May 29, 2007

An Experiment in Anger

In a wonderful book I just read, Stephen Mitchell’s philosophical comedy Meetings with the Archangel, there’s an anecdote about an exceptionally gifted young Zen student who achieves ultimate enlightenment in only a handful of years. Seeking to deepen his practice, he continues without a teacher, only to feel intense rage welling up from some unknown source when he meditates. Wrathfully he rejects his beloved teacher and concludes that he has gotten nowhere.

That person isn’t me. Feeling rage is no surprise in my life. I’ve known about it from Day One, and possibly before, in the womb. It’s been my worst enemy, and having your worst enemy living inside you is confusing.

I’ve spent a great deal of my time trying to squash this enemy, and the results have been encouraging. Living alone after my marriage, I’ve felt amazingly calm and optimistic. Perhaps I was made to live this way even though I’ve always yearned to live within a contented, stable family. Whether or not the term “made to live this way” has any meaning, I’m living this way now and liking it, learning from it.

I’ve only had one outburst of rage in almost a year and a half, and that one was enough for the rest of my life.

But something feels hazardous about all this calm and confidence. How long is it going to last? Is it going to suddenly collapse? I can rely on today’s good mood only for today, and if some would reply that today is all we can ever know – if I myself would make that reply – then I’d like the thing I know today to be more solid than a passing mood.

Avoiding anger is not going to work forever. So what will work? They say one needs to make friends with one’s shadow, embrace one’s demonic side and welcome it, retrained for a healthier function. I’ve never understood that kind of talk. It seems too metaphorical; I have trouble connecting it to a concrete action one could take. How do you embrace your demons, really; what specific acts do you perform aside from sending an interior telepathic message: “Hi, there, demons, I’d like to embrace you now.”

These thoughts came to me this evening as I drove my car in the warm Austin sunset, an almost full moon above the hills and a pale sun setting behind gilded clouds across the river. A charmed evening, driving in the breeze past the scent of wildflower gardens, the humic aroma of the soul simmering up from the earth. The very simple thought came that in order to embrace and integrate my rage, I would have to feel it. I would have to show it – the thing I have most feared showing, the thing I have been running away from for a good deal longer than a year and a half.

I’m going to perform an experiment. I’m going to open myself to opportunities for rage. I’ll do it in situations I judge safe, probably when so one is around, certainly when my wife and children aren’t. Alone in my house, alone in my car (perhaps giving a hostile glower to a driver here or there). Some shouting, some cursing. It will have to be a real emotion with a real stimulus, not a dutiful, “I will rage for the next two minutes.” But it will be a controlled reality and it will stop comfortably and it won’t echo and blast through my life. Maybe I’ll have to do it one time, maybe two or ten. At some point, I will know my anger as something other than a terrifying monster, and it will learn that I am not out to eradicate it. Since we have to live in here together, we will finally learn how not to destroy each other.

So if you’re driving in the Austin area and you pass a small white sedan with a man screaming in it, wave hello.

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