Strong Views and Skillful Action

| January 15, 2017 | 22 Comments
BPF

From the Buddhist Peace Fellowship

Western Buddhists tend to be wary of strongly-held views. Holding and asserting views with strong emotion or passion is often seen as a form of unskillful clinging, based on an egoic need to be recognized as right, a competitive struggle over who has the best views, or an aversion to another person’s ideas. Strong views would thus seem to conflict with the Buddhist path, which is based on non-attachment and equanimity.

I want to push back gently against this view. Yes, strong views are often primarily based on attachment, but they need not be, provided we have a clear understanding of how to hold and assert strong views wisely. And, I will argue, strong views are essential if we want to live a life characterized by skillful action oriented toward the full development and flourishing of all human beings.

It’s a good time to look at this issue, as we consider how to challenge the incoming Trump administration, which will likely cause serious harm to working people and oppressed groups in our society. Shortly after Trump’s Electoral College victory last November,  some well-known meditation teachers, such as Pema Chodren and Norman Fisher, emphasized the need for compassion and equanimity toward oneself and others, and a recognition of the reality of constant change and our lack of control over that change. While their comments were certainly consistent with the Buddhist inclination to turn inward  to gain balance and peace in difficult times, they elicited a sharp response from Pablo Das, who found their response lacking. Das acknowledged that mindfulness is a fundamental and necessary component of our stance in this situation, but argued that we also need to recognize the value of a socially-engaged, passionate response to the Trump administration.  Das, a gay man, called on Buddhists to value anger and strong, passionate views as part of a compassionate fight for social justice.

Fronsdal and Batchelor on Views

Since the Buddha did not provide us with an explicit epistemological theory, it’s not surprising that there are a range of perspectives among Buddhists about the status and truth-value of views. Positions on this issue vary, depending on one’s lineage and which aspects of the Buddha’s teachings are seen as essential. I think it is fair to say, however, that contemporary Western Buddhists typically highlight the pitfalls of holding any views whatsoever or, at the least, emphasize the negative effects of holding strong views based on afflictive emotions.

This skepticism and negativity toward views is expressed in recently-published books by two secular Buddhists – Gil Fronsdal and Stephen Batchelor. Both assert that holding views is inconsistent with a non-dogmatic, secular approach to Buddhism and leads to suffering because of the link between views and clinging.

Gil Fronsdal, who prefers to describe his approach as “natural Buddhism,” shares with secular Buddhists a profound skepticism about a belief in a transcendent realm of nirvana as the goal of Buddhist practice. In his new book, The Buddha Before Buddhism he provides a translation and explication of what he claims[ii] is one of the earliest group of suttas – the Atthakavagga or the “Book of Eights,” in which such a notion is completely absent. Instead, enlightenment is understood in these suttas as “letting go” or non-attachment, a process which is possible to achieve in our daily existence.[iii]

An essential aspect of letting go is not just the renunciation of sensual cravings, but not holding on to views, particularly metaphysical views. According to Fronsdal, someone who is a “sage” in these suttas (the term in the Book of Eights for someone who has let go of attachments) is not attached to any particular view and understands that holding views leads to suffering and conflicts.

Letting go of their attachments, sages have no need for any doctrines in terms of theories, concepts, or beliefs. With no reliance on such doctrines, the wise person does not oppose anyone else’s doctrines. (p.11)

Here is how one verse of the Dutthatthaka Sutta, the Eightfold Discourse on the Corrupt, reflects this approach:

One who is attached over doctrines-
How and with whom does one argue with someone
Unattached?
Embracing nothing, rejecting nothing,
Right here, a person has shaken off every view.  (p. 51)

Similarly, Stephen Batchelor believes that non-attachment to views should be an essential aspect of a secular approach to Buddhism.  In his books, articles, and talks he has consistently argued that the core of Buddhism is not about the acceptance of certain metaphysical or cosmological beliefs, but about the pragmatic actions that allow one to achieve a release from attachments in this world and contribute to the flourishing of all human beings.

In his latest book, After Buddhism, Batchelor identifies several currents within Buddhism which eschew discussion of a transcendent realm and focus on achieving a release from suffering in our daily lives. In addition to Korean Son Buddhism, he highlights the value of the “non-oppositional and non-dogmatic perspective of the sage” which is found in the Book of Eights.[iv] Batchelor thinks that such an approach points:

…..to a possibility of being in this world here and now, freed from any entanglements in views and opinions. The “sage” is a metaphor for being optimally human: totally detached but totally alert to whatever is occurring….(p.249)

For Batchelor, the qualities of openness and non-reactivity which the sage attains “…..leads to a spontaneous vitality in which the world is revealed as questionable, mysterious, and radiant” (p.251). This mode of being in the world is crucial if we want to live with integrity and contribute to the flourishing of all human beings.

