Category Archives: Anger

Where Does Peace Come From?

The reflection below was in response to a discussion on finding peace in the middle of non-peace. Some people referred to practices that they have used that they hope will bring more peace. The inquiry below examines and questions how this really works in us.

When I consider this careful, here’s what seems to happen for me. So something triggers me and I’m angry and defensive. That means my teeth are grinding, my stomach is tight, my back hurts, and I want to lash out at someone. My mind is going over options for doing that.

In this state practicing “peace” is impossible, really. I guess that means that the idea comes up of getting back to a state in which the body is relaxed and the world feels spacious. But at that point it’s an idea that is in complete conflict with what is actually going on.

If someone suggested I try to do that, I’d probably glare at them!!!

What IS real for me is that tight, painful, angry, hurtful state that is manifesting itself. No space at all. Just tight, gnashing teeth and guts. Something keeps me from acting out on the impulses, though. Something, somewhere out of my sight knows that the impulse that wants to act out leads to trouble. So there is the pain of this state, the emotional pain and the physical pain of it but it doesn’t go anywhere. It stays right here, burning, hurting.

Of course many times it doesn’t stay right here and I say something angry to someone.

But when it does stay right here, it is noticeable that there is a tremendous urge to get away from the pain and tightness. One channel for getting away is yelling at someone or hitting them. Another might be to channel that energy into punishing myself. And another big channel is to try to do some practice to become more peaceful in the future. A huge urge for someone to give me something to do that will get me out of this pain, even if it is lifetimes later!

So for me, no practices to become better for the future. Just not running away from the states of no-space, no-compassion, no-peace. Just not moving away from how this all manifests in the body, the thoughts, the feelings. No idea of how this will all come out in the near or distant future. Just burning right here with what has manifested in this body/mind, as it does through almost every other human being, with, for once, someone not moving away from it into a discharge of pain, which causes more pain, or a plan for getting away from the current pain.

In not running away, in burning right here in this place of no-space and no-peace, the sound of a bird might suddenly come through. Or the smile of a person. Or an insight into the suffering of the person I’m angry at. It becomes clear if such a moment happens that this tight, painful, suffering, burning state is not all there is. It is happening in vast space, whether that space is felt or not.

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Love and Anger

I notice a deep pattern in myself in which Love is felt to be an opposite to anger/hostility. For example, if I’m talking to someone one who is expressing angry or hostile political ideas, I often feel an antagonism toward that person. I don’t want to be exposed to those feelings – the physical sensations that go along with anger and hostility. I feel an opposition between myself – who wants to have loving feelings in this body – and the other person – who I feel is making me feel bad.

If I look a little more closely at how I’m reacting, I can see that this opposition that I feel toward the other person creates antagonism. In other words my own reaction is really causing anger and hostility in me and is making me feel worse. The key or clue for me is this strongly felt, physical sense of opposition toward another person. Of course something in me justifies this reaction of opposition by saying that the other person is wrong or bad or negative (which they may be.) I am beginning to notice that the strong feeling of opposition is not helpful. Certainly not to me, to my immediate well being.

So if I’m faced with someone making very angry and hostile statements – perhaps very loudly and threateningly – what kind of response can their be other than creating a sense of opposition?

As soon as I posed this question above, I thought, “Well, I’ll be loving toward them,” but this may still involve seeing them as “wrong” or as threatening to my well being. In other words there may still be this sense of opposition going on in me, with its sense of danger, sense of separateness, sense of needing to protect myself – and the physical discomfort that goes along with this. This is a subtle point that needs to be considered carefully.

Is it possible that the sense of opposition doesn’t take hold? If I’m with someone I care about and they somehow say something that makes me defensive, I’ve noticed that if the energy goes into being defensive, I stop feeling close to them at that moment. I start to feel almost like they are a stranger. When this happens, I feel sad, though at the same time I may not be able to shake the feeling. Something in me doesn’t want to stay in that defensive, isolated place. I want to get back to feeling connected with my friend. But if a stranger makes me feel defensive, I probably never felt close to them in the first place and the defensiveness in me digs its heels in, becoming a stronger habit.

Because I don’t want the habit of defensiveness to ruin my close relationships, I don’t want to nourish it by letting it becoming stronger in my reactions to angry or hostile strangers. It happens anyway. But I don’t want it to grow, so I’m watching my reactions to everyone, whether I like them or not.

If a stranger (or a friend) is talking in an angry, fearful, or hostile way, and if I don’t immeditately slip into defending my feelings -trying to keep out angry feelings and trying to access loving feelings – then something different from my usual reaction happens. I’ve noticed this. I might feel in my own body the physical “echoes” of the other person’s anger. Because of that I might understand more intimately what is happening for them. Or I might feel both the angry vibrations and the sadness of that at the same time.

When this happens then I notice that at that moment for me there is both the anger/hostility becoming visible and feelable AND the love and affection that sees this and feels the sadness of it – the sadness of isolation and of a body exhausted by anger. In such moments it is clear that love and anger are not opposites. Love, interest, affection, sensitivity can all operate at any moment to shed light on any emotional state that is taking place. It doesn’t matter then whether it is happening in me or in a person standing across from me. It doesn’t really matter whether the body is experiencing difficult sensations in that moment. What seems important is that whatever is happening can be listened to and felt, wondered about.

