Sometimes it is hard to remember when you are in the grip of anger that your anger is actually a valuable emotion; a source of deep knowing that with practice can guide you through conflict to discover a sense of peace within yourself and with whom you were once angry.
Reading One: A Zen Story – Samurai v. Monk
A big, fierce samurai once addressed a little monk. “Monk,” he bellowed, accustomed to instant obedience, “teach me about heaven and hell!”
The monk looked up at this warrior with disdain, “Teach you about heaven and hell? I can’t teach you anything. You’re filthy. You smell. Your blade is rusty. You’re an embarrassment to the samurai class.”
The samurai shook with fury. Red in the face, speechless with rage, he unsheathed his sword and raised it above him, preparing to smite the monk.
“This is hell,” the monk said softly.
The samurai stopped and looked down at the little monk, touched by the compassion and surrender of this man who had offered to give his life to teach about hell. The samurai lowered his sword, filled with gratitude and peace.
“And this is heaven,” said the monk.
Reading Two: The Guest House by Jellaludin Rumi
This being human is a guesthouse. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in. Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
When I read this poem by Rumi, I always want to edit out the line about welcoming the dark thought, the shame, the malice. Meet them at the door laughing? Welcome them in, oh no, that is the last thing I want to do. When it comes to anger I repress it. That’s what I’ve been taught. I was raised in a family in which anger wasn’t allowed to be expressed directly, but of course it leaked out anyways. My siblings and I were sharing memories of my mom, and we talked about how we never had any wooden spoons because she broke them all when she slammed them down on the table next to our elbows. We thought this was normal, as did she. Her mom was a foster mom to 80 kids over the span of 40 years. I can only imagine what dinner was like for my mom as a kid. Then my dad, he just wrapped his anger up in a couple martini’s every night, as his dad did . All to say, my parents were wonderful people, but expressing anger skillfully was not something they did well. Maybe because as a social worker, and a psychologist by training, they were taught in academia back then that anger was a base instinct that served no purpose in contemporary life. But James Averill, a psychologist at Umass in Amherst who has spent his career studying anger, says we need our anger to improve our relationships, our creativity, and to solve difficult problems. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, agrees, he says, your anger is like a flower, that with mindfulness will open. The problem with welcoming my anger as Rumi suggests is that I am so adept at repressing my anger, I don’t even notice it building up until I am triggered, and then it’s like the geyser Old Faithful in Yosemite. Which then creates turmoil within and most likely with people around me. Kind of like Mary Jane, in this story.
After a week of business back east, a woman named Mary Jane was on her way home to Denver. At the Omaha airport, she bought a newspaper and a small package of cookies for the layover, then took a seat at her gate and began to pursue the news. Another passenger sat down, pulled a book out of his briefcase and began to read. She heard a rustle and noticed over the edge of her paper that he was opening a
package. Actually, she couldn’t believe it, he was opening her package, the one with her things on the seat between them. Her package. Her cookies. He took two. She was speechless. She reached over and took out a cookie, making sure he saw her. Maybe he thought the package had been left there. But no. He munched away, and then took another one. She reached over and took another, thinking surely he’d realize what he’d done. There was only one cookie left now. She could hardly believe it when he pushed the near-empty container toward her, implying it was hers for the taking. The gall! And then he got up, and walked away toward the place where she’d bought the cookies. Imagine her surprise when she boarded the plane, opened her bag, and found the unopened package of cookies.
Can you relate? As American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, asks…”Who is this other person, who can trigger me like this? It’s no secret that the most challenging aspect of a spiritual life is….other people. At the recent suggestion of a friend, I decided to write down every time I felt triggered for a month so I could get a sense of what anger felt like in my body before and after the trigger. I called her at the end of the month and shared the first trigger on my list; the morning my husband ate my banana. You see I had laid out my usual three breakfast fruits, a banana, apple, and strawberries on the cutting board, next to a knife. I stopped to feed the dog and when I returned, no banana. I could still feel the anger weeks later when talking about it with my friend. Finally she asked, innocently, what about a 2-fruit breakfast? What’s so important about three?
Her question had me stumped. I hadn’t considered this option. After a few minutes of reflection, I realized that my anger had to do with my negative body image. That I unconsciously created a three fruit rule to keep me from eating a heavier breakfast. Anything less, and I might. That insight has me nurturing kinder thoughts about my body and what I eat. I also noticed that when triggered, I narrow myself to manage the emotion, and that to find peace, to skillfully respond to anger, I need to restore my sense of interconnectedness and expansiveness which I do with others in an improv dance practice called Interplay. Dance helps me thaw.
Sometimes though if my anger creates a conflict with another, transforming anger isn’t so simple. When I am in conflict with someone, it’s difficult to be in my own skin. I am tense, and tend to be obnoxious to my partner in conflict. I can’t sleep and I am consumed by a manic fervor, plotting how to cause my opponent to lose and slink away defeated – as they deserve! This is troubling, so I think some more about conflict.
Then I remember, if I stop trying to win, the conflict may resolve in a wise agreement and a stronger relationship. It’s mysterious this way. That a conflict handled well changes unhealthy assumptions in relationships, like there has to be a winner and a loser, or a dominant party and a subordinate. And I remember that a rift does not have to persist forever, and can run a course from harmony, to rift, to return to harmony. Psychologist and professor Ken Reeves, says that conflicts do in fact go through stages, four of them. Stage one, he says is the honeymoon, or pseudo-harmony stage. A harmony based on the participants ignoring their differences and being “happy.” This stage can last from a few moments to lifetimes. I know of marriages in which one partner gives up his or, often, her identity, and adopts a “peace at any price” stance to avoid conflict with their spouse. The price of such “peace” can include anxiety, depression, and boredom, but it does avoid tension.