Consistent with this approach, Batchelor argues that the value of the Buddha’s insights is not that they yield certain truths about the world, but that they offer practical injunctions about how to act. The Four Noble Truths need to be understood not as propositions about the world, but, in Batchelor’s’ view, as four tasks:  “Embrace life, Let go of what arises, See its ceasing, Act!” (p.70). These are the essential tasks that need to be struggled with on a spiritual path which leads to the flourishing of all human beings.

Batchelor has argued that this perspective has an affinity with two contemporary philosophical trends: phenomenology and pragmatism.  A common theme in these philosophies is the notion that we cannot determine the truth of a proposition or view by its correspondence with a non-linguistic, separate reality; we can’t know things as “they really are”.  Like the phenomenologist Gianni Vattimo, Batchelor instead believes in striving for “an ethics of truth” in interpersonal interactions which contributes to human flourishing.  (p.119) Thus, holding views and disputing about them leads to suffering while skillful actions based on pragmatic injunctions lead to human flourishing.

Views versus Skillful Actions: A False Dichotomy

Batchelor correctly asserts that a secular approach to Buddhism will not be fruitful if it becomes merely the antithesis to traditional Buddhism, with our own set of dogmatic, metaphysical and cosmological views in opposition to traditional Buddhism’s notions of rebirth, gods, and various cosmological realms. Instead, we need to develop an approach which is non-dogmatic, questioning and open, one that focuses on how we can contribute to the flourishing and happiness of all human beings in our daily existence.

At the same time, he points out the philosophical problems with the notion that we can identify some objective standard – separate and apart from human interaction – which determines what is a true and what is a false view. There is no “God’s Eye” perspective that allows us to do that.

But in his laudable effort to develop a pragmatic, skeptical form of Buddhism, Batchelor mistakenly creates an either-or alternative between holding particular views about important questions and engaging in pragmatic actions to achieve important goals.

Surely, when we engage in the spiritual path as Buddhists (whether secular or traditional), we do so with certain understandings, views, and beliefs about ourselves, as human beings, and about the world. To assert, as Batchelor does, that one can only be happy if one renounces all attachments, depends upon his having particular beliefs about the nature of happiness, the capacities and limits of human beings, and the essential structures and processes of the world.

Doug Smith pointed out in a blog post that Batchelor’s four tasks are premised on certain views of what is true or false:

The problem is that one really cannot make much sense of the early teachings without some notion of truth or accuracy in view and understanding. …..If we are to come to the deep awareness that the five aggregates of clinging are dukkha, it must be true that the five aggregates of clinging are dukkha. Conversely, we cannot come to the deep understanding that consciousness is my self, because it is not true that consciousness is my self. Truth and understanding, truth and knowledge, truth and comprehension, all go hand in hand in this way. It may be that these are all truths present to us in our awareness in some fashion; they are not hidden or secret. But that doesn’t make them any less true.

Further, even if the “truth” cannot be determined in some absolutely, objective way, we need standards or a set of criteria to differentiate between views and their effects on human beings. That these standards are a product of human beings in particular historical and social contexts does not mean that they are irrelevant or completely subjective. It just means that the standards will always be created and revised as part of a continuing human conversation in history.

For Batchelor and other secular Buddhists, the goal of the full flourishing of human beings through individual, spiritual practice and the creation of a more just society is one such standard. I would argue that the “truth” of a view will depend, in part, on whether it contributes to such flourishing.  Even if there is no standard which provides us with an objective measure of truth, we don’t need to reject totally the notion that views can be fruitfully compared and respectfully argued about.

Strong Emotions and Views

While Batchelor and Fronsdal are not urging that we rid ourselves of emotions to achieve a state of non-attachment in our daily existence, they do believe that holding views is inextricably connected to strong, unskillful emotions, such as desire and anger.  As forms of clinging, these emotions directly cause suffering. And because views are often based on such emotions, disputes and conflicts will inevitably arise between individuals holding views, which, in turn, causes more suffering. Their analysis of the causal connection between strong emotions and unskillful views dovetails with a more general predisposition in Western culture to view strong emotions as detrimental to the goal of human flourishing.

However, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that emotions actually play a crucial role in imagining and creating the good life insofar as they “…..are forms of evaluative judgment that ascribe great importance to things and person’s outside one’s control. Emotions are thus, in effect, acknowledgements of neediness and lack of self-sufficiency…..” (p.185).[v] In this respect, emotions, even those that Buddhists would consider to be unskillful and a cause of suffering, are crucial to developing the kinds of ideas and behaviors which contribute to human flourishing.

