"Whenever we’re challenged, there is opportunity to open to the difficulty and let the difficulty make us more compassionate, more wise. Or the opposite, which is that when things are difficult, the chances instead of it making us more afraid and therefore more vulnerable or more subject to being able to catch the anxiety in the atmosphere and spin off...and the tendency for aggression to escalate and violence to escalate under challenge is much greater."
- Pema Chodron
I get angry sometimes. I get angry because I get hooked by someone or something. I get hooked because I am human. The problem isn't necessarily in the getting hooked, although I am working on that as well (ha!). It is what I do once the hook is in - do I bite on and keep going, or do I relax, feel it, and then let it go?
I always thought of myself as the mama who never yelled. Or at least, that was my aspiration. My mother screamed constantly throughout my childhood. And it was awful. I vowed at a very early age to never do this with my own children. Ahem. But last week, I yelled not once, not twice, but a few times at my two year old. Now, my first instinct is to want to explain. Explain that we are all operating on very little sleep, with my toddler and often my 10 month old unwilling to nap and not going down to sleep at night very easily. And constantly waking up. Anyway, we are all very tired, and at times, extremely cranky with one another. My husband has been working late each day and on weekends, trying to finish some mandated reports he must do in his job as a social worker. So, it has been on my shoulders to care for the little ones all day and often all night, with no help until perhaps the rare Sunday. I am good and truly tired.
My toddler can be quite aggressive with his younger brother. This is what has been eliciting yells and, at times, shrieks from me - his constant harming of his little brother. When I am more rested, I can respond with gentleness and firmness, get resourceful, distract him, and so on. But when I am tired, and it is the hundredth time that day that he has made his little baby brother cry, and given him yet another welt, well, I have been losing it. And once I have lost it, I find I then become triggered by lesser things as well, like normal two year old mess making and mayhem. Because when I am tired, I begin to get caught by the content of my thoughts, by the stories I find I am whispering to myself, and have a harder time just dropping them. I have a harder time pausing when I see I am getting hooked, and just feeling the anger. So, I find myself yelling, and then instantly regretting it.
What I have had to do, in addition to the usual regret, remediate and refrain tool, is try and really, really accept my anger. I wrote before about bowing to our pain, to our lineage of dysfunction - but we also have to bow to our own anger. Anger is, ultimately, just energy. If we can work with it as such, it begins to lose its power over us. Anger becomes a problem when instead of simply feeling its energy and letting it flow through and dissolve, we either suppress it or act it out - therefore harming others. In both cases, we are solidifying the energy, rather than just letting it arise and cease. The first step to working with it as energy is to acknowledge it. To not suppress it and to not reject it. But to just admit that it is there, working in us. Again, it helps to use our awareness to notice we are angry, and to feel where that anger lives, physically.
Once we have noticed it and acknowledged it, we can bow to it. Bowing to me in this sense means accepting it, "I see you anger. I am angry." Keeping it to "I am angry" is potent. I think it is more helpful to keep it to that, and not spin out into "he made me angry" or "this makes me angry", which solidifies it. Then, bow. What does that mean? You could really, truly bow. Or you could close your eyes, and just breathe. Respect your anger. For me, when I bow to my anger, I often find something else underneath it, hiding under the anger. In addition to my physical tiredness this past week, I was sad about the death of a close friend. And I had been worrying about several other matters. I find so often with my children that although their action is the trigger, there are so many causes and conditions leading up to that incident that have so very little to do with what just happened in the moment. When we are caught by our anger, our world gets so tight and narrowed, and we lose all sense of vastness. Just feeling our anger, accepting it, can create the gap where we can touch back into the spaciousness of basic goodness.
Sometimes bowing to our anger is not enough. Sometimes we need to leave the room. Sometimes we need to take our little ones outside. Sometimes we need to call a friend on the phone and cry. Sometimes we need to have ice cream for dinner and go to bed with our baby at 5:00 in the afternoon. But that is, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, "taking care of our anger". Sometimes we need to do that. It is a practice of compassion, taking care of our anger.
What changed the pattern last week for me was bowing to it, and taking care of it. And taking better care of me - going to bed earlier, eating better, making sure we got out of the house every day. Talking to another mother who had been in the trenches a few years earlier also helped. And accepting that I get angry sometimes. And sometimes, even though I really don't want to, I am going to yell. And then I will move forward from there. I will keep working on coming back to the present moment, working skillfully as I can with the energy of anger. Touching into my basic goodness and the basic goodness of my children. As Suzuki Roshi said,
"Everything is perfect, but there is a lot of room for improvement."