Ron Leifer, M.D.

   Anger is both a form of suffering and a cause of suffering because 
the angry person suffers and often inflicts mental, emotional or 
physical pain on others. From the traditional Buddhist point of 
view, suffering is generated by three mental factors -- the Three 
Poisons: Desire, Aversion and Ignorance.  To transform the energy of 
anger it is necessary to understand its mental and physiological 
dynamics. Anger can be understood and transformed through seven 
steps: (1) Becoming Aware; (2) Taking Responsibility; 
(3) Understanding Anger; (4) Reflection; (5) Decision; 
(6) Relaxation; and (7) Opening the Heart.

   Anger is a normal human emotion. Our bodies and minds are born 
with the capacity for anger. We have all experienced the energy of 
anger rising within us and projected towards us by others. Anger 
in itself, is neither good nor bad. It can arise in protest against 
injustice, unfairness, cruelty, and other harms done by humans 
against each other, against other living beings, and against the 
earth itself. Anger has fueled just protests and revolutions 
against tyranny and racism. Anger can make us aware that a 
grievance must be addressed.

   Anger can also be the most destructive of the human emotions. 
When it flames out of control anger can generate aggression 
and violence. Aggression and violence can occur without anger, 
as in the technical operations of war and athletic competitions. 
But all aggression and violence are linked at the root with the 
emotion of anger. Anger can harm ourselves as well as others.
Unexpressed, it can lead to depression. Expressed it can lead 
to war, murder, physical and mental abuse, and all varieties of 
vengeance from overt to subtle. The experience of anger itself 
is painful. No one can be happy while angry.

   We must understand anger if we are to transform its energy, 
heal ourselves, repair out broken loves and friendships, and 
reconcile ourselves with those who may have harmed us, or who 
are different from us. To solve any problem, physical, 
mechanical, or human, we must first understand it. To fix a 
broken car, we must first know something about automobile 
mechanics. To heal our anger we must first understand 
ourselves. To understand anger we must open our minds to it. 
We must look into it honestly and become aware of its causes, 
dynamics, and remedies. To transform our anger we must 
transform ourselves.

   Anger is a form of suffering because it causes pain to 
the angry person as well as to his or her victims. It is not 
possible to be happy while one is angry or to be happy in 
the company of an angry person. Many people who suffer from 
anxiety and depression also suffer from their anger. To 
understand and transform the energy of anger it is helpful 
to understand the causes of human suffering. In the Buddhist 
view, these causes are known as The Three Poisons.  
(For a more detailed discussion see Leifer, 1997).

   In traditional Buddhist teachings, the causes of human 
suffering are called "The Three Poisons" - Passion, Aggression 
and Ignorance. Each of the three has familiar synonyms which 
will help us to understand their meaning. The first poison is 
often called by various names such as " Desire",  "Greed", 
"Lust", "Attachment" or "Clinging."  The second poison is 
sometimes also known as "Hatred", "Aggression" or "Aversion".  
Ignorance is also known as Delusion or Illusion.  For the 
sake of simplicity and conceptual harmony, we shall refer to 
the Three Poisons as Desire, Aversion and Ignorance.

   Let us first consider the first two poisons from a western 
perspective and then consider the third poison in relation 
to the first two.  The first two poisons, Desire and Aversion, 
are a dialectical, or polar, pair which are best understood in 
relation to each other. Each pole is fundamentally similar to 
the other. Yet each pole differs diametrically from the other.
Each is a desire. One is the desire to have, the other is the 
desire to have not.  Understanding primal words dialectically, 
or antithetically, is a pattern in ancient languages. Viewed 
in this way, the first two poisons, Desire and Aversion, refer 
to the same polar phenomena that western behaviorists recognize 
as the basic motivations of the human mind: the desire for 
pleasure and the aversion to pain. And these are the same 
fundamental psychological polarities to which Freud referred 
in his enunciation of The Pleasure Principle. People are 
motivated by their desire for life, in all its overt and subtle 
forms, and the desire to avoid death, in its reality and 

   Powerful as they are in shaping our lives and destinies, 
we do not see our desires clearly because they are complex, 
often subtle, and fearsome. Suffice it to say for now that 
Desire is not only a feeling of wanting accompanied by 
thoughts and images, it is a way of relating to objects, 
events, situations, substances, persons, and even to life 
itself.  In its extreme form Desire represents the motive 
to incorporate and merge with. In its more moderate and 
subtle forms it represents the desire to move closer to, 
to associate with, to identify with, to cling and attach 
to, to mark as a reference point, to use as a source of 
pleasure, enjoyment and security some external object, 
event, situation, substance or person.

