Psychological Self-Help

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To Buddhists it is very important to distinguish between two kinds of desires: (1)
having very commendable goals in life (see Chapter 3), such as liberation,
enlightenment, helping others, becoming less angry and more patient, etc. and (2)
having an undesirable “mind contaminated with desirous attachments,”—craving a
specific relationship, possession or entertainment—in the belief that we badly need
these things in order to be happy. Thus, Buddhists are counseled to adopt helpful
and tolerant goals and values while giving up frustrating, self-centered life goals
which ignore the needs of others.
There is a sharp contrast in wants between Eastern cultures and Western cultures.
Western societies value high ambitions, even praising goals that are blatantly self-
serving and highly unlikely to be met (like becoming president or a millionaire…or
having a fantastic body). We value driven people so long as their anxiety doesn’t get
out of hand. When stress becomes too great, we usually lower our sights because we
recognize the wisdom of the Buddhist philosophy of giving up some self-imposed
highly stressful desires. Another Western problem occurs when the culture, family,
friends, teachers, employers and others push for a very different level of ambition
than the individual him/herself prefers. The topic of this chapter is not stress,
however, but anger. The Buddhist approach to both emotions is similar.
Gyatso defines anger as “a deluded mind that focuses on an animate or inanimate
object, feels this disliked object to be unattractive, exaggerates its bad qualities, and
wishes to harm it.” Like today’s mindfulness-oriented psychologists, Gyatso tells us
that we must watch our thoughts carefully and cut off angry thoughts as soon as
they start. He emphasizes the unwanted consequences of strong anger—how it often
causes us to be impulsive, unfair, critical, and irrational, creates strong negative
feelings in other people towards us, and seriously damages our relationships with
others. Such a view motivates us to control our anger and benefit from the practice
of patience: peace of mind, improved relationships, and clearer thinking. Indeed, if
everyone overcame their own anger, as the author points out, it would be a giant
leap towards ending wars, murders, and violence.
Instead of feeling irritation, dislike, and frustration, Buddhist teachers say take every
opportunity to practice patience, i.e. accept fully and happily everything that
happens to you. You can, of course, take action to improve your circumstances, so
long as your actions are tolerant and considerate of others. No one can make us feel
badly; feeling badly is our own doing. Getting angry about something is not a show
of strength; it is a show of ignorance because it is unreasonable to emotionally
refuse to accept things as they are (similar to determinism; see chapter 14). Accept
whatever can’t be avoided. Saying to yourself “this is awful, I hate it” is usually
irrational (compare this to Rational-Emotive Therapy in chapter 14). If we sometimes
have to suffer hardship and pain, we should do it stoically. Striving for enlightenment
and trying to improve the welfare of all living beings may at times be inconvenient.
But keep on striving anyway. Understanding our own suffering leads us to useful
insights and empathy for others.
There is no evil greater than anger,
And no virtue greater than patience.
A Buddhist Master Shantideva
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