Thich Nhat Hanh writes about transforming anger into compassion by seeing that ‘the self’ and ‘others’ are not two separate things. The context he is writing in is personal, but could equally be applied to our collective anger and the necessity of turning it into a collective compassion.
Whether it is the terrible events in Paris, Beirut, or in Syria that is triggering our anger response, the solution is still the same. No matter how terrible the actions of the humans involved, those humans are ultimately not separate from ourselves. Before we can resolve the issues of conflict, we must first resolve the issues of separation which sees the ‘others’ as outside of ourselves and ‘not us’. If we want the cycle of anger and violence to end, we need to break the chain at its root level: the level of separation.
It is not easy to see a terrorist, or the soldier of an invading army, as the same as us. This is precisely why we must try. Compassion is most needed where it is most difficult to give. If the possibility for communication is to exist, we must first communicate with ourselves. We must know ourselves. Not as separate, but as the indivisible whole of humanity.
Thich Nhat Hanh on Transforming Anger into Compassion
‘Without communication, no real understanding can be possible. But be sure that you can communicate with yourself first. If you cannot communicate with yourself, how do you expect to communicate with another person? Love is the same. If you don’t love yourself, you cannot love someone else. If you cannot accept yourself, if you cannot treat yourself with kindness, you cannot do this for another person.
Very often you behave exactly like your father, but you don’t realize it. And though you behave like him, you feel you are total opposites. You do not accept him, you hate him. When you do not accept your father, you do not accept yourself. Your father is in you; you are the continuation of your father. So if you can communicate with yourself, then you can communicate with your father.
Realizing we are not separate
The self is made of non-self elements; therefore, understanding ourselves is our practice. Our father is a non-self element. We say our father is not us, but without our father, we cannot exist. So, he is fully present in our body and in our mind. He is us. Thus, if you understand yourself, your whole self, you understand that you are your father, he is not outside of you.
There are so many other non-self elements that you can touch and recognize within yourself- your ancestors, the earth, the sun, water, air, all the food you eat, and much more. It may seem like these things are separate from you, but without them, you could not live.
Suppose two warring parties want to negotiate, and both sides do not know enough about themselves. You have to really know yourself, your country, your party, your situation, in order to understand the others party, the other’s nation, the other’s people. Self and others are not two separate things, because the suffering, hope, and anger of both sides is very much the same.
Transforming anger into the energy of understanding
When we get angry, we suffer. If you really understand that, you also will be able to understand that when the other person is angry, it means that she is suffering. When someone insults you or behaves violently towards you, you have to be intelligent enough to see that the person suffers from his own violence and anger. But we tend to forget. We think that we are the only one that suffers, and the other person is our oppressor.
This is enough to make anger arise, and to strengthen our desire to punish. We want to punish the other person because we suffer. Then, we have anger in us; we have violence in us, just as they do. When we see that our suffering and anger are no different from their suffering and anger, we will behave more compassionately. So understanding the other is understanding yourself and understanding yourself is understanding the other person. Everything must begin with you.
To understand ourselves, we must learn and practice the way of non-duality. We should not fight our anger, because anger is our self – a part of our self. Anger is of an organic nature, like love. We have to take good care of anger. And because it is an organic entity, an organic phenomenon, it is possible to transform it into another organic entity.
The garbage can be transformed back into compost, into lettuce, and into cucumber. So don’t despise your anger. Don’t fight your anger, and don’t suppress your anger. Learn the tender way of taking care of your anger, and transform it into the energy of understanding and compassion.
This is an excerpt from Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by Thich Nhat Hanh.