Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Resenting the Fire for Burning

I've been contemplating anger ever since I bullied a bully last week and gave in to my anger. I latched myself onto the idea that there is such a thing as "Righteous Anger" but it turns out I was deluded. Again.

According to Allan Wallace, concepts like Righteous Anger or "Righteous Hatred" make about as much as sense as "righteous cancer" or "righteous tuberculosis." They are all absurd.

He goes on to explain in "Tibetan Buddhism From the Ground Up:"

"This does not mean one should never take action against aggression or injustice. Instead, one should try and develop an inner calmness and insight to deal with these situations in an appropriate way ... One could say that there are three ways to get rid of anger: kill the opponent, kill yourself or kill the anger. Which one makes the most sense to you?"

I don't know about you, but I feel lousy when I'm angry. Sure, anger unexpressed turns into depression, but anger expressed is still ... anger. It makes me tense. Makes me clench my jaw, hunch my shoulders — makes me an uptight wreck. I don't want to live like that. I don't want to be angry any more. It doesn't solve anything and the only one who really seems to suffer from it and ponder over it for days is, uh, me.

So if I thought my anger was somehow productive in effecting my opponent, it's just not. The object of your wrath rarely loses sleep over it. Well, hell, even if they did, chances are you lose sleep too. Or if you're not losing sleep, you're gaining weight, or losing weight, or jacking up your heart rate, snapping at your friends, whatever. There is a consequence to your anger. Since I can't control the Object of My Wrath, I've got to do something about that which I can control: Me.

Me, me, me.

I know, Buddhism is such a selfish religion.

It's actually not unlike the Serenity Prayer the alcoholics are always chanting:

"God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference."

Buddhism certainly doesn't have the market cornered on letting go of the things you can't control. Of course every time I see the Serenity Prayer, I can't help but think of George Kostanza's "Serenity NOW!" campaign from "Seinfeld." I hear that little man screaming, "SERENITY NOW! SERENITY NOW!"

That's pretty much how I practice buddhism. Imperfectly.

The Dalai Lama has quite a bit to say on anger. "If we examine how anger or hateful thoughts arise in us, we will find that, generally speaking, they arise when we feel hurt, when we feel that we have been unfairly treated by someone against our expectations." In such an emotional state, it is a wonder how we can be reasonable. Our vision is too colored by the red rage of injustice glazing over our eyes. We can't hear what the other person is saying for the steam shooting out of our ears. The Dalai Lama explains: "It is almost as if [we] have become crazy. These are the negative effects of generating anger and hatred, we realize that it is necessary to distance ourselves from such emotional explosions." He goes on to say that money, power, even the law, cannot protect us from anger. Nothing can really protect us from anger, because there will still be those who treat us unfairly, who tell lies about us, who won't do what we want them to do ... such is life. "The only factor that can give refuge or protection from the destructive effects of anger is the practice of tolerance and patience."

I know, that sucks, right?

But the point is, anger is useless. It only causes the sufferer pain. The plain truth is, it's usually the people you're the most mad at who couldn't give a damn that you're mad at them. They sleep the sleep of angels, I assure you. That's why they piss you off so much!

No good! No good, I say! We have got to let it go or else it's going to consume us and our rapidly passing lives. Such a waste. Michael B. Ross wrote of how to deal with anger while he was on death row. What he wrote about, was forgiveness.

I know. Try not to recoil from the screen, please.

"Forgiveness is a form of realism. It doesn't deny, minimize, or justify what others have done to us or the pain that we have suffered. It encourages us to look squarely at those old wounds and see them for what they are. And it allows us to see how much energy we have wasted and how much we have damaged ourselves by not forgiving."

I have not forgiven my mother for drinking her way through my childhood. I have not forgiven my son's father for sleeping his way through my city. Not forgiving these two acts of betrayal — and that is how I experience both of them — has not done me a whit of good. Every time I think of the injustice, of the wrong these people have done me, it makes me physically ill. I can bring tears to my eyes if I think on it too long. I am almost weak with rage at the thought of what these two people did to me, an innocent.


You can see my life 20/20, I bet? I'm sure you're all shaking your heads at the waste of my time and energy over these people's choices. Their lives. It's got nothing to do with me, I'm sure you all can see it. What an impotent rage mine is. I'm never going to get a satisfactory answer of "Why?" from either of these folks, and I'm certainly never going to get a satisfactory apology. Truth is, the only thing that would suffice is for them to take it back.

I just wish they hadn't a' done it.

