53 – Freedom From the Bonds of Anger & Hatred

In order to be free from the bonds of anger and hatred, we have to practice. We cannot simply pray or ask for anger or hatred to be removed from us. In this episode, I will discuss how we can use mindfulness practice as a tool to transform the craving, anger, and delusion within us and instead experience transformation and healing.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.

Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 53. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about freedom from the bonds of anger and hatred.

Like many of you I woke up this morning to the sad news of yet another mass shooting, another senseless act of violence that affected the lives of so many innocent people. Prior to this event, I had already been thinking a lot about anger and hatred, and how these are common emotions in our society, and how hatred can erupt so easily in our society today as well as in our own personal lives and our relationships, and how these emotions affect us so deeply. I think it’s important to clarify the difference between anger and hatred. According to Dr. Joseph Burgo, the voice behind the Psychology Today blog called Shame, he says we can distinguish between anger and hatred in two ways, intensity and duration. It helps to think of them as occurring along a spectrum.

Anger might be triggered when a loved one does something that frustrates us. It tends to come and go, and it doesn’t crowd out all of the other feelings for that person. We can often voice it in ways that aren’t hurtful. Hatred lasts longer and it’s more pervasive. It tends to overwhelm us and obscure everything else we might feel. It makes us want to take action to hurt or destroy whatever inspires the hatred. I think it’s interesting that he mentions that anger doesn’t necessarily crowd out all the other feelings. It’s something we can still work with, but hatred does. I think that’s the key difference. I’m sure you’ve heard of the expression blind rage. To me this is the danger of an emotion like hatred as opposed to anger. It binds us and it blinds us from the moment to moment feelings that we have from other emotions. Often other emotions that are also present like love or kindness, but these things get pushed into the background and become blinded by the one negative emotion that seems to take center stage.

I often think about people who commit heinous acts of violence like mass murderers, or serial killers, people like Hitler for example. In most cases, these are people who also feel kindness. They also feel love. They often have families, siblings, parents, or even children. Even Hitler had a romantic partner, and he had dogs. I have no doubt that he loved his dogs. He fed them, he pet them. How is it that someone who can feel love and kindness on one level for some people in their lives at the same time can be filled with such hatred and hateful actions towards others? It makes sense to me to think that their anger had turned to hatred and crowded out all the other feelings. It’s not to say those other feelings weren’t there. I think sometimes it’s easy for us to use that image as a scapegoat, that someone capable of committing such horrible acts must be inherently evil or psychotic.

No doubt that psychosis does play a part in this for some of these instances, but in a lot of these instances I think it’s just a matter of hatred becoming so binding and so blinding that all the other emotions that are there take a back seat. Anger is often associated to being a negative emotion. It’s a bad emotion that we’re not supposed to feel. I think this is especially prevalent as a way of thinking in our Western society. However, the truth is that anger, it’s just an emotion similar to happiness, similar to sadness. We’re hardwired to feel emotions, whether we want to or not. Certain experiences will automatically trigger these emotions. Often times when triggered, the rational or pragmatic part of our mind ends up just going along for the ride. It’s a lot like the story that I share often about the rider on the horse whose galloping at full speed in the field. When asked where are you going, replies quite honestly I don’t know, ask the horse.

If you’ve ever been in the doctor’s office and you’ve had that reflex test where the doctor strikes your patellar ligament right under your kneecap, you know that the reflex you can’t help it. If everything goes according to plan and you’re physiologically sound, what happens is you get tapped there and you kick. That’s it. The strike placed properly will trigger the reaction, whether you want it or not. I think our emotions are often similar reactions to specific causes and conditions that are present in our lives. They often refer to the visual example of life being like a game of Tetris. I think anger may be the emotion that’s triggered when a new shape shows up and I didn’t want that shape. It’s either inconvenient to my game strategy, or it’s just unpleasant, but the moment that I want it to be other than it is, it’s likely that I’m feeling anger.

Now hatred on the other hand usually comes up when we feel threatened. There’s a sense of threat or fear associated to this. The fear of what threatens us often fuels the hatred to eliminate that perceived threat. You can see how from an evolutionary standpoint this can be a useful survival strategy. However, in our normal day to day lives our modern threat assessments I think are quite inaccurate. We commonly associate a threat to our self-esteem, or a threat to our sense of self-worth as if it were on the same level as an existential threat. Then the feelings of anger can become so uncomfortable that we do everything that we can to try to avoid the feeling or to suppress it. In that case, these feelings becomes like knots. They’re like knots that form inside of us.

