Here is a nice thought about walking off anger. It’s a poem by Rosemerry at A Hundred Falling Veils blog. The title is “I’m Not Saying We Shouldn’t Be Angry.”
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be angry.
Anger seems reasonable. But perhaps
we will do what I’ve heard the Inuit do—
spend the emotion on walking, walk a line
until all the anger has left our bodies.
There is truth to that. Physical exertion does help an individual to release stress. There are biological reasons one could give, if one wanted to be scientific about it. But the advice stands alone and can be verified in one’s experience. Maybe that relates to a main problem with the internet, too much inactivity. For reasons of mental and physical health, people should get up once in a while to physically move around, which probably is a good prevention for the buildup of anxiousness and frustration that can lead to bad moods.
I’m a curious person, though. The anthropological angle interests me for its own sake. I was wondering about the source that is the basis of the poem. I came across two references to it. In Overlay, Lucy R. Lippard writes that, “An Eskimo custom offers an angry person release by walking the emotion out of his or her system in a straight line across the landscape; the point at which the anger is conquered is marked with a stick, bearing witness to the strength or length of the rage.” And here is something from the UAB Department of Anthropology: “When conflicts do arise, people often express their feelings with hints. Anger occasionally erupts, but when it does the angry person simply walks away. The community may ostracize people who develop a tendency to anger, though that would be done subtly, with the people doing the ostracizing acting more nurturing and warmer than ever.”
It almost makes one want to sing a round of “Kumbaya My Lord, Kumbaya.” Or maybe belt out an old Unity Church favorite, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” I can feel the love already. I grew up with New Age spirituality. I dig it. But… there is always a ‘but’…
There is something in me (cynicism? contrarianism?) that can’t help noting a related piece of info. The Inuit weren’t hippy pacifists. Humans have to be as tough as the frozen tundra to survive in such icy bleakness. They didn’t express their anger because they didn’t tolerate anyone expressing their anger. Walking it off was an act of suppression. Don’t come back until you either are in a better mood or regained enough self-control to pretend to be in a better mood. There wasn’t much room for tolerance of misbehavior and deviance of any sort: betraying community values and social norms, taking advantage and harming others. The Inuit rule was to keep your problems to yourself or else. And you didn’t want to find out what ‘or else’ might mean. Individuals who failed to play by the rules and be members in good standing… well, those people were taken care of, one way or another. As Barbara Oakley explained (Evil Genes, p. 265):
Prior to the advent of agriculture, human groups were small — perhaps made up of fifty or fewer, and perfectly capable of “voting with their feet” to escape unfair treatment. Psychopathic or self-serving Machiavellian behavior would be obvious in such a restricted environment and would be difficult to tolerate long-term. There is evidence that when such behavior arose in those small, ancestral nomadic groups, it was eliminated in straightforward fashion. Harvard anthropologist Jane Murphy, for example, notes that the Yupic-speaking Eskimos of northwest Alaska have a word, kunlangeta, which means “his mind knows what to do but he does not do it.” This word
might be applied to a man who, for example, repeatedly lies and cheats and steals things and does not go hunting and, when the other men are out of the village, takes sexual advantage of many women — someone who does not pay attention to reprimands and who is always being brought to the elders for punishment. One Eskimo among 499 on their island was called kunlangeta. When asked what would have happened to such a person traditionally, an Eskimo said that probably “somebody would have pushed him off the ice when nobody else was looking.”
Murphy goes on to describe a similar word, arankan, used by Yorubas of Africa. It is applied to a person who always goes his own way regardless of others, who is uncooperative, full of malice, and bullheaded. Interestingly, neither kunlangeta nor arankan were thought to be curable by native healers. Psychopathy is rare in those settings, notes psychologists David Cooke, who has studied psychopathy across cultures.
They didn’t get lost in anger. Instead, they took direct action to solve the problem or eliminate the cause of their anger. Walking it off was just the first step. Don’t act in anger. But be sure to take action. The problem still needs to be solved.
Consider the ancient Japanese story of the Samurai. His master was murdered and it was his duty to seek vengeance. Having tracked down the assassin and with sword aloft, the cornered man spit in the Samurai’s face. Anger having taken hold of his mind, he immediately stopped and sheathed his sword. It would have been dishonorable to have killed the man out of anger. His act of righteousness needed to be an act of dispassionate duty, not of personal emotion. So, he left the killer there and walked away. My friend who told me this story gave it a different ending that I prefer. In his version, after the Samurai calmed down and regained composure, he once again tracked down the evildoer. With a calm heart and a clear mind, he honorably slayed the guilty party and justice was done.