When this happens for me, then the body seems at ease, even though there may be challenging sensations moving through it. And there is a sense of both humility and energy. Humility because I have let myself be affected by the world around me. Energy because the love and interest let the world’s vibrations be felt and move through the body in as healthy a way as possible. There is no sense of opposition in this. No sense of being a separate something. There is just the vast flow of life moving in this body, with its own wisdom and healing.

And what about this “other person” that is usually felt as causing the problematic feelings? For me there is often a sense of understanding where they are coming from. Of being able to hear their anger and, usually, the fear behind it. It’s not hard to understand that a person can have those feelings. But instead of guarding myself against those feelings, there is empathy for the other person.

So if someone I like says something that scares me and the whole defensive pattern is about to start up, then what? Is it ok if I don’t know what to do? Can I stay around that person even if I’m feeling scared? Can I stay open to that person, keep listening, continue to be sensitive to them, despite the thoughts that might be shouting out that I should be afraid?

Recently I let this happen, not knowing what was going on, nervous to be in unknown territory. Eventually I learned much about the other person and found that love reappeared. And I felt that certain deeply held strong reactions in me were exposed as pretty useless. That was a surprise and a relief.

Hate, Anger, and Politics

When I listen to hateful and angry right wing people expressing themselves, I have been hearing a huge backlog of unprocessed hurt, of bottled up feelings of being thwarted by others, by people who are more powerful, of being made to feel inferior, ignored, unheard. I hear anger at not being in control of one’s life.

I see the roots of all of these feelings in myself. I see myself getting angry because a business kept me waiting, because someone didn’t return my phone call promptly, because a room is too cold, because my head hurts or back hurts, because the store is out of a certain fruit. I feel myself putting up walls inside because a friend said something that made me defensive. I see myself taking offense. I see the mind adding this offense to its existing pile of offenses. I hear myself bringing this ball of past offenses, hurts, fears, up in the mind again and again. Using it to generate some energy in the tired body. Using it to build a well-defended life. Making a wall between myself and others and then being sad because the wall blocks out love and connection.

I’ve begun to see that when this happens in me, it is adding to the hate and anger that is spilling out throughout human society. I’ve begun to watch it and sense it more carefully because I can see that not doing so, not being in touch with these dynamics happening in me, surely leads to hurting others in small ways or in global ways, not to mention the damage that it does to me.

For some strange evolutionary or biological reason, it’s easy for us to feel our outrage and unquestioningly follow it up with action and yet it is much more difficult to really see these dynamics for what they essentially are: builders of walls of anger, hate, and isolation.

It’s not too hard to see what happens to any of us when our inner anger, hate, resentment is not clearly seen. I’ve seen myself lash out hurtfully at a person and have noticed that they are getting the brunt of my buried feelings from other situations that had little or nothing to do with them. They were a lightning rod for backed up anger. And if I were suddenly made president of the US, it is quite possible that I might lash out in the same way but with the tremendous power that office provides. What a horrifying thought!

Maybe it’s possible for people from different backgrounds to begin listening to each other so that the sense of not being heard can lessen and so that pent up feelings have a chance to come out. But what is clear to me is that virtually every single waking moment of my life, these forces are going on in me and need to be given careful attention and interest. This is full time work.

I remember at an early retreat that I went to with Toni Packer on maybe the sixth day, she was giving a small talk in the sitting room and said something to the effect that every one of us had had at least a moment or two of not adding to the sorrow of the world. I was taken aback! But I’ve been sitting here quietly, attentively, for days, hour after hour, I thought. How is that adding to the sorrow of the world?

I’m beginning to understand now what she was talking about. Watching carefully how this body responds to the physical environment – tensing, tightening, defending – and then seeing if it is possible to relax to the coldness or the pain or the worry. Then instead of hard walls there is a softer being with what is. How the body/mind responds to other people – wanting to get away, or to control the conversation so it feels more comfortable, or to convince them of something that’s important to me. And experimenting with the possibility of just hearing this person – who they are and what they feel a need to express.

Maybe you feel that you’re not as self-centered or defensive as I have found that I am. What seems to matter most is that these inner movements of the mind – probably very deeply programmed – become visible, noticeable – and that each of us begins to look for ourselves whether we are reinforcing, adding in the tiniest of ways to the trickle of hate, anger, fear, and isolation that is bursting out as a torrent in human beings and causing so much suffering. And wondering and watching on some level to see what the alternative is, to see how love does, for moments at a time, function through us if there is a burning interest to see how we are really living/thinking/feeling – not the ideal that I want to be loving and not hateful, not the image that I am trying to become a good person, but the reality of how the mind is really functioning, which much of the time is in trying to build walls of anger and hate.

To see all of this inner working clearly, as it really is, whether beautiful or ugly. This is a rare thing among us humans. When it happens, it feels like an expression of immense compassion and intelligence. It feels like a moment in which I am not adding to the sorrow of the world.

