Aggression makes itself known in many ways. We usually think of it as gross acts. We can see and name many manifestations of aggression throughout local and global society, none of which seem to change much no matter what we do. On a more personal and interpersonal level, aggression happens within and around us every day in many ways. It could be an impulsive moment of indiscretion while driving, a chance encounter with another person arousing an aggressive response, speaking to customer service. You know what I mean.
The current polarization plaguing culture is marked by a dangerous increase in obvious aggressive behavior–in all sectors and from all strata of society. When I look at my own behavior, I notice subtle forms of aggression going all the way to the root of suffering. No surprise. Delusion, greed and aggression are regarded as the three primary kleshas, or roots of suffering. Lately we even talk about micro-aggressions, subtle but harmful ways by which structures of domination are reinforced.
Rather than talk my way through this by focusing on the mind and referring solely to mental behaviors and patterns, adding the somatic experience seems essential. The sum of all the somatic changes we know as aggression is a configuration of stress responses generally regarded as unhealthy—that is, unless they’re accompanied by complete amorality. The resolution of aggressive impulses is what I’m calling a quiet heart. A quiet and open heart is the physiological and mental product of recognizing and letting go of aggression in its many forms. A quiet heart may be another name for equanimity, a heart not so immediately clouded by arousal, confusion, striving or other behaviors generating internal and external conflict. It remains balanced in the face of the shifting weather of emotion and events.
A quiet heart is a still place within the storm. It is where the voices of ego, judgement, instinctive self-preservation and grasping may penetrate, but to which an aggressive response is not automatic. A quiet heart is not immune to desire or greed, not dissociated from attachment, anger or sadness, confusion or grasping. It is just not reactive to or controlled by any of these. A quiet heart is a refuge within all of it.
In fact, considering the five kleshas, or fundamental flaws of consciousness, aggression is born of desire and desire is born of attachment. So, the primary klesha is interpreted by some as attachment manifesting in a more extreme form as anger or aggression. But for me, aggression is not only noticeable in its grossest forms. It is deeply connected to many behaviors connecting multiple emotions and motivations in the most subtle ways.
How does aggression appear in our thoughts or expressions? How can we return to a quiet heart? I’ve come to believe (which in itself might be dangerous) that disquiet, attachment and the more obvious expressions of aggression have something to do with non-existence, or emptiness. The Dzogchen view is that all things, both material things, our physical nature, and also non-material things like thoughts and feelings are both existent and simultaneously non-existent. All of it appears real, yet all of it is manufactured, illusory, non-existent.
Nothing exists independently of anything else. Nothing stands alone. As a commentary on the nature of phenomena, this view can be expressed as Nagarjuna’s (2nd century CE) four-fold negation, a tool used to deconstruct fixed views: phenomena are not solely appearance nor are they solely illusion. Nor are they both appearance and illusion. Nor are they neither appearance nor illusion.
Confused? Yes, confusing. But the point is that in everyday awareness, non-existence, emptiness, is probably the furthest thing from our mind. We either never consider it or lose track of non-existence and fall into the trap of completely believing everything appearing before and within us truly exists. And there, in that karmically-driven deluded certainty, is where aggression rises. There is where relative existence continuously arouses multiple, complex feeling states and dynamics that run from confusing to upsetting, to downright unhealthy. Most of them undermine a quiet heart. The belief in all the behaviors surrounding that certainty about the materiality of everything is how we identify and recreate ourselves. The entire apparatus and mechanics of believing what we consider to be the world out there is a product of aggression.
Why? Because as soon as we believe all our constructions about the world out there, we are moved to manipulate it, reproduce it, improve it, eliminate it, deny it, claim it and change it in uncountable ways. This is what Lao Tzu might call habitual discrimination—which is slightly different from ordinary discernment. With this in mind, it seems clear that aggression manifests in multiple ways masked as something else.
Anxiety (a combination of fear, helplessness and hope) is a form of aggression. Impatience is aggression. Frustration and resentment are aggression. Jealousy is aggression. Even gossip is aggression because it’s usually about moral superiority. The epidemic of political gaslighting is a form of aggression. These are signs of conflict between wanting to control events and realizing we cannot control them. Enslavement to the notion that we can control events is the engine of aggression. It is anxiety about the future or recrimination of the past. Aggression is the antithesis of surrendering to spaciousness. It is the frantic self-preservation instinct of ego. It is the opposite of surrender.
Where in this maelstrom is a quiet heart? Chapter 29 of the Tao Te Ching seems to be about aggression:
“Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.
There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe, a time for being in danger.
The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.”
Aggression may be an attempt to recreate a pleasurable experience; how we become motion when rest is required; how we overestimate our agency in the world. The center of the circle is where the quiet heart may be found. Where no manipulation is necessary, where action arises from non-existence, as much as from materiality, where the appropriate response is not entirely driven by ego.
Chogyam Trungpa says aggression can be very polite, such as in the way we ‘cut the truth into pieces and serve ourselves the tastiest morsal while discarding the rest.’ Much of Buddhist teaching may be about eliminating ego, or as Trungpa says, ‘cutting off its arms and legs.’ But really, if the elimination of ego is a prerequisite for what we imagine is ‘enlightenment,’ how likely is it that we will ever get there? Instead, we will be egotistic. Ego will never completely die, but we can remember it doesn’t truly exist anymore than ego-lessness truly exists.
Being at the center of the circle means living at the balance point between existence and non-existence, like perpetually sunning ourselves at the beach, becoming lost in the rhythm of the ocean without a care in the world…except for taking care not to get burned. That is where the balance lies between not existing at all and also very much existing. Every venture away from being in the center of our circle, to preserve something, to reify something, every disconnection from earth, from ground, from other people, from the true nature of life is an act of resistance, a resistance to dropping into not-knowing, a refusal to surrender.
The Vajrayana view is that the wrathful guardians of the dharma, the dharmapalas, are always guiding us into deeper realization and away from faulty thinking and action, away from our own aggression, by visiting us with mishaps, obstacles, ruptures, loss and even trauma. If we suddenly find obstacles arising in our path, like the car breaking down on the way to a job interview, or someone you thought of as a friend suddenly turning on you, the dharmapalas are providing an opportunity to address our latest reflexive dive into aggression.
Is pursuit of a goal aggression? That depends. Is righting injustice aggression? It certainly can become so. What does healthy aggression look like? It depends on the quality of energy we put into the process. If it means climbing over someone else, violating basic ethics, operating from a zero-sum view, chances are we will soon be visited by the dharmapalas. Instead, healthy aggression might look like joyous determination, a constant dance with shifting forces in a way that feels more like swimming downstream than fighting the current. All while being mindful of non-existence playing with us as we constantly become attached to our mental constructions.
The quiet heart is a construction of that joyous determination, nurturing the discipline to remain connected at the junction of our true capacities and our true nature. Cultivating the capacity to remain in that quiet center offers a cleaner and more precise view of the many faces of aggression while relieving so much of the stress of becoming attached to the fantasies manufactured by a wild and untamed mind.