This has been carried forward into nonviolent practice in the modern world. Gandhi is famous for his advocacy and effective application of nonviolence, but nonetheless he suggested that violence was preferable to injustice. Don’t get mad. Get even. It is ancient wisdom.
* * *
To further demonstrate this principle, let’s place it in the framework of Buddhist useful means. Acting in anger and vengeance would incur karma, as would murder. But sometimes compassion, as self-sacrifice, might elicit a response of preventing harm by taking karma onto oneself. The following is from a sutra about one of the Buddha’s earlier lives as a bodhissatva:
Murder with Skill in Means: The story of the Compassionate Ship’s Captain
132. Then the Lord again addressed the Bodhisattva Jnanottara:
“Son of the family: Once a upon a time, long before the Thus-come-one, the Worthy, the fully perfected Buddha Dipamkara, there were five hundred merchants who set sail on the high seas in search of wealth. Among the company was a doer of dark deeds, a doer of evil deeds, a robber well-trained in the art of weaponry, who had come on board that very ship to attack them.
He thought, “I will kill all these merchants when they have achieved their aims and done what they set out to do, take all possessions and go to Jambu Continent.”
“Son of the family: then the merchants achieved their aims and set about to depart. No sooner had they done so, than that deceitful person thought:
“Now I will kill all these merchants, take all their possessions and go to Jambu Continent. The time has come.”
133. At the same time, among the company on board was a captain named Great Compassionate. While Captain Great Compassionate slept on one occasion, the deities who dwelt in that ocean showed him in a dream:
‘’’Among this ship’s company is a person named so and so, of such and such sort of physique, of such and such, garb, complex, and shape—a robber mischievous, a thief of others’ property. He is thinking,” I will kill all these merchants, take all their possessions and go to Jambu Continent.” To kill these merchants would create formidable evil karma for that person. Why so? These five hundred merchants are all progressing toward supreme, right and full awakening; they are each irreversible from awakening. If he should kill these Bodhisattvas, the fault—the obstacle caused by the deed—would cause him to burn in the great hells for as long as it take each one of these Bodhisattva to achieve supreme, right and full awakening, consecutively. Therefore, Captain, think of some skill in means to prevent this person from killing the five hundred merchants and going to the great hells because of the deed.
134. “Son of the family: Then the captain Great Compassionate awoke. He considered what means there might be to prevent that person from killing the five hundred merchants and going to the great hells. Seven days passed with a wind averse to sailing to Jambu Continent. Without wind during those seven days he plunged deep into thought, not speaking to anyone.
“He thought, “There is no means to prevent this from slaying the merchants and going to the great hells but to kill him.’
“And he thought, ‘if I were to report this to the merchants, they would kill and slay him with angry thoughts and all go to the great hells themselves.’
“And he thought, ‘if I were to kill this person, I would likewise burn in the great hells for one hundred-thousand eons because of it. Yet I can bear to experience the pain of the great hells, that this person not slay these five hundred merchants and develop so much evil karma. I will kill this person myself.
135. Son of the family: Accordingly, the captain Great Compassionate protected those five hundred merchants and protected that person from going to the great hells, by deliberately stabbing and slaying that person who was a robber with a spear, with great compassion and skill in means. And all among the company achieved their aims and each went to his own city.
136. “Son of the family. At that time, in that life I was none other than the Captain Great Compassionate. Have no second thought or doubt on this point. The five hundred merchants on board the five hundred Bodhisattvas who are to niranize to supreme, right and full awakening in hits auspicious eon.
“Son of the family: For me, Samsara was curtailed for one hundred-thousand eons because of that skill in means and great compassion. And the robber died to be reborn in a world of paradise. The five hundred merchants on board are the hundred future Buddhas of the auspicious eon.
137. “Son fo the family, what do you think of this? Can curtailing birth and death for one hundred-thousand eons with that skill in means and that great compassion with gnosis of skill in means be regarded as the Bodhisattva’s obstacle caused by past deeds? Do not view it in that way. That should be regarded as his very skill in means.
—quoted from Mark Tatz’ Skill in Means Sutra, pp. 73-74