Batchelor notes approvingly the similarity between the Buddhist view of a state of non-attachment or letting go and the goal in the Hellenistic philosophy of Pyrrhonian skepticism of attaining “….the untroubledness  of ataraxia, a state akin to nirvana…” (p.255) based on not holding views with strong emotion.  While recognizing that the skeptic’s “removal of belief removes arrogance and irascibility which now creates barriers between her and others,” Nussbaum argues in her book The Therapy of Desire[vi] that there is another side to such an indifference to views; namely, the removal of the “…intensity to the commitment to virtue that makes people risk their lives for justice, or endure hardships for those that they love.” (p. 314)

Following Nussbaum, I believe that strong emotions and passions provide us with the energy and motivation to buttress our life-long commitment to arduous projects like the Buddhist spiritual path and social justice. Even as we strive to be equanimous about the results of these projects – by recognizing our limitations, the reality of constant change, and the interdependence of all things – we need strong emotions and passion to help us continue the struggle based on our fundamental views about human beings, society, and nature.

Buddhist Insights for Holding Strong Views Wisely

Rather than attempting to relinquish all views as part of an effort to attain a state of non-attachment or letting go, we should strive, as part of a secular Buddhist spiritual path, to hold views wisely. And Buddhism certainly offers us several important tools in this respect.

As Das pointed out, mindfulness of the various phenomena which we experience provides the basic foundation for assessing the views which we hold. It is only by paying close attention to what is really happening to us, and how we are reacting and responding to our experiences, that we can discern on what basis we are holding a particular view.  Is the view based mainly on anger and competition with other? Do we recognize that any of our views are likely to be limited or partial, given the reality of constant change in the world? For what reasons are we asserting the view?

The Buddha’s guidelines on right speech actually provide a useful template for evaluating our views. In the Anguttara Nikaya 5.198 the Buddha identifies the following criteria for determining whether what we say is skillful: “”It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”

Note that skillful speech depends not just on the truth-value of what we say, but our intentions and the impact of the speech. Similarly, in assessing a view, we need to take account not just the accuracy or truth-value of our view point, but the purposes for which we hold and assert the view, and its likely impact.  When we assert a view, are we doing so from a place of compassion and an interest in furthering the flourishing of all human beings? If we are angry because of social injustice, is our view of the situation based solely on a reactive need to lash back at those who we believe are guilty or is the anger an impetus to gain a clear understanding of how the situation can be transformed and the injustice rectified in a way which promotes human flourishing?

Of course, these guidelines based on the Buddha’s teachings don’t provide us with a formula for exactly determining what is a wise view, but they do give us useful tools to discern between wise and unwise views.

Non-Buddhist Perspectives for Holding Strong Views Wisely

Buddhist insights on this issue provide us with necessary but not sufficient resources to hold strong views wisely. One limitation of the Buddha’s teachings in the suttas is the assumption that the assertion of views is necessarily linked with conflict and disharmony among people.  In fact, I would argue that the exchange of views – even those most strongly held – is actually an essential condition for social progress and human flourishing.

I’ll just briefly mention three important perspectives which emphasize the crucial importance of the exchange of views.  First, for the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, democracy and the scientific method are the essential basis for social progress and human flourishing. Both democracy and the scientific method require a robust debate within a community, based on alternative, sometimes quite divergent views. As Dewey noted in his book Democracy and Education “….a democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, a conjoint communicated experience…..” (p.87) in which, by taking account of the views and interests of others, we gain a better understanding of the appropriate response to difficult situations.[vii] Second, the radical pedagogy of Brazilian Paolo Freire emphasizes the role of a dialogical process of communication and learning as the means for an oppressed community to identify the structural roots of social injustice and the path to a more humane society.[viii] And finally, the socialist Rosa Luxemberg argued against a top-down, dictatorial version of radical social transformation in which one group or party determines all policies. Instead, she called for the widest participation and debate in a socialist society:

The public life of countries with limited freedom is so poverty-stricken, so miserable, so rigid, so unfruitful, precisely because, through the exclusion of democracy, it cuts off the living sources of all spiritual riches and progress. ……The whole mass of the people must take part in it. Otherwise, socialism will be decreed from behind a few official desks by a dozen intellectuals.[ix]

Conclusion

In short, secular Buddhists should not see strong views as necessarily suspect or harmful.  Provided we strive to be mindful and compassionate, having strong views is essential if we want to respond wisely and creatively to life’s challenges, including the Trump administration. Dialogue and debate over strongly-held views are not just a necessary evil; they are an essential means for creating a society in which the full flourishing of human beings is our primary goal.


End Notes:

For the more philosophically-minded, there is a useful group of articles on various approaches to epistemology within Buddhism in A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, Steven M. Emmanuel (ed.), Wiley Blackwell, 2013, pp. 223-306.

[ii] In his January 9, 2017 review of Fronsdal’s book, Doug Smith questions whether Fronsdal has provided convincing evidence that the Atthakavagga is one of the earliest suttas.

[iii] Gil Fronsdal, The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from Early Teachings, Shambhala, 2016.

[iv] Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, Yale University Press, 2016.

[v] Martha Nussbaum, “Emotions as judgments of value and importance,” in Thinking About Feeling: Contemporary Philosophers on Emotions,  C. Robert Solomon (ed.), Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 183-199.

[vi] Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire, Princeton University Press, 1994.

