-Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
"Our feelings are our truth. To hide them in ourselves or run from them in others is to fail to face the truth that sets us free and the contact that makes us coherent to- and vulnerable to- one another." -David Richo
I am sitting at my desk on this quiet coastal evening in November trying to conjure the muses; nearly two-thousand miles away the fires continue to burn in Ferguson. My head spins a bit though I haven’t yet opened that bottle of wine I’ve been eyeing since this afternoon. My heart feels heavy, and my body aches to turn out the lights and dance its sorrow into the shadows. I wish there were throngs of dancers out in the streets tonight showing the world a somatic path to express their grief and rage.
I’ve been in the thick of social media today, picking through and posting words written by some of my heroes like Howard Zinn, and trying to see what context and narrative this story is being given by popular media. I’ve scrolled through all of the usual posts on love and acceptance, on changing the system from within, coming together, and shifting consciousness, as well was the predictable reactionary reprimands... But what has startled me the most is seeing just how many people seem deeply afraid of the intense feelings that are aroused in a moment of national outrage.
My conscience won’t allow me not to burn tonight…but this is not my first rodeo. I have come to believe that our anger is worth attention and inquiry, and the meme of emotional purity does its own violence to the truth of our lived experience.
I'll never be a poster girl for emotional tranquility, and this seeming hypocrisy pained me for long stretches of my life. For better or worse, I am someone who FEELS life in my bones, skin, and teeth, and over time I've come to see this emotional brightness as an asset as much as a liability. When I was finally able to call a truce with the emotional spectres in my life, something powerful happened: those inner electrical showers gradually became a powerful guide. While spiritual and religious traditions across the world try to support their adherents in transcending anger, the hottest of all human emotions, I’d like us to consider that we can re-frame this narrative to one that embraces the wholeness of who we are.
Anger can be a gateway to the experience of vitality. It is a quickening and a thickening of the breath and a radiating warmth that kicks our circulation into motion. It strengthens the heartbeat and reminds us that we are not passive subjects, we are powerful agents of change with necessary roles to play. Anger is an inner beacon and wake-up call from a world that needs to make use of our conscience.
But as we know too well, anger doesn’t always show up as an ally. It can overcome us randomly and inappropriately. Its sharpness leaps forth in words that don’t align with our deepest values, and its grip and intensity can leave us feeling powerless and distrustful. Many pray for the strength to control this apparent demon and feel deflated and ashamed in its aftermath. We long for the compassion and dispassion of saints and martyrs: to have the emotional translucency of ocean mist and the immovability of mountains. But for people who struggle with anger this rarely happens: some of us are constitutionally wired for emotional inflammation.
Ayurvedic constitutional theory explains this fairly well. Pitta dosha, being the bio-poetic equivalent of liquid fire, expresses itself through light, heat, movement, and sharpness. While its positive attributes include mental discrimination, illumination, clarity and comprehension, a default mode of excessive pitta is anger. It's nature is inflammatory. While the term inflammation gets a bad rap these days, an inflammatory process is simply one of cellular discrimination and boundary creation; it is inherently protective. Breakdowns in this process create positive feedback loops that perpetuate an inflammatory response longer than needed and thus cause damage.
It may be interesting to consider that shifting the balance of pitta energy in the body is an effective method of cooling emotional reactivity. Likewise, the state of our emotions may give us insights into some level of biological disturbance in the body. Whether or not you subscribe to these theories or not, doing a constitutionally appropriate liver-cleanse when you are going through a period of thick frustration will inevitably lead you to deeper questioning about the relationship between biology and emotion, and our own conflicted feelings about anger.
Anger is also an integral part of our social immune system, and its value lies primarily in how it is used. In his book, Spiritual Bypassing, Robert Augustus Masters reassures us that “anger and compassion can coexist; wrathful compassion is not an oxymoron.” “As we become more intimate with the anatomy and history of our anger, and as we learn to express it cleanly- that is, without blaming or shaming or aggression- its fierceness serves rather than hinders all involved by potently addressing behaviors and issues that are obstructing not just our well-being but that of others.”
This flies in the face of much of the yogic and spiritual pedagogy of our times, and because of this many have a very difficult time approaching anger at all. I suspect that my early upbringing provided me with insights into the nature of anger that would have eluded me otherwise. My father was a therapist who taught court-ordered anger management programs out of our converted garage while my mother ran a domestic violence shelter for women and families fleeing abuse. Somewhat precociously, by the time I was 19, I was already certified to co-facilitate anger management programs. What did I learn from all of this? That abusers exist inside of their own cycles of victimhood, and none of the men I encountered were less than human. These were not sociopaths and murderers, they were simply people unable to express the needs of their inner child. Even then I grasped that their rage existed somewhere within all of us, they simply hadn’t the guidance to know how to channel it.
