My Mom had a fire. She was often a kind peaceful woman. But when her fire rose to the surface, you knew to duck for cover. Her fire felt scary and unpredictable. Even as her health was slipping away from her, heaven help the health care worker who naively spoke to this sweet old woman in a baby talk voice. She was no sweet old woman knitting booties in a rocking chair. And God bless the optimistic daughter who desperately wanted her to do her physical therapy and get strong again. Her fiery resistance to therapy gave me flashbacks to a 10 year old girl who had not done the dishes.
I inherited her fire. But growing up seeing the dangers of her fire, I also developed a fear of fire. Every time my fire surfaces in me, I shame myself. I want to be “better” than that. I first became very aware of my own fire when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, teaching Mathematics to rural Namibian 6th graders. They had a minimal understanding of English. I had a minimal understanding of their indigenous language as well as a very cursory training in classroom management and educational pedagogies. When their energy made it too difficult for them to sit in their seats and quietly listen to their teacher rattle on and on, my fire came out to make them get back in their seats and be quiet. It was not a particularly effective classroom management technique, but I tried several others and found them also to be in effective. I wrote anguished letters home, desperate for help. My sister sent me a book on yoga.
I began diligently practicing yoga and meditation every morning. I found deep peace in my practice and walked to school every morning on a cloud of enlightenment. But as soon as my students’ energy got the best of them, my fire erupted. Finally one day I was so frustrated with the way class was going, I was so desperate to find a way to bring my morning peace into the classroom that I went home and wept and wept and wept and wept some more. From that day on, when the students could not contain their energy, I stopped teaching, stood in mountain pose, and observed my breath, observed my feet on the floor and found peace. Eventually, they usually would notice that I had stopped teaching and would return to their seats and quiet down. Then I continued teaching. Other days, they had too much energy and I just continued breathing and observing. I wasn’t teaching, but at least I wasn’t angry either.
Thus began my regular practice of yoga and meditation. I learned that if I didn’t do it every morning, something would eventually happen during the course of the day that would trigger my fire and I would regret it. So yoga and meditation became an essential part of my morning routine like eating breakfast and brushing my teeth.
In the years since then, I have kept my fire quite under control for the most part. Yes, there have been triggers here and there, but I always return to the mat, process the trigger, analyze the fire, identify some need which was not being met which caused the trigger, and finally decide on a modified course of action for the future to ensure that this trigger would not light my fire again. I became a pro at self-care. Ensuring I (almost) always get 8 hours of sleep at night, eat a healthy diet, continue to practice yoga and meditation, spend time with uplifting inspiring people, and choose meaningful work. As I further reflect on a lifetime of fear of fire and shame around its manifestation, I see how almost every decision I have made in my life is about avoidance of conflict, avoidance of stress or chaos, avoidance of triggering situations. I am addicted to a simple life because I find that the busier or more chaotic life is, the less in control I am and the more likely I am to be triggered. Having children has always been completely out of the question – they are way too triggering, way too chaotic.
Since moving to Angola, I’m much less able to control my environment like I am used to. I don’t have an independent form of transportation, I don’t have a home of my own and often am in very loud chaotic environments. I’ve found my fire being triggered on a regular basis. One thing I do have is lots of time for yoga. I’ve been doing soooo much yoga trying to keep my fire from being triggered and processing it when it is. Every time my fire is lit, I come back to the mat, process it and find peace again. And then later on, I find myself blowing my top again, shaming myself again, coming back to the mat again, etc.
I recently blew my fuse and again shamed myself. But then rather than returning to the mat, I had this thought, “Is my yoga practice making me passive? Does my yoga practice allow me to spiritually bypass serious issues?” Perhaps I have boundaries that are being ignored and by shaming my anger and turning to my yoga practice for peace, I’m just ignoring my boundaries, rather than defending them. Perhaps my fire is not something to be shamed at all? Maybe I need to better articulate my boundaries and reinforce them, rather than pretend they don’t exist and that if I were a really enlightened guru, I would always remain calm, regardless of my circumstances.
This epiphany struck me as very ironic as I claim to be someone who loves and values emotional expressions. The truth is, I actually just love sadness. There is something so beautiful about being consumed by sadness, feeling it throughout one’s body, bawling one’s eyes out. I love my sadness, and I love holding space for someone else’s sadness. And I love the rainbow that can come out after sadness passes, when the sadness was allowed to be fully felt.
But anger is completely different. Anger terrifies me. It is so wild and unpredictable. It often comes with hurtful actions. My own anger terrifies me as I may accidentally hurt someone I love and then feel like a “bad person”. Witnessing the anger of others is equally terrifying, as I may be hurt. Even if the anger is not directed at me, anger is so unpredictable. You never know. While someone is screaming about the injustices of the system, they may turn around, look at me and decide that I am “the system incarnate” and want to take it out on me. The sound of a raised voice makes my intestines shrivel up like a 10 year old girl who didn’t do the dishes. I just want to make myself small and sneak away. Become invisible. I don’t want to be “bad” nor seen as “bad”.
So I’ve begun wondering how to develop a healthy relationship with anger. I’m just beginning to explore what it means to embrace my anger, the way I do sadness. I recognize that it has a message for me, perhaps a crossed boundary that needs to be defended. Is there a way for me to feel and embody my anger, but not release it in a way that’s hurtful to others? Can I honor its message and take action on its message in a way that doesn’t cause alienation? Can I embrace that becoming angry doesn’t make me a “bad person”? And that if I am judged as a “bad person” it won’t change who I actually am?
And what about the anger of others? How do we learn to hold space for others’ anger, given its wild and unpredictable nature and our need for safety? I suppose it all depends on the angry person and our relationship with them. If the person has a propensity to become violent and abusive, then clearly our physical safety needs to be a priority. But what if its just a good friend who had a boundary crossed, that they need to defend and its clear they will not become physically violent? Can we see that anything hurtful which is said is not meant personally, but is just a release of the frustration of boundaries being disrespected? I really want to learn to hold space for that. But I recognize that my own boundaries may be crossed while holding space for other’s anger and I may need to walk away and take care of myself as well.
I’ve started reading more about anger since I’ve become curious about my relationship with it. I’ve read many articles glorifying anger against injustice. There are many activists screaming not to be told to calm down about injustice. These articles have always been there, but I ignored them. It sounds good and holy to be angry over injustice, but my explosive anger is usually when a personal boundary is crossed. My spiritual teachings taught me that I was triggered because I identified too much with the ego self. If only I was more enlightened, I would understand that we are all one and my ego self has no reason to freak out like that. So, back to the mat I would head, looking for more enlightenment, less identification with the ego self.
My yoga practice has changed dramatically since I had this epiphany. Its no longer about trying to find inner peace, which I came to realise, at least in my own practice, was suppressing my anger. Its become about expressing what’s actually there. I begin by opening myself up to what is buried and allow it to express itself, however it wants to be expressed. I’ve found myself doing a lot of jumping up and down, shaking, feeling the anger and frustration buried in my cells and expressing it somatically. Inner peace may appear after I express the authentic feelings which are present, but I’m not going to go looking for it anymore.
From a permaculture perspective, I’ve started wondering if my shame around anger may even come from a similar place as the evolutionary assumptions about humans’ domination of nature. “Eventually we will learn to control nature and will not be at the mercy of her whims. Anger is too wild of an emotion. We must learn to dominate her.” Perhaps as I learn more about permaculture, I will learn more how to honor anger as a normal healthy part of a natural ecosystem. Not a weed to evolve beyond, but a normal part of the landscape to be appreciated and worked with.