[vii] John Dewey, Democracy and Education, Free Press, 1966. (originally published in 1916)

[viii] Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum,  1993. (originally published in 1970)

[ix] Rosa Luxemberg, The Russian Revolution, “The Problem of Dictatorship” – https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/russian-revolution/ch06.htm

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About the Author ()

I have been a political and labor activist for over 40 years. In 2010, I became interested in Buddhism and began a regular vipassana meditation practice. As an agnostic and activist, I am particularly interested in exploring how to connect secular Buddhism with a radical political theory and practice.

Comments (22)

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  1. Missionary Missionary says:

    The writer comments that certain activists have “…called on Buddhists to value anger and strong, passionate views as part of a compassionate fight for social justice.” All I keep hearing is “…called on Buddhists to value anger. Yes, this is only a summary of a paraphrased idea but that is what I hear.

    How can I ever value anger as an asset? Thich Nhat Hanh’s discussion on the Third Door of Liberation is what I call ‘State of the World Sutra’. “Anxiety is an illness of our age. We worry about ourselves, our family, our friends, our work and the state of the world. If we allow worry to fill our hearts, sooner or later we will be sick.”

    If I worry I may not be able to be here to help people close to me…those whom I know best how to help.
    *The Heart of Buuha’s Teaching” p.154 (1998 Parallax Press )

  2. Mark Knickelbine says:

    A good discussion of this issue. I think valuing anger is different than cultivating it. As with all of our emotions, anger will arise; it’s a necessary aspect of our psychophysical process. As with the rest of our experience, we should value it as an opportunity for mindfulness and understanding. Accepting and understanding the anger of oppressed and abused people is an unavoidable aspect of regarding them compassionately. Anger becomes a problem when we cling to it, when the conceptions of abuse associated with anger go unexamined, when we forget that anger is suffering. Anger is a problem when our minds become overwhelmed and it leads to unmindful and unskillful speech and action. Compassion dictates that we create a safer society in which people are free to pursue happiness; creating that society will bring us into conflict with those who are attached to the status quo or some competing aspiration. It is not possible to go there without anger sometimes arising. It’s how we use that anger that determines whether it is skillful or not.

    • Missionary Missionary says:

      Thank you. Tomorrow, I will take this to my Sanga. There are four of us … core members and others visit. Nirvana Healing Center, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. I cant wait for the input. Larry will probably downplay the problem. Stuart will empathize. And Madelein will say who knows what. She and I are both faithful readers of that wonderful book referenced in my inquiry. Thank you.
      ⛩☕

    • Michael Slott says:

      Thanks for your comment, Mark. I totally agree that the key is how anger or any other emotion is used. I would perhaps phrase it a bit differently, but the result is the same: it’s how we respond to an emotion and then the role it has in our speech and actions. For example, when anger emerges in response to an act of social injustice, we first need to be fully aware of this emotion (which will likely co-exist with several others), and then try to understand the “narrative” which arises as part of the anger, rather than reflexively react. Is the narrative mostly about prior, personal hurts or trauma? Is there a sense of compassionate connection and interdependence or do we see ourselves as alone? When we have given ourselves the opportunity to pause and reflect before acting, we are much more likely to skillfully use an emotion like anger as part of an effort to create a more just society.

  3. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Hi Michael and thanks for the great post. Yes, it’s clear from the suttas that the Buddha doesn’t have a problem with “strong views” per se; indeed, clearly he himself has many of them. The issue comes down to identifying with views as “mine” and therefore (for example) feeling personally affronted by attacks on them.

    As for arguing and discussing, while the Buddha has problems with arguments (since I think he sees them as all too often leading to further clinging) in his discussion of right speech he does allow for people to say difficult things to one another, but only at the appropriate time. That is, some things should be said in private, others perhaps should be discussed with a small group, and others in public. Here I think the distinction is what one feels will be most helpful. That is, the point isn’t just to vent spleen or engage in anger, but to act in a way that will have the most potential benefit, however one sees that.

    And so yes, I think there is room for open and strong political dialogue from within a Buddhist context, though this should be understood as part of the “mundane” (lokiya) rather than the “supramundane” (lokuttara) path. That is, it leads to a better saṃsāra rather than to awakening.

    Ah, one small point: re. your end note (ii), I don’t disagree that the Aṭṭhakavagga is particularly early. That seems very much the consensus opinion, and I’m quite comfortable with it. (Although there are a few who seem to disagree, such as Ṭhānissaro, if I read him properly and if I remember correctly). Rather it’s a matter of deciding what precisely that means for its message; for one thing, there are several such apparently early texts which should be understood together to get a picture of what the early saṅgha and its dhamma might have been like.

    • Michael Slott says:

      Doug – Thanks for clarifying the point you were making in your blog post on Fronsdal’s book on the Atthakavagga; I didn’t accurately characterize your argument in my end note.

      Regarding the role of strong debates and arguments, which you point out can be accommodated within the Buddhist context, but only as part of the “mundane” path, I have two points I’d like to offer.