   The second poison of Aversion is, antithetical to the 
first, a set of feelings, thoughts and images but also a 
way of relating through avoiding, evading, escaping and, 
failing these, destroying that which it fears, dislikes 
and hates. In this sense, anger, aggression and hatred 
are forms of aversion. They differ from milder forms of 
aversion only in that they are so strong and destructive. 
Aversions need not be extreme, however. They can take the 
milder forms of disgust, disapproval, dislike, or disdain.  
Any repulsion, avoidance, defense or attack against that 
which is disliked is a form of aversion.

   Described in this way, it can be seen that the first 
two poisons represent the fundamental motives of life: 
to attract and repel, to seek and avoid, to open to and 
to close to, the phyllic and the phobic, the desires to 
have and have not.  Together, Desire and Aversion represent 
the fundamental polarity of the universe: attraction and 

   While it may seem at first that anger should be 
understood in the context of the second poison, we shall 
see that the situation is not so simple. The first two 
poisons work in such close interaction with each other, 
that desires may create aversions and aversions may create 
desires. For example, the desire to have a national identity 
often involves aversion or antagonism towards other ethnic or 
political groups in antithetical relationship to whom self is 
defined. In this sense, recent wars in the Mideast (Jews vs.
Arabs), the former Yugoslavia (Serbs vs. Croats etc.), and 
Northern Ireland (Protestants vs. Catholics), are identity 
wars. In a contrasting case, the fear or aversion to strange, 
open spaces may dialectically create the love of the familiar 
territory of home and the desire to stay home. As a 
dialectical pair, each pole of Desire and Aversion contains 
shadows and reflections of its opposite.

   The third poison, Ignorance, refers to the denial, 
repression or lack of awareness of the truths of existence 
and the facts of life, including the social-mental-emotional 
facts of one's own personal life. Buddhist's call these basic 
truths "The Three Facts of Existence" -- suffering, impermanence 
and emptiness. One should carefully reflect on these facts 
because the denial of them is the basic cause of anger, 
aggression, and violence.

   The truth of suffering refers to the fact that all 
conscious beings inevitably suffer. We all suffer the trauma 
birth. We all suffer, at times, from not getting what we 
want. We all suffer, at times, from getting what we don't 
want. And we all suffer from old age, sickness and death. 
These facts are difficult for us to accept. The truth of 
impermanence refers to the fact that all compound objects, 
including ourselves, are constantly changing and eventually 
decay, disintegrate and die. Scientists tell us that, someday, 
even our sun will die. The truth of emptiness refers to the 
fact that all compound objects lack essential, independent, 
inherent existence. Everything is composite and, hence, 
interdependent. Nothing has an intrinsic identity or substance.  
The failure to understand these facts and to live in harmony 
with them are the causes of our suffering. The search for 
eternal life and continuous pleasure and the striving to resist 
change and find stable reference points creates the conditions 
for the thoughts, feelings and actions which are the root cause 
of the suffering we inflict on ourselves and others through anger, 
aggression, and violence.

Ignorance is the key factor in the generation of anger in the 
sense that it is not merely a lack of awareness, a failure to 
understand the three facts of existence - the facts of life - it 
is also the projection on to self and phenomena of something which 
is not there, namely inherent substance, permanence and eternal 
happiness. Confused and panicked by our own ineffability, we strive 
to create the illusion of a solid, immortal self, or ego. In 
psychoanalysis the term "ego" refers to the executive functions of 
mind that mediate between the desires and aversions of the "id" and 
the desires, ideals, aversions, prohibitions, and inhibitions of 
the super-ego. In ordinary parlance, ego refers to self, to a sense 
of substantial personal identity, or soul, who ascribes to itself 
supreme value and importance, and who feels entitled to the selfish 
pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of discontent, often at the 
expense of others.