From a physical standpoint this happens with our muscles. You can get a knot in your muscle and then it’s stuck there until you go and you get a massage, or have it taken out. Knots are very uncomfortable. I think emotional knots are similar. If we don’t know how to undo these knots, they stay there for a long time. I’m sure we all know someone who has, or has had, anger or hatred inside of them for a long time. It’s not a pleasant thing to see or to experience. Ultimately these knots, they rob us of our freedom. It reaches the point where we are governed by the knots that we have inside of us. We’re no longer free to feel joy and contentment when we’re bound by emotions like anger and hatred. I think this is why there’s that very effective visual story common in Buddhism of someone holding onto a hot ember, or a hot coal, with the intent of throwing it at someone else. Meanwhile, the person holding it is the only one being burned, the only one truly experiencing discomfort.

From the Buddhist perspective, holding on to anger or to hatred, it’s not a moral issue. It’s not about being morally right or wrong. It’s simply an unwise action. Rather than evading the painful truth of how we feel, we’re encouraged to embrace the reality of our feelings and to try to not, to acknowledge feelings like anger and hatred to understand them, to understand the causes and conditions that allow these feelings to arise. Often times trying to understand the causes and conditions of the causes and conditions. Managing hatred can be extremely difficult because of its intensity in the moment, because it makes us want to attack or even destroy whatever we perceive as causing it.

In order to be free from the bonds of anger and hatred, we have to practice. This is why I wanted to discuss this topic today because it’s not an issue of saying a magic word, or we can’t simply pray it away, or ask for this anger or hatred to be removed from us. The Buddhist approach offers a very straightforward instruction on how we can transform the craving, anger, and the delusion within us. This is with the practice of mindfulness meditation. It helps us to undo these knots and to experience transformation and healing. Now something I like to do when these horrible events happen, like the shooting in Las Vegas, rather than just looking at this thinking that crazy person who could do that, I would never do that. I like to pause and think do I harbor in myself any anger or hatred towards any group or individual that could ever escalate to doing something like this.

I think it’s important for us to be able to recognize in moments like this that often times what you have here is a relatively ordinary person committing an extraordinary act. They’re not that different from us. These are people who are probably experiencing fear, anger, or hatred to the point where it causes them to commit something like this. I don’t think it helps for us to immediately ostracize them as an anomaly. That’s something an evil person would do, but I’m not evil. Well, I would venture to say that a few days ago that person was probably very similar to us thinking that they’re normal. I want to reaffirm with this presentation on anger and hatred that anger and hatred are just emotions. There’s nothing inherently wrong with feeling them.

Like any other emotion, anger and hatred have causes and conditions. When the causes and conditions are there, the emotion arises. When the causes and conditions are not there, the emotion is not there. It’s a lot like what we observe in nature. When the conditions are there, it rains. When the conditions aren’t right, it doesn’t rain, there’s no rain. For these emotions, they can go from being emotions like I said to becoming knots, deep rooted knots inside of us. I think a big part of what transitions from a feeling and emotion into a deep rooted knot is our desperate attempt to avoid or push these things away. There’s the expression that what we resist persists. I think that’s kind of what we’re talking about here.

I want to make note of the fact that we can get tangled up in the knots of positive emotions too. This isn’t just the negative emotions like anger and hatred. When we encounter something pleasant, it can become the object of our desire. Then the very risk of losing the object of our desire can become a source of great suffering for us. Pleasant or unpleasant, any kind of knot, any kind of knot that isn’t worked with and transformed, ultimately takes away our freedom. This is why I think it’s so important to guard our minds very carefully, to be mindful of what it is we’re feeling in order to prevent the feeling from turning into a knot that begins to take root in us.

Anger is an unpleasant feeling. It causes us to suffer. I think that’s why we typically try so hard to get rid of it, especially in our society. It seems to be quite common to vent. When you’re experiencing anger, you vent. Maybe we’ll take it out on an object like hitting your pillow or punching bag, or going out into a field and yelling or screaming at the top of your lungs, or some form of venting. That can feel therapeutic, like when you vent it feels good. The danger of this as a practice is that we develop the habit of acting out, reacting to the feeling that we’re having. It’s like we’re training ourselves to use aggression as a tool to eliminate the unpleasant feeling. Now sure the aggression may not be targeted to an individual, and that’s certainly better than if it was, but we’re still using aggression as the tool to eliminate the unpleasant feeling.

