I hold a beast, an angel and a madman in me,
and my enquiry is as to their working,
and my problem is their subjugation and victory, downthrow and upheaval,
and my effort is their self-expression.
As I watch my cats go around their day, I sometimes catch myself wondering what it means to be human. I know how it feels, at least when I allow myself to feel. I have no way of knowing what it is like to be a cat but I surely appreciate th spectre of human emotions and how at one and the same time we can feel a whole host of emotions. Just remembering the other evening when I was lucky to get hold of a ticket to the performance by Beijing Dance Theatre at the tiny local venue, I re-live some of those feelings again. I cried through the whole first part (Luminous) that was choreographed by the Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg to the music of Bach. It was not only sadness I was feeling but also joy, admiration and gratitude, all at the same time. There is no way to squeeze that array of feelings into a single word. At some point I wondered whether I was that touched by the performance itself or by the intensity of my emotions and how vulnerable and human I felt. Was there a difference?
Whenever I experience strong emotions that I want to hide from, I tell myself, “This is what being human feels like”. It helps me to stay open even for the most difficult emotions and approach them with gentle curiosity. It started as a little role play in which I pretended to be an alien in a human body (yes!) who was sent on planet Earth to experience everything humans feel to later report to the others (I read about in some book and it immediately appealed to me). “So this is how pain of a loss feels like!”, and – open to feel with the whole being.
I believe the only way to become an integrated human being is through opening up to all emotions and accepting them as part of us. Each of them carries a message for us and the question is whether we are ready to recieve it and make use of it in our lives. The tricky part is to open the heart to the emotion (instead of just dismissing it as we can do with thoughts) without getting totally owerwhelmed by it and at the same time disconnect it from the story line and blame. For example how do I feel the pain of being let down when this happens without slipping into a victim and/or blaming mode? This is where I find the little alien-exercise to be invaluable: I am experiencing the emotion yet I also have the role of an observer that helps me not to identify with the emotion.
For a long while I thought of anger as a negative emotion but once I started seeing all emotions as messangers, I no longer needed the labels of “good” and “bad”. Today I heard someone say that we do not get rid of stuff, we simply learn to live with it. It might take a few lifetimes to heal the wounds I am carrying but they, too, are valuable aspects of myself and can help me connect with other people.
I find that we often are ashamed of feeling angery as if anger in itself is a sign of weakness, of not being able to control one’s emotions and control is something we’ve got to have to be on top of the world. Probably also because we believe that anger is necessarily connected to hatred which is not the case. I can think of many situations when I was angry with someone without actually hating them.
“Anger … can be a natural response to opression. There is a wide spread confusion between anger and hatred. Hatred is an example of anger with the intent to hurt; it’s like a knife that’s intended to inflict a wound. Anger, on the other hand, can be an energetic reaction of unease that erupts spontaneously in certain circumstances.” (“The Great Heart Way”, p. 61).
I have already mentioned the following example from my life in a comment to one of bookbird’s posts but thought I could share it here to show how anger actually helped me wake up to the important realisation about my life and the conflict inside me.
A few years ago my (then) husband and I were visiting his parents for Christmas and I noticed an inspirational note in my mother-in-law’s room with statistics on how many people, ideas and smiles were born in the world every minute. It was a very positive note (maybe this is what she needed to hear at the time) but I went ballistic about it. I saw it as the expression of their escapism and unwillingness to engage in the world of suffering. My mother-in-law realised that I was projecting and my anger had little to do with the note so instead of getting defensive, she looked at me and said, “Irina, you don’t have to save the world”.
I remember the moment when everything in my head got still. All of a sudden I clearly saw that it was myself I was angry with for living the life that did not truly reflect my values. Yet I had no clue where to start changing it and was afraid to take the first step. I was looking at my mother-in-law for a few moments, listening inside myself and then said with conviction, “But at least I want to give it a try”. I think I realised right then that it did not really matter where I would start. The important thing at that point in my life was to actually start doing anything about it. The anger disspated very quickly as I met no defensiveness from my mother-in-law, whose wise and compassionate reaction allowed me to connect with the inner self and look at the root of my anger.
My anger made me realise I had been surpressing the frustration about the way my life was unfolding for a while while its intensity showed me how important that issue was. Soon after that I went to Nigeria on a development internship, with my husband family’s support. A cliché step for someone aspiring to save the world, I think now. What I needed was to start retreiving my own soul and save myself for starters but as Reb Anderson says, we cannot do it on our own, only together. At the retreats he tells us that even though we think we go to the retreat to be helped, we will unavoidably be helping others as well so we might as well think, “I am going to the retreat to help others”.
Since that time I also learnt that the step that comes up first is never the first one but the third one at best; we never really want to start from the very bottom of it and get our hands dirty.
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first thing close in,
the step you don’t want to take.
Start with the ground you know,
the pale ground beneath your feet,
your own way of starting the conversation.
Start with your own question,
give up on other people’s questions,
don’t let them smother something simple.
(From “Start Close In” by David Whyte)
Do you remember any situation in which anger helped you realise something important? What was it you learnt from it? How do you meet anger?