What’s the Deal With Anger?

mini mushrooms

Red Headed Soldiers, photo by Celia.


“When anger comes up in us, we should begin to practice mindful breathing right away: ‘Breathing in, I know that anger is in me. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my anger.’ We behave exactly like a mother: ‘Breathing in, I know that my child is crying. Breathing out, I will take good care of my child.’ This is the practice of compassion.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“If you aren’t feeding the fire of anger or the fire of craving by talking to yourself, then the fire doesn’t have anything to feed on.” ~ Pema Chodron

“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”

~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dear Friends,

As a child I often heard the expression, “everyone is entitled to their opinion.” Maybe that was because back in the day, there was a tacit agreement of civility around expressing one’s opinion. I don’t think it’s my imagination that the level of social discourse has fallen into an extreme mosh-pit of bullying, shaming, and terrorizing those who don’t share our views. It’s all very angry and the loud shouting leads to louder shouting. It makes me wonder how to use our awareness of suffering and injustice in a way that doesn’t resort to hatred and violent words and is consistent with the Buddha’s teachings on Right Thought, Right Speech, and Right Action.

In the Buddhist texts, anger is always unwholesome and labeled as one of the ten fetters that must be undone to find the way out of suffering. There is a clear categorization of the Buddha’s classification of anger as unwholesome and negative. Anger is consistently associated with hatred and ill-will (dosa) and always an obstacle to spiritual progress. Buddhist teacher, activist, and author,  Donald Rothberg (2006), in his book, The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World, defines when anger and hatred are at the base of intention, the resulting action, and kamma or karma, will be harmful to self and others (p. 152). This single interpretation of anger as a vehicle for actions rooted in hatred, vengeance, and the desire to harm another, is the basis of the Buddha’s prohibition. This type of anger is akin to blind rage and causes damage to the one lost in anger.

The Buddha warns of the ruinous rage that makes blind in an excerpt from the Kodhana Sutta: An Angry Person, “A person overwhelmed with anger destroys his wealth. Maddened with anger, he destroys his status. Relatives, friends, & colleagues avoid him. Anger brings loss. Anger inflames the mind. He doesn’t realize that his danger is born from within” (Thanissaro, trans. 2010). In the early Buddhist texts, the word for anger is often “khoda,” translated as anger, this leaves little room for the range of intensity that presents itself in anger. Anger, in western culture runs from irritable sniping on Twitter, righteousness, and condemnation, to full-blown assault, aggression,  and violence. The Dalai Lama and Donald Rothberg (2006), consider “afflictive emotions,” “ill will or hatred,”(p. 152) to be more accurate translations.

The western view of anger is more nuanced, ranging from outright retaliatory rage to a feeling of moral grievance at the ill-treatment of the weak. Rothberg (2006) writes that anger in the ancient Greek world and in the West is seen “as an appropriate response to what is socially inappropriate, immoral, or unjust” (p. 153). The interesting thing about anger is that when it is used as a catalyst for action, and there is an intention of loving kindness and compassion, it ceases to be poisonous.

The Buddha said that the discernment of what is wholesome or unwholesome thought, speech and action rests on our intention before, during, and after producing the thought, words, or act. Kamma, or karma, in Sanskrit, means volitional action and its implied consequence. All kamma is made through the intention of the actor, “Intention I tell you is kamma. Having intended, one performs an action through body, speech, or mind” (AN 6:63) (Rothberg, 2006, p. 60). Someone who sees injustice and feels anger at a system of oppression, or at the treatment of oppressed people can act in a variety of ways. What separates wholesome from unwholesome kamma is the mind of compassion and goodwill or the mind filled with anger, revenge, and hatred.

Kamma is not like a restaurant tab that accumulates and is presented for payment as a tool of reckoning. We can experience the result of our kamma in this very moment. We can feel into the body’s response to judgmental thoughts of meanness and blame, or how our body responds to thoughts and words that arise from the kindness of an unbound heart. One way to do this is to call attention to bodily sensations of pleasant and unpleasant while watching the news. It’s not hard to find the kernel of bitterness and resentment that fuels many political groups who look to hurt and shame those with opposing views.

Anger is a strong emotion that calls for us to pay attention. When we can utilize anger as a wakeup call without letting it pull us into hatred or ill will, we see it can be used as the fuel for action in social justice actions that are based on non-violence and compassion for the poor and powerless. In the struggle for India’s independence, the US Civil Rights movement, and Catholic worker movement, anger at the systemic discrimination did not result in ill-will but catalyzed marginalized groups to act with non-violence and sought to liberate both the oppressors and the oppressed.