Good lord, writing that now, I see even more clearly how pointless my anger is. Michael B. Ross agrees:

"Forgiveness is a sign of positive self-esteem. We no longer identify ourselves by our past injuries and injustices. We are no longer victims. We claim the right to stop hurting when we say, 'I'm tired of the pain, and I want to be healed.' ... Forgiveness is no longer wanting to punish those who hurt us. It is understanding that the anger and hatred we feel toward them hurts us far more than it hurts them."

Amen. If this man was a preacher, I'd convert. Then again, my Buddha said much the same thing: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” I don't know how many times I've read that quote, and despite knowing it's true, I still return to anger over and over again.

Why do I keep picking up that hot coal?

Because I am human, and as such, imperfect. I will probably pick it up again and again. In fact, buddhists are fond of anecdotes about picking things up we shouldn't. This one is from Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche:

"If someone insults us, we usually dwell on it, asking ourselves, 'Why did he say that to me?' and on and on. It's as if someone shoots an arrow at us, but it falls short. Focusing on the problem is like picking the arrow up and repeatedly stabbing ourselves with it, saying, 'He hurt me so much. I can't believe he did that.'"

Oh lordy, that sounds like me.

So how do I stop it? Apparently with patience. Yes, that's right, it's back to the Sacred Pause again. Anything I do in anger, I am bound to regret. But if I stop and consider the conflict, consider what is making me upset, and sit with it a spell ... perhaps I will see things with greater clarity. Perhaps I will not respond with the red rage of a victim?

I will practice on it, I will meditate on it. I will cultivate patience, and hopefully, in time, I will get better at it. I can count to 100 to perhaps stifle my rage. I can go outside and take a walk. I can run on the treadmill at the YMCA. I can remind myself that all beings want to be free from suffering, we all want to be happy. Even the person who is attacking me. Perhaps they are reacting in rage, in fear, with a sense of injustice at my hands? Am I all-seeing? Am I all-knowing? Can I claim to know their life experience?


So when I was called a bully by a bully ... perhaps he was right.

I shouldn't have scoffed at it. Perhaps I recoiled from it because the truth hurt? If it wasn't true, I wouldn't be ruminating over it now, days later. I wouldn't still carry this unease in my shoulders. I own those things, not him. I read something by Rilke once, and it haunts me:

"...perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us."

I used to think of that more often, and I used to remind myself that any dragons attacking me may well be wearing pink pointy hats and languishing in towers. It's actually quite helpful. Try it the next time some asshole is enraging you. Put him in a pink hat, with long blonde hair flowing out of a turret. It helps. You get to be the knight in shining armor rather than the asshole who slayed a pretty princess by mistake.

Another trick I have used is imagining my attacker as my son, or any child for that matter. If my son lashes out at me, it is much easier for me to be patient. Those pink cherub cheeks and those huge Kewpie doll eyes are difficult to find threatening. I try to treat anyone in a rage as a child about to run in the street.

With care.

With concern for their well-being.

With a slap on the ass.

Okay, kidding. My point is, sometimes my son pisses me off. Particularly when he calls me fat. Yes, my four-year-old has already figured out the one thing that will piss Mama off. Usually I just say, "That hurt my feelings!" and try to ignore the gleam in his eye. Sometimes I burst into tears. (Okay, once.)

Look, nothing is perfect, and there is no quick-fix to coping with anger. I think the best advice is to be aware that your anger is hurting you, and that you're going to need to practice some patience and forgiveness in order to get over it.

And by you, I mean "me."

"It is natural for the immature to harm others. Getting angry with them is like resenting a fire for burning." -Shantideva

Monday, July 21, 2008

Enlightenment With A Pickaxe

I've been reading this Radical Acceptance book and one thing that really strikes me is that you can accept bad feelings. Whoa nelly, hold the horses, drop your chaps and call me a rodeo clown. I had no idea.

My main way of dealing with negative feelings is to talk myself out of them. I feel bad, I tell myself, "You're fine." I feel bad some more, I tell myself, "You're honestly fine." I feel worse, I tell myself, "Knock it off, you're fine." I do it over and over again and then I feel sort of numb, which is better than "bad" and I've presumed this must be the elusive "fine" everyone's always preaching about.

This Tara Brach lady who wrote Radical Acceptance suggests just recognizing you feel lousy if you feel lousy. Recognize it, accept it, sit with it. So I guess this morning I'll just sit with my lousy feeling rather than tell myself I don't feel lousy. My concern is that I know damn well I can talk myself into a pit of misery. I learned it from my mother.

