Have you been wronged?
Anger is tricky.
On the one hand, anger – feeling annoyed, irritated, resentful, fed up, mad, outraged, or enraged – alerts us to real threats, real injuries, and real wrongs that need correcting, and it energizes and fuels us to do something about them. In my family growing up, my parents had a monopoly on anger. So, I suppressed my own, along with a lot of other feelings, and it’s been a long journey to reclaim my interior, including anger, and be able to feel it fully and (hopefully) express it skillfully.
Whether in personal relationships or in the halls of power, people in positions of authority or privilege often tell others that they don’t deserve to be angry, they shouldn’t get so worked up, it’s their own fault, etc. when in fact they have every reason and right in the world to be angry. It is certainly important to know in your heart what is actually happening, how bad it is, what the causes are, and what to do – and decide for yourself how much you want to get or stay angry.
What can you do when you’re shaken?
Find your ground.
I’ve been to New Zealand, and really respect and like it. There’s a Maori term – turangawaewae, “a place to stand” – that I’ve come back to many times.
I’m sure I don’t know the full meaning of the word in its cultural context. But at a basic level, it’s clear that we all need a place to stand. A physical place to be sure – hearth and home, land and sea, a bed to curl up in – but also psychological or spiritual places, such as feeling loved, a calm clear center inside, knowledge of the facts, compassion and ethics, and realistic plans.
This is our ground, the place we rest in and move out from . . . even under the best of circumstances. And when you’re shaken by events at any scale – from changes in your health to changes in your country or world (here’s a recent post you may find relevant: Take Heart) – then it’s especially important to find and hold your ground.
What can you do when there’s nothing you can do?
Sometimes something happens. Perhaps your sweet old cat takes a turn for the worse, or there’s a money problem, or your son waves goodbye as he gets on a plane to start college on the other side of the country. Sometimes it’s on a larger scale: maybe there’s been an election and you’re grappling with its consequences (see my last post on this topic: Take Heart).
Or you might be dealing with something ongoing, like a dead-end job (or no job at all), life after divorce, chronic pain, or a teenager who won’t talk to you.
Whatever it is, at first it’s normal to feel rattled, frozen, or unclear about what to do. After awhile, you do what you can to change things for the better. But often there’s not much you can actually change, and sometimes nothing at all.
Still, there is always one thing you can do, no matter what.
What do you do when the bottom falls out?
It takes heart to live in even ordinary times.
By “taking heart,” I mean several related things:
- Sensing your heart and chest
- Finding encouragement in what is good both around you and inside you
- Resting in your own warmth, compassion, and kindness; resting in the caring for you from others; love flowing in and love flowing out
- Being courageous, whole-hearted and strong-hearted – going forward wisely even when anxious, knowing your own truth and as you speak it
When you take heart, you’re more able to deal with challenges like aging, illness, trauma, or conflicts with others. You’re also more able to take advantage of opportunities with confidence and grit.
What’s in your heart to say?
It’s been said that the most powerful tool for physical health is a fork (or spoon), since the choices you make with it determine the good or bad things you put into your body.
In the same way, perhaps the most powerful tool for your mental health – and certainly for the health of your relationships – is your tongue. Thousands of times each day, it (or your fingers on a keyboard: same thing) offers the good word or the bad one out into your world.
What's the "wallpaper" in your own mind?
Are you full to the rim?
Finish what is in your cup.
Once upon a time, a scholar came to visit a saint. After the scholar had been orating and propounding for a while, the saint proposed some tea. She slowly filled the scholar's cup: gradually the tea rose to the very brim and began spilling over onto the table, yet she kept pouring and pouring. The scholar burst out: "Stop! You can't add anything to something that's already full!" The saint set down the teapot and replied, "Exactly."
Whether it's the blankness of a canvas to an artist, the silence between the notes in music, bare dirt for a new garden, the not-knowing openness of a scientist exploring new hypotheses, an unused shelf in a closet or cupboard, or some open time in your schedule, you need space to act effectively, dance with your partners, and have room around your emotional reactions.
Yet most of us, me included, tend to stuff as much as possible into whatever room is available - room in closets, schedules, budgets, relationships, and even the mind itself.
When feeling scattered, collect and concentrate your thoughts and feelings.
To what is your mind given?
Come to a place of calm center.
I’m old enough to remember a time when people usually answered “good” when you asked them the standard, “How are you?” (often said “harya?”). These days the answer is commonly “busy.”
I know what it feels like to get very busy and start to feel dispersed: juggling a dozen priorities at any moment, attention skittering from one thing to another, body revved up, feeling stretched thin and spread out like being squished between two sheets of glass.
Do you know the feeling? Besides being both unpleasant and a spigot of stress hormones, it’s weirdly contagious. Spreading from one person to another and fueled in part by the underlying economics of consumerism, we now have a Western and especially American culture of busyness. If you’re not busy, you must not be important. If you don’t have a lot on your mind, you must be under-performing. If your kids aren’t busy with homework and after-school activities, they won’t get ahead. If you don’t look busy, someone will ask you to work harder. Etc.
