As we all go through life, we experience many instances of thoughtlessness, unkindness, even cruelty. And we react to these experiences in not surprising ways … with resentment and anger, sometimes building a wall around us, sometimes asking what have we done to deserve such a fate.
All these reactions of our ego-mind are, however, harmful to us, not protective, regardless how we feel when in the throes of our emotions. They cause us to suffer, not just once but over and over again. These reactions do not free us or give us peace. They torment us.
Of these reactions, resentment and anger cause the most turmoil, run the deepest, and are the most vexing to free ourselves from. We can stop ourselves from building walls and tear down existing ones by recognizing that we harm ourselves by placing barriers between ourselves and others. No one wants to feel isolated and alone. Yes, from time to time that means one will be hurt or disappointed but that’s just the way it is.
For things that are more the function of anonymous forces, we can stop asking, “Why me?” by following the teaching of not taking it personally, of being aware that what happens to us has little or nothing to do with us at all but is mostly an expression of the neuroses of other people, of the world around us. Again, it’s just the way things are. Also while we like to think we deserve more, we really don’t deserve more because we are no more special than anyone else. In truth, everyone is special and deserves better. We are all in the same boat.
But resentment and anger are another matter. An experience that brings about these emotions is usually something we find it impossible not to take personally because it occurs in a very personal manner … one on one. And the worse the initial hurt is, and the more frequently it is repeated, the greater the anger and resentment. Over time it builds and builds. Next to fear, anger and resentment is probably the greatest debilitating emotion.
In Buddhist literature, there are two ways that are usually suggested for freeing oneself from anger and resentment. The first is to understand that anger and resentment, like all the emotions, are a product of our mind. However bad the causal incident was, it is the way we react to it, and continue to react to it, that causes us suffering, not the incident itself. While these emotions are definitely part of the ego-mind, the ego-mind is not our true self, our heart is, and these emotions do not come from the heart. And so we say, “Not me!” to these emotions. We disown them.
Another teaching is to embrace the emotion. This does not mean to give way to it but rather to accept our anger as something that’s there and will always be there. It’s ok. It’s understandable. Have compassion towards it. But don't give voice to it.
Yet another is to develop compassion for those who have hurt you. Everyone’s actions are the result of how they've been programmed by their life experiences. No one voluntarily chooses to do bad things or be evil. It is an unthinking function of how they've been treated in life. Or as a monk once taught me, “If someone or something pushes your buttons, the thing that offends you is a direct result of someone’s suffering. And how can you be upset at someone who is suffering?” This has proven to be extremely successful, at least for lesser hurts.
But for those hurts that provoke overwhelming resentment and anger … often concerning family members because there is a sense of betrayal ... these techniques, even in combination, don’t always free us. To a large extent I think because our ego-mind really doesn’t want us to be free of these emotions. We are very self-righteous about our anger.
While meditating the other day, I thought of a solution to this quandary. I realized that a major reason why we feel resentment is because at the time we felt unable to defend ourselves, to speak out against what we experienced. Whether we feared the loss of love, a job, or whatever, we felt we didn’t have the power to protect ourselves by speaking.
The way to break this negative energy is to finally speak … in a way that will achieve the related goals of both feeling you have defended yourself and freeing yourself from this negative emotion. The right way to speak (whether orally or in writing) involves several components.
First, be very clear what the truth is. You must separate what actually happened from the spin you have put on it over the years. As the saying goes, “The facts, nothing but the facts.” But don’t go into all the gory detail, just enough to make your point. Second, state clearly but free of emotion how the incident impacted you, whether in a practical way or emotionally. Third, place this statement of truth in the context of compassion, both towards yourself and the other person(s). Explain that your need to finally speak the truth and free yourself from this negative energy is having compassion for yourself. Towards the other, stating what happened free of emotion and recognizing explicitly that what occurred was the result of the other’s suffering … no one voluntarily chooses to be nasty … is having compassion for the other person.
Finally, if you can, state that while you can never forget what happened, you have forgiven. (Remember that you forgive to heal yourself, to give yourself peace; it’s not for the other person. It’s having compassion towards yourself. Also, forgiveness does not absolve the other person of responsibility for what happened; your speaking the truth makes that clear. See my post, “The Stages of Forgiveness.”)
Once you have spoken … if you speak as I’ve suggested, not with hateful passion … you will find that you feel greatly relieved. The festering pain and resulting anger will be gone. You won’t have forgotten, but it now becomes just another aspect of your past. And as a result, your peace is no longer disturbed by the past experience.