      First, at least as I understand and practice secular Buddhism, the distinction between and a mundane and supramundane path of dharma doesn’t make sense. That distinction presupposes that there is an ultimate dimension – whether understood as a separate transcendent, realm or as an underlying foundation for reality – which is separate from the natural world and which the practitioner can seek to attain. While we can usefully distinguish between different levels of spiritual and social development in the natural world, I don’t think that there are two developmental paths based on different realms. I understand that this is part of the Buddhist perspective, but, as a secular Buddhist, do you agree with this notion?

      That leads me to my second point. I ended the blog post with a very brief discussion of several non-Buddhist perspectives on the importance of debates and discussions as part of an effort to create a society in which human flourishing is the primary goal. I could have written a lot more on that, but didn’t because of space limitations. While I think that the Buddha’s teachings are useful in helping us to navigate the relationship between strongly-held views and skillful action, in my view, they are just a piece of the answer. So, for me, the issue is not whether strong debates and discussions are valid within the Buddhist context, but whether there is some combination of perspectives that helps us to deal skillfully with this perennial challenge.

      • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

        Hi Michael and thanks for the great points and questions. As to the distinction between mundane and supramundane, perhaps the language gets in the way here. Of course there are traditional interpretations of “supramundane” that are plainly supernatural, and that therefore must be set aside on any secular interpretation. But I do not believe that those constitute what is central to the supramundane path. Central to that path is an attitude of global nonclinging; an awareness that nothing in the natural world (which is all there is) is permanent, and that therefore nothing in the natural world can be fully relied upon.

        Such an attitude does not clash with any intent towards global justice of course, just as the mundane path of Buddhism does not clash with the supramundane. But it does involve an understanding that any such mundane path cannot be fully and everlastingly realized, simply because nothing in the natural world is permanent.

        So: work for global justice and work for global nonclinging. The first is a collective, political job. The second is a personal, psychological job. Both are like hands washing each other, both are compatible but both are different.

        This is perhaps something I should write more about.

        The issue of debates and discussions is another very interesting point. I think it’s undeniable that the Buddha wasn’t very positive on them, at least within the context of the saṅgha. It’s also undeniable that he seems to have engaged in them with some frequency with outsiders. So there are some deep complexities here that perhaps we can learn from.

        Of course we can also learn from non-Buddhist sources. But since Buddhist sources are — IMO — so poorly understood in the West, I think at least we should get a clear understanding of what they say before deciding to overlook them, if overlook them we must.

        • Michael Slott says:

          Doug – Thanks for providing more explanation of what you mean by mundane and supramundane. I would really be interested in you discussing this in a blog post. If a supramundane path is based, as you say, on an attitude of global nonclinging, and by “global” you mean complete or absolute, I think I would still have a problem with the concept. I don’t think that we can ever attain such a state or attitude. As I have argued in a previous blog post, I think it’s a matter of more or less clinging, with our practice geared toward cultivating the latter. But I hope you have the opportunity to explore this issue more fully.

          And yes, it is important to get a clear understanding of what is contained in the Buddhist discourses regarding the role of strong debates. Your do a really good job in your blog posts of explicating key ideas and concepts for SBA readers. I have always found these posts quite useful.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Thanks for your kind comments, Michael.

            Re. “complete or absolute” nonclinging: I share your skepticism. At least, to really get to a place of global nonclinging would take enormous effort and ability. And maybe it’s not really possible, I certainly can’t say for sure. Even so though it might be something we could get better at, and aim towards in practice.

  4. Freida says:

    I would like to offer here the thoughts that arose in my mind as I read this very interesting article. My thoughts are not meant as a critique of this article.

    There are some strong emotions that I enjoy – joy being one of them. Another strong emotion that expresses my depth of feeling is grief. Feeling and expressing these emotions contributes meaning to my life, especially when they are shared with others. My life is also enriched when others share these emotions with me. When I am experiencing these emotions it is wonderful if I can give myself fully to them, but to do so without risk of causing harm to others I must ensure that the context is appropriate. For example, fully giving myself to joy or grief while I am driving a vehicle is an inappropriate context. The reason is that the parts of my brain that generate emotions and habits (such as the amygdala and hypothalamus) are ‘upregulated’ (as Roshi Joan Halifax is fond of saying!), requiring more blood and oxygen. So some of the share of blood and oxygen that goes to my pre-frontal cortex (where I do my thinking and where my intentions, actions and emotions are regulated) is diverted. Therefore, my PFC (pre-frontal cortex) is not working at an optimal level.

    The way I understand anger is two-fold:

    1. Anger is a human ‘fight’ response to fear. If I am feeling angry, instead of identifying the cause of anger, I need to know what it is that I fear, “what am I afraid of?” This changes my perspective from one of defense or attack to one that is more likely to reduce activity in my amygdala and re-engage my PFC. Occasionally, identifying the source of my fear changes my perspective to self-mirth, as when I realize that my upregulated emotion at the person driving slowly in front of me is my fear that I will not get to drive as fast as I like (not getting what I want). Identifying my fear reduces the intensity of my emotion, and my rational intelligence can be in charge.

