When a memorial service took place last year for Bob Abernethy, the beloved anchor of the PBS-TV news show I worked for, the program’s executive producer recalled how in 20 years of working with Bob, no angry words ever passed between them. That kind of cooperation seems so distant and quaint compared with the public rancor we see on a daily basis.
Like the new Covid variant, an apparently contagious strain of anger is infecting the country. Rage was written into Donald Trump’s face in that mug shot from Atlanta. The debate the previous day between Trump’s Republican rivals devolved into an angry verbal slugfest as candidates vied to see who could paint the darkest picture and drum up the most dread.
Fury led a man who had posted racist comments on social media to kill three black persons this weekend at a Florida Dollar General. And earlier this month, a homophobic man shot a California businesswoman for having a Pride flag outside her shop. In another sad commentary, an NPR correspondent recently told of how people he interviews no longer say “that’s off the record” when they make extreme comments about gays, transgender people, African Americans, or immigrants. It’s apparently okay, in their view, to be offensive.
Such behaviors led David Brooks of The New York Times to ask in a recent column, “When did we become so rude?”
As someone who’s struggled at times with a hair-trigger temper, I am hardly in a position to criticize others. One thing I’ve learned, though, is that while I can’t control another person’s behavior, I can learn to tame the rage inside of me.
For the past three years, I’ve been attending dharma talks given by a wonderful Tibetan meditation teacher named Lama Tsering Yodsampa. A key insight Lama Tsering has given me is that anger is almost always a manifestation of some internal suffering. When I grow angry, it is usually because someone or some event has triggered a woundedness inside of me, likely there from the time of my childhood.
If someone rages at me, the incoming fire of their ire probably stems from some suffering that they too are experiencing.
Understanding that doesn’t make it easy to deal with anger that is flung at us. Nor does it make curbing our own anger a cinch. Still, there are some basic steps we can try. One of the most memorable talks Lama Tsering gave involved his interpretation of Buddhism’s “Eight Verses for Training the Mind.”
Lama Tsering calls the verses “psychological hygiene for promoting love and compassion.” It’s a list to which I frequently return.
The Eight Verses for Training the Mind
May I always cherish all beings and wish for them the highest good.
When I am in the company of others, may I regard myself as inferior and regard others as supreme. (This is similar to the Benedictine monastic value of humility: putting the well-being of others before one’s own).
In all my actions, may I watch my mind, and as soon as disturbing emotions arrive, may I stop them at once.
When I see ill-natured people overcome by pain, may I cherish them as a rare treasure.
When someone out of envy does me wrong by insulting me, may I refrain from responding in kind, accepting defeat and giving victory to them.
If someone I have helped and placed my hope in does wrong by harming me, may I see them as a spiritual friend.
Directly or indirectly, may I give help and happiness to all others and secretly take upon myself their suffering.
May none of my actions be corrupted by thoughts of worldly gain and may I see all things as illusion.
Several of the verses seems so counter-intuitive we might be tempted to un from them. But then, what is the alternative? A continuous cycle of fury and pain.
The final verse might seem particularly strange, as if we are being asked to live in denial. It corresponds, though, to a practice the great Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh recommends. When something angers us, he suggests we ask ourselves whether it will matter in 30 years. Considered in that context, much of what we tie ourselves in knots over begins to appear fleeting and illusory.
The angry tenor sweeping the country is likely to grow stronger and shriller as we move closer to the political primaries and the various Trump trials. We don’t have to follow that path. We can counteract the fury by practicing the “psychological hygiene” of love and compassion with “The Eight Verses for Training the Mind” as our guides.
What are your practices for letting go of anger and letting loose compassion?