This week I invite you to check in with your own intentions before, during and after, thinking, speaking and acting. Ask the questions, “What is my true intention? How is my heart? Is compassion and understanding present?” Once we know that we have a choice of the root of our thoughts, speech, and acts, we can choose to cultivate only the beautiful blooms that grow from a wide-open loving heart.

May we all trust our light,


Relax your body


Thanissaro, B., trans. (2010). Kodhana Sutta: An Angry Person (AN 7.60). Access to Insight: BCBS Edition. Retrieved from: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an07/an07.060.than.html .

Rothberg, D., (2006). The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World. Boston, Ma: Beacon Press.


The awakened heart of action

Samantabhadra, the bodhisattva of great action

Samantrabdra the Bhodisattva of great action

Three Translations of the Bodhisattva Vow

The awakened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.

However innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.

However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.

However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to explore them deeply.

However incomparable the mystery of interbeing, I vow to surrender to it freely.

~Thich Nhat Hanh, trans.

Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.

Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.

The awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

~Upaya Zen Center version

The many beings are numberless; I vow to save them.

greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly; I vow to abandon them.

dharma gates are countless; I vow to wake to them.

Buddha’s way is unsurpassed; I vow to embody it fully.

~Robert Aiken, trans.


Dear Friends,

What a beautiful day here in CT. The sun is out, daffodils are blooming, bees are busy and we are alive to witness the patient rewards of spring. It is Earth Day and I am truly glad to be an inhabitant of this generous earth today. The story of human life is one of connection and interdependence. We can easily see this in the food we eat that needs sun, soil, earth, and rain to thrive. Unless we are in denial, we know that our planet and all life that depends upon its wellbeing is in danger. In Mahayana Buddhism, there is a practice of taking a vow to protect all life, including our own. This great vow involves compassion, wisdom, non-judgment, action and begins with Bodhicitta, the mind of love. It is called The Bodhisattva Vow.

In Mahayana tradition, a Bodhisattva is a being who has cultivated the six perfections or paramitas, generosity, morality, and patience, energy or zeal, meditation, and wisdom, over many lifetimes. Instead of choosing Nirvana, a Bodhisattva remains earthbound and vows to help all beings to enlightenment, freedom from oppression, and suffering. Bodhicitta, the awakened heart, is the foundation of all compassionate action for one who walks the path of a Bodhisattva.

Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron describes the awakened heart as a measure of our capacity to feel with others. The awakened heart resonates with the suffering of the other and the deep desire to relieve it. She writes, “An analogy for bodhicitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic; sometimes to anger, resentment, and blame. But under the hardness of that armor, there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.” When we truly know the pain of another, we can offer the great gift of empathy and compassion and the desire to save them from pain.

In the three translations of the Bodhisattva Vow, we see that living beings are innumerable, they keep being born, and the bodhisattva vows to save all, or as Thich Nhat Hanh writes, to meet them with kindness and interest. This is not an unrealistic assignment we are condemned to fail. Saving all, is the active component of Bodhicitta, the wide open heart. All includes just that, no exceptions. It is this awakened heart that can lead us to act. If someone asks me to be brave, I find that a frightening invitation. I’m a shy activist, not at home with charging into conflict. If someone asks me to show that I care, that is a totally different intention. Caring for others, opening to their pain, is the ground that cultivates the seed of action. When my actions come from caring, I do not need to armor myself or brace for a battle. They are organic extensions of the woken heart.

So on this weekend when we turn our attention to the world we steward, to the animals on the cusp of extinction and the violence, hatred, and delusion we see in the world, I invite you to stand beside the pain, to witness and know how the heart of the frightened trembles. And… to act with the heart of a Bodhisattva made unafraid through caring. Compassionate action doesn’t mean we need to be heroes in a big way and rescue people from burning buildings. Maybe we take a lonely person to lunch or bring some spring flowers to someone who is ill. Perhaps we call our representatives when environmental regulations are threatened, or have a car-free day. I hope you rejoice in the intention of goodness and care and take delight in your determination to be a Bodhisattva, easing the pain of ourselves and all beings.

May we all trust our light,


protecting our planet

Getting Sick

Isley Woolen Mill

Isley Woolen Mills, Scotland. Photo by Barbara Richardson

The Five Remembrances (Thich Nhat Hahn, trans.)

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.