    2. Other species do not experience anger, they experience a fight or flight response from fear. My experience of fear as fight is justified if I am, or someone near me is, in imminent danger and I need to react quickly to save my life or someone else’s life. These occasions rarely occur in my life (and when they have occurred my response has usually been flight!). New Zealand is one of the safest countries in the world to live in, and although not all of us are safe, most of us are, nearly all of the time.

    My experience of fear as fight, translated as anger, is something else. Something human. Something cognitive. I use my thoughts to justify my anger (when I have forgotten to ask what it is that I fear). The problem with justified anger is that the PFC is not engaged. My amygdala is also in charge of habits. My anger is not a response to a situation, rather, my anger is a habitual reactivity to a situation. My anger is my sense that I do not have control in a situation that I either wished to have control or expected to have control, and generally, that situation is that some other person is either saying or doing something that I do not want, something to which I am adverse. This is an inauspicious time for me to act on my reactivity. The reduced activity in my PFC means that my intentions, decisions and actions are likely to be habitual and driven by a desire to cause harm by accentuating the divisions between myself and others.

    From what I have learned through Buddhism and from Stephen Batchelor:

    • Reactivity, like most of our thoughts, are generated involuntarily. But acting on reactivity or unexamined thoughts is risky and sometimes detrimental. Acting on anger is almost always detrimental.

    • I appreciate that ‘freedom is the space between stimulus and response’, and that through Buddhism I have an opportunity to practice being in that space so that it becomes a habit when my amygdala is overly stimulated, and that I can be in that space long enough for enough blood flow to return to my PFC so that my intentions and actions are based on responsiveness, not reactivity

    • I appreciate that I have learned the difference between attachment and engagement, so that I may be unattached (non-attachment) to a preferred outcome, but nonetheless, engaged in a process of working towards preferred outcomes

    • I appreciate that my sphere of influence is small, and my sphere of control limited to just me, and so being angry is futile and self-defeating

    • I appreciate that although I may not know what is right or wrong, or even if there is a right or wrong, through practicing dharma perhaps my views, intentions, speech, actions, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration in any specific context may be more appropriate than inappropriate

    • I appreciate that to be fully human means to be secular, in this present world at this present time. It may even be considered immoral to be concerned with otherworldly musings when there is so much existential insecurity here in this world (climate change is one imminent threat to existential security)

    • I appreciated that secular Buddhism is a sentient-beingism, not just a humanism

    • I appreciate that I have a baseline so that I do not have an infinite regress of justification, but I am prepared to say, the buck stops here: To do what I can to reduce the suffering of sentient beings.

    Maybe the only place that I differ from secular Buddhism is that I would prioritize, when priorities must be made, based on the complexity of consciousness of sentient beings. As consciousness is subjectively first-person and not all sentient beings are able to express the extent or intensity of their suffering, then the decision would be made on the level of cognitive functioning and complexity of the nervous system.

    Stress signaling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2907136/

    Where Did My IQ points Go?
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/leading-emotional-intelligence/201104/where-did-my-iq-points-go

    • Freida says:

      My apologies for the dense text, there were more spaces in the original before I clicked on ‘post comment’! It appears that I am unable to edit my comment.

    • Michael Slott says:

      Freida – I appreciate your discussion of how and why we experience anger. You see the cause of anger in the fight response to fear. I think this is true in many cases, but I’m not sure that anger is always based on such a response. For example, if I observe another person being mistreated (whether on a video on my computer or in person) and feel anger arise, how is that a fight response to fear? Aren’t I feeling a sense of outrage based in part on compassion to that person?

      • Freida says:

        Hi Michael

        I don’t see the cause of anger in the fight response to fear. I see the cause of anger in the response to thoughts about the fight response to fear. It is very difficult to differentiate between fight response and anger because they feel the same, and physiologically they are the same, but ‘fight’ and anger are different in purpose.

        The fight-or-flight response to fear is undiscerning; it will perceive a threat whether that threat is real and imminent, imagined or removed. (This is why people feel scared watching thrillers on TV.) The fight-or-flight response to fear is physiological – increased adrenaline, increased heart rate, automated thinking, etc. Because my fight response to fear and anger feel the same, I need to use situational cues to differentiate.

        If I saw someone being mistreated on the street in close proximity to me, then my heightened senses would be a fight-or-flight response and I would need to take action (help the person or run away). If, however, I saw a video on YouTube of a person being mistreated, my heightened senses could very well be, initially, a fight-or-flight response to fear, simply because of a failure to discern between a real and perceived threat. As soon as I recognize that the threat isn’t real (there is no imminent danger), then my body will return to normal. It may take some time, depending on how serious the real or perceived danger was and how heightened my physiological response. It’s on video, so I’m almost immediately aware that I am in no danger.

