Whether it’s none other than Deepak Chopra trying to break the record for simultaneous nirvana or executives jumping on the latest promise of greater business productivity, the urge to om is everywhere. But maybe meditation has a quieter, more personal benefit — to help each practitioner overcome anger.
Two highly regarded Buddhist teachers, Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman, want to help people quell their anger using a variety of Buddhist techniques, philosophies and meditations. They speak to sold-out events at venues like 92Y, and have their intellectual credibility papers stamped by the likes of the Asia Society, Harvard and Columbia. The duo instructs students and readers on the seemingly impossible: how to defuse our anger and love our enemies.
The secret enemy is our tendency to think we cannot change ourselves…
America has a simmering anger problem, one that can often lead to aggression and violence. In 2006, the University of Chicago and Harvard released studies arguing that one in 20 Americans, the majority of them men, may fit the criteria for intermittent explosive disorder. As people search for successful anger management techniques, meditation is increasingly becoming a go-to resource, and American Buddhism is on the rise.
“People bring up things that they are struggling with that feel like an enemy, like time or loss or change or death,” says Salzberg. She and Thurman have captured their teachings on the subject in the book Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit & Be a Whole Lot Happier, which was published in late 2013.Thurman is an Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies professor at Columbia University, and Salzberg has taught Theravada (Burmese) meditation for 40 years. In the Buddhist workshops that the two friends have taught together for years, working with your enemies — whether they are people or circumstances — was a frequent discussion topic.
They treat anger as an addiction, and talk about going “cold turkey” to break the cycle. They introduce the four enemies: outer, inner, secret and super-secret. The outer enemy refers to the people, institutions and situations that threaten and frustrate us. The inner enemies are the emotions we feel in response to the outer enemy, like hatred, fear, anger. The secret enemy is our tendency to think we cannot change ourselves, and the super-secret enemy is inner judgment and self-loathing.
“At the inner-enemy stage, when we’re still learning to manage our addiction to anger, aiming for love pushes us too far. It is unrealistic to expect to immediately switch from anger and hate to compassion and love. Patience is the middle ground, the place of tolerance, forbearance, and in time, forgiveness.” — Excerpt from Love Your Enemies
Thurman says he contributes the conceptual Tibetan cognitive therapy of dealing with anger by realizing the inner enemy really is your own anger, and Salzberg “makes it visceral” by helping people put this into practice, bringing in mindful meditation to help people understand the strength in compassion.
Salzberg grew up in a Jewish family in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City with parents who split when she was 4. Her father abandoned the family, and when her mother died five years later, Salzberg moved in with her paternal grandparents. Her father returned when Salzberg was 11, but he soon overdosed and spent the rest of his life in psychiatric facilities. Salzberg stayed focused on her studies at public school and entered college at age 16. In her sophomore year at SUNY Buffalo, looking to fill a philosophy requirement, she took an Asian philosophy course because it was scheduled at a “good time of the day.”
The biggest ‘enemy’ I have overcome is identification with the suffering of my childhood.
— Sharon Salzberg
She laughs now, thinking of the happenstance. “That course totally changed my life. I’d gone through so much; I felt so alone and different than everybody else,” she says. “Buddha’s saying, This is a part of life; let’s start there.”
Salzberg decided to take a year of independent study in India, and ended up staying until 1974. While there, one of her many Buddhist teachers told her that with her true understanding of suffering, she herself should teach meditation when she returned to the U.S.
Which is exactly what she did. “I think the biggest ‘enemy’ I have overcome is identification with the suffering of my childhood,” says Salzberg. “Believing I deserved to be happy, and that, in fact, I could be very happy.” She has written nine books; the classes she holds often sell out; and she co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, in 1976, which has expanded to encompass a retreat center and a school for Buddhist studies.
Meditation is not a solution for everyone. As journalist Mary Garden points out, some people “want immediate and quick results, just as they expect quick returns for everything they do in daily life … the mind must be brought under control in slow degrees and one should not try to reach for the higher states without proper training.” Be mindful of your own mental state, as the process of detachment can lead to despair. Meditation experts and psychotherapists recommend a gradual approach.
Thurman describes Sharon as the “human embodiment of an anchor in a field of calm kindness.” And how would he describe himself?
“Oh, I’m a hectic, miserable Buddha-holic,” he says, laughing. His friends and colleagues — including Salzberg — put it differently, calling him a “brilliant scholar” with “wild energy,” a “larger-than-life” character.
Like Salzberg, Thurman is also a New Yorker, but his path to Buddhism was a bit different. Thurman’s “enemy” was quick anger. He recalls being a “socialized male prep school Westerner playing lacrosse and hockey” with a “hot temper” for aggressive competition. In high school he got kicked out of Exeter after trying to join Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1958. Since he had already been accepted to Harvard, he spent his year off reading, including Hermann Hesse’s Buddhist novel Siddhartha. His interest was piqued, but it wasn’t until a few Harvard parties and a marriage to a wealthy heiress later that it came to fruition. “I lost an eye in a simplistic garage accident,” says Thurman. “It made me think of death and impermanence.”
Oh, I’m a hectic, miserable Buddha-holic.
— Robert Thurman
He divorced his wife and decided to travel abroad. “I went to India, like Siddhartha,” he says. His travels also took him to Turkey and Iran and eventually back to the U.S., where he learned to speak and read Tibetan in 10 weeks under the tutelage of a Kalmyk Mongolian monk. “Been at it ever since for 52 years.” In 1962, he started living as a monk, was ordained as the first American Buddhist monk of the Tibetan tradition in 1964 and was a close friend of the 14th Dalai Lama. He says for him being a monk wasn’t about being religious; it was about focusing completely on study, meditation and, of course, getting a free lunch.
Tibetan Buddhists are more scientific than moralistic or religious, Thurman says, and they teach how to control anger by taking the energy away from it. In Buddhism, he explains, “Ignorance of yourself is the enemy, and the uncontrolled emotions that arise from that ignorance.” In ignorance, you become “victim and slave” to your emotions, and can do things that would hurt yourself and others.
After living in monasteries in New Jersey and Dharamsala, India, Thurman left the monkhood in 1966 and returned to academia. He married his second wife, Nena von Schlebrugge, with whom he had four children, including an actress you may have heard of: Uma Thurman. He received an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Harvard, and taught religion at Amherst College for 15 years before returning to New York to teach at Columbia. Along the way he created the renowned Tibet House in New York with Richard Gere and Philip Glass, with the mission to preserve and restore Tibet’s culture while sharing its philosophy with the world.
Thurman and Salzberg are cherished by their students, although both teachers admit they constantly try to improve themselves. Salzberg says she needs to learn to say no, and Thurman says anger management is something he’s struggled with, which is why the four enemies are important to keep in mind.
“I don’t claim to be enlightened,” says Thurman. “I’m trying to learn to listen to my wife. I’m trying to get along with my children and grandchildren and friends. You don’t have to be enlightened to be a little improved. There are baby steps in dealing with people and things.” His slogan?
“Buddha is as Buddha does.”
Why you should care
Because we all know what it’s like to have enemies in our lives — and wouldn’t it be nice if we could make them disappear?