Dear Friends,

We are all of the nature to be sick, that was my teaching this week. This was an especially bad flu season and I had been congratulating myself on escaping the influx of nasty ailments this year. There was some pride that my immunity had taken me into spring without so much as a head cold, but this week, my humanity caught up with me. Not only did I get sick, but all other members of my family were sick, which meant that I couldn’t actually act like a sick person. I used the experience to work with the intention to bring compassion into all moments of life.

The first obstacle to compassion is the troubling doubt that others who have chronic pain and serious diseases are more worthy of sympathy and my chills and sinus pressure are really baby stuff. There’s the habitual tendency to dismiss our own suffering because others have it worse. We each have a body that we are entrusted to care for and keep as well as possible. When my body is sending me messages that it needs attention it is not wise or kind to override it and ignore. This habit of shutting out the body sets up the pattern of distrust and we parcel out compassion only to the most deserving and innocent as if there’s a compassion test we must pass….am I truly worthy? Am I miserable enough? Are there others who are worse off? Maybe this is just a tiny thing? Of course! The answer is yes to it all. There are always those who have more suffering than we do and those who have less. It is not the degree of suffering that makes one worthy of compassion, self-compassion is an unremitting act of generosity. It is the ability to bring compassion into all areas of life, from the papercut to stage four cancer—we are taught to bring our care and kindness to hold all of what arises. Some key elements that stand out for me are acceptance, choice, capacity, impermanence, and universality.

When we bring acceptance to our body and mind that is suffering, we stop resisting, the body softens and there is less struggle. There is still discomfort, but not the added pressure to deny our experience. When I relaxed and gave up the fight to “feel normal,” I could get curious about what was arising, the heaviness in the eyes, the skin rippling chills, the pressure beneath the cheekbones, the cloudy feeling that threatened to tumble over my forehead and the mask of sleepiness that pressed in on me.

As I went about my days, driving to presentations, speaking to co-workers, caring for animals and family members, I remembered that even though I felt sick, it was my choice to stay vertical and take care of others. Respecting that my capacity was diminished, I came home early and let myself feel what was happening in the body. I told myself that this was suffering and that we all suffer. It is part of life; we all get sick. I recognized the impermanence of this moment, which is inherent in all moments, not just those that grab our attention because they are unpleasant. And I recognized the wisdom in taking care of myself.

Sickness is a great equalizer and reminds us that although we may believe we are the stories of self we weave, we are our achievements, our careers, our thought and ideologies, the reality of living in an undeniably shifting state, one that we do not control, is a wake up to the nature of how things really are. In sickness, there is also the tendency to fall into fear, imagining the worst possible future and outcome. In the space of seconds, a head cold becomes the flu. I’m hospitalized, unconscious. My dogs don’t get fed and perish from starvation while I’m in the intensive care ward, or maybe it’s neurological Lymes disease and I will never understand when to use affect or effect correctly. This type of thinking is called papancha, or mental proliferation that creates a further story with me as the star. Allowing myself to be pulled into the future takes me away from the reality of this changing state.

When we ascribe a permanent state to an impermanent situation we live in a delusion. When we label ourselves sickly or healthy, we also put a permanent label on a condition that is constantly shifting. Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki (2010) writes, “The self is a flawed strategy, born of ignorance, nurtured by craving, and perpetuated by endless moments of grasping in which we pull towards us what we like to consider part of ourselves and push away what don’t like” (pp. 135-136). If we label ourselves as sickly, or flawed, what are we believing? What is the conditioning that we are perpetuating and why? What is the reward for thinking in these terms? When we keep a notion of ourselves alive, we do so for a reason. My “superior immunity” label was enjoyable. It gave me a false sense of safety and invulnerability. Letting go of that and recognizing that I, just like 100 % of bodies, will get sick. With luck, I will age and eventually die. Understanding the impartiality of this body and illness gives me humility and exercises the muscle of compassion for myself and for all of us who get allergies, head colds, cancer, for all of us who suffer.

Although, I hope you aren’t sick—if you are so fortunate to have this learning opportunity, try some acceptance and curiosity. How is your body and your mind? Can you bring your care to the unpleasant without pushing it away and leaning into the future? Can you find a bit of ease even in the painful? Recognizing that the state is impermanent can lead to equanimity and balance. Knowing that there is sickness all over the world, we include all those who are in pain and feel hopeless in the wish for ourselves and all beings to be free from suffering and the roots of suffering.

May we all trust our light,


Be Still and heal

Olendszki, A. (2010). Unlimiting mind: The radically experimental psychology of buddhism. Somerville, MA: Wisdom.

