Reacting to anger and injustice with compassion

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I had a disturbing incident at work where I was falsely accused of misdeeds. My manager was so certain of my guilt that he threatened to fire me (and later did).

He committed the gravest possible error when managing people and emotions: always seek the facts before rushing to judgment. 

He was convinced that I had done something that I had not in fact done. He started asking me “how could you do this?” when the proper question was “did you do this?” Since he was completely convinced of his own facts, he proceeded to pronounce righteous judgment, called me a liar, and threatened my livelihood — a threat that he later made good on.

Karma and the cessation of suffering

What I later came to understand was that his question “how could you do this?” was his suffering. Questions like that have no satisfying answer and pondering the how and why of inexplicable events is a source of suffering. A deeper understanding of Karma and reincarnation leads one to conclude that everything happens due to ripening Karma from actions in this life or past lives. With this realization, the questions like “why did this happen?” disappear — and so does the suffering that goes with it. This is a true cessation of suffering.

It’s difficult to convey just how toxic and inappropriate his behavior was towards me. I can’t remember the last time someone treated me so poorly — at least not in this lifetime. It would have been easy for me to ask the same questions: “why did he do this to me?” or “What did I do to deserve this injustice?” But what good would have come from asking those questions? In the asking, I would have found nothing but suffering. 

Letting false accusations pass through

As he was accosting me based on his mistaken facts and subsequent negative emotional state, the remarkable thing was that I didn’t react and further confirm his deluded state. I remained unmoved, tried to convey the facts of the situation, and tried to find some reason for this misunderstanding that I could take responsibility for.

My calm demeanor seemed to defuse the tension, but when I left the room, the situation was unresolved. I later came to realize that even if he had realized his mistake, since his behavior was so over-the-top, there was no way for him to step back from the brink. It required me to deal with the upheaval of finding a new job and adjusting to a new workplace.

This was a great test of where I was with my Buddhist practice. I did not identify with the acts I was accused of or the slights to my character. Therefore, the false accusations and reprehensible things he said to me found nothing to grab onto. I allowed it to pass through me as if I were transparent. It was surprising even to me as it was happening.

In the past, I would have rushed to my own defense, become angry with the false accusations, and returned his anger with anger. This would have fanned the flames, and probably would have resulted in either my being fired on the spot or me walking out and being without a job and any severance (which I did get). 

I remembered a lesson years ago in a group therapy session. The leader asked how I would feel if I were accused of being an ugly, 8-foot tall green gorilla. I laughed and said that I wouldn’t take the insult seriously because I know I am not what I am being accused of.

The leader followed up by asking if it would be important for me to correct the accuser’s misperception. I said no because I can’t control what they think, and their opinion of me doesn’t impact who I am. That lesson was powerfully driven home to me as I sat there falsely accused.

Compassion as an antidote to revenge

Unfortunately, I did allow the incident to disrupt my peace of mind. I didn’t ruminate about it after the incident, but I noticed a sense of upheaval emotionally. It was very painful, and I spent several days processing the pain of that encounter.

My mind occasionally threw out thoughts of revenge, but my training interrupted the pattern, asked me to feel compassion for my accuser, and reminded me of the futility and bad Karma of seeking revenge. This quieted my mind. If I were really advanced in my practice, I wouldn’t have those thoughts at all, but the fact that I controlled them and limited their impact was a good sign of my progress.

In the heat of anger, it’s difficult to feel compassion for the one perpetrating an injustice. Whenever the anger arose and spawned thoughts of revenge, I reminded myself that my perpetrator’s ignorance and suffering were responsible for his behavior. He is not an evil person, just a deluded person who lacks the awareness of the causes of his suffering.

Of course, my mind would respond “Good. I hope he is suffering.” After an internal eye-roll at the silliness of my angry thoughts, I reminded myself that wishing suffering on another person is the opposite of compassion and invariably leads to more suffering — not for him, but for me. This helped stop the anger and vengeful thoughts from taking root and generating more anger and vengeful thoughts — the cycle was broken.

Impermanence alleviates suffering

I also reminded myself that this too will pass. And, of course, it did.

I have faith that God, Karma, or Fate put these events in motion for a reason. Perhaps I was meant to have a different job that I will find more fulfilling. Perhaps this was a test to reveal the need for further study and practice of Buddhism. In the weeks that followed, my attention to my thoughts and mental states was greatly improved — by necessity.

What really stood out to me was the Truth of Buddha’s teachings. There really are mental trainings that lead to the cessation of suffering, and if Dharma is practiced purely, even terrible and painful events won’t disrupt my peace of mind.

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I am Anattā. Not my real name, of course, but that’s the point. I selected the moniker Anattā because in Buddhism, my primary spiritual practice, the term anattā refers to the doctrine of “non-self”. In more practical terms, I chose the name Anattā because by writing anonymously, it’s far easier to be completely candid and honest. Further, there is no danger of my writing becoming tainted by any desire for self-aggrandizement. I write primarily to improve my own understanding of these topics, but my deepest desire for writing on this site is to help others.