from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 8 January 2012

on anger

I come from a family of volatile Celts. Our emotions – or perhaps I should say rather our colourful father's emotions – were all too visible when we were growing up, and I learnt two things: when someone is expressing their emotions at least you know where you stand; and, counter to that, emotions are dangerous things.

We all experience anger – it's part of the human condition. It's also a useful alert to the fact that something is threatening us, something needs changing. (I find it useful too to consider that beneath anger is usually pain.)

What we do with it though is key. Some of us learn to express it only too easily – 30 years ago, as a young thing, I was one of those who too could express her negative feelings at full pelt, given a particularly volatile relationship I was in at the time. Others stuff it, when it tends to go inwards and manifest as depression, or somatise in certain types of illness. Others, damaged perhaps as children by another's frightening anger (and yes I am also that type), don't even recognise anger when they feel it; they 'numb out'.

So in my late twenties, when my anger was triggered, as it often was (in that same relationship), by an emotion so strong that it overcame the numbing out, I learnt to be good at lashing out. Since then, frightened by the force of my own anger, I have tended to repress it, and in the beginning, once I'd realised what I was doing, it would be days, or on occasion even weeks, before I recognised that the emotion dogging me was anger. I consider that I've made huge strides forwards in now only taking a minute to recognise anger; sometimes a second; sometimes I can name it immediately. I've learnt so much about myself and my experience of the world through watching my reactivity.

So far, so good. What happens next though is what's really important, isn't it? The received wisdom is to count to ten before expressing it – helpful advice.

But it could go further. Both Buddhism and the psychotherapeutic world – and I've been a Buddhist practitioner now for over 35 years (albeit with fluctuating actual commitment), and involved in one way and another with psychotherapy for 28 or so – suggest that the wise way to deal with anger is to 'own' it rather than project it – ie deal with it consciously, exploring it, noticing where and when it arises, experiencing it in the body, noticing and if necessary challenging the impulse to hit out, to blame another, examining the precipitating incident and our part in it – and what it might be stimulating in us, maybe painful past memories that have little to do with the current situation and the 'at fault other', in reality. Then we might also see what needs to change.

Then there is kindness, and compassion. 'My religion is kindness,' says the Dalai Lama. Buddhist practice is focused on developing loving kindness: when we understand that anger usually arises from pain, it is so much easier to empathise with another's situation. As I posted here a few days ago, Plato reminds us that everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle. When we remember this, we can use the arising of anger as a reminder to look deeper into our pain, or another's; to remember our shared humanity, and our vulnerability.

Buddhism too specifically reminds us that 'we are not our emotions', and that identifying our whole being too closely with them is shortsighted, and, worse, potentially damaging to both self and other. (And of course there is a shadow side to that too – thinking that we're 'overcoming' our emotions by simply sliding away from them, transcending rather than integrating them, is a danger; in other words detaching, rather than practising non-attachment, which is a very different animal: noticing our emotional reactivity while remaining still engaged and choosing not to throw the shit at someone else is not the same as simply suppressing, and pretending a serenity we don't feel, or over-rationalising.)

The breakthrough, for me, came in said passionate and volatile relationship, when one day my partner remarked 'All we do is react to each other'. Up until then, I hadn't even considered that, in any way.

Taking responsibility for our own 'stuff' and choosing how we respond to a trigger is so empowering. Once we see our anger for what it is it no longer has a hold over us. Psychology suggests that the situations in which we feel the biggest emotional charge are the situations in which we are most likely projecting on – seeing in – another stuff that is rightfully ours. The idea, too, is that claiming one's shadow parts, the bits we blame on another but don't really see in ourselves, frees up enormous psychic energy; and, more, we don't continue to ignorantly cause even more harm than we all already do in this fractured world of ours. (Oh so easy to say, hey?)

And of course that's not to say, in this view, that we shouldn't ever express that anger. If someone violates my boundaries I have a right to say 'enough'. But I can choose to do it in a way that's non-blaming, non-harming, and kind. (I'm talking about normal circumstances here, not eg situations of one-sided abuse, clearly). Of course, we – I – mostly don't. But we have a choice. And yes, of course lashing out can feel so satisfying – briefly. And then, for me anyway, in rushes the guilt, the sense that I've not been my 'best self', the divide created between self and other which is not 'skillful practice', as Buddhism calls it. And for me, as I already have high blood pressure, fuelling myself up on anger is not a helpful response.

What psychotherapy promotes in addressing issues in a non-inflammatory way is taking-responsibility-'I' statements rather than blaming-'you' statements. Saying (eg) 'You're such a selfish shit; you never think of anyone but yourself' is not helpful; but 'When you do x I feel afraid that my needs don't matter to you' is honest, and skillful, and can open a dialogue. So: statement of fact ('When you do this'), followed by 'I feel', followed by expression of ideal scenario: 'What I would like is...'.

I have also taken the Buddhist precept that requires that I 'make every effort to resolve all conflicts, no matter how small'. So I do my best to extend myself, I do try, to sort out tension and difficulties. But I can't take responsibility for another's response to the situation – thank goodness I recognise that, too, these days.

Over the last few years in a time of deep family trouble and much change personally and interpersonally, there have been plenty of opportunities for dealing with anger – mine and another's.

Leaving aside my most intimate relationships in which the work of making conscious goes on, day after day, whether one feels like it or not, I've noticed a pattern emerging in which I see myself making attempts, often seemingly unilateral, to resolve things before feeling there's nothing more I can do other than walk away.

I hate disharmony and conflict. This can make me at times over-accommodating and over-adaptive. Nonetheless, I'd rather go the extra mile than be too proud to reach out, and I've never found 'sorry' hard to say. This week I've had cause to notice that I also, these days, recognise my own limits: I will extend my hand to someone in the service of healing a rift 3 times before walking away if my hand's not met. In the past, I'd have tried and tried. But taking responsibility doesn't obviate the need for self-respect, nor does it mean being a doormat; and also other people of course have a right to react to their own emotions in whatever way they see fit, and it won't necessarily fit mine. But I don't have to be, as Susan Jeffers so poetically puts it, a butterfly dancing near an elephant's arsehole.

And lest I now sound unbearably self-righteous, let me tell you how much, sometimes, I want the sheer crude simple reactivity of hitting out, metaphorically speaking, and walking away with no further thought about it all. Trying to be 'conscious' is so b****y exhausting! The simplicity, the seductiveness, of that blind instinctual F*** o** response to the apparently uncaring world in which we so often feel so lonely, so hurt.


  1. This is really useful for me at the moment, I so often find myself lashing out..with words at those closest to me, and then feeling horrendously guilty. This morning I started to read 'Bhuddism for Mothers', by Sarah Napthali and she talks about welcoming all your emotions as visitors...'ah! resentment, hello! Anger, you again', acknowledging them as passing guests. That helped, so did your post! Thankyou

  2. Thank you, Henrietta - it's a lifelong learning, isn't it? - Rumi speaks similarly about welcoming all these 'guests' to one's house - I'll track down the poem, but basically it's to do with all welcoming all these these negative states in the service of clearing one out for new delights.

    With love to you, Rx


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