Mid-way through a peaceful ramble through the bush a few weeks ago, my friends Maddy, Tess and I came to a standstill when our conversation got on to the topic of how much anger is expressed, in sometimes astonishingly vitriolic forms, when unpopular views are voiced in the media.
Writers of opinion pieces regularly devote columns to expressing their shock and dismay at receiving floods of abusive and threatening messages after touching, sometimes quite innocently, on a topic that unleashes unrestrained fury in a large number of their readers. It’s a disturbing phenomenon – we found we weren’t capable of walking and talking about it at the same time. Maddy’s little son Zeke looked on quizzically from his vantage point in a pack on Maddy’s back while we gesticulated. At one point, attempting to move along the track while still conversing, I fell off the wooden walkway into the reeds on one side. What’s going on, here?
An obvious point is that it is difficult to converse, bushwalk backwards, and maintain your dignity and physical safety all at the same time. I don’t suggest you try it at home.
Another obvious point, which is more to the point, is that the possibility of instantaneous, electronic communication with strangers (as well as friends) means that anger can be expressed with fewer inhibitions than ever before.
You can let yourself go when writing an email or contributing to an online discussion, and send the message while passion is still running high, in a way that you wouldn’t normally do in face to face communication, or if you had to wait until the next day to post a letter, and certainly not if you had to get the message past an editor in order for it to reach its audience. The restraints that operate to keep anger in check in other communicative situations aren’t readily available online.
Another, slightly less obvious point is that many people seem to contain a reservoir of anger, that has been filled drip by drip, day by day, until it’s ready to overflow, so that the next irritant that triggers it, however minor or impersonal it may be, can break the restraining wall and unleash a wave that comes crashing towards the person who provoked that final drop.
I observed this phenomenon in my own response to a teacher on a 10-day meditation retreat at the beginning of this year. The retreat was held in Thailand, in an extraordinarily beautiful location. We stayed in floating bungalows on a lake surrounded by ancient rainforest, said to have greater biodiversity than the Amazon. The water was a perfect temperature for lazy swimming; there were kayaks readily available; there was even a masseuse on hand in case you developed some tension in your muscles from the hard work of daily yoga classes and meditation. And the quality of meditation instruction was very high — there were two teachers, a man and a woman, who had both trained extensively in Burma. On top of their skillful and engaging group instruction, they made themselves available for daily personal interviews with each member of our small group.
You might think that it would be practically impossible to get angry, or to sustain any anger that might somehow arise, in such a blissful and well-supported situation. But of course, you would be wrong.
After my first personal interview with the male teacher, I found myself crying tears of fury and frustration into the delicious green pawpaw salad I was eating for lunch. The retreat was held in silence, so no one asked me what was wrong, but the woman who was sitting closest to me later said that when she saw me crying she thought to herself, “Wow, that woman is really in touch with her feelings.” My own view was that I was way too close to them. Who wants to spend 10 days in an earthly paradise getting in touch with anger?
But this was a situation in which there was no easy outlet for aggressive emotion. I couldn’t send an abusive email, or even bitch to a third party about the way the teacher had spoken to me. I had no choice but to get still more deeply “in touch” with my anger. It was an interesting investigation. One thing I realized pretty quickly was that my reaction was out of all proportion to the apparent cause. It didn’t seem plausible that I was this angry, purely over the condescending, dismissive attitude a man whom I didn’t even know had taken toward me. Why should I even care about what he thought of me, especially on first, superficial impression?
I recently told this story at a dinner, and a woman at the table jumped in at this point to tell me I was right to be angry, that intelligent women are constantly treated
this way by men in positions of authority, especially in spiritual circles, and that too often we accept this demeaning behavior, or blame ourselves, feeling that we have somehow failed in the exchange, rather than recognizing that anger is an appropriate response: women shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of thing, and they shouldn’t support it by accepting it.
You see too many men playing the dubious role of guru in front of twenty women in leotards who treat them like minor deities. Obviously the women involved get something out of the exchange, too, but respect for women’s intelligence, and for intelligent women, is an immediate casualty.
She had a good point; I recognized the scenario she was describing (which can manifest with or without leotards, or even any kind of spiritually inflected fashion statement). At the same time, I knew it wouldn’t have been helpful or just for me to unleash my anger over this kind of thing on the teacher I met in Thailand. He was only the last in a series. Alone he wouldn’t have provoked more than mild frustration and surprise.
It turned out that “getting in touch” with my anger meant realizing this — seeing the structural causes, and the long chain of events that had contributed to the store of anger that I carried with me to Thailand. At this level, anger becomes understanding, even wisdom, an energy that can drive action rather than reaction. It takes restraint to resist reacting to anger while it’s raw, but it seems to me that if you manage to do this and stay “in touch” with the feeling rather than suppressing it, you can get to a point of understanding where it’s possible to let the anger move you in invigorating, positive ways that don’t do violence to anyone.
On my reading, this process is described in the first four verses of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra, a famous text on the philosophy of yoga. Here is my (unorthodox) translation:
1. Now! The teaching of yoga.
2. Yoga restrains the whirling of the mind.
3. Then the see’er dwells in her or his own form.
4. S/he takes the form of the whirling, (to put it) otherwise.
In summary, the instruction for working with anger is:
Now! stop, then dwell, and dance.
A few days after the dinner, I did a yoga class taught by the woman who’d intervened so passionately when I was talking about my experience in Thailand. I watchedand followed as she demonstrated breathing exercises and yoga postures surrounded by a group of about twenty women wearing leotards, plus a couple of men in similar outfits. She herself was dressed in loose white dance top and shorts, of very thin, soft material, worn over black tights and a ti
ght black top, and although she was sitting on the floor like the rest of us, she seemed somehow elevated. She had the rapt attention of the whole group, whether she was simply drawing her hand slowly toward her chest, exhaling, or executing an impossibly perfect upward dog (that last bit is not a violent departure into automatic writing, it makes quite ordinary sense in the language of yoga). Perhaps it would be an exaggeration to say that we were gazing at her as if in the presence of a goddess, but there was definitely an air of devotion in the room.
Justine McGill is a philosopher and a tango dancer, who also practices Buddhism, meditation and yoga. All this comes together in her practice of tango philosophy.