This book was recommended by a Buddhist friend who heard about my troubles with anger. She told me that whilst no one book could “cure” anger completely, this was the step which helped her fully step away from the destructive energy of anger; and whilst she still feels angry at times, the lessons in this book have allowed her to deal with her anger in a much healthier and more productive way.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk who I’ve previously only encountered in a few short lecture transcripts, and through a large number of very wise and profound quotations – he’s obviously a very quotable guy. I read up on his life, from his early success in academia, through the traumatic events of the Vietnam war during which he returned to his native Vietnam to promote peace with his fellow monks, and his many years of lecturing and writing since then espousing the wisdom of the Zen Buddhist tradition.

Similarly to Jedi, he stresses that the body and mind are not separate entities; therefore anger is physical as well as mental. He suggests we avoid anger even in our food, so not eating factory-farmed eggs but instead opting for free-range, “happy” eggs. He means this in a literal sense, but also as a metaphor for what we consume sensually – through our eyes and ears as well. We should not spend time with anger through choice, as entertainment. We consume mindfully, we contribute only to mindful produce (be it food, films, books or whatever), and therefore support only the positive. He also discusses how we eat, suggesting we eat slowly and appreciate every mouthful. We take our time with it, and so need less to sustain us.

His approach to anger does not seek to eradicate it; he describes it as an integral part of our selves like an upset organ. He says “When you have a stomach-ache, you don’t say, ‘I don’t want you stomach, go away.’ ”, and describes trying to rid ourselves of anger as the same idea. He suggests we can still maintain a loving and positive outlook, even in the depths of anger, and calls on us to “take care of our anger” in a very literal sense, even describing it as like a crying baby within ourselves which we must comfort and soothe rather than simply shut away or discard altogether. We must “put down” whatever else we are doing, and soothe the baby back to contentment. He also makes the analogy to a house on fire – if your house has been set ablaze, do you run after the arsonist, or do you try and put the fire out? Clearly putting the fire out is the most important thing in the moment. Similarly, when angry we should not pursue the person we feel is to blame. Instead we can work on ourselves, and “transform from a sea of fire into a refreshing lake”, helping all those around us.

His techniques for soothing the baby and putting out the flames include mindful breathing (like rocking and soothing that crying baby – as soon as we do it our anger will feel better for the attention), mindful walking, sitting and eating (similarly allowing mindfulness and, crucially, a little time to cultivate and improve the situation inside us), embracing our anger (allowing it to blossom and “open up” into a flower of compassion, rather than as the tight-knotted bud it arrives as), examining our perceptions and examining the true nature of our “antagonist” (working with the other person to truly understand the situation, and any misapprehensions we may have which led us to anger). He suggests we literally look at ourselves in a mirror and see how ugly our anger makes us; he also suggests that the elements we see as “garbage” within ourselves can be used like compost to grow things we find beautiful, given their proper cultivation through mindfulness.

He also suggests that we follow some steps to resume communication with our loved one when we’ve become angry. First we must be mindful for some time, until we have calmed down. From there he suggests we begin by telling them we love them, then “Darling, I am angry, and I suffer”, next telling them (and show them) that “I am doing my very best”, and finally asking them “please help me.” These phrases come from love; they express only facts about ourselves, and shows our sincerity in hoping to move forward together. Another technique we can use is making an “appointment” with the person we’re angry with, allowing time to consider the issue mindfully and come together in the spirit of overcoming it.

We must become experts in our anger, so that we can quickly and instinctively identify the cause of the problem by holding it in the gaze of mindfulness. It is only through mindfulness that we avoid the trap of repeating anger which we inherit from others – we often hold double standards, where we feel hurt by something but fall into the habit of doing it to others. If we are mindful we see both the hurtful actions of others and our own hurtful actions as one and the same. We can express this to the other, tell them that we are trying to put into practice these teachings. Tell the other person that we are hurting very deeply, rather than simply exploding in their faces. This is true strength, and, I feel, the way of the living Force. We accept what is, rather than imposing some abstraction born in anger.