The Strength of Vulnerability

spring flowers

Spring Flowers. Photo by Celia


“Sorrow, fear, and depression are all a kind of garbage. These bits of garbage are part of real life, and we must look deeply into their nature. You can practice in order to turn these bits of garbage into flowers.”  ~Thich Nhat Hanh

“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.” ~Pema Chodron

“In Buddhist meditation, you do not turn yourself into a battlefield, with good fighting against evil. Both sides belong to you, the good and the evil. Evil can be transformed into good and vice versa. They are completely organic things.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh


Dear Friends,

I hope you are having some moments to sit and enjoy the changing weather, feeling the softness of the sunshine and stepping into days where we feel safe outside. We can unlayer from our winter coats, let our heads be bare and open to the air, and our fingers don’t get stiff and raw from the wind. In winter, it can feel like the world is a fierce and unforgiving place and going outside could kill us, but in spring—if we fall down and can’t get up, we’ll probably survive and not get hypothermia, or frostbite before we are rescued. This change in temperature helps the body relax and we have reason to celebrate this benign world. This change in seasons points to allowing the body to be more unprotected and vulnerable. That can be a difficult word—vulnerability. It is often thought of as weakness, but often what we consider vulnerability can be real strength.

Recently, I’ve been spending time with high school students practicing mindfulness. I intercepted one young man, a freshman, who was very close to a physical fight because he felt attacked. After we did some calming practice, he told me that the most stressful thing in school was that he had to hide his true feelings. It wasn’t safe for him to let others see that he was hurt. In that situation, the only acceptable emotion for this young man was anger. In our culture, we allow girls to feel hurt, but boys have to keep it all buttoned up or they are perceived as weak. Shame researcher from the University of Houston, Dr. Brene’ Brown tells us “The number one shame trigger for men is being perceived as weak. Men walk this tightrope where any sign of weakness elicits shame, and so they’re afraid to make themselves vulnerable for fear of looking weak.” The observation made by this high school freshman is the truth; males in our society are shamed for expressing their full range of emotions. Our work together allowed him to see that he was hurt, to recognize what he was wanting and needed, including physical safety and to allow all his emotions and underlying needs to be ok. There was no blame or shame in feeling hurt or afraid. It’s the strategies we employ to try to escape from those mind states that gets us in trouble.


In our practice, we have the unique opportunity to recognize, investigate, and be with all of our emotional terrain. There is nothing that is off limits or too shameful. Learning to develop the capacity to be with what is pleasant, and what is very far from pleasant is a process. We can gradually open to staying present with what is mildly irritating and practice building the resilience to stay when we feel the trembling of our heart. When we can hang in with ourselves, and utilize mindful awareness, there is part of ourselves that doesn’t get flooded with emotion. This is the part of us who can tell us to take three breaths, to recognize that we are scared, to explore where the fear lives in the body and to bring our compassion and care to this feeling. When we deny our full emotional life and range, we cut ourselves off from the possibility of transforming. We make parts of ourselves unacceptable and in doing so, we create prisons of shame that are too painful for us to look at. This suppression and exiling of our emotions will not make them go away but actually convinces us that we are not capable of handling these big emotions and they become more powerful.


This week, as part of the process of strengthening our capacity to stay present with ourselves, we can utilize mindfulness of vedana. This is noting the feeling tone, either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Pleasant and unpleasant are automatic responses, either an “ahhh,” or an “eww.” There is no need to analyze, these reactions are right up front, similar to the way people feel about cilantro—either we love it, or it tastes like soap. Neutral is a bit slipperier as we tend to ignore or space out neutral since it is neither what we grab ahold of or push away. Just check in, if possible each hour and notice what’s arising in the body and mind. Noticing what’s unpleasant, can we stay, even for three breaths investigating the pain that is in us? Where does it hurt? Is it consistent, or does it fluctuate? What is the pain asking for? Recognizing and allowing create the ability to relate to our pain, both emotional and physical, in a new and competent way. Are there moments of pleasant that shift to neutrality? Noticing the neutral, often I find that when there’s nothing wrong, that moment can become very pleasant. There is an absence of pain and I am not hungry, tired, or upset. What seems very neutral, shifts with mindful awareness into gratitude and the joy that arises from mindful presence. This week, please listen to your whole self. There is nothing to get rid of, just recycle what we think of as garbage into new spring flowers of understanding and compassion.

May we all trust our light,


No mud no lotus


The Remedy for Doubt

Daffodil Buddhas

Buddhas among the daffodils, BlueCliff Monastery. Photo by Celia


“To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

“The roots of all goodness lie in the soil of appreciation for goodness.”

