How to Stay Calm in a Raging World

How to Stay Calm in a Raging World
Detail from the 19th-century Mongolian painting “Kingdom of Shambhala and the Final Battle” at the Rubin Museum.

This article was adapted from psychotherapist and meditation instructor Mindy Newman’s lecture at the Night of Philosophy and Ideas, a dusk-to-dawn marathon of philosophical discussions and events at the Brooklyn Public Library on February 2, 2019. Newman’s talk was part of a Tricycle series that presented perspectives from Buddhist thinkers and scholars.

How do we stay calm in a raging world? Most of us think that we need the world around us to change in order for us to change. We think that if the people in our life were more responsive to us or if politicians were thinking about things in the right way or doing the things we wanted we wouldn’t have to be so angry. But from the perspective of Buddhism, staying calm comes from healing our own anger. This is because as long as we’re meeting the world’s rage with our own rage, more rage is guaranteed.

We experience the world through the lens of our own habitual patterns: our cognitive mental patterns, our emotional patterns, and the legacy of all our interactions with other people. If we have intense habit patterns of anger, we become angry that much more easily. Even though we might appear happy or cheerful, it’s like the anger that we have within us all of the time is simmering right below the surface. It can be ignited in an instant—say, if we come across something that we’d rather avoid or that we find frustrating or that is the opposite of how we want things to be.

This is all the more so if we’ve developed a habit of not just experiencing our anger but acting out of it. Doing this reinforces the rage inside of us. Given that we’re in New York City, we have a prime example of this in front of us all the time: the subway. You can get on the subway in the morning in a perfectly fine mood, except maybe you’re a little bit more tired than usual and you really want to sit down on one of the seats. But then  somebody shoves past you to get to the seat before you can, and suddenly you have this irrationally intense feeling of anger. If you regularly ride on the New York subway, chances are you will recognize this experience.

It’s not just that in that moment somebody’s entitlement and rudeness is producing anger in you. It’s actually igniting something that was already there. What has to happen from the perspective of Buddhism is not so much that we have to like everything that people are doing around us or find their behavior acceptable, but that we meet it with a different kind of reaction.

Before we get into the ways to change our anger, it’s really important as well as motivational to consider why it’s not beneficial to give into our anger on a regular basis. First of all, why is it that we tend to continue these habit patterns? Part of it is that we falsely believe that we’re entitled to act on our anger. There’s a very strong sense that we’re justified in doing so because we’ve been wronged—that feeling of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” As soon as you have that thought, you become angrier and angrier.’

On a subtler level underneath “I’m right and you’re wrong” is “I’m good and you’re bad,” which exacerbates the rage further. We can see this very well right now in our political climate. It doesn’t matter whether you’re progressive or conservative. If you look online even for a minute, you can see that as soon as somebody states an opinion that someone else disagrees with—and most likely these days they’re not going to be stating it gently—things become intense and inflamed. There’s a very strong reaction and the next thing you know, name calling.

It’s remarkable the number of people who consider themselves Buddhist practitioners who have no problem going online and using really abusive language toward the current president, disregarding all the ideas from the tradition about right speech and equanimity. Why is it that we’re able to disregard those beliefs so easily? It’s this sense of righteous indignation that allows the anger to erupt, the belief that I am right. And if you think about it, it’s not just “I am right.” It’s “I am right.” “I am this person, this self who is in a state of rightness, and when you assert your opinion that is to me demonstrably incorrect or even morally wrong, it feels like a personal slight,” not a disagreement between two human beings…

F. Kaskais Web Guru






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