The Buddhist approach, the mindfulness based approach, is instead to use awareness as a tool to understand our anger. In this approach what we do is we embrace the anger every time we experience it. I have no doubt that at times like this many of us are experiencing anger. Rather than pushing that aside or feeling like we shouldn’t feel that, it’s more like saying hello my old friend anger, I see you are here. You are visiting me again. Come, sit down, let’s visit for a minute. Mindfulness doesn’t fight or resist the anger or hatred that we’re feeling, instead it recognizes that it’s there. Mindfulness allows us to be aware of what’s going on in the present moment. It may very well be that in the present moment anger or hatred is what’s happening, so we become aware of that.

Mindfulness recognizes anger. It allows us to be aware of its presence. It allows us to accept it, to be okay with the fact that it’s there. I’ve talked about this before in the podcast, how there was a phase in my life when I was experiencing a lot of anger, anger and hatred I would say. I was not okay with the fact that I was angry, and that only made me more angry. I was in this situation where I was angry that I was angry. I hated that I hated. This takes a different approach. It tried to put us back in the first level of what’s going on, which is reality.

I’ve mentioned this before, there’s reality and there’s the story around reality. To be angry is one thing, but to be angry and think I’m not supposed to be angry puts me in this alternate reality, which is the story. The story I’ve told myself that I’m not supposed to be angry, so now I’m experiencing anger at being angry. It puts me on a whole new reality that is not real. It’s an alternate reality. It’s the story of reality. We’re trying to get back into the first level, reality as it is. Reality may be I’m angry and that’s it, and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with whatever it is that we’re feeling.

Now I’ve had this experience as a father a few times learning that when you’re holding a newborn and you’re embracing it, you’re just embracing whatever is there. Sometimes they’re happy, sometimes they’re just neutral and they’re looking around, but at other times they’re really upset and they’re crying, and they’re screaming and they’re kicking. With one of our kids, with [Ryco 00:16:48] when he was little, he had issues with his stomach. His little stomach was always churning and turning, and he had a lot of discomfort. He would lay there and he was inconsolable. He would cry and he would scream. Now when you’re holding a crying baby, you nurture it. You don’t use aggression. You don’t shake the baby to get it to quit crying. That would only complicate things. It would make things infinitely worse. In my experience when he was inconsolable like that, I would just hold him. I would hold him tight and I would talk to him, and eventually it would pass.

What I’m trying to say is if we’re trying to explore this idea of how can we use anger and hatred as tools for growth, there are ways that we can do that. We can use what we’re experiencing and through mindfulness, through awareness, we can transform these emotions into a tool for growth, but it does involve and approach that seems counterintuitive. With a child it doesn’t seem counterintuitive that if they’re crying you need to comfort them, but when we are experiencing discomfort, a feeling like anger or hatred is not comfortable. When you feel that, rather than thinking I need to get rid of this immediately, that’s the aggressive mindset, we think well what would the other approach be, to approach this through to tenderness, through kindness, through compassion.

Really quickly I want to highlight, I have a poster hanging here in my office behind me. I look at it quite often. I just thought about this as I’m talking about this topic. The poster says “no mud, no lotus.” As practitioners of mindfulness meditation, we don’t want to reject or push away what we are experiencing in life. We want to turn and face it and be with it. Don’t think of your mind of the battlefield of good emotions like happiness and peace constantly fighting against bad emotions like anger and hatred. Instead, think of treating the whatever’s there, whatever emotions show up, on an equal playing field with kindness and compassion.

When I was experiencing this phase in my life where I was experiencing hatred, I was able to transform it by embracing this inner child. I was able to almost see myself in two roles, like I’m the comforting parent who’s holding myself who’s the crying baby, who’s just throwing a tantrum, the inconsolable me that was full of hatred and anger. This allowed me to suddenly experience what it felt like to be okay with not being okay. I was no longer feeling hatred towards the hatred I was feeling. I was no longer feeling anger towards the anger I was feeling. Like I mentioned before, it put me right back square with reality experiencing the emotion that was there, which in this case was anger or it was hatred. This is like the practice of self-compassion I talk about a little bit in Episode 37, The Art of Self-Compassion.