Enough already. Instead of being scattered to the four winds, collect and concentrate your mind and energy. Besides feeling a lot better, it’s more effective in the long run. For example, what does an Olympic gymnast do before launching a tumbling run or a rocket before heading into space? Come to center.
When deeper wants are recognized one feels seen and less likely to be reactive.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, what are the deepest wants of all?
See intense wants.
I did my Ph.D. dissertation by videotaping 20 mother-toddler pairs and analyzing what happened when the mom offered an alternative to a problematic want ("not the chainsaw, sweetie, how about this red truck"). Hundreds of bleary-eyed hours later, I found that offering alternatives reduced child negative emotion and increased cooperation with the parent.
Pretty interesting (at least to me, both as a new parent and as someone desperate to finish grad school). And there's an even deeper lesson. Kids—and adults, too—obviously want to get what they want from others. But more fundamentally, we want to know that others understand our wants—and even more fundamentally, that they want to.
In every life, reminders arrive about what's really key.
What matters most to you?
Remember the important things.
In every life, reminders arrive about what's really important.
I’ve received some myself, as I’m sure you have, too. Perhaps it was news of a potentially serious health problem, the death of a loved one, or an accident that could have turned fatal. These are uncomfortably concrete messages that sooner or later something will catch up with each one of us.
When I’m pierced with one of these reminders, it’s like there are three layers in my mind. The top layer is focused on problem-solving. Beneath that is what seems like a furry little animal that’s upset and wants to curl up and be hugged. The bottom layer feels accepting, peaceful, and grateful.
Fighting with the hard things in life just makes them worse.
Is it hard?
Be Accepting of difficulty.
Sometimes things are difficult. Your legs are tired and you still have to stay on your feet another hour at work. You love a child who's finding her independence through emotional distance from you. A long-term relationship could be losing its spark. It's finals week in college. You're trying to start a business and it's struggling. You've got a chronic health problem or a disability. Sometimes people don't appreciate your work. You're being discriminated against or otherwise treated unjustly. The body ages, sags, and grows weary.
Plus there are all the little hassles of everyday life. You're in an airport and can't get wifi (the injustice!). You're at home looking for the ice cream and someone ate the last of it. You're talking to your partner and realize he or she isn't really paying attention.
By recognizing positive intentions we feel safer, supported, and happier.
What do others want?
Notice good intentions.
Hustling through an airport, I stopped to buy some water. At the shop’s refrigerator, a man was bent over, loading bottles into it. I reached past him and pulled out one he’d put in. He looked up, stopped working, got a bottle from another shelf, and held it out to me, saying “This one is cold.” I said thanks and took the one he offered.
He didn’t know me and would never see me again. His job was stocking, not customer service. He was busy and looked tired. But he took the time to register that I’d gotten a warm bottle, and he cared enough to shift gears and get me a cold one. He wished me well.
I can see his friendly eyes as I write now, a week later. It was just a bottle of water. But I feel warmed by his kindness and buoyed by his good intentions.
Recognizing the positive intentions in others, we feel safer, more supported, and happier. And when others feel that you get their good intentions, they feel seen, appreciated, and more inclined to treat you well.
When healthy inclinations become "shouldas," then there is a big problem.
Is it really true?
The Practice: Forget the "shoulda's."
One time I watched a three-year-old at her birthday party. Her friends were there from preschool, and she received lots of presents. The cake came out, she admired the pink frosting rose at its center, and everyone sang. One of the moms cut pieces and without thinking sliced right through the rose - a disaster for this little girl. "I shoulda had the rose!" she yelled. "I shoulda shoulda SHOULDA had the rose!" Nothing could calm her down, not even pushing the two pieces of cake together to look like a whole rose. Nothing else mattered, not the friends, not the presents, not the day as a whole: she was insistent, something MUST happen. She had, just HAD to get the whole rose.
Can you stay open to the pain of others?
Be at peace with the pain of others.
Humans are an empathic, compassionate, and loving species, so it is natural to feel sad, worried, or fiery about the troubles and pain of other people. (And about those of cats and dogs and other animals, but I’ll focus on human beings here.)
Long ago, the Buddha spoke of the “first dart” of unavoidable physical pain. Given our hardwired nature as social beings, when those we care about are threatened or suffer, there is another kind of first dart: unavoidable emotional pain.
For example, if you heard about people who go to bed hungry – as a billion of us do each night – of course your heart would be moved. I’m usually a pretty calm guy, but when I visited Haiti, I was in a cold rage at the appalling conditions in which most people there lived. On a lesser scale but still real, a friend’s son has just started college and is calling home to tell his mom how lonely and miserable he feels; of course she’s worried and upset.
Can you be with the whole of your psyche?
Let it R.A.I.N.
