Book Review: Working with Anger

“Common sense is not the property of any religion.” – Thubten Chodron

Anger is one of the most common emotions in our society. If we just look around at the current political climate in our country we can see that anger is the prevailing emotion. And on a personal level, many of us become angry far more often than we become joyful, or at the very least far more often than we would like.

Thubten Chodron, a Tibetin Buddhist Nun, addresses anger in her relatively short but highly effective book, Working with Anger. Chodron is actually an American who grew up in LA and was educated at UCLA before finding Buddhism, and thus brings a Western cultural perspective to the topic. As you would expect from a practicing Buddhist who studied under the Dali Lama directly, she expresses no judgment of the emotion of anger, but simply discusses its origins and some effective ways of eliminating anger.

Chodron’s approach to managing anger is, not surprisingly, based on the Buddhist understanding of emotion and the mind. The Buddhist tradition views anger as an inherently negative and destructive emotion.

Unlike the Western concept of anger, Buddhists never assign positive attributes to anger. This does not mean that Buddhists view anger as “wrong” or as a “sin.” Becoming angry is not a reflection on the person. Anger simply is what it is at the moment… which is always destructive from the Buddhist perspective. Anger damages relationships, promotes bitterness, and most importantly distorts reality because it amplifies or projects negative qualities onto the target of our anger.

The Buddhist way of working with anger is not to express it, or to suppress it, but to replace it with patience. Expressing and suppressing anger represent to extremes, and neither actually resolves the negative emotion. Only by learning patience, which implies tolerance, compassion, and acceptance, can we overcome anger and other negative or destructive emotions.

After describing the Buddhist concept of anger, and its antidote of patience, Chodron discusses several specific actions and activities we can use to develop patience and overcome anger. Many of these actions resemble the Western psychology approach of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, such as recognizing the thoughts and perceptions that drive anger and countering them with positive, compassionate thoughts and perceptions. Central to developing our senses of patience, compassion and acceptance is self reflection through mediation. In fact, while Chodron does not mention it in Working with Anger, the approach is eerily similar to that of Cognitive Based Mindfulness, which also incorporates mediation as a key to overcoming negative emotions and healing the psyche.

As a final note on the book, I want to clarify that this is not a book on Buddhism. While Chodron approaches the topic of anger management from a Buddhist perspective, she does not evangelize (which would be inherently non Buddhist, anyway!) Whether you are Christian, Pagan, Jewish, Muslim… whatever faith you are, you can take away some valuable lessons from Chodron’s writings. I highly recommend this, as well as her other, books.

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