Transforming Anger

-by Catherine Killebrew

“A sailor uses any wind, no matter
which way it’s blowing.”

– Robert Daniel Ennis

When I was a little girl I had to hide and swallow my anger; I would have been shamed and punished for showing it. In my work with Tayu Meditation Center, I am finding that I don’t have to hide or swallow anything, nor do I have to maintain the habits of punishing or shaming myself. Instead, I am learning how to use every experience, every mistake, and every emotion as ‘wind’ to carry me toward my goal of living a more fulfilling, authentic life.

At times, during the unfolding of my spiritual work, events in my life and strong emotional reactions to them have left me feeling “storm tossed.” It seemed that I was being blown off course. I was taken far away from the present moment, and it seemed that both my self-confidence and my confidence in the process of spiritual transformation were undermined. But I’ve learned that those adverse winds can be the strongest currents I can employ on my spiritual journey. An important result of my spiritual practice is that I have gained considerable skill at “tacking,” that is, at making use of any wind to advance further towards the goal. Practicing in this way makes it possible for me to derive spiritual sustenance from all my experiences, fair or foul.

I want to begin with a brief history of my previous work with anger and other strong emotion. For many years I participated in a self-help group that recommended writing, talking, and praying about one’s fears and resentments. I took that suggestion, and did get a somewhat clearer look at my emotional patterns, as well as a degree of forgiveness for myself, and other people.

I then progressed further with a good therapist. While working with her, I yelled, screamed, and beat a pillow, and my therapist coaxed me in psychodrama, hypnosis, and other techniques aimed at accessing and releasing painful memories and emotions. That work was valuable, in that it cleared away enough debris for me to be able to take my next steps, but I still felt very stuck. In spite of all my analysis and insights into the probable childhood origins of some of my patterns, my emotions were obviously on automatic pilot-ready to be triggered by just about anything. I needed much more freedom and autonomy than I had gotten from working on myself in the ways I had already tried.

My next step was to begin working with Tayu Meditation Center under the direction of its founder, Robert Ennis. At Tayu, we work with habits, (whether they are mental habits, emotional habits, or habits of our bodies), in ways that are very different from the ones most people are comfortable and familiar with. Our master practice is to observe our thoughts, feelings, and sensations from an impartial, silent place in ourselves. This is more radical than it initially sounds because of the ferociously strong habit of mind to judge thoughts and feelings, and to try to control them by categorizing and judging them. This results in thoughts judging other thoughts, as in “This (thought or feeling) is spiritual and that other (thought or feeling) is not spiritual.” Of course, thoughts also customarily judge feelings too: “This anger is reasonable, and that anger is unreasonable.” When observing the arising of such judgments, it is our practice to step back and to observe those judgments, those beliefs, with the same neutrality.

Very often, when I’ve observed emotions like anger in this way, the feeling has softened, and even dissolved. A moment or two of attention was all that was necessary to clear my perspective. At other times I have needed to observe the anger (without expressing it), for a longer period before I could learn what I needed to learn from it. When my anger has indicated that I need to take action, calm assertiveness has often been enough to harmonize a conflict, or at least to satisfy me that I’ve done my part. At still other times, “bitching” has been both necessary and sufficient.

But there are times when people or events trigger what psychotherapists sometimes call our “core conflicts.” Someone may do or say something that seems to tell the story of our lives, at least the parts of our lives we have not liked. Their words and actions pull up our most painful identifications . In my case, I have habitually identified with underachievement and rejection, and earlier this summer, two good friends pushed both of those big red buttons.

At a time when my confidence was already at a low, they both, at different times and in different ways, did and said things that I interpreted as agreement on their part with some of my deepest, darkest opinions of myself. At first I was disheartened, and believing that they had further weakened my fragile confidence, I felt betrayed and was furious! The event that pushed my button was not, by itself, so distressing, but it opened a ledger of old grievances that I had with both friends. Some of those grievances dated back months, even years, and some involved issues I thought I had already dealt with and things I believed I had let go of. Even more disconcertingly, they had obviously struck an emotional mother-load of resentments I still had against my parents, my early employers, my teachers and peers – in short, the world. I was mad at the world!

At first I tried to quietly observe the intensely painful feelings and the raging thoughts that were tossing my attention around, and often towing me under. I tried to observe my turmoil when it impinged upon an activity, without having my attention swept away in the current of mental/emotional associations. Sometimes, for a little while, I succeeded. I also set some special time aside each day just for sitting meditation. I talked to another friend about what I was going through, and attended sweaty Vinyasa Yoga classes to work off some steam and improve my focus.

After a couple of weeks I felt a little better, but I realized that I was going to have to do something more drastic. In spite of all my efforts I was still often caught in the emotional undertow, unable to be present in the moment. Neither quiet self-observation nor talking and writing about my pain and anger had restored my equilibrium. I was obviously very strongly identified with the beliefs about myself that my friends’ actions had aroused.

I hadn’t wanted to confront the two people I was enraged at until I could cool off a little, or a lot. I was proud, and consequently, fearful. I didn’t want either of them to see me so raw and I didn’t want to make myself even more vulnerable to whatever they might do or say next. But I finally realized that exposing my feelings to the people who had triggered them (without attachment to any particular result) was probably the only thing that could heal my pain. Crying on a third person’s shoulder was better than posturing and pretending to be unaffected, but it didn’t cost me enough to purchase the freedom from resentment that I needed. I emailed my friends to set up a time for the three of us to meet. Although I knew they would both agree with my need to explode and that they were much more capable of handling truth than most people, it still took real resolve for me to make that appointment.

