There is nothing intrinsically harmful about anger. Anger is a natural emotion that moves us to action. As with all emotions, it rises and falls away. So why do we often feel that we can’t shake anger? Why does it stick to us however hard we try to push it away?
The answers are many. Perhaps this stickiness comes from how our culture teaches us not to show anger or how as children we protected ourselves in difficult and dangerous situations by not showing it. The truth is, though, the cause is not what matters. What matters is how we are with it; how we respond to it.
In my life experience, anger has been a great teacher. A person very close to me had for many years been caught in the throws of addiction hurting herself, her family—all her relationships and endeavors. Her suffering was palpable. At first, when the call would come that she was in a desperate situation, I would run to her side with the belief that I could set everything right. Once the appearance of balance and health emerged I assumed all was right and would leave triumphantly. Of course, this was a delusion. I had accomplished nothing and failed to notice this for the longest time.
Over time my anger grew becoming a constant irritating companion. Then, fortuitously, as my mindfulness practice developed, I noticed and sat down with my anger. This starting where I was, was crucial in my journey of awakening to my anger and my true nature.
At first I sat with it in the same way I might sit by a roaring campfire. Giving it space, I sat a little bit away from its heat while watching intently its flames flicker and dance. I sat with it for a long time in this way noticing, acknowledging, and watching. When it felt right, I invited it to,open to me from its perspective by asking, “What’s the worst part of the situation?” It let me know.
It showed me what lay beneath. First, there was hurt ego desperately playing the savior, believing that it could control and fix everything. There was resentment that this person had spoiled our relationship. There was paralyzing fear that this person would be arrested, thrown into jail, or die. There was recognition that this suffering was arising from my response to the situation. Finally and surprisingly, my anger released.
It showed me that the way to freedom from my suffering, lay in going through the anger. Not skirting it, not attacking it, not pushing it away. By being fully present with it and immersing my full attention in it in a neutral yet friendly way it both dissolved and led me to appropriate actions.
In my case the appropriate actions were the setting of appropriate boundaries which led to the further action of changing my behavior. I acknowledged that I had no control over the situation but I did have a choice in how I responded to it. In this process, my love and compassion grew stronger.
My experience led me to understand that noticing, acknowledging, and being present with anger are the first steps to allowing anger to do its job, to move me to action. So now when anger arises, I turn to it and invite it to let me know what it is wanting while knowing that its wanting will unwind like the layers of a juicy onion. At first as we cut the onion, it brings tears to our eyes. Then as we slowly cook it, it releases its sweetness. So, too, with anger.
Go ahead. Experience your anger.
A couple of weeks ago, on an incredibly warm, blue-sky day, as the snow pack melted into torrents of water, my neighbor stopped by to tell me that my irrigation canal had breached its banks. I pulled on my Wellingtons and followed her down to have a look. The swiftly moving water was eddying around fallen branches and banging into the sides of the canal at each turn as it made its way from the head gate at the creek, through the woods, to the hillside pasture.
There in three places, the rushing water had eaten away the bank and was gushing into the woods and down the hill. As we opened our senses to what was right there, our plan of action emerged. We set to work. Collecting the flattest rocks from a nearby pile, scooping up mats of last autumn’s leaves from underfoot, and collecting rich mud from the earthen banks that had given way, we began building retainer walls.
We felt the texture of cold, rough stone, dried, brittle plant, and mucky earth. We watched the water curl, swirl and race and felt its brilliant coldness as we placed a rock, applied our handmade mortar of leaves and mud, and then placed another rock. Presence, a tender calmness, our open senses, and a wondrous sense of spaciousness guided our movements.
The trickster water changed course, seeping not here now, but over there. We placed a rock there. We patched with mud here. Rhythmically, moving as in a dance along the narrow path at the canal’s edge, we didn’t need words or feel the hurly-burly of emotions. Our work carried us. Time passed. Birds flitted above. Sunlight filtered down in glistening waves. The walls held.
This experience is with me as I ponder. How often do we push others away when discord happens? How vigorously do we find fault or blame when something goes awry or someone hurts us? How disheartened do we feel when something breaks? How often do we approach the every day stuff of life with our full presence and open heart? This is our choice.