   To understand anger we must understand the ordinary, 
normal, human mind.  In Buddhist parlance, the term "ordinary 
mind" is used to denote normal mind which is considered "neurotic" 
as opposed to awakened or enlightened mind. In this usage, 
"ordinary", "normal" and "neurotic" refer to the same mental 
qualities since what we consider ordinary, normal mind is usually 
neurotic. The term "neurotic" has the same general meaning in 
both Buddhism and psychoanalysis. In psychoanalysis, neurosis 
refers to conflicts between the desires and aversions of the id 
and the prescriptions and prohibitions of the super-ego and 
ego-ideal which the ego struggles to mediate with all kinds of 
self deceptive maneuvers. The failure to honestly and gracefully 
resolve these conflicts results in anxiety and other painful 
neurotic symptoms such as depression, aggression, guilt and 
shame. Buddhists use the term "neurotic" to refer to a complex 
of desires, aversions, ego and suffering (Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, 
personal communication).  To say that ordinary mind is neurotic 
is to say that it is dominated by the Three Poisons: Desire, 
Aversion and Ignorance which are the causes of the suffering 
that we inflict on ourselves and each other.

   Ordinary mind, or ego, functions in the service of the 
survival, prosperity, and pleasure of the individual by 
pursuing the satisfaction of its desires and avoiding or 
attacking that to which it is aversive. To phrase the 
same idea differently, ordinary mind functions selfishly 
in the pursuit of its own pleasure and happiness and the 
avoidance of its own pain and unhappiness.

   Ordinary, neurotic mind is like a cocoon in which 
everything we like and want is inside and everything we 
don't like, fear and despise is kept on the outside by 
a secure, defensive wall.  We strive mightily to let in 
only those people, objects and situations that we want, 
approve, and take delight in. And we try to keep out all 
the people, objects and situations that we reject, fear 
and loathe.  My cocoon room is me in the sense that it 
contains all that I desire, hope for, and identify with 
and has walls and defenses to keep out everything that 
I don't like, don't want, and don't think of as me or 
mine. Keeping my room my way is my Happiness 
Project (Leifer, 1997).

   The cocoon of ordinary mind consists not only of 
persons, objects and situations that we cherish but 
also of our sense of self -- our national, ethnic, group, 
family and personal identities. It also includes our 
habitual patterns conditioned by past experiences, 
conflicts, and traumas, which shape our thoughts, 
feelings and actions. Our cocoons are our self-territories. 
We identify with them, defend them, strive to make them 
safer, more comfortable, and more durable. Any threat to 
our ego rooms - any perceived possibility of losing what 
we desire, are attached to, and identify ourselves with 
or of being invaded, intruded upon, or negated by that 
which we dislike and fear - is regarded as a threat to 
our very existence. This is the basic set-up, or psycho-
biological context, of anger and aggression.

   Healing anger requires us to understand the setup 
of normal mind. This means becoming aware of our selfish 
desires, aversions and ego defenses.  Before we are 
ready to hear, accept and integrate this understanding, 
however, we must be willing to look at our anger and to 
take responsibility for it by turning our attention 
inward to the mind, which is the source of it.

   Understanding our anger is partly intellectual but 
mostly experiential. It is important to learn about the 
mental dynamics and physiology of anger but it is more 
important to look within ourselves at our own experience 
of anger. Looking within means becoming aware of the 
activities of our minds, including our feelings. All 
the world comes to us through our minds, our senses. 
Our sense data is processed and organized by our minds. 
And our feelings and actions depend upon how we view 
ourselves and the world and what we want and don't want 
from it. Awareness has a healing quality of its own.