Nhat Hahn describes the role of a listener in diffusing anger; he says that one must be able to listen fully, with only the intent to allow the other person to express their thoughts and feelings without judgement or interruption, mindfully and fully consciously. He repeatedly describes this as a “deep teaching” and shows that it allows us to become Bodhisattvas, “great beings” for those who are suffering the torment of anger. By having this insight and insight into our own anger, we become capable of helping those around us who we would otherwise have argued with.

He discusses the hurt child within us all, who needs us to become a big brother or big sister, to listen mindfully, and to wrap our arms around them in true understanding of what they felt, what they are feeling still. This is a powerful insight. By keeping this poor wounded child in mind, we help them and, therefore, ourselves. We can be healers both outside and within, and this makes sense as in reality we recognise the two things are one and the same.

Nhat Hahn believes that punishment is always a double-edged sword, and that we always end up suffering ourselves when we seek to punish. He describes the cycle of escalation this creates, from international wars right down to petty arguments and anger. The moments of happiness we share with others become our “peace treaty”, and our agreement that we will weather the storm of anger with mindfulness and a spirit of compassion.

I found the insights in this book very profound. Whilst my therapy showed me the need to accept thoughts and elements of myself I find troubling, seeing this reflected through the lens of this great teacher’s Buddhist thought has given me an extra sense of how important it is to work with rather than simply against the anger within me. I agree with him that anger is part of us which we shouldn’t try to shun, but had never considered it like a child crying, a house on fire or an upset stomach before. These ideas allow a really fantastic perspective on the issue.

The practical suggestions Nhat Hahn gave in the book were fantastic and can be applied instantly, assuming one maintains the composure to do so. I think a big problem in the “angry moment” is not knowing what’s likely to help. Should I explain my position more, or is that just fanning the flames? Should I shut up, or is that just sulking? Should I leave the room for some quiet time, or is that just abandoning the situation? I suppose the answers to these are pretty obvious in the cool calm light of day, but in the heat of the moment they’re not always so clear. The angry person doesn’t know they’re doing something wrong, until after it’s been done. I think taking the time to develop these techniques within our minds can enable us to move forward in a more positive, healthy way.

One of the best suggestions he makes is that of time. In order to deal with our anger, we must give ourselves and our anger time. This is a very good point which I have often neglected. I do things in “the heat of the moment” – but in reality, the moment has no heat but that which we give it. If I am angry, I can take time to deal with that before returning when I’m calmer. This is not an avoidance strategy; it’s simply acknowledging the momentary nature of intense, volatile and destructive anger. My life has been full of these “hot moments”, but it needn’t be any more.

I liked the holistic approach Nhat Hahn took in the book, suggesting we rebuild our approach from the ground up including the food we choose to eat. This resonated deeply with me as a Jedi because I believe we are all one entity, all one substance, and that our choices in one part of our lives reflects and resonates throughout the rest of our lives, and indeed throughout the universe. By choosing “happy food”, we are withdrawing our support for “unhappy food”. Whilst I already make many choices in this manner, I haven’t extended this thinking outwards to the entertainment I enjoy, or other aspects of my life. By becoming mindful in each decision we make, we cultivate a universe in which there is more kindness, more contentment and less frustration and anger.

I relate strongly to his comments on the cycle of anger, and feel that I am repeating some of the same missteps my father made in raising me, which I swore I would never do. It’s incredibly important to me that my son understands he has a loving father who cares very deeply about him, but in repeating some of the angry actions of my father I make that less likely. This is perhaps the best motivator for change I have.

Nhat Hahn also expresses some powerful Jedi sentiments in passages about our non-duality (the single nature of mind and body) and also the inter-connectedness of all things. He shows that using these insights we can defuse and potentially avoid the frustration and anger we experience so frequently. I felt this section of the book would mean more to those who were just starting on their path, but he echoes much of Alan Watts’ thinking in that we are one nature, and that every part is just a part of the universal whole:

“Doing violence to others is doing violence to yourself. […] once you have penetrated the reality of non-duality, you will smile at both the flower and garbage in you, you will embrace both.”

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