My way of rebelling has been a stubborn optimism and a refusal to quit. Fuck depression, fuck anxiety, fuck every bad feeling, they're not going to get the best of me. I've gotten through life just based on pure resilience and determination to not be like my mother. But the trouble is, I still get the sneaking suspicion that something's not right.

You can only tamp it all down for so long and for so many times before you just flip the switch and say, "Fuck it, I'm not happy! God dammit! I've been doing everything right! Fuck a duck! Damn sam! Screw it all! I'm pissed!" And then you want to kick something.

I prefer puppies, but there aren't any handy.

Stupid puppies.

So maybe I'll try something different. The Brach lady suggests just naming how you are feeling. Just a list of feelings and emotions, a list of things you don't have to contradict or judge. Just spill it. I'll try, but I suspect this is going to be hard for me, because I usually like to edit things and make them just a little bit better.


Oh. That last word suprised me. My therapist once told me that depression is anger unexpressed. Dammit, am I pissed? Because if I'm pissed, that's going to piss me off. Dammit. Fuck a duck.

Well shoot. I feel better. Lighter. Oh my god, like a weight has been taken off my shoulders. Is this insane? Can it be this easy? Is it possible that the simple act of NOT telling myself I'm not feeling bad has made me feel better?

Sometimes I look back over the last nineteen years of my fumblings with buddhist practice and I remind myself more of a crazed girl swinging a pickaxe than the peaceful buddha sitting under the bodhi tree.

Turns out I'm not fine.

Turns out I'm mad.

And I'm not exactly sure why. The funny thing is, that doesn't seem to matter so much. It just feels better to know I'm mad, and to feel the smooth wood handle of the pickaxe as it swings.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Significant Pause

I didn't publish a blog on Friday that made fun of someone's enormous face. I did it in the name of the buddhist precept, "Right Speech." I usually know when I'm not using "Right Speech" because I have a nagging sensation that I'm not being nice and whatever it is I'm about to say or write, I probably shouldn't.

Of course, impulsive youngest child that I am, I usually shrug off that feeling (dismiss it as "No Fun!") and go ahead and go for the laughs. But I tried something different on Friday, and then wound up reading about "The Sacred Pause" on Sunday.

The Sacred Pause is that moment when you choose to not react, to not be impulsive. That moment when you overcome your own pressing need to be heard, to vent, to matter. If we could only just pause and listen to what someone else has to say rather than trying to get a word in edgewise, or if we only paused long enough to consider our own misgivings for what we are about to do, we might actually save ourselves a lot of grief.  We get more perspective on the situation if we just shut our mouths.

It's hard to think and consider, to weigh the situation objectively, if you're constantly reacting. In the reaction mode we defend ourselves, we fight, we try to win regardless of the bloody aftermath. When you pause you actually gain the advantage, if you think about it.

You can watch while your opponent (whether it be friend, lover, co-worker, Self) flails, yells, prattles, cries — and in  your pause you might actually learn something. Maybe you'll notice their body language, perhaps you'll hear their words, perhaps in  your own moment of stillness during the cyclone that's hit, you'll realize what is actually going on behind the surface. You can at least figure out what your own motivations are. You'll be less likely to regret something you said, in self-defense or anger. And when you're battling with Self, if you pause, you may actually discover that there is no demon. There is no fight.

It was only a moment. A moment of fear, of rage, of insecurity — whatever — and it passed like the thousands of ceaseless waves that crash upon the shore and slide gently back to sea. Why fight the waves? Why scream at them for threatening the sand? So many useless, wearisome battles. If we keep fighting them all, we'll be used up, dried up things by the time it's time to die. I don't want to live my life fighting and regretting.

I like the idea of hitting the Pause button. Seems we're always pressing Play. Or we get hurt and insist we're pressing Stop and we're not going to listen ever again. Pause offers a Middle Way. Pause says we're just going to rest a bit while we consider. Pause implies we'll play again — but not just yet.

There's much to learn in silence.

By pausing on Friday I learned that it was my own insecurity that caused me to write that blog. I couched it in humor and it certainly would have made you laugh, but my insecurity was misplaced. To direct any unkindness towards a girl who once dated my boyfriend, or towards any of the women he may have dated, is just perpetuating the hurt in my jealous, fearful heart.

Let it go, baby.

You won. There are no more demons to battle, no girls to mock. Let them go nurse their heartaches undisturbed by you. Let them go and love others, free from your judgement and superiority. Turn your eyes to what you have, right now.

The past is nothing. The future unknown. Happiness lies here, in this moment now. Let us pause here for a spell.

(Source: I'm currently reading Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach, PhD. The "Sacred Pause" comes from her book.)

