Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on August 12, 2014

On my journey as baby-holder this last weekend, we drove a lot of miles. And this event happened. I had pulled into the passing lane on an expressway getting ready to pass a slow-moving semi-trailer. There was still a little gap between my car and the semi, but I was gaining on it.

A faster-moving driver suddenly pulled up behind me and tailgated me. When, instead of immediately moving over directly behind the semi, I proceeded with my attempt to pass the semi, the tailgated car roared into the right line next to me, surged ahead, and dangerously swung in front of me in space that was hardly enough and tore past the semi. I didn't look, but if I did I would not be surprised to see the driver giving me the finger. I guess this is called road rage. But it underscored how much aggression and anger there is around us much of the time.

Buddhists classify anger (aversion) as one of the three poisons or "Kleshas," the other two being ignorance (ignoring) and attachment (desire). Sometimes the three are expanded to five poisons, and pride and jealousy are added. Here in the west the word "kleshas" is frequently translated as "disturbing emotion." In other words, kleshas are more than just thoughts. They are thoughts embodied by emotions with a deep (and often unconscious) history.

In these blogs I have seldom dealt with kleshas, the three poisons, because they are so difficult to remedy; they take time and extensive dharma practice to make a dent in them. Not many Americans are willing to undergo that much practice. While we can learn to (kind of) zap "bad" thoughts and perhaps shake them off, kleshas are deep-down stubborn stains that require repeated treatment to even begin to remove. And I don't mean to open a can of kleshas here, but rather to just touch on aggression a bit, and even with that, just a certain kind of aggression. So this is but a remedial reader on the topic and nothing definitive.

Aggression with or without provocation is no stranger to most of us. We can call it anger if we want, although there is said to be anger without aggression, but for the most part anger in our society is a form of aggression. I probably should not broach this subject because it is vast, multi-dimensional and what we socially consider anger is but the tip of the iceberg. Anger and aggression are endemic to modern society, but largely submerged. Most of us are unaware of or in denial of our anger and aggression.

Becoming aware of our own aggression is a dharma technique in itself, another form of Tong-Len practice. Aggression not only explodes and flames out, but can also remain submerged at a steady boil, or just subtly flicker beneath the surface. In other words, aggression can surge violently, as we all know, but also remain at a low boil. Micro-aggression, little surges or urges of anger just beneath the skin, are barely detectable, but they sap our strength. For many of us aggression is just about always right there and ready to rise.

It is one thing not to like something, and that dislike may or may not be aggressive. Aggression in not simple dislike, but rather a move, however faint, against something, perhaps almost involuntarily. As mentioned above, we can be provoked into aggression, but aggression can also be unprovoked. We can be aggressive without being provoked or even knowing that we are. That is the kind I am looking at here, the unprovoked variety, you know, when "we" aggress, perhaps without even realizing it. Aggression is hurtful.

It is said that aggression and anger can only exist as long as there is a mental duality, a subject and an object, an "I" and a "them" -- separation. Aggression arises when the line between what we consider as "I' and what we consider as "other" in our mind is crossed. Our feathers are ruffled and our hackles go up. We are touchy and usually we feel someone or something is to blame for our reaction. Our aggression is usually always directed outward, but inward aggression is even more insidious.

I don't want to get into a vast etymological discussion of the different ways that anger and aggression (passive or active) can appear. We all know what aggression is. In this article I am more concerned with aggression, and residual or low-level aggression at that—aggression as a state of mind. Often we don't even know we have it. And even though it happens a lot around us, we seldom own it. We are satisfied to blame some cause outside ourselves (often another person) for our own reaction, as if that justifies it.

My ultimate question here is what effect does residual anger and aggression have on the mind, psyche, and body? What price do we pay? Often anger is so ingrained that we are no longer even aware that any aggression or anger we have is a response that comes from us alone.

We can feel so assaulted or inundated with external input that our natural defenses shut down and we start to reject anything coming from the outside, the archetype of the "not-invented-here" syndrome. What may appear as aggression on our part to the outside world, in reality may be a simple defense mechanism, an attempt to survive, a search for peace that itself becomes aggressive in trying to find and maintain. It is aggression all the same and is ultimately self-defeating; aggression only breeds more aggression. It is something that only we can stop.

When someone steals our parking place (or whatever), what wells up inside us is aggression. It may start out as aggression toward someone or something, but over time it can become a state of aggression without an object, ready to flare up at any contact. And anything can become an object. We become touchy. Our emotional body is inflamed, just like a sore thumb, and the inflammation seldom has time to subside.

The world of anger and aggression is just that, a whole world or realm, a klesha. It is so prevalent that most of us hardly notice it anymore. Residual anger and its resulting aggression are pretty much embedded within our society. For many of us, aggression is a constant and goes on subtly all the time, reaching down to the pettiest levels. At this point, aggression is habitual in our society – ingrained anger. Almost anything can make us angry and aggressive.

As mentioned, anger and aggression are, by definition, dualistic. It takes a subject who is angry and an object, something causing the anger. By overcoming dualism (removing separation) within ourselves, we overcome anger as well. Suppressing anger only embeds it deeper. Blaming something or someone outside ourselves for causing our own aggression/anger only insures that it will grow and repeat itself. However, becoming more aware of what causes anger within us (acknowledging that it is our anger) and making peace with that, and including it with our circle of acceptance removes the dualism and with it, the anger. We must own it.

What causes anger could be anything, so there is no person (other than ourselves) to blame for our angry response and aggression. And if someone actually did us wrong, that only mixes our own anger and aggression with a false sense of justice that we have a right to explode. Aggression only breeds more aggression. Chögyam Trungpa said that aggression is the opposite of enlightenment, everything but enlightenment. Removing aggression is often the first step in dharma training.

I could go on and on here, but the bottom line is how do we remove aggression? Since it is a full-blown klesha for many of us, an intellectual approach, like reading this blog, will have little effect. Words alone will not remove those deep-down stains. The first step is to begin to develop awareness of our own aggression and acknowledge just how touchy we are. If we can begin to be aware of when we aggress, we can begin to see that our anger belongs entirely to us and is not coming from outside. It can't, because it is simply a reaction or response on our part. We can't control the outer causes of anger, but we can control our response.

Once we own our aggression, we can begin to deconstruct it one occurrence at a time. As pointed out, one treatment will do very little. Kleshas like aggression take a long, long time to deemphasize, but they do eventually become clear to us. We can see through them, at which time removing them becomes even easier. And we are just scratching the surface.

[The late lilies are in full bloom around here.]