   Looking within means becoming aware of the workings 
of mind empirically and logically, by direct 
introspection and logical analysis. The classic Buddhist 
technique for developing awareness is meditation. The 
Tibetan word for Buddhist is "nang-ba" - insider, or 
one who looks within. The Tibetan word for meditation 
means "becoming familiar with". Meditation is a technique 
for becoming familiar with our minds and with the nature 
of mind and of phenomena, including ourselves, as they 
are perceived by mind. Establishing a meditation 
practice is the best way to develop awareness and self 

   Healing anger requires becoming familiar with it. This 
is tricky because the inner landscape of anger is subtle 
and complex. At the deepest level, the sheer energy of it 
is so volcanic that it could come only from the life force 
in defense of itself, which explains why taming anger 
seems to be such a Herculean task. Anger is fueled by the 
energy of frustrated desire and aversions. Our desires and 
aversions, projected into the future, take the form of 
"Happiness Projects"  -  our desires, plans, hopes, visions, 
and pursuit of happiness and our avoidance of unhappiness. 
Our frustrated Happiness Projects are the basic motivations 
of our anger and aggression. When our Happiness Projects 
are frustrated a cascade of feelings are unleashed -- 
frustration, humiliation, helplessness, fear, anger and 
depression.  The idea that whatever we think will make us 
happy is what we will likely suffer from is a difficult pill 
to swallow. This is why courageous, honest, self-reflection 
is a necessary condition for understanding and healing anger.

   Becoming aware of our anger is only the first step, 
however. We must also take responsibility for it - complete 
responsibility. This means not blaming anyone or anything 
else. Our anger is our own, generated by our own minds.
This is extremely difficult to do. Our natural tendency is 
to blame outside factors for our anger -- We tend to believe 
that if only they didn't exist our anger wouldn't arise. 
This may be true. If we always had our way we would never 
become angry. The fact is, however, that anger arises not 
as a necessary, mechanical reaction to a frustrating outer 
event but as a mechanism of defense against feeling 
threatened by our frustrated desires and aversions. Blaming 
others is an attempt to excuse or justify our anger and, 
thus, is an evasion of responsibility for it.

   Taking responsibility for our emotions means not blaming 
anyone or anything else. Unfortunately, the tendency is for 
people to make excuses and attempt to justify their anger 
by blaming other people, social conditions (e.g., poverty 
or injustice), or mental illness due to past traumas, genetic 
defects or neurochemical imbalances. This serves only to 
justify and perpetuate anger. Blaming others may seem 
justified when the offense is outrageous. But the biblical 
lesson of Job, indeed of all religious teachers, is that to 
rage against what is and cannot be changed is the sin of pride 
(the assertion of ego) which is in itself a cause of suffering. 
To the degree that we fail to take total responsibility for our 
anger we cripple our ability to heal it.

   Taking responsibility for our anger requires us to realize 
that anger is a function of mind. It originates in the mind 
and is experienced by the mind. It follows from this that anger 
can only be healed through the mind. Past history, external 
circumstances, other people's actions, genetic endowment, and 
the misfortunes of life are factors in the generation of anger, 
but they are not the cause of it. This does not mean that 
frustrating social injustices or inequities should not be 
addressed and reformed. It means that, ultimately, anger can 
be reduced and healed only by taming and training the mind. Only 
the angry person can heal his or her anger. As Buddha said: "No 
one can wash the hands of another".

   Once we are willing to take responsibility for our anger we 
are ready to understand its dynamics. Refer to Figure 1 and 
notice that anger begins in our desires, aversions and self-
protective mechanisms. Visualize a situation in which you were 
angry and asks: "What did I want that I was not getting?
What was I getting that I did not want". This is the key 
question. Reflect on the fact that the more rigid and insistent 
our desires and aversions the more vulnerable we are to becoming 
angry and aggressive. On the other hand, the more flexible we are, 
the more we are willing to give up what we cannot have and to 
accept what we cannot change, the less likely we are to become 
angry and aggressive.

   When our desires are obstructed, our aversions intrude, and 
our sense of self is violated, we feel frustrated. Frustration is 
the feeling of a desire and an obstacle to its satisfaction. 
Things are not as we wish them to be. People differ in the degree 
of frustration they can tolerate. Indeed, the ability to tolerate 
frustration is the hallmark of a mature, civilized person. Various 
factors may influence an individual's ability to tolerate 
frustration, including temperament and other inherited factors, 
early overwhelming emotional traumas, training in frustration 
tolerance or the lack thereof and, most importantly, self-discipline 
and moral fiber.