 ~ H.H the Dalai Lama

“Each person has inside a basic decency and goodness. If he listens to it and acts on it, he is giving a great deal of what it is the world needs most. It is not complicated but it takes courage. It takes courage for a person to listen to his own goodness and act on it.”

~Pablo Casals

Dear Friends,

Wishing you lots of joy this Passover and Easter season. This is the time of year when many of us, especially in New England after a long winter, feel the effects of worldly joy, the sun on the skin and the warm air. We see the flowers grow and bloom. Bees get busy and all the birds agree that it’s time to start serious real estate inquiries for the future. Spring can be a time of great rejoicing, but it can also be a time of doubt, both personal and societal.

In spring it may appear that the whole natural world is moving forward, while we are still here, treading water with the same amount of delusion and obstacles we had last year. We may come up short in our assessment of where we want to be spiritually, professionally, and personally. Our government may have us doubting its commitment to bettering the world as we watch our administration veering into the dangerous territory of reactive and punitive legislation and creating a country that cannot sustain itself peaceably.

There is benefit to doubt. It helps us get unstuck and look at what we doing objectively. It allows us to question our means and methodology and check in with the course we are setting for ourselves. This is a healthy constructive doubt. The doubt that the Buddha speaks about is the doubt that leads to confusion and immobility. It can convince us that nothing will get better and lead us to abandon the path out of despair.

For many of us, inclining the mind to what is wrong through comparing and projecting actions and results into the future can fuel our doubt. Doubt is one of the five hindrances that obscure the mind from progressing towards enlightenment. These five are the desire for sense pleasure, aversion or anger, sloth and sleepiness, restlessness and agitation, and doubt. Doubt is one of the stickiest.

The Buddha describes doubt as a “bowl of water that is turbid, unsettled, muddy, placed in the dark. If a man with good sight were to examine his own facial reflection in it, he would neither know nor see it as it really is. So too, brahmin, when one dwells with a mind  obsessed and oppressed by doubt, and one does not understand as it really is the escape from arisen doubt, on that occasion one neither knows or sees as it really is one’s own good, or the good of others, or the good of both” (Aṅguttara Nikāya, V 193, Bhodi trans.) The remedy offered by the Buddha to escape from the oppression of doubt that has arisen and doubt that lays in wait is to use clear seeing and to know the goodness of one’s actions and of the goodness and kindness of others. This is the way to remove doubt about our progress and the fear and doubt of others.

We see this recollection and belief in one’s goodness in the enlightenment story of the Buddha. According to Buddhist tradition, when the Buddha was an unenlightened Bodhisattva, and close to enlightenment, he sat beneath a Bhodi tree and vowed to stay in meditation until he achieved liberation. As he sat, he was tested by the embodiment of sensual desire and evil, the god Mara who wants to keep people trapped in rebirth and delusion. Mara sent his terrifying armies to the Buddha to frighten him while the Buddha sat. Unable to upset the Buddha to be, Mara sent his three beautiful daughters to tempt the Buddha into abandoning his quest, but the Buddha was not swayed. In a final push to keep the Buddha from finding the way out of rebirth and suffering, Mara threw the final dart of doubt and claimed the seat of enlightenment for himself, saying his spiritual achievements exceeded the Buddha. But the Buddha sat and reached out his hand and touched the earth with his fingertips, calling upon the Earth herself to witness to his goodness and his spiritual achievements. In this remarkable moment, the Buddha relied upon the wisdom and witness of this earth and the continuum of his goodness in his past. He understood the interdependent life he shared with and through the earth and calling upon the accrued wealth of kindness shown to those who dwell on the earth and to the earth herself was the last task for the Buddha. This brought his clear seeing and freedom.

We all are gifted with Buddha nature, the promise of clear seeing and the ability to wake up. Whether we believe it or not, we all have a luminous mind and purity of heart. This week, I invite you to spend time reflecting on your goodness. Settling into attending to the breath and body, bring to mind your deepest aspirations and intentions. How have you lived these beautiful qualities in the world? Maybe you looked with understanding eyes upon a co-worker who was caught in frustration, gave financial support to someone in need, noticed and spoke to a homeless person who is commonly treated as less than human, or spoke out against injustice raising your voice for those who aren’t heard.

Allowing ourselves to witness to our goodness in the past and commit to practicing our intentional life in the present can dispel the doubt and inertia we all encounter when we don’t see the fruit of our practice. This week, let yourself be touched by your own kindness and rest in the refuge of your care and compassion. We can stop looking for beauty outside of ourselves and return home to claim our birthright, an awakened heart.

May we all trust our light,


we are already what we want to become