In his most recent book, trauma researcher and Psychologist Peter Levine answers the question “under what conditions are emotions adaptive- and conversely, when are they maladaptive?" He posits that "the more an emotion takes on the quality of shock or eruption, or the more that it is suppressed or repressed, the more prominent is the maladaption. Indeed, often an emotion begins in a useful form and then, because we suppress it, turns against us in the form of physical symptoms or in a delayed and exaggerated explosion.”
It seems that emotionally, the familiar adage “what we resist persists” contains some truth. Yet defining the line between repression and containment isn’t always a simple task, and neither is understanding the useful forms of our more maligned feelings.
In the spiritual community, fear and resistance to anger often keep us from allowing it to move through us expressively. We have been taught that anger is impolite, primal, lower-chakra, domineering, and un-evolved. Yet we all know what happens when we repress our anger. Either it seeps out of those locked inner compartments creating little fuel trails in our everyday lives that are just waiting for random environmental sparks, or we create stronger internal boundaries for it and lose some of our suppleness and softness in the process. When our early development is patterned by these emotions, we may develop what Alexander Lowen and Wilhelm Reich describe as body armor, muscular holding patterns that channel the energy of our bodies in various self-protective ways. This developmental theory suggests that there may be real truth to the idea that some of us are wired defenders.
Of course, it is not only physical development that shapes our relationship to aggression but our formatively broken relationship to love itself. Often our response to what happens to us perpetuates through our lives in a feedback loop of undefined anger and suffering. Understanding this may be at the heart of developing compassion for our inner "demons".
In his book The Five Things We Cannot Change...and the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them, Psychologist David Richo challenges the idea that equanimity is a static unfeeling state. "Equanimity is not to be construed as imperturbability. Equanimity is the virtue of returning to baseline, restabilizing after we feel the perturbation aroused by our feelings. People who are healthy both psychologically and spiritually are touched by what happens to them and others. They are impacted by events. They feel deeply and they show it... Character, depth, and compassion bloom in us because we can be impacted by what happens to us."
He also clarifies an aspect of anger that feels conflicting to many of us on the spiritual path: its relationship to hatred. "The difference between anger and hate is that anger seeks to remove an injustice. Hate seeks rather to destroy the unjust. Anger engages someone. Hate distances. Anger is expressed and let go of. Hate can never be satisfied or completed but abides as resentment. In that sense, hate is an impotent rage."
I don't remember how I came across the work of Tsultrim Allione, but I remember the feelings that picking up her book gave me; there was deep relief and gratitude. In Feeding Your Demons, Allione presents a path to working with emotions that differs from many spiritual approaches: her strategy, based on the teachings of 11th Century yogini Machig Labdron, is one of nurturing rather than battling our inner and outer enemies. It is a path to resolve inner conflict that "leads to psychological integration and inner peace." She also explores how our negative emotions become "demonic" by "being split off, disowned, and fought against."
It is this embracing philosophical underpinning that makes all of the difference in our journey towards finding compassion for our shadows. Instead of rejecting, judging, or blaming ourselves for harboring feelings that feel loathsome, righteous, or addictive, Allione asks us to engage with them in a nurturing way: opening ourselves to the paradox that when we "feed" them they do not grow but diminish. As we open our hearts to these demons they become satiated, and their formerly unpredictable power surges are less caustic.
Tsultrim Allione asks us to give voice and form to our demons; to imagine them as real beings desperate for our attention. In my imagination, these feelings may be wildlings, but with attention and compassion they become more familiar and less dangerous. I begin to see their power: "Feelings help us grant hospitality to our instinctive, passionate, primal inclinations. They open the door so we can take more risks, be more defiant of the status quo, more daring in our imagination and behavior." (Richo)
We learn to be the space for all of it on this high road to an open heart, and as we practice compassion for our own shadows and demons, we dig a deeper well of loving kindness to allay a thirsty world. Perhaps this is a spiritual path for dragons and activists, but I suspect that each of us have inner wildlings and fire starters longing for the chance to be truly seen and heard.
In the Tantric tradition of Chogyam Trungpa, he explains that "energy is categorized in five basic qualities...(and each) has an emotion associated with it which is transmuted into a particular "wisdom" or aspect of the awakened state of mind... Vajra is associated with anger, which is associated with Mirror-like wisdom. We sense something beyond the cloudy, possessive and aggressive qualities of anger and this intuitive insight enables us to automatically transmute the essence of anger into precision and openness, rather than deliberately changing it..."
If we can see our most intense feelings with the insightful eyes of the tantric alchemist, perhaps the crucible of our life becomes a potent metaphor for transmutation... we learn not to reject the emotional ore that can lead us to spiritual gold.
We learn to play with fire instead of fighting it.