   The experience of frustration has several subtle but significant 
strands. It is permeated by a powerful feeling of helplessness of 
which the angry person is often unaware or in denial. Feelings of 
helplessness are always associated with  frustrated desire. Indeed, 
the feeling of helplessness may be defined as the perceived inability 
to satisfy one's desires. No desire, no feeling of helplessness. The 
reader can confirm or falsify this through introspection by recalling 
a feeling of anger, identifying the feelings of frustration and 
checking for a simultaneous feeling of helplessness. One of the most 
important facts about anger which is usually denied and repressed is 
that the angry person feels helpless.



     I WANT           <->         I DON'T WANT
     I LIKE           <->         I DON'T LIKE


   This fact cannot be emphasized too strongly because when we 
are angry we are striving and straining to deny our helplessness 
and to assert its opposite - a sense of mastery, or might, or 
macho, a word which means power, or might. Indeed, one of the 
psychological functions of anger is to reduce the sense of danger 
by denying and repressing the feelings of helplessness and 
replacing them with feelings of pseudo-power. The power of 
anger is pseudo because it is born in helplessness and is 
motivated by the desire to deny feelings of helplessness. 
Without being aware of the feelings of helplessness that underlie 
anger, it is extremely difficult to manage the anger energy.

   It has often been noted that the male of the human species 
seems more inclined to anger and aggression than the female. 
Certainly, the historical record would confirm this. The 
explanation often given is that male and female hormones 
differ, the male's testosterone, in particular, being 
associated with aggressive behavior. There is another, 
compatible explanation, namely, that while women are trained 
to be helpless, men are trained to deny helplessness and, 
instead, to assert their power - the tradition of Macho, which 
means "might" or "power".  Thus, while women have benefitted 
from assertiveness training workshops to overcome feelings and 
beliefs about helplessness which they have learned, men could 
benefit from learned helplessness workshops to overcome Macho.

   Feelings of helplessness give rise to feelings of 
vulnerability and danger. If one feels helpless to satisfy 
a desire, one may feel a loss of control over one's life 
and destiny. This is experienced as a threat to the organism. 
The experience of threat stimulates the fight-flight reaction 
which explains the physiology and subjective physical feelings 
of anger.

   The question is often debated whether human anger and 
aggression are innate or learned, whether they are instinctually 
or culturally determined. In my view, they are both. The capacity 
for anger and aggression are built into the animal body.  Animal 
aggression is a manifestation of the fight-flight response, an 
automatic, physiological response to the perception of danger.
It involves preparing the body for action - either fight or flight.
Physiologically, this involves a neuro-hormonal response which 
differentially shifts the distribution of blood in order to bring 
oxygen and nutrients to the muscles and carry wastes away. The heart 
beats faster, blood pressure rises, respirations increase, metabolism 
accelerates, the skin becomes flushed to carry away heat, the stomach 
and intestines are drained of blood (causing the fluttering butterfly 
feeling in the pit of the stomach) and the muscles become tense and 
active. In both fight (aggression) and flight (anxiety) neural, 
hormonal, vascular, respiratory, and metabolic changes prepare the 
body for muscular activity. The inhibition of muscular activity in 
human anger, which is due to the moral constraints against aggression, 
result in the experience of tension which is the hallmark of modern 

   The difference between human and animal anger lies in the 
difference between the human and the animal mind. The animal 
becomes aggressive in order to eat, to propagate, and to defend 
life, family and territory. Human anger and aggression serve not 
only these animal ends, but also the sublime, selfish, egoic 
interests of ordinary mind to establish a secure sense of 
identity and meaning. Human anger is fueled by the selfish-self, 
striving desperately for happiness by pursuing what it wants, 
avoiding what it fears and asserting, promoting or defending itself.

   Once one has gained some familiarity with the dynamics of anger, 
it is then necessary to reflect upon anger as it arises. This is not 
easy and may not be possible for the beginner. It takes patience and 
self-discipline. Anger has the capacity to overcome and disable our 
powers of reflection and logical analysis. To begin, the best most 
people can do is to reflect on anger after it has subsided.

   After an incident of anger, as soon as one is able, reflect on 
it and try to vividly visualize the situation in which the anger 
occurred. Then ask: "What did I want that I wasn't getting?" "What 
was I getting that I didn't want?" "How did I feel that my sense of 
self was being negated?" After the desires have been identified, try 
to identify the obstructions to the satisfaction of those desires. 
Once these dynamics have been identified, one can then focus on the 
complex compound of the feelings of frustration.

