Category Archives: Feelings

Where Is All This Anger Coming From?

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Where Is All This Anger Coming From?

Since the 2016 presidential election, shit has been hard for some of us. For the rest of us, shit has been hard for a while. ~ Lama Rod Owen, Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation through Anger

Flying north to New York the night of Election Day 2016, I watched with dawning horror as the results shown on the seatback TV screen gradually confirmed that Donald Trump was going to be the next president of the United States. A numbness spread through my brain and down into my body. The only thing I could feel was nausea.

Never had I been so scared in my life. Not even close. I was terrified of what he would do in the White House. Four years later, I realize that what damage I imagined he could do was minuscule compared to the things he actually has done. This year alone – with his responses (or lack thereof) to the coronavirus and the roar of protestors against racism and police brutality – far exceeds any nightmare my febrile brain could have cooked up in November 2016.

Fear is not the only emotion I have felt since then. There has been much anger as well. I felt anger toward Trump. Toward his enablers. Toward his supporters. Toward Fox News and the other right-wing media. Toward the police that commit violence against people of color. So much anger that it began to ooze out of my pores, giving off a scent that I imagine made me unpleasant to be around.

That feels foreign to me so many years after I began to practice meditation and mindfulness and took the first steps on the path toward Buddhism. I had learned to contemplate feelings of anger with equanimity and curiosity as to their source, and to not treat them as inherently bad. One of the primary benefits of that practice is that I rarely act in anger. The periodic outbursts that characterized the first 30 or so years of my life were virtually nonexistent. The barely controlled rage that turned my face red and made my skin feel like it was burning was a feeling I hardly recalled.

This year, though…oh man. It’s not that I’m ranting and raving. There are no viral videos of me losing my shit. But it is taking a lot more work in my practice to cope with the anger I am feeling these days. I am not certain that I fully understand why I have felt so much anger. It is too simple to pin it on Trump’s actions (and inactions), or on the more than 120,000 deaths from COVID-19, or on the tragic deaths of so many Black people at the hands of those charged with protecting them. Those things mostly make me feel profound sadness.

I have a sense that at least some of the anger I feel is borne of fear. Fear for my health. Fear for the lives of my older family members and friends. Fear for the lives of my Black friends and my mixed-race nephews and niece. Fear that the society, government, and planet I am leaving to my daughter are irreparably damaged, that I have failed to set her up for an adult life that is at least a notch better than mine.

The anger may be a response to those fears, like my body is trying to change the channel to a less-discomfiting emotion. The emotion may be different but the physical and psychological response to anger has felt every bit as unpleasant – more unpleasant, really – than the fear.

Truth is, I’m not sure. I have much more work to do to figure it out and process it healthfully. I am hoping that Lama Rod Owen’s new book, Love and Rage, will help. His other book that I’ve read, Radical Dharma, overwhelmed me, but in a good way. He and his co-authors taught me things in that book that simultaneously felt completely foreign and absolutely true. I feel a kinship to him, different as we are in so many ways, but linked by sharing a connection to Lama Norlha Rinpoche, with whom I first took refuge in the Three Jewels.

I also hope that Lama Rod’s book will help me to better understand the anger and fear and other emotions experienced by Black people, indigenous people, and other people of color. My fear and anger have been nearly debilitating, despite my many advantages as a white male, despite the minuscule chance that I will be the victim of police brutality. What must they be feeling? I imagine it is a magnitude several factors greater than anything I’m feeling. And I have little conception of what that must be like.

Will you join me in trying to understand, to educate ourselves, to make amends and advance the process of making things right? Commit with me to learn how we’ve contributed to the unjust society we live in, no matter how uncomfortable or shameful it feels. Commit with me to act on what we learn.

Been gone, been down, still am

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It has been a while since I last posted on this blog. I have not been active on my Facebook page either. Why? I think because I am having trouble making sense of the world right now. I simply do not understand the hate and violence that are so pervasive at this moment.

I used to think I understood people who express their anger demonstrably, because I used to manage my own anger so poorly. I thought I had some insight, based on my own struggles as a young man, when it was so easy for rage to rise up inside of me and spill forth. Maybe I did, but I don’t feel like I do anymore.

I don’t understand most of the anger I witness on social media and on TV. On my worst days, when anger overwhelmed me completely, when I literally shook from the negative energy boiling up from deep inside, I never displayed such naked aggression, never verbally savaged another being, never even considered doing either. So I try to imagine what torment these angry people must be suffering, I try to put myself in their place, to contemplate their plight, to fathom what could possibly propel them to these states of frothing, thrashing, tearing, unbridled fury. But I fail repeatedly, fully unenlightened.

I am left distraught by my confusion, by my utter inability to grasp what is happening in the world, in this country, in my own backyard. I cannot comprehend the acts of violence that take place every day, many times a day. I am even more confounded by the eagerness of so many people to act on their violent impulses, by their hair-trigger readiness to lash out with deadly force.

