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About Leonard Scheff
Listen to Leonard Scheff's 88.9FM KUCI Public Radio interview
Leonard Scheff is a practicing attorney in Tucson, Arizona -- and a practicing Zen Buddhist.
Leonard has attended several of the public teachings by H.H. the Dalai Lama including the four day workshop in Tucson in 1993, and a more recent 2003 teaching. He has participated in and led numerous Gestalt workshops.
Leonard has created a "Letting Go of Anger" seminar, with input by John Tarrant Roshi, and has taught it since 1993. While Leonard's anger transformation seminar is based on Buddhism through the teachings of the Dalai Lama, he believes these same principles are universal in all spiritual traditions.
Leonard is a graduate of the University of Arizona and Boalt School of Law at Berkeley. He has been a trial and transactional attorney in Tucson, Arizona, for more than fifty years. His primary area of practice has been in advising businesses dealing with complex real estate transactions. In addition, he has been active in litigation involving civil liberties and social justice.
He is a former president and life member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. He was a founder and on the board of Arizona Friends of Tibet, the organization responsible for bringing the Dalai Lama to Tucson.
Leonard has advised numerous non-profit corporations including the Campus Christian Center, the Pima County Sheriffs Aero Squadron, the American Civil Liberties Foundation, Congregation Chavarim, the Asian Classics Institute of Arizona, the Garchen Institute, Saguaro Juniper, the Bellota Preservation Corporation and the Southwest Wildlife Animal Refuge.
For more than 20 years, he has been a member and legal advisor to the Zen Desert Sangha.
Leonard is the primary author of The Cow in the Parking Lot: A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger, which has been met with rave reviews and is now licensed in ten languages.
A conversation with Leonard Scheff about transforming anger
and Zen Buddhism
What is The Cow in the Parking Lot about?
The book is a Zen approach to dealing with and overcoming anger. It was inspired by my personal journey from being an angry person -- a litigator, to be specific -- to becoming someone who understands that anger is actually damaging to my health, my relationships and my work. The Cow in the Parking Lot is a guide to replacing anger with happiness -- and to the profound understanding that only you can make yourself angry. I summarize the book as "You are hitting your hand with a hammer. If you stop you’ll feel better."
Is this book for people with anger "issues"?
No, not specifically. It’s the rare person who doesn’t experience anger in one form or another. What people don’t realize is that their impatience, passive-aggressiveness, irritation, and sarcasm are all forms of anger. Each one can be destructive.
I’ve taught a number of workshops over the years about overcoming anger and the people who attend fall into different categories. One type is particularly intriguing: this is the person generally is not angry, but lurking in the back of their mind is the notion that if they were angry more often, they might get more respect. After the workshop, they have relaxed realizing that they’ve been doing it right.
Your title is unusual. Where did it come from?
The title comes from a parable that represents a terrific way to begin to think about your anger in a new way which can lead to letting go of anger. Picture this -- You are looking for a parking space. After 10 minutes, a car finally starts to back out. You turn on your turn signal and wait. Suddenly, a jeep coming from the other direction jumps into the space. When you honk, a guy gets out of the jeep and gives you a smirk. Are you angry? You bet! You want to key his car; let the air out of the tires; write "Jerk" in lipstick on his windshield.
Now we change the facts slightly -- and get to the heart of my book and hence, the title. Instead of the jeep, imagine a cow steals your parking space and settles down on the pavement. You honk and the cow looks up and moos. Are you angry? Most people are more likely amused. What's the difference in your situation? Your life is the same. You still have to look for another parking space. Being angry is not going to aid in finding another parking space and probably will distract you in the task.
When did your awakening in regard to anger occur?
I got the first inkling that anger was destructive when I attended the teachings of the Dalai Lama in Tucson about 15 years ago. While he was speaking I thought to myself, "He’s a nice man, but he’s crazy if he thinks I’m giving up anger. It works for me! It makes things happen! People in the courtroom listen to me when I’m angry! So does everyone else!"
