Anger Doesn’t Have to Be a Problem

In the current issue of Shambhala Sun, which I referenced in yesterday’s post, there is a short piece by Sylvia Boorstein which reports something the Dalai Lama said.

Asked once “Do you ever get angry? the Dalai Lama laughed, saying, “Of course! Things happen. They aren’t what you wanted. Anger arises. But it doesn’t have to be a problem.”

A simple but very important point. We can’t stop anger from rising, any more than we can stop other feelings from rising. We have no choice about that.

What we do have a choice about is what to do when anger arises. It is our choice whether to grasp onto that anger and act out of it, or to let it go, responding with wisdom and compassion.

Mindfulness helps tremendously in this. If I am aware of the anger at the moment it arises, I can recognize it for what it is and remind myself that I need not follow it.

Boorstein, commenting on what the Dalai Lama said observes, “the momentary constriction that blurs the mind when anger arises is quickly eased by the wisdom that anger is a normal neuronal reaction to displeasure, and not a mandate for any response other than clarity and kindness.”

We have no choice about what feelings arise. We do have a choice how we respond.

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Religious Significance of Feelings

I am reading Darkness Is My Only Companion, written by Kathryn Greene-McCreight, an Espicopal priest who has suffered from serious depression and is bipolar. The book is her effort to “offer a biblically grounded account, from [her] own experience, of how the Christian may interpret, accept, and handle suffering, especially that with such a stigma as mental illness.”

I just finished reading a chapter titled, Feeling, Memory, and Personality, which I’m puzzling about. In the Ignatian tradition, we learn to pay attention to our feelings, to what stirs in our hearts, not just what we think in our head. This is not unique to Ignatian spirituality; the author observes that “people in the Protestant West have tended to define religion in terms of feeling or experience.”

The author suggests that this notion that feelings have religious signficance is a problem: “If we really believed that feeling is the essence of the Christian faith, the depressed Christian would be given all the more ammunition for self-destruction. Since she cannot by definition feel anything but violence toward and hatred of the self, if that ‘feeling’ were to be validated as religiously significant, then the tendency toward self-annihiliation would only be fueled.” She ends the chapter by saying that she questions the religious significance of feelings.

I don’t disagree with the final line of the chapter that God does not regard the mentally ill soul any differently from when we are mentally healthy. But it seems to me to go way too far to suggest that feelings have no religious significance or that “feeling is not really that important for the life of faith.”

Her comments do, however, suggest that we need to be careful in talking about the sense in which feelings have religious signficance. It would be wrong to suggest either that God looks upon us according to our feelings or that we can always be confident in acting on our feelings. (Neither of those is reflected in Ignatian thought.) We also need to be sensitive the different things (including but not only, mental illness) that affect our ability to feel the presence of God, let alone to feel God’s love and mercy.

Taking Things Personally

One of my friends has twice recently said to me, “Please don’t take this personally.” When someone says that, what is really conveyed by those five words is: Please don’t be offended by something I said or did. What I did/said was not about you, it was about me. So please don’t be hurt by it.

I spent some time in my morning prayer reflecting on the statement and about my reactions to things that might cause someone to make the statement.

The truth is that I do tend to take many things personally, even when I know they are not intended that way. Something happens – someone says or does something (or doesn’t do something, e.g., doesn’t call when I’m expecting them to call) and – to put it in the simplest terms, my feelings are hurt. A feeling of hurt or insult or rejection or smallness or some equivalent feeling arises in my body, even at the same time that my head knows there is “no reason” to feel that way, that the act/word/inaction was “nothing personal,” that the person acting did not intend to cause any offense. That the way they acted (or didn’t act) wasn’t about me. (I can hazard some possible reasons as to why those feelings arise so easily in me, but that would be a different post.)

Most of the time, my head catches up with the feelings before I act on them in any way. It manages to help the rest of myself see that there was nothing personal, before I do anything to respond out of the place of hurt.

But it shows the strength of our feelings that sometimes the feeling of hurt can so drown out the reasonable part of the self that knows there was nothing personal that I react/say something out of that place of hurt. When that happens, I’m invariably sorry afterward, realizing the response was uncalled for.

This is a place where mindfulness helps. When we are not mindful, the act/words that precipitated the hurt, the feeling of hurt and the response all seem like one big jumble, and the knowledge that it was “nothing personal” gets lost in the morass. But mindfulness helps create space between the individual components of the experinence. It lets us see the act, separate from the feeling it produces, and separate from possible reactions to that feeling. And it give us enough space for us to recognize that any hurt or insult was unintended. And so it becomes easier for us to let it go.

The Myth that we Can Outrun our Woes

The Writer’s Almanac yesterday posted a poem called, The Rider.  The first line reads

A boy told me
if he roller-skated fast enough
his loneliness couldn’t catch up to him.

Although it may present a nice image in a poem, the line reflects a mistake we make a lot – the mistake of thinking that if we move quickly enough we can get away from those things that make us uncomfortable. 

The tendancy, when faced with an unpleasant feeling – unhappiness, anxiety, fear, loneliness – is to try to escape from the feeling.  We try to put distance between ourselves and the feeling by occupying ourselves with some distraction.  We think we can trick the feeling into going away.

 Remember the expression, you can run, but you can’t hide?   At best the avoidance strategy offers a tremporary reprieve.  The bad feeling hides for a while, but it will return. 

Ultimately we have to face the unpleasant feeling and whatever is underneath it.  To be with the feeling, whatever it is, without trying to resist it or run away from it.  To look at it without judgement and without trying to do anything about it.

That’s not something that is easy to do alone.  It is a lot easier if we remember that God is looking at it along with us…and that whatever we find underneath, God is there.

(Happy 4th of July.)