How we perceive a situation is everything. In an instant a reaction might burst in us and in another instant, as we notice this eruption, we can pause and bring our full awareness and compassionate heart on line.
This coming into kind presence as we mended the breach in the canal bank, is the same kind presence we can call upon in ourselves when we perceive someone or something has wronged us.
Imagine that when seeing the water flooding over the banks of the canal, we had become angry, blamed the weather, or the neighbor further up the mountain who hadn’t opened his canal to relieve the volume of water coming down, or we had reacted with fear and anguish that the erosion would destroy the pasture. Certainly we would have suffered and quite possibly not have had the wits to look around to see that the materials for mending the breach were right there at our feet.
Noticing our reaction, we can choose to come into tender presence and by giving our full attention, listen deeply to what is needed and receive the wisdom that allows us to mend the breach.
I don’t often write about events or activities in my blog, but today I want to share some wonderful news. Perhaps you’re a reader of my blog and have wanted to dive deeper into Focusing but didn’t know how or didn’t feel you had the time. Here’s an opportunity to learn Focusing as well as investigate other topics like Thinking at The Edge.
The Focusing Institute, our professional organization, holds an annual summer school. This year it is being held from August 21 – 27, 2016 on the west coast at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center in Joshua Tree, California.
Why learn Focusing at the Summer School? Perhaps you’re needing time and space away from your daily routine or have vacation coming. Or maybe you prefer in-person learning and never seem to have the time for a once-a-week or weekend class when you are immersed in work and family. Perhaps you are wanting to learn in the safety of a supportive and accepting community of like-minded people. Whatever your reasons, learning Focusing and experiencing how it can be applied in the arts, in deep thinking, and in work with children is what you’ll have the opportunity to do at Joshua Tree. Click here for more information and to register.
Something in me doesn’t like her (him, them). This part of me is feeling hurt and angry. Every time I think of her and what she did, my chest tightens. I sense a closing in. There is no room, no space. My breath stops. My ears ring and anger hisses hot like a steaming tea kettle. And, something else in me doesn’t like that I feel this way. They are both here with me now.
Perhaps you’ve experienced this feeling or something similar when dealing with a difficult person or group of people. It doesn’t feel good and there is a way forward. By being with and listening to each something or part, one at a time, the energy bound-up in your feeling and thinking body will release. As energy releases there is a breath, a sense of space, an ‘aha.’ Right steps emerge with this new life-forward energy.
A beautiful way to meet and be with these feelings in your body is with Lovingkindness meditation. You don’t need to be a meditation pro to do lovingkindness mediation. All you need is a quiet time and space. This meditation needn’t be long. Five minutes can suffice. Set a timer so you can forget about counting time.
Sit quietly, letting your body take a comfortable and upright position sitting on a chair or cushion or standing. Gently place your hands, one on each leg above the knee, or hanging softly from your arms at your sides if standing.
Focus your awareness taking a breath and inviting your intention to meet yourself as you are right now. Sense your body in the space around you. Close or softly focus the eyes. Sense your feet and hands and what they are touching. Sense the chair, cushion of floor supporting you and rest into that support if that feels right. Now bring your awarenesss inside as you gently say to yourself, “I am the space big enough for whatever needs my attention.”
And repeat the following phrases enlarging the circle of compassionate kindness outward as far as your time permits:
May I be happy.
May I be free from suffering.
May I be full of peace and love.
May (Name of difficult person or group) be happy.
May (Name of difficult person or group) be free from suffering.
May (Name of difficult person or group) be full of peace and love.
Continue repeating the phrases with a choice of others such as…
family members, naming each one
friends, naming each one
colleagues and co-workers naming each one
neutral people you meet in your day such as the grocery clerk, the bus driver, the toll taker, the restaurant server, the bank teller
other difficult people or groups by name
groups suffering from devastation such as fire, earthquake, war
those who are ill
all people in your town
all people in your state
all people in your country
all people on your continent
all people on the earth
all people above the earth
all people everywhere
As you recite the phrases bringing loving and kind wishes to each individual and group, your heart opens, your breath softens, energy releases and invigorates. There is a bodily reset and you find yourself moving forward in your life in a new and open way. Ah, it feels so much better.
What? You Suggest I Do What?
Invite in that stuck feeling.
You are suggesting I invite in this stuck feeling. Really?
