If your house is on fire, the most urgent thing to do is to go back and try to put out the fire, not to run after the person you believe to be the arsonist. If you run after the person you suspect has burned your house, your house will burn down while you are chasing him or her. That is not wise. You must go back and put the fire out. So when you are angry, if you continue to interact with or argue with the other person, if you try to punish her, you are acting exactly like someone who runs after the arsonist while everything goes up in flames.” Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger
My client, whom I’ll call Ann, called me the other day. She has a tense relationship with her sister-in-law, and was very upset when her sister-in-law came to her house a few days earlier with her children, ate dinner, and left without saying thank you or goodbye. Ann told me that she felt so angry she did not sleep well that night and kept thinking about ways to confront her sister-in-law. She was so angry by the next afternoon that she had an acid reflux attack and had to take some medication. That night she spoke to her husband about it and she could not sleep again. I was speaking with her a full two days after the incident.
As Ann went over the story with me, she told me that she was more angry about the incident today than when it had first happened. All she wanted to do was yell at her sister-n-law and then never speak with her again. When she was done speaking, I acknowledged the pain that she was feeling. I then read to her the quote from Thich Nhat Hahn, reprinted above. “Let’s stop chasing your sister-n-law for a moment,” I said. “Let’s go back to your breath to cool your own anger. Let’s sit and just breathe and slow it down.” Ann resisted at first and tried to keep telling me about her horrible sister-in-law, but we eventually sat for twenty minutes breathing and saying nothing.
As she calmed down, Ann said, “You know, my anger was making me feel sick and after breathing quietly for twenty minutes I feel a bit better. I also just realized that I am not as angry as I am hurt. My sister-in-law didn’t appreciate the fact that I spent half the day making that dinner. She never really appreciates me.” I acknowledged her realization and asked her to sit with it more for a few days but not to call her sister-in-law until we spoke again. Before Ann left, I read another Thich Nhat Hanh passage in which he asked his readers to attempt to understand the situation of the person who had made them angry, and in this way transform anger into compassion. Ann listened thoughtfully.
Ann called me a few days later and told me that, after breathing and quieting her mind for 20 minutes a day and thinking about the Thich Nhat Hanh passage about understanding, she did not feel angry anymore. She realized her sister-in-law was probably sleep-deprived from her baby waking up at night and remembered that her other two children were very cranky when they were at Ann’s house, too. It was wrong that her sister-in-law had left the house without saying thank you or goodbye, but Ann said she understood what it was like to feel overwhelmed with young children. Ann indicated that she would have a conversation with her sister-in-law about the incident, but she would also be there for her sister-n-law to discuss what she was going through with her children. My client also decided to take care of herself by not inviting her sister-in-law and her family over for dinner again for a while. They would all meet out at a restaurant instead so Ann could remain compassionate and understanding and not feel taken advantage of.
Of course, we are all faced with similar situations everyday that can make us angry, but I wonder how much of our suffering would dissipate if we took care to cool our anger first and then tried to cultivate more understanding towards others. By caring for our anger before we react to another person’s behavior, we can see the truth of what we feel and lessen our own internal suffering. Then, through understanding, we can give up the act of declaring the other person right or wrong and instead explore how that person might feel. Doing this allows us to stand in our antagonist’s shoes and, although we might not agree with his or her position, doing so cools our anger and makes room for the insight we need to resolve problems.
Cooling and understanding. Maybe these two practices can be the key to letting go of our anger and finding a more peaceful and harmonious life with the ones around us.