Letting Go Of Our Anger

One of the worst things to hold on to in life is our anger. It is worse than holding on to a hot potato, or to a bad investment, or to a pair of pants that someday you wishfully think you can get into again someday. The bad thing about holding on to our anger is that we don’t realize we are holding on.

I have shared this experience before, but many, many years ago I had an argument with a member. I can count on one hand how many arguments I have had with members over my 31 years of ministry. As a minister, I try to avoid such kinds of heated discussions, but in some cases it is inevitable. I felt that I should “stand my ground” on a particular issue and it turned into an argument. He said this to me, I said that back, and the discussion continued. I wanted to say this and that, but held back. The argument ended, unresolved.

Many years after that argument, I was taking a shower at home. In our house, my wife made a rule that after taking a shower, you have to “squeegee” the shower stall with a plastic squeegee, or the hard water film builds up on the shower stall. As I took my shower, something made me recall that argument with that member. He said, this, I said that. I should have said this or that in response, but I didn’t. I was recalling, word for word, this argument. As I finished my shower, I began to squeegee the shower stall, still thinking of the argument. I was pressing the squeegee so hard, it suddenly snapped in two.

What an eye-opening experience that was. I thought to myself, “What is the matter with me? That was, maybe 10 to 15 years ago. Why am I so mad about it still?”

I realized that I had been carrying that anger with me all those years. I had never let it go.

We might think that an enlightened person like the Buddha never gets mad, but Buddhism says that even Buddhas get mad. The big difference between a Buddha and let’s say me, is that for a Buddha, their anger “doesn’t last long.” They feel anger like we all do, but instead of holding on to it, they let it go. What do we do? We hold on to our anger for hours, days, weeks, months, ….. even years.

Think about it. No, I mean really think about it. Look deep into yourself. Isn’t there something that you are mad about still that you have been holding on to for years? Something someone said, or did, and you have never let it go. Maybe you stopped speaking to that person. Maybe it severed a friendship or a relationship with a family member. When you recall that incident, it is like yesterday, and you feel the same feelings of anger and resentment now as when you had that experience. Try to remember when it was and how long it has been. Like me, you may be surprised that it was many, many years ago.

Holding on to our anger is not a healthy thing. It is like having an ulcer eat away at your stomach. We don’t have to hold on to it forever. We don’t have to take it to the grave with us. We can let it go.

First of all we have to see it and acknowledge it. We have to revisit that experience, that argument, that incident that caused you so much anger and resentment. In reflecting on it, does it still seem as terrible as you felt years ago? Maybe you might be able to look at it now with fresh eyes. Maybe you might even be able to laugh at yourself now, wondering how in the world you could have been so upset at that time, and how you could have carried that anger with you all these years.

Or, you might feel that you still can’t let go. You still feel the same anger and resentment. You still want to hold on to that anger, because “you were right, and they were wrong.” Maybe you were right and they were wrong, but is that a reason to still hold on to that anger? Who is the one to suffer? Aren’t we the one that suffers from holding on to our anger? The other person may be oblivious to what it is that we are mad about.

Thich Nhat Hanh has a wonderful book simply titled, “Anger.” I have used it for the adult discussion on Sundays many times. One member told me a funny story. He said to me, “It made me so mad the other day. My wife gave me this book titled, ‘Anger’ and said, “You need to read this book!” We could even be angered by someone giving us a book about anger.

Shinran Shonin saw deeply into himself and his own three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance. In one of his poems, or wasan, he writes the following:

        Each of us, in outward bearing
        Makes a show of being wise, good, and dedicated;
        But so great are our greed, anger, perversity,
           and deceit,
        That we are filled with all forms of malice
           and cunning.
                p. 421
                Collected Works of Shinran

I think the Shin Buddhist approach to letting go of our anger, is first of all to see it within ourselves. Unless we come to see it first, we do not even know that we are holding on to it and not letting go. By encountering the light of the Dharma, we receive the heart and mind to finally let go of the anger that we hold inside.

Namuamidabutsu,
Rev. Marvin Harada