   One must go slowly here. It is essential to become fully aware of 
the feelings of frustration, vulnerability, helplessness and fear. 
Focus on each feeling and observe its qualities. Anger involves the 
denial of these feelings. Healing anger requires opening to them, 
becoming aware of them, accepting them. The feeling of helplessness, 
in particular, is a key to anger. The subjective sense of danger 
aroused by the feeling of helplessness stimulates the fight-flight 
response. One can check for one's self how feelings of anger blot out 
feelings of vulnerability, helplessness and fear.

   Once one has become familiar with the dynamics of anger as it 
arises, one must make a commitment, an assessment and a decision. 
The commitment is to not act out feelings of anger, to not repress 
them, rather to become aware of them, reflect on them and find 
another way of responding to the underlying feelings of 
frustration and helplessness. Once one has made this commitment 
it must be activated the moment one is aware of a rising feeling 
of anger.  This involves the development of self control, as every 
discipline does. As Pema Chodron advises:

     Right at the point you are about to blow your top,
     Remember this:
     You are a disciple being taught how to sit still
     With the edginess and discomfort of the energy
     You are a disciple being challenged to hold your seat and
     Open to this situation with as much courage and kindness
     As you possibly can

   The assessment is a search for an alternative to the satisfaction 
of one's desires or the amelioration of one's bruised ego.  The 
question is: "Was (is) there some way I could have gotten what I 
wanted or avoided what I didn't want, or some satisfactory level of 
either, without becoming angry?" This is both a practical and a 
moral assessment.

   Finding alternatives to anger and aggression depend upon 
finding alternative means to satisfy our desires. There is nothing 
wrong with satisfying our desires provided that we are not hurting 
ourselves or others.  On the other hand, perhaps we cannot think of 
any other way to get what we want except through intimidation, 
manipulation, scheming, cheating, or other immoral or illegal means. 
Some people do pursue their Happiness Projects with no regard for 
morality, ethics, or law. The consequences of these actions is our 
karma, or fate. As Sophocles sagely observed of Oedipus (and all of 
us): the greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves.

   Finding alternatives to anger involves making a moral evaluation 
of the situation: "If I pursue this course of action to satisfy my 
desires will anyone be hurt by it? Will I be hurt by the 
consequences?" The limitations on the satisfaction of our desires 
imposed by nature, civilization, and circumstances create the 
frustrations we must all bear without anger and with good cheer
(Freud, 1958).  When, as often happens, we cannot find a satisfactory 
way to satisfy our strong and insistent desires, when we feel that 
there is nothing we can do or say to ameliorate our painful and 
humiliating feelings of frustration, helplessness and anxiety, we 
are vulnerable to being overcome by anger.

   The solution to this dilemma is best expressed in the famous 
Serenity Prayer: "Give me the courage to change what I can, the 
serenity to accept what I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the 
difference". If we have the insight and moral fiber to find a legal 
and ethical way to satisfy our desires, then we need the courage to 
pursue that course. If there is nothing we can do, however, how do 
we achieve serenity in the face of frustration, fear and a feeling 
of vulnerability?

   It is difficult enough to achieve serenity when everything is 
going our way. The challenge, which is not for the faint-hearted, 
is to remain serene when things are going wrong. Most people are 
stressed out, to one degree or another, by the fear of things going 
wrong. This is a good working definition of stress - "the fear of 
things going or staying wrong". Picture poor ordinary mind, 
mindlessly pursuing its insatiable desires, strenuously avoiding 
its unavoidable aversions, and struggling to maintain a modicum of 
cheerfulness and hope in the face of bewilderment about life and 
the knowledge of certain death. A heroic task! (Becker, 1973)   
It is likely to fail. Things are bound to go wrong, and regularly 
do, not because evil exists in the world, but because life doesn't 
always work out the way we want. Obstacles to our Happiness 
Projects constantly arise. The project creates its own obstacles.

