By Ray Potter
How I Changed My Mind and Got Happier
I’m a former angry person. I used to be angry most of the time. It was a rare morning when I got out of the house without at least one outburst. Of course, I always had a good reason for my anger. I cut myself shaving. I dropped a glass of orange juice at breakfast. The toast burned. Who wouldn’t be upset? And don’t even ask me about traffic. I never once made it to work without getting angry.
Then one day a friend of mine dropped a glass of wine. A big glass of zinfandel, right onto a white tile floor. I gasped and waited for a tirade—the kind I would have launched into. A real screamfest. But nothing happened. My friend kept talking in a normal voice while she grabbed some paper towels, mopped up the wine and the shattered glass, and then reached for a new glass and poured herself some more. Without any anger. Without even a yelp. I couldn’t believe my eyes (or my ears).
In that moment, my world changed. Something profound struck me. Something I had never known. Anger is a choice. I had been choosing to get angry—for my whole life—but I didn’t know it. If I had known, I wouldn’t have chosen anger. It never felt good. And it never fixed anything: burned toast, bad traffic, spilled wine.
I started reading about anger. It turns out that anger is a “spectrum disorder.” At one end are feelings like irritation and annoyance. At the other end is full-blown rage. And there’s a lot of negative emotion in between. That made sense to me, but it didn’t help me change my mind enough to act differently.
Then I discovered that Buddha had addressed the subject of anger more than twenty-six centuries ago. There was one specific Buddhist teaching that finally helped me change my mind. I found it in the book How to Solve Our Human Problems, by the contemporary Buddhist guru Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. It’s very simple (as some of the most profound teachings are). There are only two causes of anger, Geshe Kelsang writes: 1) not getting what you want; and 2) getting something you don’t want. That’s it.
Now when I start to get angry, I ask myself: “What are you not getting that you want?” Or “What are you getting that you don’t want?” I try to answer honestly. And then I ask the all-important follow-up question: “Do you want to choose to get angry about this?” And, you know what? The answer is always no. No, I don’t want to get angry. No, I don’t want the crummy feelings. No, I don’t want to spring loose those chemicals that make my brain feel like it’s filled with hornets. “No thanks,” I think. “I don’t choose to get angry.”
Of course, I still slip up every once in a while. But I’m trying to keep a close watch on my mind. And remember those simple questions. Because as long as I have a choice, why would I ever choose to be angry again?
Ray Potter is a freelance writer and a co-founder of the Dharmachakra Buddhist Center. The DBC offers dharma and meditation classes in Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Cathedral City. Ray teaches in the Palm Springs center every Thursday evening. For more information, visit www.MeditationInPalmSprings.org