By Gabriel Cohen
It was a brutally hot, muggy New York day.
I was exhausted from a hard freelance job the day before. Now my brother was giving me a ride to a family gathering, and he was late, as usual. I often get a bit edgy before such get-togethers, and worse, my brother was blasting his car stereo.
I told him to turn it down.
He told me to “chill out.”
Anger flared up within me. (Odd isn’t it, how the people we love the most can press our buttons so easily?)
“Stop the car!” I shouted.
Before it had even come to a halt, I was halfway out.
“Well,” my brother called out after me, “I guess your Buddhism is really working out…”
At the time, that comment got me even more steamed, but now I can look back on the incident and laugh. My brother was right, of course. I had spent more than a year studying the harmful effects of anger. I knew how it worked. I even knew something about how to prevent it—and there I was, totally losing my cool. All this talks, all those books, all that meditating…poof.
On the other hand, my brother was wrong. A year is a very short time when you’re trying to change your whole way of life. Of course, I hadn’t miraculously become some enlightened being, impervious to insult and injury.
Get Kelsang Gyatso gives a three-step recipe for getting rid of such delusions as anger: Recognize, Reduce, Abandon. Sometimes, it was all I could do to just recognize the folly of my behavior.
As the above story should make clear, though, recognizing the problem is not enough. The challenge is to act better. Buddhism can be a huge help in repairing a damaged relationship, or recovering from a failed one, because it offers very specific, practical advice about what to do.
It’s all about learning to move through life skillfully.
What’s our goal? A vivid allegory provides a great answer. After years of spiritual seeking and struggle, the Buddha decided that he was going to go sit under a bodhi tree, and he resolved that he would not get up until he attained completely awakening. While he sat there, a powerful demon called Mara came by, back up by an army of fearful monsters.
They drew their bows and shot a storm of arrows, hoping to distract the Buddha and frustrate his quest. But he was in such a deep state of peace and calm that he just sat there, and watched as all the approaching arrows transformed into flowers.
What a fantastic metaphor for our struggle through divorce! Wouldn’t it be great if we could do the same? What if we could stop our spouses’s barbs fro wounding us? And what if we could send kindness to our partner, instead of arrows of our own?
When you’re having an argument with your ex, though, that compassionate intention is liable to fly right out the window, and the next thing you know you’re in the middle of a shouting match.
Fortunately, Buddhism offers more than just awareness of the ways in which ignorance and anger and desirous attachment get us in trouble. It suggests antidotes to those poisons. The antidote for the suffering caused by anger, for example, is the practice of patience. The antidote for self-cherishing is the practice of compassion. The antidote for selfishness is the practice of generosity. The antidote for jealousy is to practice in rejoicing the good fortune of others.
Antidotes don’t work unless we apply them, and we have to train in how to do that. Again, the key word is practice. Musicians call it having chops. Knowledge of music theory didn’t allow me to jump on the stage and play guitar solos. I had to get familiar with the instrument. Like any skill, that required effort, discipline and repetition. The ability to play the notes had to be ingrained into my nervous system until—ultimately—it became second nature.
Anger is a particularly demanding emotion.
Trying to remain calm in the middle of an interaction with an ex-spouse often requires the virtuosity of an accomplished classical musician. How the hell can you practice that?
You can break it down into smaller steps. The first is to realize that anger is always harmful. The second is to develop a wish to get rid of it. The third is to make the effort to learn where it comes from—your own mind—and what causes it to arise: a sense of injury to you cherished self. Through meditation, you can gain some control over your mental agitation. And you can familiarize yourself with the antidote (patience) by trying it out on lots of small irritations: slow moving traffic, a long line in the post office…
Hopefully, when you need to have a discussion with your ex, you’ll have gained the skillfulness to go into it with a calmer mind—you’ll be more able to stop those feelings of anger from even arising.
Unfortunately, no. It takes real focus and effort.
But that’s better than the alternative: the suffering caused by all of those poisoned arrows.
*excerpt taken from Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce. De Capo Press
Gabriel Cohen lives in Brooklyn, New York. His debut novel Red Hook was nominated for the Edgar award for Best First Novel, and he is also the author of The Ninth Step, The Graving Dock, Boombox, Neptune Avenue, and the nonfiction book Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce. He has written for The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Gourmet.com, Shambhala Sun, the New York Post magazine, and Time Out New York. He teaches in the Writing Program at Pratt Institute; has taught writing at New York University; and lectures extensively. See more at his website.
Editor: Dana Gornall