“One of the pitfalls of childhood is that one doesn’t have to understand something to feel it. By the time the mind is able to comprehend what has happened, the wounds of the heart are already too deep.”
–Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind
(Three weeks ago, in a circle of meditators
a new soul journey into feeling anger and despair unexpectedly began.)
WHEN THE FIRST SITTING ENDED, Jay, the leader, a thoughtful man about my age, opened a group discourse. Instead of talking about sutras written centuries ago in other places, he invited us to talk about our own experience. As a rule, I wouldn’t plumb my murky mind with strangers (or in a blog for that matter—but feeling and talking about “what is” ismy Medicine now).
In the spacious silence and Jay’s unguarded presence, I found myself slowly disclosing living in a state of dispiritedness and tormented by a festering anger I could not transcend. Sometimes I think there is a “reason” to be angry, or believe that I have a “right” to be angry; but in truth, there is neither a “reason” nor a “right.”
I treat anger like a Minotaur, trying to conceal it. I withdraw into my hermitage to hide being angry or discontent; I reflexively shun myself as my mother shunned me. I try to not feed it the sweet pudding of justification and indulgence it craves. Unexpressed, my anger began expressing itself in silent primitive groaning, growling sounds—that only I could hear in my head—in a seeming back and forth dialogue. I would wake up hearing this silent growling dialogue; it was almost comical. Trying to escape this angst through work and meditation was futile, anger had moved into me and was setting up house.
I felt met by Jay as I have never been met before; I began to soften in his soft gaze, in long contemplative pauses, marked by compassionate teachings and acknowledgment. Nobody in the meditation circle asked me “why” I was angry or gave me “permission” to be angry. However, Mary, a woman about my age, spoke about a time she felt persistent anger and resentment. She discovered a practice of feeling whatever she was feeling without having any intention whatsoever to change the feeling or transcend it. Mary said, “I would sit quietly and be with the ebb and flow of the feeling, naming the feeling over and over, ‘I feel angry…I FEEL angry…. I feel ANGRY. . . I FEEL ANGRY… I Feel Angry. . .until I no longer felt angry [during that sitting].”
During our final twenty-minute sit, instead of practicing zazen, I experimented with Mary’s practice of “feeling anger,” of meeting and accepting the ever-present anger. After a while the practice changed of its own accord, not forced by an intention of my ego. The weighted jaded feeling of anger and despair just began to morph and melt.
I would describe this practice by likening it to a miner slowly being lowered in a basket descending through a shaft; passing through shadowy layers of feelings and phrases, murmurings of growly inner-dialogues, sorrow, aloneness, longing, and self-pity. With the naming of, and truly feeling into each feeling, the basket’s rope continues to unwind, lowering the basket down, down, down. . . feelings, words, flashes of memories coming slower and slower, becoming more and more subtle until, without any effort on my part the descent stops. All words and feelings stop. Silence. Peace. Abiding in deep stillness, softly breathing. . . Rather than being covered in more “darkness,” I felt an unexpected lightness of being, even a glimmer of hope, which remained with me until evening. And instead of preferring this feeling to anger and despair, I meet it with equanimity, noticing, “I feel a lightness of being.” Until I don’t. When the growly anger and despair returns, I invite it, stop what I am doing and sit with it, and repeat Mary’s practice.
Shunning myself for feeling anger and despair causes the most exquisite pain; I am trapped in the maze and feed myself to the Minotaur. The “gag order Rule” isolates me, and it confuses others as well. I discovered this week that self-pity might be born of the isolation that accompanies the agreement not to be angry or talk about negative feelings too much. With the new practice, I am witnessing the feelings of anger and despair morph into lightness of being. No single practice is a quick or permanent fix. In fact, feeling brings a new vulnerability and sensations not unlike the sharp tingling and buzzing after a limb goes numb. But the practice is compelling, it is Medicine.
When Zen Master Lin Chi was young, he had a small boat and would meditate in it on the lake for hours in solitude. Lost in meditation, his boat was suddenly struck by a boat and took him from bliss to anger. “Who struck my boat?” He was about to tell the careless boater off, but when he looked, there was no one in the other boat. The unmoored boat had just drifted downstream. What to do with his anger? He closed his eyes, still feeling the anger, and turned his attention inward. Eventually he came to a still point within; no anger inside or outside. From then on, when someone infringed upon his space or offended him, he remembered, “The boat is empty.” And he would turn his attention inward.
In gratitude for Jay and Mary, I am,