        However, if the fight-or-flight response is in the context of a situation in which I have cognitive value judgements, these value judgements augment my fight response, which I then register as ‘anger’, or outrage. This is a reactive response to an unwarranted fear (unwarranted because a threat never existed, a perceived threat didn’t transpire, or a real threat has been resolved). This reactive response is uniquely human because we think abstractly and because we have a strong sense of self or ego. My thoughts perpetuate the physiological response, and because the physiological response is now associated with my values and judgments, the physiological response is perceived as justified, natural and healthy. It is also remembered.

        With my thoughts I can recreate the situation and the physiological response (again, the fight-or-flight response does not discern between real and imagined) hours, even years, later, after the event.

        So anger is like this: FEAR – First response: Flight or fight; First reaction: run, fight, or think thoughts to justify the fight response – Second response: feel angry. Buddhism and mindfulness teach methods to intervene at the first reaction, and even at the first response.

        The stimulus for fight is fear; the stimulus for anger is thought that justifies fight when there is no other warranted justification for fight.

        Whether I am feeling a heightened sense of emotion that is called anger in an immediate, abstract, or after-the-event situation, how does anger benefit me or anyone else? The physiological effects of anger are to reduce my intelligence, my desire for resolution, and my willingness to see another perspective, and it misdirects energy from more immediate concerns such as wise compassionate action to stop or prevent harm, and care for anyone who has been hurt.

        I don’t need anger to know what my values are, or to know what I care about. I need compassion and intelligence to know what my values are, to know what I care about, and . And I don’t want to take action while I have reduced cognitive functioning, so when I do feel angry the best action I can take is to ‘remain like a log’.

        We do ourselves a disservice by stopping at anger, when we could go deeper and ask, “what am I afraid of?” The chances are, if we ask that question, the answer will be that we are afraid of not getting what we want, or of getting what we don’t want. If we see other people who are angry, we can ask the same: what are they afraid of? As soon as we genuinely care about the answer to that question, whether we ask it about ourselves or others, anger dissipates, compassion arises and a desire to resolve the situation peacefully takes precedence.

        Sometimes the answer to the question, “what am I afraid of?” is simple – I am irritated at the little fly buzzing around my head because I am afraid that I am not skillful enough to ignore it, or that I won’t get what I want, which is for it to go away. Sometimes the answer is one we don’t want to know, “I am afraid that I can’t regulate my empathy for the injured in this situation, I will feel their pain too intensely, so I prefer to feel angry instead”. (The ability to regulate empathy is a whole other topic!). Sometimes the answer is deeply psychological, perhaps a trigger from a previous trauma. Sometimes anger is just that we are afraid of being misunderstood or dismissed.

        Anger is a manifestation of reactive thoughts, to which we respond by speaking and acting in ways that are likely to cause harm to ourselves and to others. Buddhism offers ways to create a breathing space (one mindful breath may be all we need) between the stimulus and our response so that we can wisely rather than reactively choose our response.

        Anger is a heightened emotion that creates ‘other’, whereas heightened emotions such as joy and grief invite ‘together’.

        (I stole ‘one mindful breath’ from Ramsey! http://www.onemindfulbreath.org.nz/)

        I can’t think of any situation in which anger would be a useful emotion, nor can I think of any manifestation of anger in which fear wasn’t the underlying stimulus.

        • Michael Slott says:

          Freida – Thanks for your in-depth response to my question. It was very helpful and I agree that anger arises when a cognitive evaluation is attached to an initial, immediate response to a problematic situation. However, when I see an instance of mistreatment – for example, a racist cop attacking an African-American peaceful protestor – is the anger that arises in me solely rooted in the fight or flight response? Isn’t the anger that I feel based both on an evaluative interpretation of my initial fight or flight physiological response and a sense of compassion toward others? In short, can’t anger have several or multiple sources, some of which may lead to skillful action? What do you think?

  5. steve mareno says:

    I agree w/ Mark’s wise take on anger. Rather than taking a stance that says any emotional response is inappropriate all of the time, I think all of the emotions have their use. While it may be unwise to act out of anger (and I think that every situation is unique, and needs a unique response) anger can also be a motivator for right action. What I find helpful in my life is to think about why I am angry. All emotions come from a thought, so what exactly is the thought that gave rise to that anger? Personally, often my anger comes from my ego, but on my good days it comes from a sense of injustice. That’s “good” anger, but it needs to be expressed properly. This is a thin line we walk when dealing w/ the emotions, especially anger. A lisle too much one way and it’s ineffective and simply complaining. A little too far the other way and it’s more about intentional hurting, which often comes from our ego being perceived as being attacked.

    The comical part is that if we (our ego) actually do not exist, meaning our view of ourselves is merely a hard wired illusion of programming and memories and not a true reality, then there is no one to get angry, and there is also no one to make us angry! Of course, that understanding won’t come into play when the idiot in the car tries to run us over on the street when out biking. That sort of understanding does not come into play during dangerous events.