When you're young, the territory of the psyche is like a vast estate, with rolling hills, forests and plains, swamps and meadows. So many things can be experienced, expressed, wanted, and loved.
But as life goes along, most people pull back from major parts of their psyche. Perhaps a swamp of sadness was painful, or fumes of toxic wishes were alarming, or jumping exuberantly in a meadow of joy irritated a parent into a scolding. Or maybe you saw someone else get in trouble for feeling, saying, or doing something and you resolved, consciously or unconsciously, to Stay Away From That Place Forever.
In whatever way it happens, most of us end up by mid-adulthood living in the gate house, venturing out a bit, but lacking much sense of the whole estate, the great endowment of the whole psyche. Emotions are shut down, energetic and erotic wellsprings of vitality are capped, deep longings are set aside, sub-personalities are shackled and silenced, old pain and troubles are buried, the roots of reactions - hurt, anger, feelings of inadequacy - are veiled so we can't get at them, and we live at odds with both Nature and our own nature.
Sure, the processes of the psyche need some regulation. Not all thoughts should be spoken, and not all desires should be acted upon! But if you suppress, disown, push away, recoil from, or deny major parts of yourself, then you feel cut off, alienated from yourself, lacking vital information about what is really going on inside, no longer at home in your own skin or your own mind - which feels bad, lowers effectiveness at home and work, fuels interpersonal issues, and contributes to health problems.
We spend so much of our time trying to get somewhere.
Are we there yet?
Relax, you are already there..
We spend so much of our time trying to get somewhere.
Part of this comes from our biological nature. To survive, animals – including us – have to be goal-directed, leaning into the future.
It’s certainly healthy to pursue wholesome aims, like paying the rent on time, raising children well, healing old pain, or improving education.
But it’s also important to see how this focus on the future – on endless striving, on getting the next task done, on climbing the next mountain – can get confused and stressful.
Claiming your part helps you step out of tangles with others and yourself.
What's your own role?
See your part.
In situations or relationships with any kind of difficulty—tension, feeling hurt, conflicts, mismatches of wants . . . the usual crud—it's natural to focus on what others have done that's problematic.
This could be useful for a while: it can energize you, bring insight into what the real priorities are for you, and help you see more clearly what you'd like others to change.
But there is also a cost: Fixating on the harms (actual or imagined) done by others revs up your case about them (see JOT "Drop the Case") with all the stresses and other problems that brings, plus it makes it harder to see the good qualities in those you have issues with, the influence of additional factors, and your own part in the matter.
For example, let's say you work with someone who is unfairly critical of you. Sure, there are the ways this person is out of line, self-righteous, whatever. Additionally, there are the ways that this person is also doing good things, plus the ways that other factors—such as a distracted boss who hasn't stepped in or coworkers who like to gossip—are helping or hurting. And there is your own role as well: what you're doing—in thought, word, and deed—that's beneficial or harmful.
Wherever you discover stillness enjoy it and let it feed you.
What doesn't change?
Things keep changing. The clock ticks, the day unfolds, trees grow, leaves turn brown, hair turns gray, children grow up and leave home, attention skitters from this to that, the cookie is delicious but then it’s all gone, you’re mad about something for awhile and then get over it, consciousness streams on and on and on.
Many changes are certainly good. Most people are glad to put middle school behind them. I’m still happy about shifting thirty years ago from single to married. Painkillers, flush toilets, and the internet seem like pretty good ideas. It’s lovely to watch grass waving in the wind or a river passing. Fundamentally, if there were no change, nothing could happen, reality would be frozen forever. I once asked my friend Tom what he thought God was and he said “possibility.”
Enjoy the good feelings and other rewards of dropping your case.
Who are you prosecuting?
Drop the case.
Lately I've been thinking about a kind of "case" that's been running in my mind about someone in my extended family. The case is a combination of feeling hurt and mistreated, critique of the other person, irritation with others who haven't supported me, views about what should happen that hasn't, and implicit taking-things-personally.
In other words, the usual mess.
Can finding common ground with others help us find peace?
Who's outside your circle?
The Practice: Common Ground
As we move into 2019, here are my top five inner practices for helping this year be a good one for you and others:
By “us” all “thems,” I mean finding common ground with every person—especially those you fear or are angry with or who are simply very different from you. These days this practice is more important than ever.
For most of the past 300,000 years, our human ancestors lived in small bands of about 50 people in which they survived by being good at caring about and cooperating with people inside the band —with “us”—while also being good at fearing and aggressing upon people outside their band: “them.” And for 2 million years before that, our hominid ancestors lived and evolved under similar pressures.
Are You Growing?
Learn As You Go
I was recently asked about my top five inner practices for 2019, and here they are:
You can click the links above to see the first two. By “learn as you go,” I mean that each day is an opportunity to take in the good: to help useful or enjoyable experiences sink in and become a part of you. Then when you go to sleep, you'll be a little stronger, a little more resilient, a little wiser, a little more loving, a little happier than you were when you woke up in the morning.