I was so Mad…

Hay rolls

Montana hayfield. Photo by Sofie Kirk

“When someone does not know how to handle his own suffering, he allows it to spill all over the people around him. When you suffer, you make the people around you suffer. That’s very natural. This is why we have to learn how to handle our suffering, so we won’t spread it everywhere.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh, from Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames

“A person overwhelmed with anger destroys his wealth.

Maddened with anger, he destroys his status.

Relatives, friends, & colleagues avoid him.

          Anger brings loss. Anger inflames the mind.

He doesn’t realize that his danger is born from within.” ~Excerpt from

“Kodhana Sutta: An Angry Person” (AN 7.60), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

“Anger is a zone of energy in us. It is part of us. It is a suffering baby we have to take care of. The best way to do this is to generate another zone of energy that can embrace and take care of our anger. The second zone of energy is the energy of mindfulness.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh, from Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames

 

Dear Friends,

Two weeks ago, I got mad. Not regular mad, but extra-mad, boiling. Getting mad is not extraordinary, nor is it worth mentioning except for the fact that I have been practicing with my anger for the past 14 years. I had enough experience with anger to believe I knew how to handle this strong emotion, but given the right conditions, anger can be like a riptide and drag us under.

Anger is a secondary emotion. This means that although we attribute the cause of our anger to external conditions—anger is a response to emotions that may be so fleeting or shadowed by the powerful quality of anger, we aren’t aware of them. The “Anger Iceberg” from the Gottman Institute shows some of the feelings below the surface of anger. As practitioners, we understand we are responsible for our creations of body, speech, and mind. This includes how we handle our anger.

 

Anger serves an important function for the biological survival of our species. Anger arises as a response to the signal of threat and lets us know something is wrong and lets us know when a situation is not ok for us. Anger, with its accompanying adrenalin and norepinephrine, moves us from passivity to action and can propel us to leave an abusive situation, to make changes, to stand up for injustice. We do not want to suppress, ignore, or get rid of anger. It is a crucial part of our ability to take care of ourselves.

Unfortunately, when we are in anger, our nervous system is flooded with stress hormones and the part of our brain that understands about consequence, kindness, and wisdom doesn’t get the oxygen and glucose it needs to function properly. We are operating from the emotional center, the limbic region of the brain. You may notice that in anger, we are very limited and focused—on what is going wrong. We lose the ability to see a bigger picture and to see we have choices. We become reactive and depending upon our conditioning we may yell, fight, both physically or verbally, or escape without understanding the consequences of our actions. In anger as the Dalai Lama says, “we lose the best part of our brain.”

Another aspect of anger I can speak to is the addictive quality of anger. The opioid receptors in the neuropeptide system link the behavior—the action of anger with the reward of pleasure and relief. We get a spike of dopamine when we act or speak in anger, the same high that accompanies narcotics, sugar, or sex. In anger, we are flooded with adrenalin which gives us purpose and provokes action. We can enjoy this feeling of importance and derive pleasure from the righteousness of being wronged. We can get swept out to sea by our anger and the resulting pleasure from the neurochemical cascade and wonder how our mindfulness evaporated so quickly.

I’ve learned over the past years that anger gives plenty of warnings, so I have the opportunity to stop and attend to the feelings that are present before it gets to boiling. As Tara Brach tells us, “everything belongs,” even our emotional responses. We don’t have to shame ourselves or get rid of our angry reactions but recognize that we are called to witness our anger with the same compassion and curiosity we bring to all other aspects of our experience. We can acknowledge that we are fully responsible for the creation of our emotions and what we choose to do with them. This is karma, the literal consequences that result from our actions.

So how do we engage with anger skillfully? When I was so angry, I found myself struggling with the energy of the anger itself—which brought me into the forever humbling experience of being a human being who is subject to stress and overwhelm. I have learned that despite years of practice, anger is one of the strongest biological and habitual snares I’ve encountered. Although I didn’t discharge my anger at anyone—it certainly made my life a hell realm for a while. I found myself shaking my head at how small I had let my world become. When I looked at the situation from a cooler perspective, I saw that my feelings of being trapped, overwhelmed, and helpless could have been resolved with two phone calls and the magic word, “no.”

Montna fieldDharma teacher Joanne Friday asks us to consider if we are a victim or a student in this lifetime. When I acted from a place where I forgot I had a choice, I was a victim and my anger reflected the injustice and powerlessness of that perception. When I looked at my response as a student—I saw that old habits made me consider other’s needs and happiness above my own. When I agreed to do more than I could, I sacrificed my ease and physical wellbeing. My anger was the cry of my own body and mind that wanted to be considered and to matter.

What I forget and learn over and over, is that I need to matter to myself. When I matter to myself, I understand the limits of my abilities. I don’t overload my schedule. I get support for the heavy lifting—both physically and metaphorically in my life. This takes real mindfulness of the body and mind and recognition of our moment by moment experience. Mattering to myself isn’t narcissistic flattery or propping up my ego with importance. It means that I extend the same care and concern for myself as I do for the other people in my life.

