About a year ago, I wrote something, somewhere, about anger. I wrote it after watching one of my students throw a chair across the room because I asked him to write something that he didn’t want to write. Not long after, while doing yoga at home, I somehow fell out of headstand and gashed my shin on the corner of my shitty metal bed frame. Gravity’s magic quickly had me in tears, the hysterical kind, heaving and gasping for air, all kinds of dark feelings emanating from my core, most of all, anger. I recognized in that moment that that student of mine did something I didn’t often do: express anger. Those hysterical tears were flooded with anger. I realized that I often fail to acknowledge when I’m angry, even to the point where I believed that I wasn’t a very angry person. Once, several yeas ago, I even boasted to my mother that I didn’t really think I had trouble with anger. She looked at me with raised eyebrows: “Are you kidding?” That was all she said.
Of course, I was younger and more oblivious to certain aspects of my persona. Even now, I still deny the amount of anger I feel, and how I feel it. The other night, I experienced some pretty extreme anger. As I watched the unpleasant situation unfold around me, unable to do anything about it, I also watched the anger grow within me. I was suddenly angry at a lot of people, ideas, and circumstances. I wondered: if I can get THIS angry, THIS quickly, does that mean that there’s already some store of anger locked away inside of me?
I decided that I thought so. I recalled other instances where anger seemed to play a shadowy yet starring role: blowing up at someone over something possibly trivial, being unable to stop myself from engaging in arguments or feeling put-off by other people’s behavior or choices, getting so angry at inanimate objects that I’ve kicked, slammed, and thrown them, feeling enraged by other “stupid drivers”, getting angry at myself for saying the wrong thing, not doing the right thing, for failing at something, struggling to accept others for their faults, belittling myself for my own. Then there are anger’s cousins: fear, doubt, guilt, and shame. Feelings I know all too well.
Anyway. As I watched the anger grow within me the other night, I felt tempted to call someone I was angry at and tell him off, blame him, in part, for how crappy I was feeling. I almost did it, too, except I happened to ALSO be reading a book on mindfulness, and that particular chapter touched on anger (thank goodness, and, what a ridiculous coupling!) What stopped me was this: I realized, in that moment, that I never really allow myself to feel angry. I often fight until I get what I want and the anger dissipates, or I toss the blame onto someone else, or I store it somewhere, deep inside, zip-lock tight. But it leaks out here and there, when I kick doors, slam on my horn, criticize myself and others, and then the seal bursts, eventually, and you get the catastrophic hysterical meltdowns similar to my experience after falling out of headstand last December.
Of all the negative emotions in the world, anger and uncertainty are the ones I like the least. I have gotten lost in doubt (I think it’s different than uncertainty), fear, sadness, loneliness, frustration, and worry… but anger and uncertainty? HELL NO. I’ll do anything I can to get out of and away from those feelings, including acting in ways I’d never dream of in any other situation. But as I sat there, growing angrier still, with every passing minute, I wondered quietly:
What happens to anger when it transcends? What does it become on the other side?
I decided I wanted to find out. I decided this could simply become another element of my mindfulness/yoga practice: dedicating myself to practice mindfulness (ie: total awareness and acceptance of the moment, whatever it is, and however it feels, no matter how awful) whenever possible, on the mat, and in the grocery store, or wherever. I decided that my unwillingness to deal with my own anger is perhaps the reason for my continually self-critical (and other-critical) ways. Anger, when you boil it down, is nothing more that a total unwillingness to accept the moment, your life, yourself, or anyone else. It’s a violent and volatile urge to change someone or something, to make it into something else, something better, something you want. But, that’s just not how life works: we don’t always get to have what we want, people don’t always act the way we think we should, and acceptance almost always precedes any kind of real change.
The yogic and buddhist philosophy that we already are everything we need, or that we already have everything we need, is indeed true, in my opinion. The problem, then, is one of clarity, rather than lack. We can’t know that we’re whole, not missing a thing or without a special trait, until we have the ability to see clearly. It’s different for anyone on the path to self-understanding, but for me, I’ve always been able to figure myself out through writing and reflection. Then came yoga, then came meditation. Each is a tool that serves to polish my sometimes rather hazy lenses. But tools are useless if our eyes aren’t all the way open.
Which brings me back to anger. My dear old and ignored friend. I’ve closed my eyes to presence of this emotion in my life, and its effect not only on me, but on others as well. Judith Lasater said it well in her amazing book, Living Your Yoga, that anger towards oneself inhibits our ability to truly love and accept others. Learning how to let go of anger is then, perhaps, one of the greatest acts of love we can perform. That is what I was thinking about as I sat there the other night, alone, my blood boiling. I knew the feeling would dissipate if I let myself yell at someone or blame someone else for the feeling, but what if, I wondered, what if I truly embodied it? What if I didn’t run from it or throw it into someone else’s court? What does anger become when it transcends? When you truly feel it, move through it, and then find the courage to simply let it go?
I’m not sure, yet. And I’m certain my arrival at the door of any answer is a little ways away. But I do know this: I want to learn how to transcend strong emotions, how to feel them and then let them go, including anger. For much of my life, I’ve struggled with this considerably: getting lost in or stuck inside of emotions or moods, especially unpleasant ones. I started meditating to help myself cope better with uncertainty, but as I experience it more, and learn more about it, I begin to see all of the other ways in which mindfulness, or, total presence, can help us live more fully, with greater clarity, and with a sense of wholeness and contentment. And, while sitting down to do a formal meditation practice everyday is beneficial, what is absolutely necessary for me is this:
To practice mindfulness, informally, as often as I can, taking time to be aware of and accepting of the moments of my life, the good ones, and, more importantly, the bad ones. The bad ones are so important because I do believe that something good comes out of transcendence, out of our ability to feel, accept, and let go; even when it’s painful, even when it’s difficult, and especially when we don’t want to (like, in the heat of rage, in the black hole of uncertainty). What good do I think comes out of these experiences?
Oh, I don’t know. Love, perhaps. Warmth. Equanimity. Peace, maybe.
I’ll let you know. But that is my clear, changeless goal: to not be controlled by my emotions, to at last be able to let go, and willingly.