though we do not love it.”

As I developed a practice, I came to understand that my feelings of disappointment and hurt and injustice were all rooted in the same toxic soil: an inflated sense of the primacy of my own needs and desires—what Buddhists call self-cherishing. My anger was a childish wail of complaint: What about ME?

A remarkable meditation called taking and giving helped me start letting go of my self-centeredness and resentment. As I went to more Buddhist talks, I became familiar with the technique of imagining that I was exhaling my tensions and frustrations as dark smoke, and that I was inhaling a clear, blissful light. One day, though, after a talk on anger, the teacher offered an astonishing, counterintuitive exercise. She said that if we were angry with someone, we should imagine breathing in their suffering as dark smoke, and that we should imagine breathing toward them that blissful light. In the early days of my divorce, the last thing I wanted was to imagine that I was taking on my wife’s troubles, but when I tried the meditation, it had a profound effect: it helped me to see her as a suffering person in her own right. I had already found that when my heart was full of anger, it held no room for compassion. While doing this meditation, I discovered that the reverse was also true.

In regard to my big desire to be in the right, Buddhism offered another counterintuitive, helpful method: accepting defeat and offering the victory. Instead of always trying to win, I could surrender my own agenda in the service of a greater peace: I could lose battles, and the war might disappear.

Buddhists say that the antidote to anger is patience. One thing that has helped me move toward that goal has been learning to see that things do not inherently exist in the way that I perceive them to (the Buddhist concept of emptiness.) That may sound abstract and intellectual, but it’s easy to apply to relationships. When Zen master Shunryu Suzuki was asked to sum up the essence of his philosophy, he replied with just three words: not necessarily so. If I get riled up now, I repeat those words to myself, a reminder that my perception of what’s going on is undoubtedly incomplete and likely faulty. The anger I perceive in someone else may be arising out of hurt; their seeming stubbornness may cover insecurity and fear.

Did all this new knowledge miraculously enable me to eradicate my anger? Of course not. But at least I started getting better at recognizing it when it first arose, and calming myself before I might act on it.

Eventually, I came to see that anger was a false friend. Though it might seem to bolster me, to save me from depression, to keep me moving forward, it worked against me. Each impetuous e-mail, each vengeful riposte, each passive-aggressive refusal to respond—they all came back to bite me in the end. In fact, Buddhism says that acting out of anger is never the skillful thing to do.

You might think of certain exceptions. What about anger directed against social injustice? And isn’t it necessary and therapeutic to express some anger?

I can think of at least three answers to these objections.

First, anger causes us to perceive its object in a distorted way. We turn the person we’re mad at into an ogre. We become unable to see their good qualities, and we get pumped full of a blinding adrenalin that often causes our interactions to spiral out of control. Anger leads us to see things in a polarized, sharply dualistic way. We believe we’re good; we believe our enemies are evil.

If you think that’s a helpful way to look at conflict, just look at what it has done for the Israelis and Palestinians, Hutus and Tutsis, Armenians and Turks, etc., etc., etc. Of course, it’s important to work against injustice, but we need to do so wisely, with clear eyes and a compassionate, understanding view of all sides. As Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Dalai Lama have so ably demonstrated, a calm mind gets better results. These wise leaders were able to see that, just as our anger is a delusion arising out of our suffering, the anger of our “enemies” is also a delusion, like a sickness in their minds. We should fight the delusion, not the people who suffer from it.

Second, though some therapists tout the benefits of expressing anger in a controlled way, such as punching a pillow, recent research in neuroscience contradicts that notion: if you punch a pillow, you’re actually exercising your brain’s neural pathways for aggression.

Finally, our anger damages us as well as the object of our wrath. It increases our heart rate, elevates our blood pressure, and has other serious health effects. As the saying goes, anger is an acid that corrodes the vessel that holds it. This seems stupidly obvious to me now, but when I was tromping around the streets of Brooklyn running my resentful little mental loops, I failed to realize that they had absolutely no effect on my wife. I was just working myself into an increasingly agitated state—punching holes, in effect, in a wall that only I could see. I was carrying around an entirely unhelpful burden, and I had to resolve to set it down.

In case I needed a more forceful demonstration of the dangers of anger, life soon provided one. A few minutes after I left that real estate office, I came across another realtor. Miraculously, she drove me straight to a fantastic apartment, in a big old Victorian house with a front porch and a back patio, a stained glass window, and even a chandelier. By New York standards, the rent was cheap. It wasn’t until a few weeks later—just before I moved in—that I found out why. It turned out that my landlord had been having troubles with his own marriage.

One night, in a fit of rage, he had killed his wife.

In my new apartment.

The message could not have been clearer: this is what can happen if you let anger win.

Three years of working with Buddhist insights and practice have certainly not turned me into a saint, but occasionally I see evidence of progress.

My writing desk faces a window that looks out on the street. My neighborhood is generally quiet, but several days ago a stranger parked a luxury car directly outside. After a few minutes, its car alarm started going off—the worst kind, the one where the horn continually bleats. I sat there trying to work, getting increasingly frustrated and annoyed. Finally, I wrote a note, and then I marched out and stuck it under the windshield. (What kind of note? Let’s put it this way: the salutation read “Dear Asshole.”)

When I came back inside, I sat there listening to the alarm. And I stared at my note. It took a while, but eventually my new training kicked in. At first I thought my blast of anger would cause the owner of the car to feel regretful and ashamed; I finally realized that it would only make him angry in return.

I replaced it with a new note. I did my best to keep my emotions out of it. Calmly, I explained that the car alarm was broken. What else did I have to say? I didn’t need to inflate the problem by adding all sorts of self-righteousness and drama; I just called it to his attention, and then I let it go.

At the end of a long path, after extensive mental training, we might hope to become completely free of anger. In the meantime, it can act as a fire that consumes us, or a bell that warns us when something is wrong—not with our circumstances, but with the way that we’re thinking about them.

The choice is ours.

Gabriel Cohen

Gabriel Cohen is author of Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce, as well as three novels, including The Graving Dock, a mystery with a Buddhist subplot. He lives in Brooklyn and likes to meditate next to a lake in Prospect Park.