The idea here is I would say the first step in becoming free from the bonds of anger and hatred is to just recognize what’s there. Recognize it, don’t fight it. Notice that it’s not that we’re trying to become free from anger and hatred, it’s that we’re trying to become free from the bonds of anger and hatred. When anger and hatred bind us and blind us, that’s when they become dangerous. I think this often happens in the transition of experiencing the emotion and then fighting the emotion. Once we recognize that anger or hatred is there we embrace it. Instead of fighting it, we try to increase our awareness around it. Why I am I feeling this, or what does it feel like to be feeling what I’m feeling. These are questions that I think are good in probing that introspective process of trying to increase awareness around our emotions.

I don’t know about you, but this was a novel concept for me to sit with an emotion like anger and say wait, the problem isn’t that I’m experiencing anger. The problem is that I’m experiencing anger and I don’t want to experience anger. Those are two different things. That gave me the freedom to sit with the emotion. Imagine, like I said, you’re visiting with an old friend, and it really is an old friend. We’ve all experienced anger or hatred on multiple occasions throughout our entire lives, and we’ve always shooed it away. You’ve never really gotten to know this old friend because you’re pushing it away every time it comes to visit. When you learn how to embrace your anger, how to embrace your hatred, something will change, everything will change.

This is why I feel this is an important topic right now. Rather than visiting difficult occasions like this, difficult events that happen cause us to experience anger and hatred, and rather than pushing those aside, I would invite you at this time with what you’re experiencing in life, all the crazy things that are happening all over the world right now, the anger and the hatred that you may be feeling from this, allow it to be there, invite it in, look at it, analyze it, embrace it. Now there’s another powerful technique that works very well for working with anger and hatred, and that’s dedicating the time and energy to foster alternate feelings like kindness and compassion.

I think one of the mistakes we make is having the perspective that if I’m feeling this I need to eliminate this in order to feel that. Instead of viewing it like that, imagine a stage. Each of our feelings and emotions, they’re on that stage like actors in a play. Rather than thinking I need to eliminate these actors, these characters from the play, instead I need to work with the script in a way that allows the other characters to spend more time on center stage. Anger and hatred they’re part of the play. They’re not going to go away, but it’s okay to say I’m going to allow these characters to spend much more time in the back. Sure they may emerge from time to time because that’s the nature of reality, that these emotions when the causes and conditions are right, boom they’re there, but we can help to create the environment where other characters like kindness and compassion get to spend significantly more time in the front as they become more active in this play of life.

I love thinking of life like this where we are, you’re the play writer, you’re the director, you’re the protagonist, you’re the antagonist, you’re all of it. This is kind of a fun way to work with that. To do that, I’ve recorded a guided ten minute meditation to help with the process of fostering kindness and compassion. I’m going to post that immediately after this episode that way you can, it will be a standalone episode that you can download or listen to whenever you want without having to listen to this entire episode. It’s going to be episode number 54. It will be called Guided Meditation, Fostering Kindness and Compassion. I would invite you to listen to that after you listen to this podcast episode.

you can visit that one often. Use it as a tool to develop kindness and compassion rather than focusing on standing against anger and against hatred inside of you. Allow them to be there, but work for feeling kindness and compassion. Rather than spending so much time and energy to eradicate these feelings, which cannot be eradicated, it’s not the nature of reality, spend more time fostering what you do want to be there, the kindness and compassion. I wanted to share this podcast episode at a time when I think a lot of us are feeling anger. Some may be feeling a sense of hatred, even hatred towards hatred is still hatred.

I hope that we can heal inside of each of us the relationship we have from the feelings of anger and hatred. I hope that we can find freedom from the bonds of anger and hatred in our own lives. I’ve repeated this on multiple occasions throughout the podcast and with all the work that I’m doing, which is that instead of thinking we need to go out there and change people, I think we need to change ourselves. I hope that we can take the opportunity in moments like this to look very honestly at ourselves and ask ourselves is there hatred and is there anger inside of me. If there is, instead of aggressively trying to push it out, I want to sit with it long enough to understand it, to see what its causes and conditions are, and then allow it to transform as the play transforms so that other characters can take center stage, kindness and compassion.

That’s what I wanted to share with you, so thank you for listening to this podcast episode. If you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, you can give it a rating in iTunes. If you would like to join our online community with mindfulness meditation practitioners, please visit secularbuddhism.com/community. If you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with this podcast, please visit secularbuddhism.com and click on the donate button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.