Does letting go mean giving up?

R: I’ve been reading “Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears” by Pema Chodron and have been practicing “letting it go” when I find myself hooked or angered by something in my life. The book recommends taking three breaths and letting things go when you find yourself feeling a strong negative emotion or a desire to lash out. I think this is a great idea but I’m having trouble understanding how to do this without being a pushover.

For example, if my husband does something that angers me (maybe forgetting to pick up milk on the way home), my instinct is to get angry with him and verbalize this. But Chodron seems to just suggest stopping, taking a breath, and letting it go. But to me, this seems to send a message to my husband that it’s acceptable to forget things. If I show him my frustration and anger, perhaps he won’t forget the milk next time. How can I practice taking a breath and letting it go to center myself and stay in the moment when I feel the need to express my anger and “get the message across” to my husband that I’m not happy with what he did? Can you help me understand how I can take breaths and “let it go” while at the same time not being a pushover or allowing people to “get away” with things in my life? Thank you.

Jay:  Hi. R. Your comments make perfect sense to me.

So we’re talking about “letting go of a reactive habit.” By reactive I think we’re referring to a reaction that happens very quickly. It’s triggered by something. It doesn’t really seem to have much intelligence or compassion to it. So if your husband comes home and he didn’t get the milk that you asked him to get, some reaction comes up right away in the body and the mind.

I think we can agree that the reaction is based on lots of assumptions. It’s not just about milk. It’s about someone treating me in a certain way. It’s about my feeling that I can’t trust someone to meet my needs.

I think it’s really helpful to become familiar with everything that is behind these reactions. In the situation with your husband it would be neat to listen to the fears and concerns that are behind the anger or frustration. What does it feel like to be in a space where you don’t know if your critical needs will be met at all? What does that really feel like?

If we simply act out without really examining what’s behind all the anger and frustration, nothing is learned. At the same time our blame of the other person is communicated to them. They may not hear anything that you say because all they can hear is that you’re angry at them and want to change them or possibly even punish them. This is nearly certain to cause them to react defensively, which you then feel as an attack on yourself, and so the cycle escalates.

So letting go of a habit maybe really means giving the habit some space so that it can be seen, felt, heard, experienced, understood. It doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring it or trying to be something else. It just means giving space and space has a miraculous way of including everything. That means you may not only hear your own fear but you may also hear and see your husband for what is really going on for him. Space may allow the whole habitual dynamic between the two of you to be seen very simply as needless burning up of energy due to fear of what will happen to one. I say “needless” because in the space of seeing, it is clear that what is really needed right now is open, undefensive listening, so that all parties can hear each other and be heard.

I find that in this kind of listening there may be a new kind of communicating one’s needs that the other person can hear, maybe for the first time. “Wow. You’re saying that when I don’t bring home the milk that you asked me to get, you’re afraid that you’ll be abandoned and starve to death. That’s really intense.”

In the moment of realizing that your husband didn’t bring the milk, the most important thing is listening. Listening to myself deeply. Feeling all the emotions that have been stirred up. Maybe wondering what the heck the dynamic between the two of you is right now and just stopping and listening. That may be all that is needed in that moment but it might also allow you at some later time to be able to talk more honestly about how all of this feels to you.

My girlfriend said something the other day when we were in couples therapy. It was something to the affect that if she really wanted to be heard, she had to die to her own expectations. This seems profoundly true. We don’t want to give up our expectations of other people. We think we know what we want. But I suspect that there is a great deal behind these expectations that we don’t really experience and yet we desperately don’t want that expectation to die. We’re identified with it. If it dies, we die.

So instead of living continually at the mercy of these deep expectations, why not die to them in this moment and find out right now what it is to listen empty-handedly to someone, without agenda, without anything to defend? Just interested in the truth of this moment?

I agree with you that there might need to be some “problem solving” with your husband so that the household runs smoothly. But it’s difficult to get to that point if you haven’t really been able to understand what’s moving him. Why does he not get the milk? Is he really forgetful? Is he trying to defend himself from being pushed to do things for you? Have you been able to hear him, how he sees the situation, what he’s feeling, how your reactions affect him? All of this is needed, I feel, to get to problem solving.

I’ve learned a lot from our therapist about recognizing defensive talking and finding ways to speak that don’t increase defensiveness. It’s not easy because we usually feel defensive but even if it feels artificial, non-defensive talking can help. I know there are strategies that can be learned and that’s probably good. Ultimately, if I really give up on trying to get my way, I’ll naturally speak non-defensively. Or if defensiveness is going on, I can still be honest about that. “Boy, I’m so triggered right now that I’m having a hard time hearing you. I think I need a good walk. Can we talk when I get back?”

Letting go is often spoken about in a way that people feel they are supposed to ignore their feelings or not be engaged in any way. So it’s good to bring this up. Maybe it’s better not to say letting go but rather opening up to what’s going on in a defensive reaction. Which is really opening up to everything, the thoughts, the feelings, the state of the other person, the wind, the air, the ground. And the well of compassion and interest that has been here all the time.

Please let me know if I haven’t been very clear or if you have some other comments or questions.