A few days later, a guy cut me off on the highway. I honked. He shot me the bird. I started to stew, but having just spent four days in the front row with the Dalai Lama, I felt I owed him and myself to at least try once to overcome my anger. I asked myself, "Why am I mad?" The answer made me laugh. I wanted respect from a stranger, an absurd and impossible demand. It’s not as if his raised middle finger could shoot me. For all it’s significance to my life, he could’ve been checking to see if was raining.
For the first time I could remember, I laughed instead of getting angry. It felt marvelous! Right then and there, I was hooked and decided to work to rid myself of anger as much as possible.
Is this different than "anger management"?
What my book offers is a simple system for overcoming anger and how to transform it into compassion. Anger management suggests that you can control your anger. It's like keeping a vicious dog on a leash and expecting that he won't bite you. Anger management also involves delving into your past to determine the deep emotional cause of your anger. My approach is far more immediate -- the point is to keep it simple. In my mind, determining the psychological cause of anger is necessary. I deal with the fact that you’re angry because of what’s happening now. The question I encourage my readers to ask when they’re angry is, "What is my unmet demand?" Often, answering that question will get you either a silly response (so you’ll laugh) or one that is constructive, which inspires a rational reaction.
The flash of anger seems like a natural biological response to certain situations. Is there an "off" button to this feeling?
Anger comes from the reptilian part of the brain call the amygala. There should be an "off" button but, unfortunately, the amygala sends out a powerful signal that chemically overcomes the part of our brains that deal with reason. People lash out when they’re angry because they’re literally unable to think rationally. While there’s not and "off" button to this anger flash, with effort and practice you can train your brain to overcome it. And it’s important to remember that asking yourself, "What is my unmet demand?" actually engages the rational side of your brain again, which may help override your flash of anger.
As a trial lawyer, you felt like anger was a helpful tool in winning your cases. What made you change your mind?
It was the simple realization that people, other lawyers, jurors etc don't like angry people. Also as they teach in the martial arts: when you become angry you are more likely to lose. I could say for instance in law school I was taught not to use humor. However it has been my experience that judges and jurors appreciate a little appropriate humor. I was questioning jurors once. I asked a man what he did for a living. He replied he was a part time carpenter and a part time preacher. I replied that there was a good precedent for that. Everyone laughed and I felt I owned the jury.
Are there any instances where being angry is helpful?
Rarely. Its about as likely as winning the lottery. To suggest that it can be helpful opens the door to justifying your anger. Unfortunately we all tend to think that our anger is justified and yours isn’t. It better to operate on the assumption that anger is so much more likely to be harmful than helpful, it is better not to use it. Remember that acting out of anger will probably not be rational. You are therefore giving up the use of your intelligence when you act out of anger.
How connected is this book to Buddhism? Do you need to be a Buddhist to understand it?
Buddhism has been around for 2500 years and has as its purpose to teach us how to be happy. John Tarrant Roshi described it as "The technology of happiness." So the answer from what I have observed in teaching my workshop is that overcoming anger makes a Christian a better Christian, a Muslin, a better Muslim and an atheist a better person.
Is there a single most important thing you'd recommend people keep in mind when they're angry?
Anger is a destructive emotion. The more you overcome anger the more obvious it is. So it may happen in a day or it may take years. However once you overcome anger and realize how much better it is not to be angry, it almost becomes addictive. You can't wait for the next opportunity to overcome anger. When that happens, you look back and can see that anger was not an asset but a liability.
Is there data showing that anger is destructive emotion?
Lots. Your doctor will tell you of the physical destruction of anger, high blood pressure, heart attacks, fatigue. Letting it out can sometimes be a welcome release. Is that unhealthy? Better than pretending you are not angry and holding it. However getting angry less and transforming it not holding on to it is the goal.
Is anger addictive?
The Buddha said anger with its honey crest and poison root. For me, it was definitely the tent pole that held up my circus tent. Anger produces a palpable rush. It makes you believe that you are powerful. You can be addicted to this just as you can crave the high that comes from cigarettes. Like smoking you are better off without it.
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