issue 22 Spring 04
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Kill your Rage

See through your anger, says brash Brad Warner, hardcore punk musician and Zen priest. All beliefs and authorities must be challenged on the road beyond ego.

Akron, Ohio, February 1982: It's way below freezing outside. But in here it's so hot I feel like I'm going to melt into a puddle on the floor. I stand, legs akimbo, sticker-encrusted Musicmaster bass in hand, on the slightly raised platform near the bar at The Dale, a tiny pub near Akron University. Every dilapidated muscle in my undernourished body is flexed and ready for action.

'Drop the A-Bomb on meeeee!' Jimi Imij, shaven-headed lead singer of Zero Defex shrieks as drummer Mickey X-Nelson counts in the beat and Tommy Strange and I attack our guitars. A mass of furious fuzztone erupts from the amplifiers and the pit comes alive with surging bodies smashing into each other like a 40-car collision. Eighteen seconds later the song is over. An uneasy calm, like a cease-fire just about to be called off, falls over the crowd for a few tense seconds until Jimi shouts 'Die Before More of This!', the title of the next song. We launch into another feedback-laden aural assault and the crowd is free once more to pummel each other bloody.

The American hardcore punk movement of the early 1980s was all about anger. We were pissed off at the senile B-movie actor who'd somehow been elected President. We were mad as hell at the Bible-thumping lunkheads who wanted to curtail all forms of free speech. We were enraged at the mind-numbing complacency of a generation of vacant-eyed mall rats - our so-called peers - who didn't seem to notice that we were being led down the path towards global Armageddon.

At the same time I was screaming my lungs out at hypocrisy, greed and bad fashion, I was also discovering Zen Buddhism, a philosophy that said the best thing you could do for world peace was to sit with your legs twisted up like a pretzel and stare at a wall. You could hardly find two more seemingly contradictory philosophies. Even so, I never felt the desire to leave behind my punk rock ways in order to follow the path of Zen. If anything, I'm more punk now than I was back then. At their core both punk and Zen share some important key criteria. They are both about action in the present moment, about doing something right now and about taking responsibility for your own life. The reason the punks believed they had to vent their anger was because they hadn't followed their own philosophy of totally rejecting society right to the end. They were still reacting to anger the way society told them to. And yet, sometimes shouting 'Drop the A-bomb on meeeee!' is the most Buddhist thing you can do. There's a vast difference between art about anger and anger itself.

So what does one do about anger? When I first heard one of my Buddhist teachers say that anger should be repressed, it sounded not only absurd but positively unhealthy. Everyone knows you don't bottle up your anger, you let it out. Now I can see what he meant. When I looked a little more carefully it became apparent that anger wasn't some substance that built up inside of me and which I could 'let out' and be rid of. There was nothing in which anger could be bottled up. The process of letting anger out was actually the process by which more anger was produced.

If that's not what anger is, what is it?

Since meditation is all about understanding the state you're in here and now - and since I was often consumed with black rage as I sat on my black cushion - I've often focused my attention during zazen practice on understanding the real source of anger. It took a long time to see anger for what it was, and when I did I was truly shocked.

You'll sometimes hear the idea that our emotions are the things that keep us human. They are not. Our emotions - all of them - get in the way of us experiencing what it really is to be human.

I'd always believed that anger was somehow something apart from myself, that 'I' experienced 'my' anger. But as my Zen practice deepened it began to dawn on me that this was not the case at all. It wasn't that I could eradicate those qualities about myself I'd labeled as negative, while leaving the good stuff intact, like cutting off the rotten parts of a carrot left in the fridge too long and cooking the rest. I had to die completely. The source of anger, hate and fear was the same as the source of that collection of ideas and habits I had mistakenly called 'me' for most of my life.

It isn't just anger and other so-called 'negative' states that are the problem. It is that whole collection of things you call your 'self'. The very same force that makes it possible for you to gush all over a fuzzy little puppy dog with icky sweet love is the force that makes it possible for you to hate with passion and lash out with anger. There is no love without hate, no happiness without depression. It's like a rollercoaster. If you go up, you're gonna have to come back down.

Hate can be your teacher. Anger can be your guide. It's a mistake to try and overcome them with emotions that seem to be their opposites. Emotions all stem from the same source. See your anger for what it is and then you can see yourself for what you are. And yet there is something else ... for want of a better term, I'll call it 'joy'.

Joy is not bliss, by the way. Bliss is what you get from a heroin overdose. Numbness is numbness no matter how many 'spiritual masters' tell you it's bliss. Joy cannot be willed into being by thought or by cultivating vague memories of past experiences of it, even if those experiences were true. It comes only when body and mind are in perfect balance. And - more importantly - when we are at perfect balance with our own circumstances, when we no longer fight against reality. Not fighting against reality doesn't mean mindlessly accepting the way things are without trying to change anything. In fact, the only way to change your circumstances is to stop fighting them. To do this we have to understand clearly what we really are at every moment.

If you're serious about transcending anger you must be willing to give up everything. I'm afraid most people - including many who say they're Buddhists - are not at all serious about it. We've invented a million clever methods of building up our ego while pretending to tear it down.

If you learn to appreciate and fully experience each and every moment just as it is, anger will become less and less of a problem until it finally disappears entirely. Anger begins very small. It's always based upon the difference between how you think things should be and how they actually are. Within this gap, the fiction known as 'you' appears and reacts. In order to protect this fiction, you start to justify your anger, to build a convincing case to prove to yourself you have the right be angry. This can happen quickly, so it's important to stay right on top of it. To repress anger consciously means you do not allow yourself any excuses. You do not accept any of the justifications for anger your ego coughs up, no matter how reasonable you can make them sound. This is the only way to reach the source of anger and be finished with it completely.

I fought hard against this, like an alcoholic fights against the realisation that the only way to stop being an alcoholic is to just stop drinking. He can no longer fool himself with the idea that he can drink today and then quit tomorrow. I could no longer pretend it was OK to get angry today about some situation in which I was clearly in the right as long as I didn't get angry at my girlfriend when we argued.

Anger always stems from the belief that you are right and your circumstances are somehow 'wrong'. When you think you're right - when you know for certain you're right - in the face of circumstances that are somehow 'wrong', that's when you need to look hard at what's actually happening inside. Your habit of reacting with anger has been built up over long years of reinforcement from a society gone terribly wrong. Society is made up of people all clinging to the fiction of ego who draw support for this idea from the fact that so many others believe it.

But you have to take this all the way ... as far as it can go. You can't stop at anger. You have to see love, kindness, selflessness and compassion the same way. Your ideas of these 'positive' states can be just as much of a hindrance as anger.

It's a dire mistake to view our ordinary state as a thing we can somehow fix by forcing it to conform to a self-invented ideal. If we don't understand our own delusions - including the delusions we call 'positive' clearly, we'll never know if what we label as 'love' is the real deal or just another fantasy thrown up by our over-stimulated imaginations. Anger arises out of the belief in the individual self. When there is no 'you' there is nothing for 'you' to get angry about, and nobody outside yourself to feel angry with.