Yes, invite it in. You’re wanting something in your life. You’re wanting to do something. It’s meaningful to you. And, yet, you don’t do it. Something is awry. Something feels stuck. Something is not wanting to do what you are wanting. Go ahead, invite it in and sense it freshly in your body right now.
That’s right. Don’t shy away from it or push it away. That stuck feeling is here for some good reason. You can sense something there in your body. Maybe in your throat, or chest, or stomach/belly. Something is there in that middle space of your inner body. It is feeling stuck and needs to share with you. Go ahead. It’s there now. Say hello. Keep it company like you would a good friend.
All it is needing is a good listener, like you when you are in presence. It’s needing the company of your open, flowing, spacious and compassionate self. That state of being that welcomes whatever comes.
You mean welcomes even that in me that feels horrible, stuck and painful? Do you really mean even that?
Yes, even that. Your Self-in-Presence welcomes all that comes, says hello, and sits down with each one, listening deeply and acknowledging with deep empathy.
Ah, you say you’ve been listening.
And now what? What do I do now?
You might sense how it is feeling from its point of view. What it is not wanting for you. What’s it’s not wanting to happen to you and not wanting to you to feel.
OK, it’s letting me know how it is for it. It’s letting me know what it is not wanting for me.
Great. That’s right you’re listening deeply to it.
And, now what?
If it feels right, let it know that you can really sense how it is for it. You really get what it’s not wanting for you.
Ah, it’s changing now. It’s relaxing and there’s a breath. It is opening and flowing.
You might let that feeling of opening and flowing be there as fully as it wants.
Yes, it wants to be here. I’m enjoying it, actually.
That’s good. Steep in that feeling.
Ah, there is something more. It’s a sense of rightness. A sense of the next right step to take. Yes, it is here, the next right step for me.
Wonderful. You might gather up that next right step and take it with you into your life. And, perhaps also thank your body for sharing.
Your awareness expanding now to the world around you. And, off you go. Stuck no more.
Previously, we have explored the emotions of anger, fear, worry, and grief. Today, our topic is joy and sadness. Joy and sadness are about caring. When we get something we care about we experience joy. It may be a beautiful sunset, a longed-for treasure, a long-awaited goal, or a blossoming of heart-felt relationship. Joy resonates in the body as a twinkle in the eye, a blush upon the cheek, a smile on the lips. When we lose something we care about, something dear to us or our community, we experience sadness: The loss of friendship, opportunity, or treasures-of-the heart. Sadness resonates as a tear in the eye, a pallor to the cheek, down-turned lips.
In traditional Chinese Five Element Theory, joy and sadness are the emotions related to the fire element which is expansive, upward in motion, and relates to heart energy. Fire, symbolic of combustion, represents that fleeting moment of maximum activity followed by its falling away. From a physiological perspective, all emotions are electro-chemical signals that flow through us in an unending cycle. Every emotion is a specific signal asking us to focus, to collect information, and then to act accordingly.
Joy and sadness are related to heart. We talk about the joy in our hearts and our hearts breaking with sadness. Joy manifests in us as love, laughter, and enthusiasm and when balanced, we are able to give as well as receive warmth and delight in the company of others. Sadness manifests as a fall in energy, a momentary melancholy, and withdrawal away from others. Often when we are sad, a whimper or tears come.
In both the ancient and the modern Western traditions, when we are balanced, emotions move. So, too with joy and sadness. If stuck, too much joy manifests as always joking, laughing, and talking–always on without pause. And, when there is too much sadness we are in a state of helplessness and despair; continuously drained, down, melancholy, depressed.
Joy and sadness are associated with compassion. When we see suffering, we experience a twinge of sadness, a feeling of concern and connection, just before we feel a willingness to act. When suffering has been relieved we then experience a moment of joy. Often, sadness can get stuck in caregivers and others in the healing and humanitarian professions. This is because instead of letting go of the concern and connection they feel towards those they are helping, they get stuck in sadness; leading them to take on more responsibility than is reasonably theirs to bear. Sometimes, unable to shake their sadness, they opt instead instead to leave a profession they love. Seeing thousands of starving many children, they miss the joy of the ones whom they have fed and rather, focus on those they have been unable to reach.
