I’ve been observing a mean little kid. He’s just short of 5 years old but already getting a reputation as a bully. He says mean things, hits and bites and inflicts pain however he can. But if you watch him long enough, you’ll see that he is a loner. You’ll see that he really wants to play with everyone but he gets shut out. You’ll see his face begin to crumple and fall apart in tears right before he finds his inner badass and comes right at you with insult or injury. Beneath it all, he’s a total softy in a big kids body. But he’s got pretty tough skin, that kid. And he has to because his smart big sister is pretty unrelenting with the insults.
The cycle is terribly perpetual and catches on like wildfire. One kid is mean to another and that kid feels hurt and is mean right back. Now, it’s just normal behavior – mean for mean. My kids, have jumped right on board and it is great opportunity to teach a new reaction. A few months ago I had Jonah write his first ‘”sentences.” In his notebook he copied, ” When someone is mean to me, I can walk away or be nice.” Even for a pretty sweet kid like Jonah its a hard reaction to control. (**note – jonah also takes jujitsu for the times when he cannot be nice or walk away :-))
So I’ve been watching this a lot and thinking about the seed Tara Brach, author and leading meditation teacher, planted 4 or 5 years ago at the DC Buddhafest. She talks a lot about the human reaction to pain and how we naturally do our best to avoid it – physical, mental or emotional pain. And often when we get hurt, we immediately lash out in anger. Bypassing the awareness that in between the infliction of pain and the reaction of anger was a momentary drive through sadness, vulnerability or deep hurt. Further, she said, we go on to try to inflict pain on the very person that hurt us in an effort to get them to understand our own suffering.
She tells this parable: “Imagine you are walking in the woods and you see a small dog sitting by a tree. As you approach, it suddenly lunges at you, teeth bared. You are frightened and angry. But then you notice that one of its legs is caught in a trap. Immediately your mood shifts from anger to concern: You see that the dog’s aggression is coming from vulnerability and pain. This applies to all of us. When we behave in hurtful ways, it is because we are caught in some kind of painful trap. The more we look through the eyes of wisdom at ourselves and each other, the more we cultivate a compassionate heart.”
Watching kids is a great way to observe how the feeling of physical or emotional pain manifests and how it begins to create lifelong patterns. Viewing people’s anger from a place of compassion makes it possible to be less offended, take things less personally and recognize that we all can express anger but it might not be as malicious as it seems.
But here is where the deep work begins for me. After years of seeing this in others (that was easy), I finally realized it applies to me too. DUH. DUH. DUH.
I’m mean to the person I love the most. And if I were witnessing myself in action, I might conclude that I’m lashing out because i’m hurt.
I’ve been in a relationship for almost 20 years with the same person. That is over half my life now. And for better or worse, I believe a long-term relationship (marriage in this case) is a damn good opportunity to develop a spiritual practice and the most amazing opportunity for self-reflection. How many people in life become so familiar and close that they know your daily rhythms, all your stories, your family, your weakness, your strengths, your baggage and your birthmarks. The inherent intimacy creates space for your total true self to emerge. One would think that my true self would be delightful and kind and content, just like I am to everyone else in the world. But no, A gets the WORST of me. Day in and day out, he gets the angry version of me. The bitch. The one that is never satisfied or pleased with how much he has ‘helped’ around the house. Yeah, sure we love each other. Sure, I find him attractive. Sure, I can articulate a million reasons why I think he’s great.
But beneath it all, lets face it. I’m angry. And I’m mean to A. Not all the time, but a lot of the time. And have been for at least a decade. Until now, I’ve denied it. Brushed off the accusation as an impossibility.
Meanwhile, I literally have a pain in my neck & shoulder. And have since 2000. About the same time A rolled out of my life for 2+ years to serve in the Peace Corps. This was before the days of free Skype, so I wallowed around, shocked by my broken heart and unaware of how to navigate the feeling of abandonment, grief and loss. I cried in the shower a few times, but mostly just stuffed those lumps in my throat on down. I wanted the best for him and I wanted him to feel like I was cool with it. When it finally hit me that I was devastated, sad and depressed, I put up a wall and turned to anger. I could still like him and even love him, but not with an open heart. I became a stone cold lover. Love him in my head and on paper, but not with my heart. That would be too risky. Maybe he could earn my innocence and tenderness back, but he would have to understand my pain. And it’s never been enough. So I’m all stuffed up in my 5th Chakra.
But until I sat my ass on a meditation cushion for a few years, started watching the mean kid, getting bodywork to unlock my shoulder blade and an Osteopath to untwist my hyoid bone, it didn’t occur to me that I’m the angry one lashing out. That I’m the dog with my leg caught in a trap. Anger is unpleasant but seductive. In this interview with Bill Moyer, Pema Chodron says that anger has a hook. “There’s something delicious about finding fault with something,” she said. Especially when our egos are involved (which is nearly always the case), we may protect our anger. We justify it and even feed it.”
And so, perhaps I’ve come halfway around the world to the land of the south pacific to heal. To find tenderness and to say. I’m sorry A. I’ve been confused. I actually love the shit out of you – more than I can handle. I get a lump in my throat when I think about what I would do for you. How I would follow you to the end of the earth just to be with you. That in fact, once upon a time, being without you broke my heart. The sadness around the days you left is literally stuck inside of me and close to my heart. Even now, 14 years later, it swells up and nearly overflows, but a lifetime of controlling my emotions comes in handy to push it right back down. Instead, my inner bad-ass, stone cold lover comes out to tango. Sure, let’s go on a date. Sure, lets move to New Caledonia. I’ll be unaffected. I’ll be tough. I’ll walk ahead of you and I’ll be just a little bit of a bitch. God forbid I surrender control or be sweet. I might get hurt.
“Each time you meet an old emotional pattern with presence, your awakening to truth can deepen. There’s less identification with the self in the story and more ability to rest in the awareness that is witnessing what’s happening. You become more able to abide in compassion, to remember and trust your true home. Rather than cycling repetitively through old conditioning, you are actually spiraling toward freedom.” ― Tara Brach, True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart
And so, its time. Time to let it go. Time to clear out old hurt and anger and spiral toward freedom. Life is too short and New Caledonia is too beautiful to be any bit angry at a nice guy like A. Lets hope clearing the 5th chakra is as simple as an ah-ha moment and a blog post 🙂
(disclaimer – my self assessment could be wrong.)
July 22, 2014 at 2:37 am
What a beautiful post on the struggle the be present and vulnerable in marriage. A struggle I share at times. Thanks so much for writing!
July 22, 2014 at 3:37 pm
It has been said that we must surrender/let go before we can pick up anew. Akin it to say that was a most awakening embodied into words I’ve read and felt in my 5th chakra for as long as I can remember. Vulnerability is the essence of self reviewing and shifting where we meet ourselves on the road less traveled. Thank you for walking that the rest of us may explore ourselves more deeply. The truth is the truth and our wounded parts thank you for that deep introspection of self awareness that transcends the distance. Fly butterfly fly beautiful one!