Dharma of Do Not Want
I’m annoyed. I’m grumpy. I’m just downright irritated. People are irritating me. My body is irritating me. My irritation is irritating me. This is a very curious emotion. I can recall being this irritated before, but not for many years. I can even recall periods of my life lived in a state of constant irritation. If you’ve been a teenager, so can you. A lot of this irritation eased when I let go of the delusion that I could or should be able to control other people. As it returns now, I realize this is a form of aversion, one of the three poisons. It seems like it is often overlooked and socially tolerated in our hurry to focus on the more powerful forms of aversion like hatred, anger, and fear. But irritation is also a poison, insidious and pervasive and dangerous.
The danger of irritation is that it kills compassion and empathy but masquerades as wisdom. “Well, if people would just stop being stupid and see it the way I see it, we’d all be fine and I wouldn’t get so annoyed!” It can lead to a false sense of justification or righteousness. Likewise anger, but anger brings a destructive potential that makes us cautious. Irritation is a candle to a anger’s inferno, but a candle can burn just a surely. Anger is often triggered by injustice in the world, but irritation more often comes from unmet expectations. I expect my body to be healthy and I am irritated when it is not. I expect people solve their problems and I am irritated when they complain.
Irritation is therefore rooted in desire. It arises as a form of aversion when the world is not the way we want it to be. We are confronted with a world we do not want. At a visceral level, we DO. NOT. WANT. And we feel a strong desire to push it away. But the world is a little bigger than us, so we’re unlikely to be able to shift it whenever we desire. Therefore we experience aversion in the form of hatred, anger, or irritation.
This aversion is fed by an ignorant belief that if I can just get what I want and avoid what I don’t want, then I will be happy. If I can just get my body to be healthy and get people to stop whining and get myself to stop being preoccupied by all this, then I will be happy. Delusion is another layer on top of this basic ignorance. It is the belief that I can or should be able to make this happen; this belief convinces me to chase after these things in often unskillful ways. Worse yet, my delusions are often fed by underlying kernels of truth. There are things I can do to be more healthy, but once I do them I sometimes just have to wait for my body to sort itself out. This can be irritating. Life isn’t always fair and we should all try to recognize and correct unfairness, but we often spend more time on step one than step two (thus, complaining). In my delusion I impute a greater truth from these small truths. Thus irritation masquerades as wisdom.
In order to counteract my irritation, I can try to cultivate better wisdom by going back to the Four Noble Truths and understanding desire in light of the Three Poisons, but a diagnosis is not a cure. Knowing I have a cold, doesn’t actually cure the cold. Instead, I need an antidote. That’s a very interesting word all by itself: anti-dote. The second half of the word actually comes from a Greek root that means “to give,” which I didn’t know. But the first part is easily understood by any English speaker. “Anti” means the opposite or “not that.” So if irritation has an aspect of corrupted wisdom, the antidote is not that. The antidote is that thing which irritation most endangers – compassion.
In the Titthiya Sutta (AN 3.68) the Buddha spoke about the three poisons and he had this to say about aversion:
“[Then if they ask,] ‘But what, friends, is the reason, what the cause, why unarisen aversion arises, or arisen aversion tends to growth & abundance?’ ‘The theme of irritation,’ it should be said. ‘For one who attends inappropriately to the theme of irritation, unarisen aversion arises and arisen aversion tends to growth & abundance…’
“[Then if they ask,] ‘But what, friends, is the reason, what the cause, why unarisen aversion does not arise, or arisen aversion is abandoned?’ ‘Good will as an awareness-release,’ it should be said. ‘For one who attends appropriately to good will as an awareness-release, unarisen aversion does not arise and arisen aversion is abandoned…’
Therefore, the antidote to my irritation is to cultivate compassion, goodwill (metta), gratitude and other generous qualities. Which is especially irritating just to think about when I’m already irritated, like pouring disinfectant on a wound. Yet oddly enough, even a few minutes helps. When I’m so irritated that I can’t generate metta for others, I start with myself. I generate goodwill towards myself and my stupid unhealthy body. From that goodwill I can expand to others, including the people with whom I feel most irritated. Soon enough I notice some of my irritation subsiding. As my irritation subsides my mind magically seems to function again. I feel more productive and useful, which sparks a chain reaction of goodwill and reduced irritation.
If you’re anything like me, writing also helps. Writing is an important part of my emotional process. So just by writing this post, I also find my irritation reduced. Which is why it’s nice I have this blog and I can be grateful to you, my readers, for putting up with my grumpiness from time to time. Writing is a form of sharing, so if you don’t like to write, you can also talk to someone and share how you feel. Just don’t complain too much about it. That’s irritating.
(PS – I define “complaining” as talking about a problem we have no intention or ability to solve.)