What can we do when joy or sadness gets stuck? We can notice. Turning inward to our bodies, we can invite the whole thing about the joy or the sadness to come forward. We can make contact, acknowledge, and listen deeply as we keep whatever comes company. Just as clouds cannot be chased away; stuck joy or sadness can’t either. It is only by turning our attention to it, by saying “hello,” and by actively listening that we can once more live our life forward.
Healthy joy and sadness are like the clouds in the sky; they pass through leaving not a trace, and always there are more another day.
Floating across the river in your boat, you are carefully avoiding hidden obstacles, other boats, and too shallow water when, BAM! another boat rams you. Your anger flashes; your heart pumps faster. You jump up and yell, “You stupid blankity-blank so-and-so!” You shake your fist and stamp your foot. You call out for the other boatman to show himself so you can tell him a thing or two. But, no one emerges. There is no other boatman; the boat is empty. It has slipped its mooring and floats without control. There is no one to be angry with; no one to curse. Realizing this, your fist unclenches and drops to your side. Still muttering under your breath, though, because you believe it would have been so much better if there had been someone there to be angry with, you go on your way.
This is my reading of the Empty Boat story from the Taoist tradition. If it peaks your interest you can read it and others in the book, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New Directions books, 1997) compiled by Thomas Merton in the 20th century. Most likely written around 250 B.C., it is a powerful and timeless teaching that we can apply to our own experience.
“Well, what’s the point of the story?” You ask. John Welwood in his book, Perfect Love, Imperfect Realtionships (Trumpeter Books, 2006), has a helpful explanation that resonates for us. He says, ” The point of the story is that the parents who didn’t see [us], the kids who teased [us] as a child, the driver who aggressively tailgated [us] yesterday–are in fact all empty, rudderless boats. They were compulsively driven to act as they did by their own unexamined wounds; therefore they did not know what they were doing and had little control over it.” [page 89, Kindle edition]
You may think, “So what. What’s that got to do with me?”
These parents, siblings, friends, bosses, and strangers, among others, these empty boats ramming into us with their unkindnesses, their neglect, and their hurtful actions are driven not out of need to hurt us but out of their own unconscious pain–all the hurt, the woundings, they, themselves, have received along the way. When we react with anger, or jealousy, vindictiveness, or defensive stonewalling we do so because of our own grievances, our own pasts, our own experience with people who have hurt and neglected us.
You may say, “Well, of course. I can’t let someone hurt me. I have to stand up for myself. I have to protect myself. I have to survive.”
In answer, Wellwood responds that until we realize that these are just empty boats we remain tied to our own grievance and pain and suffering and this binding keeps us “from opening up to the more powerful currents of life and love that are always flowing through the present moment.”
So what can we do?
We can not take it personally. After all, the hurt, the unkindness was not meant for us even though it has rammed into us. Not taking it personally is compassionate: we have recognized suffering (the suffering of the person who has rammed into us), we have felt for a moment the pain of that suffering (that we too suffer, but have not let that acknowledgement cause us to suffer more), and we have acted to relieve the suffering (in the other person and in ourselves by not retaliating or reacting angrily, or jealously or whatever.)
We have given everyone space. We can relax and breathe fully. Psychologically, this relief quiets our minds. Physiologically, we can protect ourselves from the incessant turning on of the stress-response in our bodies that over times wrecks havoc with our health leading us to suffer all sorts of maladies and disease.
The next time, someone, anyone, hurts us, neglects us, lashes out at us, or acts unkindly, we can say, “Ah, just an empty boat” as we take a few slow deep breaths letting the exhale last longer than the inhale so our parasympathetic nervous systems have time to turn on a sense of calm within us.
A beautiful thing about the Web is that it brings our interconnectedness to a new level of intimacy even with people whom we have never met. Stumbling on extraordinary people, things, and places on the web is one of the little pleasures of life. One day I came across a Ted Talk called Inspiring a Life of Immersion by Jacqueline Novogratz. Jacqueline talks about celebrating what’s beautiful, integrating wisdom and spirit, and going beyond our fear to be visible to one another and to live a life of immersion.
If the video does not appear on your mobile device click here to watch it on the web. Jacqueline is the founder and CEO of the Acumen Fund and has written a best-selling memoir called, The Blue Sweater: Bridging The Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World.