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Back and Neck Pain

Tolerance and Respect to Divert Potential Anger, Part VII

Author| Barry Kerzin, MD

From the Dalai Lama's personal physician

Tolerance, like forgiveness, cultivates a sense of a safety net, the ability to bounce back. Tolerance, like forgiveness, involves respect for others as well as for oneself. It also restrains anger not only through a sense of safety but also through mental training. The key to anger management is early recognition. Recognizing the early warning signs of irritation, being criticized or humiliated, tachycardia, tachypnea, sweating, certain previous stressors, etc. allow us to work with anger and transform it. Once we recognize imminent anger, we apply an antidote. We might imagine our early anger embodied as a cloud that drifts across an imaginary sky. As it drifts it dissolves completely. Another similar antidote to anger is to imagine embodying our early anger as a crystal ball. We imagine holding the crystal ball in our hand and dropping it onto the cement floor whereby it shatters into a thousand pieces eliminating our anger. Another antidote is trying to understand the other person’s situation. And yet another antidote comes from the eighth century Buddhist adept and scholar, Shantideva [see ref. 11], who in the sixth chapter asks: who or what do we get angry with when hit over the head with a stick (or when someone says bad words to us)? Most people respond, “the person wielding the stick (or the one saying the bad words).” But Shantideva says it was the stick (or bad words) that hurt us. Therefore why not get angry at the stick (or bad words)! Thinking this way can make us pause or even laugh, hence detouring the anger from developing.

These antidotes do not work the first time around, so we must be diligent and persistent. The Tibetan term soepa is usually translated as patience or tolerance. It includes the virtues of forbearance and forgiveness. Its deeper meaning is the ability to endure suffering.

This implies not giving in to our habitual urge to react reflexively with anger or revenge.

Yet soepa is not passive or impotent. It is not gritting our teeth and enduring injustice passively. Rather it is full of strength and courage without the motivation of anger. So we “fight back” with tolerance and understanding rooted in compassion. Instead, tolerance requires the courage to adopt a wider, more holistic view for understanding the full situation. This broader perspective allows more emotional space to distance our self from feelings of anger without suppressing them. Suppressing anger or any negative emotion for that matter does not get rid of the negative emotion for it will smolder and later erupt. Thus, we feel less boxed in and cornered. This helps prevent us from identifying with the anger. Not taking ownership frees us to let go of the feeling of anger and imagine it embodied as a cloud floating and dissolving across the sky.

It is helpful to make a distinction between the person and the action. This allows us to have tolerance and forgiveness towards the person, yet still, oppose the action. Harmful actions require appropriate punishment according to the law. Of course, it is the person who committed the negative action requiring punishment, yet we maintain our respect and compassion for the person.

We are all human beings and make mistakes. We all have this incredible potential to turn our lives around and become better human beings.

Practicing tolerance gives us more room, more space, making us more resilient.

By distinguishing the deed from the person performing the deed and by understanding the situation in its entirety, we come to the conclusion that the perpetrator also deserves our compassion. Severe, painful consequences of his harmful actions await him in the future. Practicing patience and forgiveness is enormously liberating. I remember my feelings when hearing the story of the Irish boy, Richard Moore. When we dwell on the harm we perceive another has done to us, we become angry and resentful. Clinging to painful memories and harboring ill will cannot reverse the wrongs done to us. Wallowing in painful memories disturbs our peace of mind and our sleep, and weakens our immune system [8, 9]. Eventually our physical health declines. Cardiac problems arise and we are prone to having more accidents. Alcohol attempts to soothe and looks like a friend. But in fact, we lose our genuine friends. If on the other hand, we are able to overcome our feelings of hostility towards those who harm us and even forgive them, there is an immediate and perceptible relief. We breathe easier and become more relaxed.

A taste of inner peace develops as self-confidence grows.

As this is not easy to do, it is best to start with our smaller hurts and work our way up. This is my experience. It feels like a heavy weight has been lifted from my shoulders when forgiveness is practiced. The body feels lighter, and the whole world looks brighter. I have the feeling that I can now move on and get back to living well.

8. T. Effect of Compassion Meditation on Neuroendocrine, Innate Immune and Behavioral Responses to Psychosocial Stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2009 Jan; 34(1): 87–98.

9. Dharmawadene, M. A systematic review and meta-analysis of meditative interventions for informal caregivers and health professional. BMJ 2016 Jun, 6(2):160-9.

11. Shantideva (1999). A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of life. Dharamsala: The Library for Tibetan Works and Archives.

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Continue to Part VIII