This week I invite you to take some time out to see how you are mattering to yourself. Are you responding from habit and doing what you always do—feelings of irritation, frustration, and wanting things to be different are a hint that we are not considering our own wellbeing. What are some actions we can take to let ourselves know we matter? Time for play and relaxation, getting help, adequate sleep, time to eat without rushing, respecting ourselves enough to arrange travel time so we arrive refreshed and calm—all these strategies can help undo the conditioning that tells us to hurry and to abandon ourselves. When we value the quality of our own consciousness and we demonstrate it with our words, deeds, and thoughts, we are learning to entrust ourselves into our own care. Looking with wisdom at how we support our practice and our own capacity for peace and resilience creates the framework that strengthens our commitment to living in awareness with compassion for all beings—including ourselves.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Mindfulness is a source of happiness

 

Death and Rebirth

white fern

White fern, photo by Celia

“You can’t beat death but

you can beat death in life, sometimes.

and the more often you learn to do it,

the more light there will be.” ~ Charles Bukowski

“This body is not me.

I am not limited by this body.

I am life without boundaries.

I have never been born,

and I have never died.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“The wise person, heedful,

acquires a two-fold welfare:

welfare in this life &

welfare in the next.

By breaking through to his welfare

he’s called prudent,

wise.”

~Ittha Sutta: What is Welcome, Thanissaro, B., trans.

Dear friends,

A few months ago, I went to a drinks party at a neighbor’s house. My practice includes adherence to the five mindfulness trainings (precepts) which include non-harming and non-intoxication and I practice veganism and do not drink alcohol. These two things invariably lead to folks asking “why”. When I explained I was a member of a Buddhist order, the first question was, “So, you believe in reincarnation?” This really surprised me. I explained that in our tradition it was termed, “rebirth,” and most Buddhists I know do not spend much time thinking or worrying about past or future lifetimes. We have enough to keep us busy just trying to be present in this lifetime. The thing is that whatever we were, whatever we have done, it is all manifesting in this lifetime and we don’t need to look very hard to figure out who and what we were before. Everything that exists in this present moment is made of the past and everything in the future is made of this present moment.

If we are hoping for a good rebirth in the next life, or better yet, a good life in this lifetime—one we can enjoy right now, we can see the roots in the law of cause and effect. In the Dhammapada, the poetic book of verses accredited to the Buddha, the opening verse states that mind creates all things, all states of being, all realities, and that “If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox” (Buddharakkhita, A. trans., 1996). And the Buddha points out what we can expect if we act in alignment with our highest values, “If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow” (Buddharakkhita, A. trans., 1996). 2,600 years ago, the Buddha was telling us that we have more choice than we know about our lives…and the next.

Galston cowThich Nhat Hahn speaks about the “game of hide and seek” we play between life and death. The way we hide is in the form we take, which is impermanent and changeable. This human body is subject to the first law of thermodynamics, which states that matter is neither created or destroyed, but changes form; matter can manifest as liquid, vapor, or gas and transition back to solids. Physicists tell us an electron can behave as both a particle and a wave, it is not limited to one form. We can experience the same transition of energy in our life as thoughts transform into speech and actions. When we think of someone who was kind to us, even if they have died, we feel the warmth of their loving when we remember them. Their energy lights us up. Thich Nhat Hanh uses the word “continuation” when he speaks of dying because we do not stop being—we continue as another form. We can understand that we continue the lives of others, especially our blood ancestors—we have them in every cell of our being. We continue the energy of their life when we act in alignment with what they taught us through their lives.

The moment of death is very important for Buddhists. The last thought we think as we die creates our continuation. Dying is an opportunity for enlightenment and the Buddha taught that those who train in loving kindness can hope for a death with lucidity and calm and a happy continuation; “one dies unconfused; and — on the break-up of the body, after death — one reappears in the good destinations” (Ekamsena Sutta: Categorically, AN 2.18, Thanissaro, trans.). The thoughts we produce have an effect on us and upon others. The Buddha spoke about people who had thoughts of doubt or were swamped with regret at the moment of death—these thoughts actively led to a less happy death and a less happy destination for the next life. The thoughts we think are important and the way to steady the mind on what is wholesome is to train during our lifetime.

We don’t have to wait until we are dying to recall our goodness and love our life—we can do it now. We can consider, “what do I want my last thought to be?” Do I want to remember how others hurt me or my mistakes? When we understand that we have limited time on this planet, we can take care of repairing and making amends in the present. We can give ourselves the permission to deeply love the life we do have, to wake up and wonder what will delight us today and what opportunities will we have to delight others. We must begin this practice now so when our time comes and we are dying, we will have the presence of mind to recall our own goodness, to recognize the value of our life, to realize our transition with clarity and non-fear. That is the best gift we can give ourselves, to wake up to loving our own life, fully immersed in this great mystery of birth and death.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

no death no fear