In the Zen story Britt told earlier, the samurai expects stage one from the monk. A typical subordinate would bow to the samurai. The monk should offer a meek little homily about heaven and hell, and hope the samurai goes away. Our monk did not, and moved the process to stage two, the pressure stage. At stage two the differences become apparent and cause discomfort, to which the participants respond by pressuring the other to change. The message is: “I am uncomfortable. You change.” “I am in pain. You fix it.” “You are wrong. Agree with me.” The other often replies with, “Now I am uncomfortable. You change.” As they pressure each other, put-downs, rage, violence, and even war occur at this stage.
The monk does stage two with his derision of the samurai: “I am uncomfortable with your smell, your armor. You change.” The samurai does stage two as he prepares to smite the monk. “I am uncomfortable with your rudeness. You change by ceasing to live.” At stage two differences fill the air as does fear of our faults being
exposed, shame for being weak or wrong, or not smart enough. Defending ourselves keeps us wanting to win at all costs. Some people think conflict consists only of stage two, and stay there for a long time. Ideally, though, stage two becomes tiring for as the monk said, Stage two is hell, war is hell, and matters do not improve despite vigorous applications of pressure. Personally at stage two, I feel alone and lonely. When I have rift with Ben, my husband, I miss him, which prompts me move to stage three, the vulnerability and curiosity stage. At stage three, I realize my attempts to pressure the other to change have failed, so I give them up. I start talking about what is going on with me, such as my share of responsibility for the problem, and to curiosity about the other. “How can I understand you better?” I can feel uncomfortable with this vulnerability, but relieved to end the back and forth attacks.
The monk shows himself at stage three by sitting vulnerable as the samurai raises his sword, and by telling the samurai, “This is hell.” Our monk has great faith in stage three. The samurai shows himself at stage three when he views the monk with compassion and lowers his sword. At stage three I take a risk to gain what I most want in life: to be myself and be close to someone else. I hope the eye beholding my vulnerability will look at me with acceptance, as did the samurai, lowering his sword and gazing at the monk. At stage three I no longer pressure my opponent to be who I want them to be, but look at them with acceptance, and listen to their truth. And if we both speak the truth that lives in our hearts, the walls that separate us disappear, a bridge spans our rift, we meet and move together to stage four: peace.
I’ve been pondering what practices help us move from the hell stages of 1 and 2 to the peaceful stages of 3 and 4. Understanding your triggers helps because it can keep you from lashing out. Thich Nhat Hahn says, “If your house is on fire, he says, “ the most urgent thing to do is to go back to yourself and put out the fire. Going after the other, he says “is like running after the arsonist while letting your house burn down.”
Putting out your fire, says Thich Nhat Hanh begins by embracing your anger like you would your crying baby. Once calm, tell, the person you are hurt, and ask to speak to him or her in a few days. Tell them you are caring for your anger and say to them “Darling I need your help, please listen when I am ready.”
A few weeks ago, I had a chance to practice all four stages . My four young adult children and Ben and I were playing a game with all of their friends. Ben and I were the only elders in the room, and I felt pressure to be cool, to keep up, to be accepted. It was my son’s turn to lead the round, and the sentence that we needed to complete was “_________pushes my button.” It’s the game where you get points when someone chooses your word. You probably guessed already that my son completed the sentence with “my mom” pushes my buttons. Of course right? What mom doesn’t push their son’s button? But I didn’t see this coming, and all my buttons were pushed-my need for respect, to look cool, but more deeply to be close to my son. All that was in jeopardy, because I heard truth in his humor, the truth was that he wanted something different in our relationship Now, I wasn’t as smooth as Thich Nhat Hahn. I didn’t say “Darling, I hurt”. But I did turn to myself, for the most part, and it was awkward between us for a few weeks, he knew I was processing. But finally I saw how attached I was to being a wise elder, which gave me a one up over his youth, and that on some level I wanted him to need me in that way. When I let that go, I saw him in his fullness, and only then remembered what he said to me that night of the game, that he thought we could joke about this, that our relationship was solid. I found peace. Oh and dancing helped.
This being human is a guesthouse. Every morning a new arrival, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all, especially anger, for we need our anger. As we skillfully air our grievance with our friends, family and colleagues, we transform the hell of a dominant/subordinate culture to a culture formed by collaboration and connection. Creating this camaraderie with those we live and work with, develops our capacity to do so in the larger systems of our lives. We need our anger says psychologist James Averill to generate the moral outrage to motivate people to push for a more just society. You see people using their anger this way everywhere. The teacher strikes in Oakland, and West Virginia; the clergy abuse scandal response unfolding now at the Vatican , the movement to divest and boycott the government of Israel to resist it’s occupation of Gaza, all movements inspired by people who met the dark thought, the malaise, the anger at the door, and let them be a guide towards justice.
Martin Luther King said to an audience at Carnegie Hall in Feb 1968, that “it is not enough for people to be angry.” He recalled the life of WEB Dubois, and how Dubois had spent his life overcoming his anger in the hopes of finding peace. King said of Dubois that night, “he did not content himself with hurling invectives for emotional release to only retreat into smug passive satisfaction. The supreme task for Dubois then and for us now is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force. May this be our practice here, within, among, and beyond. A practice that moves us all towards justice and peace.
- “Anger” a book by Thich Nhat Hanh
- “Why Are We So Angry”
- Essay on Conflict by Ken Reeves