I fear that I am despairing, losing sight of humanity’s inherent goodness, losing touch with creation’s core of love. I do not love my fellow beings any less, but I admit I sometimes wonder what good it does. Am I helping at all? Am I contributing, in any way, to stemming the angry tide? Could it possibly be any worse if I weren’t here at all?

The sadness I feel is nearly unbearable. My heart aches for the beloved of the brutally murdered. Compassion continues to swell up even for the perpetrators, even though I don’t understand them, even though I believed that well had run dry, even though their acts are so repugnant and inexplicable that I begin to fear that my own loved ones are no longer safe.

Today and yesterday and the day before, each brought more unwelcome news, more tragedy, more devastation. Unremitting, incessant, unflagging, unstoppable. At least it seems that way. Though I hope, I do, I really hope. And I do what for a Buddhist passes for prayer, and I cling to the possibility that the storm will be a little less fierce at dawn, and I focus on the inevitability of the sun rising, and I remind myself that the powerful, unquenchable power that fuels creation is still there. Love remains and, if we can manage to get out of its way, will prevail.

I believe that, I honestly do, even now, even when it is so terribly difficult to make sense from any of it.

Open to Failure, Open to Happiness

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The Buddha told his followers to use their own eyes and make up their own minds, rather than slavishly adhere to his teachings. So a certain degree of “prove it to me” attitude is warranted. That desire to see for ourselves, though, can easily turn into a form of skepticism that prevents us from trying new things and, thereby, discovering whether they are good for our practice or not.

It is difficult to expose ourselves to the possibility of failure. Forget failure – we can be afraid just to take a chance that things may not turn out as good as we had hoped, even if the results are really a success by any standard. Our happiness is contingent upon achieving results that may not actually be attainable. No wonder we are so miserable.

What is the solution? I can say from plenty of past experience that there is no easy remedy to a lifetime spent reinforcing such thinking. The remedy is slow, gradual. It involves “opening your eyes” to the reality of your circumstances. In other words, lean on your mindfulness practice to see things as they really are. Question the “reality” we have woven, the one in which we are unhappy failures. Are there really no positives in our present conditions, no sources of happiness and strength?

Identifying just one beneficial aspect of our current circumstances is a start. It exposes the lie we have woven that our lives are miserable and that happiness is unattainable. If there is one thing worth being happy about, then there must be two. And three things. And four things. Eventually, we come to recognize our carefully constructed “reality” as a massive fiction that we have crafted, and then the floodgates open.

When we close ourselves off to avoid experiencing the things we perceive as negative and unpleasant, we also shut out the things we consider positive and pleasant. We cannot experience what is beneficial to our lives unless we are open to the possibility of encountering things that don’t feel so good.

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The impulse to label the things we feel and think threatens our ability to meditate in a manner that improves our wellbeing and supports our mindfulness practice. We feel sadness, fear, anger, and other emotions that discomfit us, and we call them “bad” emotions. We have thoughts that trouble us or spark attacks of anxiety, and we call them “bad” thoughts. The normal human flow of thoughts and emotions seems to get in the way of our meditation, making it difficult for us to get into a groove or a flow or to another place, however we characterize that satisfying feeling we crave when meditating.

The solution, in my view, is not to find a way to block those thoughts and emotions. Frankly, for most of us, it’s probably not even possible to shut them down. So what can we do?

At the risk of being accused of trying to perpetrate some kind of reverse psychology mumbo jumbo, I think the answer is to not block them at all. Let them flow. Treat them with compassion and don’t label them as either bad or good thoughts or feelings. They’re just thoughts and feelings — inanimate objects — and are, therefore, incapable of being either. When we cease to label them in this manner, we can pay attention to what they mean, to what our brain is trying to say to us. Many times, they are just random, fleeting, and we can let them go as quickly as they came. Other times, we make a mental note to come back to them later after our meditation, and then we let them go. And occasionally, the thoughts or emotions are worth dwelling upon for a time because they feel urgent or particularly important.

The point is, being present with and open to those thoughts and feelings allows us to treat them with equanimity and get past them. Trying to block them is like placing a dam in a river — the pressure on the dam builds and builds until, finally, the waters (our thoughts and emotions) burst through and overwhelm everyone and everything in its path (us and our meditative practice). Better to employ a sluice that directs the waters but does not attempt to block them entirely.

Like a lot of dharma, on the surface it seems like an oxymoron, but it is truth: As long as we try to resist the thoughts and emotions that arise during our meditation, the more they will undermine us; but when we learn to accept our thoughts and emotions and to coexist with them, our meditation can rise above them.

For some more good thoughts on this subject, check out Joseph Mauricio’s post, “Living Meditation,” on ny.shambala.org. And come spend some time with us at the Dharma Beginner Facebook page or follow us on Twitter @dharmabeginner.