   The precariousness of life means not only that no one knows 
the time or manner of their death but also that no one can satisfy 
the demands of ordinary mind to fulfill every desire, to avoid 
everything unpleasant, and to be regarded with value by everyone, 
forever. This is the context of the anxiety which plagues 
civilization. The increased complexity of modern society has 
magnified the normal anxieties of the human mind into the stress 
syndrome - a chronic state of anxious worry that things will go 
wrong, which keeps the sympathetic nervous system activated until 
it becomes exhausted and causes the breakdown of the body.

   The energy of anger can be tamed by turning down the fight-flight 
response, by calming the sympathetic-adrenal axis.  This is the 
well-known relaxation response (Benson, 1977). The relaxation 
response is, essentially, an intentional turning down of the 
sympathetic-adrenal response through a bio-feedback mechanism. 
It has a physiological and a psychological component - relaxing 
the body and relaxing the mind.

   To experience the feelings of frustration, helplessness, anxiety 
and anger with self-discipline and equanimity one must first learn 
how to relax the body when not angry and then learn to apply this 
technique as anger arises. Relaxation turns down the fight-flight 
reaction which provides the physiological fuel of anger. Relaxation 
of the body is muscular relaxation, often known as progressive 
muscular relaxation. Sit in a chair, or cross-legged on a cushion 
and focus on the body. To understand the technique it is necessary 
to become aware of the difference between tension and relaxation. 
Press your toes into the floor and feel the tension. See how effort 
creates tension. Now let go of the effort and feel the muscles in 
the bottom of your feet relax. Relaxation is the withdrawal of effort 
from the muscles. Now go up each major muscle group (lower legs, 
upper legs, abdomen, chest, upper arms, forearms, hands and fingers, 
jaw, face and brow) visualizing yourself withdrawing effort from each 
group like allowing a stretched rubber band to come to its resting 
position.  Practice this exercise many times a day in order to become 
proficient and ready to invoke it at the moment you are aware of 
anger arising. Relaxing the muscles in this way turns down the 
sympathetic nervous system response in the same way but opposite 
direction that exercise turns it up - in this case by feeding 
information to the central processing unit that the muscles are 
not needed, not going to be used and, therefore, that the preparation 
of the body for action - the fight-flight response, can be disabled.

   Once the technique of muscular relaxation is learned, practiced 
and mastered, it can be applied in the moment of anger, particularly 
when it has been decided that no satisfactory alternative action is 
possible and that one must open to the feeling of helplessness. The 
technique is to focus awareness on the feeling of helplessness 
while relaxing the muscles. This de-conditions the anxiety associated 
with frustration and helps create the feeling of serenity.

   The second component of relaxation is relaxing the mind. The 
traditional method for calming the mind is meditation. Beginning 
mediation (shamatha) is also called stabilizing or tranquilizing 
meditation. The Tibetan name is "shi ne" which means "calm 
abiding" or "dwelling in peace". As with muscular relaxation, 
it is important to understand the difference between a tense 
mind and a relaxed mind. A tense mind is a busy mind. A busy 
mind is thinking about the past and future, scanning the life-
field for problems and, inevitably, finding them.  According to 
an old Buddhist saying, a person with a busy mind is bound to 
suffer. This is because busy mind looks for problems and finds 
them, stimulating the fight-flight reaction and other negative 
emotions. A frightening thought can trigger the physiology of 

   Shamatha meditation calms and quiets the mind by bringing 
awareness into the present moment without agitating 
hypermentation, without busy mind. The basic technique 
is to sit on a cushion in a relaxed but alert posture and 
let mind rest on the breath. When intruding thoughts distract, 
gently bring attention back to the breath. There are many 
variations on this method. It is best learned from a qualified 

   Relaxing body and mind means relaxing into existence. 
Physiologically, it means turning off the fight-flight response 
which is, essentially, combat with or flight from existence in 
the service of the survival of body and ego.  Psychologically it 
means accepting existence as it is in the present moment, 
without struggling to change anything to satisfy the demanding 
ordinary mind's Happiness Projects. Relaxation and meditation are 
the antidotes to anger and the keys to serenity.

