The second pathway, in contrast, is hard to see. It is obscured, perhaps hidden by the bushes along the roadway. Not many turn towards this pathway. However, many of those that have are house-hold names, giants in the history of the world: Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Rev Desmond Tutu, Emily Pankhurst, Te Whiti o Rongomai, Vaclav Havel, Rosa Parks, Thich Nhat Hanh.1
Anger is often a secondary emotion, meaning that some other feeling or emotion has triggered the one of anger. The first pathway is very easy to step onto when all we recognise is the emotion of anger. However, if we are mindful and patient, we can realise that our anger is a signpost to something else within us. If we allow our anger to dictate our actions then we will never discover the underlying emotions. But, if we step back, perhaps take a few deep breaths and just witness our anger (not acting on it, nor trying to drive it away, or suppress it), then we may find that the underlying emotions are ones of hurt, pain, insecurity, dejection, revulsion, or (the biggie) fear.
Uncovering and discovering these emotions that lie beneath our anger is how we do justice to our anger. We treat anger as a friend, saying “thank you my friend anger; you have allowed me to discover my fears and pain.”
The next thing we notice on this pathway is that we are all the same. Our anger hides pain, hurts and fears. This is just as true for the person who we believe has angered us. They too are likely to have acted out of a hurt or fear. Their words or actions that angered us came from their hurt and fear. When we start to understand our own suffering then we also start to understand the suffering of others. With that clarity, compassion can arise. Once compassion has entered our heart we are well on our way down the second pathway.
But, what about those situations we (as social justice activists) should be angry about? Certainly, there are many injustices in the world and we get angry because of them. When Khandro Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, was asked this question, she replied “Anger is always a waste of time.” Persisting, her questioner responded that there were some things we should be angry about. Khandro Rinpoche immediately replied, “I didn’t tell you to give up your critical intelligence. I told you anger is a waste of time.”2
Acting with compassion, and critical intelligence, is a very different venture to that of acting from anger. Compassion and critical intelligence open up the space for creativity, honest dialogue and the chance of healing.
Along this second pathway there are many tools at our disposal. Sadly, our cultures have very rarely used these tools and few of us get the opportunity to learn them. Here, are some of the tools we can pick up on this pathway:
- Forgiveness: The forgiveness cycle has been eloquently described in The Book of Forgiving, by Desmond and Mpho Tutu.3 They describe a fourfold journey of: telling the story, naming the hurt, granting forgiveness, renewing or releasing the relationship. Forgiveness is not a condoning of the action, nor is it forgetting. Forgiveness is not a weakness, nor is it easy, and it certainly does not undermine the concept of justice. In most cases forgiveness is an action that frees the forgiver from the trap of pain, anguish, revenge, and anger.
- Nonviolent Communication (NVC): Developed by Marshall Rosenberg at the time of racial tensions in the USA, NVC recognises that our emotions arise from our needs (or values). If our needs are met, then we will experience “good” emotions, such as happiness, joy, excitement, peace. However, if our needs are not met, then “bad” emotions such as despair, misery, distress, fear, or anger, will arise. NVC provides tools for dealing with our emotions and needs and how we communicate these with others.
- Nonviolence: As a means of dealing with social conflict, nonviolence has a long history and theory of practice. Nonviolence has often been defined simply as non-harm. However, it also recognises that conflict is natural in society and there are positive ways of dealing with that. Nonviolence separates the issue from the person, recognising that our opponents have value and are worthy of respect and dignity. Nonviolence often espouses a more holistic view of the world and one that is non-hierarchical. It is often used as a socio-political means of confronting injustice.
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness has already been alluded to – it is a practice of awareness. Becoming mindful we become aware of each moment, we become aware of our bodily sensations, of emotions arising and passing away. The practice of mindfulness means that we do not grasp and hold on to our thoughts and prejudices with desperation, nor are we repelled by them. They simply are. With mindfulness our attachment to ego begins to dissolve and we recognise our interconnections – what Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing.
- Non-attachment to Outcome: Acting from anger we are often wanting an outcome. We may desire revenge, retaliation, or perhaps just the self-satisfaction of winning a verbal battle. However, one of the biggest realities that we must come to terms with is that there is no such thing as a surety of outcome. We can no more control the future than we can control the spin of the Earth. Understanding this we can approach our anger with compassion and wisdom.
Anger. An intense emotion. With practice, we can work with it, instead of it working us over.
1. In previous blogposts I have written about Gandhi, Rev Desmond Tutu,Te Whiti o Rongomai, Vaclav Havel, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and Thich Nhat Hanh.
2. This story is related by Rita Gross in Melvin McLeod (ed) Mindful Politics, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2006.
3. See my review of The Book of Forgiving here.
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