    One of the most conflicted areas of my life is when to use anger and when not to. On the one hand, letting someone know in no uncertain terms that what they’re doing has consequences can be beneficial. That has to be weighed against saying the wrong thing out of anger and hurting someone’s feelings. I am comfortable simply saying that it’s situation specific, and none of us are saints. There will be errors now and then.

    The main thing is not to harm physically. Words are only words, and while they may be hurtful, it’s also the other person’s responsibility to interact w/ expressed anger in an appropriate manner. Meaning that if I just won a million dollars at the local Stop & Rob on a lottery ticket, nothing anyone said to me (short of telling me that my winning was an error) would upset me. But if my long term relationship just ended, I lost my job and my place to stay, and the dog died, I may be inclined to take angry statements directed at me in a somewhat different light :]

    • Michael Slott says:

      Steve – I share your experience that skillfully responding to anger can be quite complex and difficult. I’m sure that’s true of most people, given how we are socialized and educated in this society. I also agree that there is no formula or hard rule in this area because we always have to take account of the specific situation. What we can do is continually strive to become more mindful of anger and other emotions so that we can gain some understanding of the “narrative” surrounding the arising of the emotion. On that basis and with an intent to have a beneficial impact, we are in a better position to act well.

  6. jscottanderson says:

    Thanks for the article and inviting discussion. Many years ago someone told me that anger is not a primary emotion, but rather something this person called a “guard emotion” and that what anger guards is fear. Taking that as my starting point has never gone wrong for me. I cannot think of a single instance in which considering the source of my fear has left me at some sort of dead end.

    I do remember though reading a science fiction book by C.S. Lewis in which he describes his protagonist being filled with a righteous anger when he discovers that the villain of the story has been eviscerating small creatures with his fingernail for no apparent reason. Old Clive was hugely influential on my young self and for many years I carried around this notion that anger of a certain sort had the purpose of driving us in to the face of danger when confronted with an intolerable wrong. Without the tools of the Dhamma I can see the practical nature of the thing, but as with so many other things, the wisdom of the Dhamma has an answer which is skillful and requires no self deception my means of emotion.

    I agree with what Mark says about anger arising and the possibility that we will not cling to it. I still feel it all the time, though less than I once did, but I recognize it pretty quickly for what it is, and there is where I find the real lesson. That lesson is that there is nothing to fear. If I am guided by good will toward all beings and the true knowledge that there is no wrong that is made less or greater by the one who suffers it, then the answer is always clear. With a clear mind and love in my heart I confront the wrongdoing knowing that the job is going to fall to someone. It sort of reminds me of Hillel’s “If not me, then whom?”

    • Michael Slott says:

      Thanks for your response. I also think that we can strive to experience and other emotions with less clinging.

      I’m not sure I understand one part of your comment:

      “….and for many years I carried around this notion that anger of a certain sort had the purpose of driving us in to the face of danger when confronted with an intolerable wrong. Without the tools of the Dhamma I can see the practical nature of the thing, but as with so many other things, the wisdom of the Dhamma has an answer which is skillful and requires no self deception my means of emotion.”

      Can you elaborate on this?

    • Freida says:

      Ooh, I like that! A guard emotion!

  7. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    It seems to me that neither emotions nor views are necessarily problems. It is the attachment, the clinging, to them that produces most of the dukkha they are blamed for. It is when I let an emotion or a view define me, let it become something I am psychologically dependent on and unable to give up or reexamine, that a real and subsisting problem arises.

    I may have good reason for anger, but if what it produces is not constructive action but a self-satisfying desire for revevenge, or a self-defining sense of victimhood, dukkha is the likely result. I think this is what the Dhammapada is on about when, after reminding us that “we are what we think,” it gives us the example of the person who lives in dukkha because an emotional reaction has been an obsession: “‘Look how he abused me and hurt me, How he threw me down and robbed me.’ Live with such thoughts and you live in
    hate. . . Abandon such thoughts, and live in love.” This has a much more subtle meaning than “turn the other cheek.”

    Attachment to views isn’t really much different. A view can be a useful tool, a guide to action. But views are often clung to in the face of reality because they give us a (in the circumstances) false sense of purpose and meaning, or amount to self-deception that hides unpleasant trues from us. It is then that they become impediments to useful action and understanding.

  8. catgut says:

    I see Batchelor’s perspective on this as more about our relation with our views rather than whether we have views. The idea that a person can live without opinions, views and beliefs seems absurd to me. Maybe what is being put forth is a guard against dogmatism and egotism.
    It’s not that we don’t have views it’s just that we have the humility to accept that even though we have strong opinions, the fact that we believe them doesn’t make them objectively true and this can stop us from getting too entangled and imprisoned by our views/ opinions.
    I think that Michael Finley and Freida are saying something similar to this but in a far more eloquent and detailed way than myself.

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