   As we persevere patiently, working with our anger through one 
episode after another, the cumulative effect is an opening of 
the heart. Opening the heart is also referred to in Buddhist 
circles as "softening ego". It means relaxing one's defenses, 
opening to the pain of not getting what one wants and of getting 
what one doesn't want with patience and fortitude. Softening of 
the ego refers to lowering the protective walls of the cocoon of 
ordinary mind and developing a more flexible and skillful response 
to life.  As the heart opens, one learns to gracefully let go of 
desires that are impossible to satisfy and to accept that which 
one does not want but cannot avoid. As we open to feelings of 
frustration, helplessness and vulnerability, we becomes less 
frightened of them, more willing to experience them, and 
increasingly able to relax into them. The effect is relaxing 
into the maelstrom of existence with a calm and tranquil mind.   
And, as one voluntarily opens one's heart, the cumulative effect 
is the reduction in the frequency and intensity of anger.

   In the Buddhist tradition, the antidote to anger and aggression 
is patience. Patience is suffering without aggression. It means 
experiencing without anger or aggression  the pain of frustration, 
anxiety and helplessness that come from not getting what we want 
when we want it and of getting what we don't want when we don't 
want it.  The practice of patience means enduring the unwanted 
without aggression.  As we open to the unwanted, the insistent 
energy of selfish desire weakens. Tolerance for the 
dissatisfactions and frustrations of life is strengthened.  
And the vulnerability to anger and aggression is reduced.

   The Buddhist approach to healing anger and aggression is 
based upon the principle that anger is generated by mind, not 
by external circumstances or physiological processes. This 
implies that certain conditions are necessary for the successful 
healing of anger and aggression. First, we must turn our attention 
to ourselves, to our own minds. We must develop an awareness of 
The Three Poisons, the causes of anger which lie within ourselves. 
Second, we must take responsibility for our own anger. This often 
presents many obstacles. Taking responsibility may feel like blaming 
one's self. The temptation is to resist, deny responsibility and 
complain about others. The third step involves understanding the 
psychological dynamics of anger and aggression.  At this point, we 
learn how anger arises through the frustration of our desires, 
aversions and ego defenses. This awareness matures, as we move 
through the fourth and fifth steps into a self transformation. We 
learn how to reflect upon our anger, to analyze it, to identify our 
desires and the obstacles to their satisfaction, to change what we 
can and to accept what we cannot change. Acceptance is learned 
through the sixth step of relaxation, meditation and opening to 
the pain. The seventh step is a life long process of responding 
to life events with awareness, self-discipline, equanimity, and 
compassion for ourselves and others.

Becker, E.  (1973).  The denial of death.  New York:  Free Press.
Benson, H.  (1977).  The relaxation response.  New York: William Morrow and
     Company, Inc.
(Personal communication.)  This definition was given to me by Kehenpo Karthar
     Rinpoche, Abbot of the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery
     in Woodstock, New York.
Freud, S.  (1958).  Civilization and its discontents. New York:  Doubleday Anchor.
Leifer, R. (1997). The happiness project: Transforming the three poisons that cause the
     suffering we inflict on ourselves and others. Ithaca, New York:  Snow Lion Publications.

H.H. The Dalai Lama. (1997). Healing anger: The power of patience from a Buddhist
     perspective. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications.
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. (1993).  Enlightened courage. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. (1998). Universal compassion. London: Tharpa Publications.
Geshe Rabten and Geshe Dhargyey. (1997). Advice from a spiritual friend.
     Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Pema Chodron. (1991). The wisdom of no escape. Boston: Shambala Publications.
Pema Chodron. (1994). Start where you are. Boston: Shambala Publications.
Smith, J.  (1998).  Breath sweeps mind: A first guide to meditation practice. New York:
     Riverhead Books.
Sogyal Rinpoche. (1994). The Tibetan book of living and dying. San Francisco: Harper.
Thich Nhat Hanh. (1992). The miracle of mindfulness. Boston: Beacon Press.
Trungpa, Chogyam. (1993). Training the mind and cultivating loving-kindness.
     Boston: Shambala Press.

- - -

Ron Leifer, MD, is a psychiatrist in Ithaca, New York.  
His email address is ronleifer@aol.com.  
He is the author of "The Happiness Project: Transforming The Three Poisons 
That Cause The Suffering We Inflict On Ourselves And Others," published in 
1997 by Snow Lion Publications.