Tayu’s founder, Robert Ennis, was fond of saying, “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.” That applies to everything from how one gets the toothpaste out of the tube, to working in the garden. It includes how one works on a relationship – even if that work included having a big hissy fit! When I met with my friends I went all out. I did a much more thorough job of displaying my anger than I’ve ever done or thought I could do. What do I mean by that? Having a big fit isn’t something people usually get graded on or brag about on their resumes.

Many people have anger, even rage on automatic pilot. Their outbursts may be long, loud, and frequent. They may even be violent, and yet, venting in the way that they do doesn’t seem to have any lasting effect, or healing benefit. By putting others on the defensive, their outbursts usually create more discord than harmony, thus exacerbating the problem. I’ve even known people who have, in a fit of passion, murdered people, and yet years later they still hated the people they’d murdered and others who had similar characteristics. They certainly had vented their anger , and yet were obviously not free . They were still very much under the control of the people they resented – or at least, under the control of their own anger. In fact, they seemed more strongly identified with their defensive, avenging victim roles than ever. Expressing strong emotion by itself is often anything but a spiritual exercise, especially if it involves acting out in a hurtful way.

As you’ve probably noticed, it’s also common for people to have the repression of anger on automatic pilot, in which case it manifests as other compulsive emotional habits. But I found that my spiritual work had given me what I needed to be able to see my feelings more clearly, and to yell and scream at my friends in a way that did dissolve my anger. I was able to emote in a way that did enable me to become truer to my Self – that is, more awake, compassionate, and joyful. I mean that I’ve learned methods that can dismantle my identification with a crippling, programmed self-image. I have resources that I would not have had without having done substantial spiritual work under the direction of qualified teachers.

The first result of my work with Tayu was that I was willing to do whatever it took , to heal my wound, whereas before I might have settled for distracting band-aids and pain-numbing, self-calming thoughts and explanations.

It was also critical that I was guided by the right intention . I was willing to become able to forgive myself and to forgive my friends, though I was not yet able to do that. If I had arranged that meeting primarily to make myself look right and my friends to look wrong, there would have been no resolution to the conflict, I’m sure. Although a part of me was feeling spiteful, I didn’t go there with the intent to hurt anyone but rather to strengthen my relationships with these people.

If the right quality of intention were the ship’s compass and steering mechanism, a certain quality of attention would be the captain. Earlier in this piece, I referred to self-observation, which is sometimes called “mindfulness practice.” When I first began to practice putting that very particular kind of attention on my thoughts, feelings, sensations, and the world around me, it was usually all I could do to maintain a slender thread of that attention while I drank my morning coffee in a quite house. I worked my way to being able, (but not always willing), to pay that kind of attention while engaged in a short, simple, non-threatening interaction with another person, (for instance the grocery checker). I also practiced maintaining that neutral perspective while participating in meetings at work, and harder still, when it was my turn to talk about my spiritual practice at our weekly meetings. All those efforts were valuable for their own sake, and they also prepared me for the later task of being able to “blow my stack” – to yell, scream, and enumerate my grievances, without ever completely identifying with any of it! I was so amazed! I didn’t know I could do that! I didn’t know my practice was that strong.

That confrontation certainly changed my perspective on my practice and altered my mental disposition. My anger with my friends transformed into gratitude. Even more amazingly, they had brought out resentments at other people, like my dead parents, and my feelings about those relationships were healed to a much greater degree than I had known was possible. Since that meeting, I have gotten angry with other people and circumstances, but I was more like a small child who gets completely angry in an instant. The child, however, also lets go of the anger quickly and easily, and is ready to move on – to enjoy and appreciate life again. I’m not claiming that I haven’t held onto anger since that day in July, just that it has become more transparent and therefore easier to work through. I’ve also noticed that my wrath is less easily provoked.

My confidence in myself and in the process of transformation is greater than it’s ever been. The success I had in my relationship with my friends has made it easier for me to face other challenges. I have used the wind that seemed to be blowing me off the course, away from confidence in myself and in my practice; I have used it to take me to a much richer place! I have found some “treasure within myself.” My self-respect had to come from within, as a result of doing something I respected. No one’s praise or recognition could have given that to me, and no one’s criticism can take it away!

BEST of ALL , I saw that if I could express complete rage without identifying with it, it is not necessary for me to identify with anything, including success or failure! What we at Tayu call “identification” is nothing more or less than the chain of “desire” or “attachment” that, according to Siddartha Buddha, shackles one to unnecessary suffering. Apparently, that’s true! I may get identified, but when I do it’s easier to see what’s happening and to step back and observe that identification, to refuse to let anything define or confine me. That gives me the freedom to act with less anxious attachment to any particular result – with less fear of making mistakes. Again, I am becoming like the child I used to be, who can do things just because they might be fun and interesting.

It occurs to me that I might already be identifying with my recent discoveries, and eventually need to let that identification go as well, but I’m not going to fret about that just now. I’d rather just enjoy the breeze!