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

An Unexpected Guest

Guest House

This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


Sometimes you come across just the right words at just the right time. This weekend I listened to vitriolic voicemail after vitriolic voicemail, each one nastier than the previous. Each one mocking me, making fun of me, questioning my morals, questioning my decency, lambasting my character.

I mean, it could be laughable since this diatribe was mainly based on the fact that I wear high-heeled shoes (hence, I am a whore). But even the laughable isn't so funny if you hear enough of it.

I really wish Mom wouldn't call so often.


It wasn't my mom, and it wasn't a friend or family member — or anyone that has anything to do with me. It was a very troubled person, a person who is suffering, a person who would like to see me suffer, others suffer — anything to not be alone with such intolerable pain. In such a state, we can fire off shots haphazardly, not caring who they hit, only hoping they hit someone other than ourselves. Well, in this case the person knew her desired target.

If only they knew there's no need. Everyone suffers, you don't need to supply suffering to anyone. None of us is alone in pain.

And though I was rattled by this tirade, and though I was shaken to hear such things about myself — however untrue — I dug down deep into myself and found a shelter there. I know who I am. After all these years, after all this struggle, I really do know me. It has taken so long, and there have been many curves along the path, times I got lost and more times that I fell, but they've gotten me to where I am.

And those things for which some would have me be the most ashamed, are actually the things of which I am the most proud. I am a single mother. I had a child out of wedlock. And truth be told, that has made me who I am today. I am so much stronger, so much more resilient than I ever knew I could be. Having the strength to say "No" to those who would bully me into an abortion changed something in me forever.

I never had to take a stand before that day, or I never had the will. I never thought I was strong enough, important enough — hell, never thought I was "enough."

Well I am enough. I like me as I am. I am better for the very things you would criticize. And so bring it. Bring your criticisms and your judgments, call me a whore. Hell, sew that red letter and affix it to my chest, it won't change me. I know who I am and I like who I am.

I am remarkably human. Fragile. Imperfect.

Any other names you want to toss at me may stick or they may fall. It doesn't matter. So far as I'm concerned they're just synonyms for my humanity, and yours. You lob your pain at me in hopes to rid yourself. I see it. So toss away, toss away your pain, your rage and that profound fear that threatens to tear you apart.

If it lessens your suffering, I can take it. I know your words will fall away as I continue on my path, and I'll thank you for reminding me of who I am, and of how much love I have discovered in myself.

Namaste, suffering woman. You are a guest in my house, and I will make something lovely from your pain. Let it humble me, and let it teach me to love even more. I only wish the same for you.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

How Our Kids Love Us And How To Love Them Back

My son is leaving me for a week.

I'm half-excited for the freedom, and half-sad to have him gone that long. I don't think he's ever been gone from me that long when I wasn't on vacation or on a business trip. It's going to be hard to be at home for a week without him.

Last night he snuck into my bedroom and played with my hair while we listened to the thunder.

"I'm going to miss you when you're gone," I said.

"Like you missed Fred?"


"I'll come back, Mama," he said, not sounding at all sad to be leaving. He's never sad to leave me.

"Who will be my teddy bear?" I asked, trying to guilt him a little.

"Fred," he said.

He wrapped his arm around me and slipped his fingers through my hair over and over again until he fell asleep. I reminded myself that the fact that he is so comfortable leaving me, and so unconcerned about me is a good thing. I've done a good job. My son does not feel responsible for my happiness. He knows I'll be here when he gets back, and I'll be just fine.

But still.

Sometimes I wish I knew he missed me. Or maybe just once he could be sad to see me go? Okay, there was a time or two that he was sad, and I didn't like that. Whenever I get to thinking that his dad is his favorite and I'm just reliable old mom, I remember that when I pick him up from daycare, he always has a picture he's drawn from that day. For me. Of me. And my yellow hair.

And when he was named Student of the Week, this is what he had to say in his interview:

"Hi my name is CRACKY.

I am 4 years old. My favorite thing to do at home is play with my toys.

When I am at school I like to make art. I have 0 brothers and sisters. My favorite thing to watch on TV is "Aladdin." My favorite color is Dark Blue. My favorite food is chicken nuggets. My favorite animal is a horse. My favorite toy is Potato Head.

If I went on vacation I would go to my Mama's work and bring my music playing thing."

I guess he does love me after all. I mean, he must, if his idea of a vacation is coming to work with me. And I guess I don't need him to carry on about how much he'll miss me in order to know that. Besides, what's important here is that he knows I love him.

That's the way parenting works.