Monday, January 30, 2017

working with aggression

"not setting up the target for the arrow,
connecting with the heart,
seeing obstacles as teachers, and
regarding all that occurs as a dream."

During times of widespread aggression, you may begin to notice how your own aggression becomes amplified. Perhaps you find you are more impatient with your children or partner. That you are more liable to use shaming language, or to yell. Authoritarian parenting becomes more atttractive, or you begin to stray regularly into unkindness. Your children will in turn begin to behave more aggressively, modeling what their grown ups do. The good news is that in the path of parenting, to notice when you begin to behave aggressively within your family, whether through thought, word, or deed, is the first step to being able to transform that aggression.

Chogyam Trunga Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala Buddhism, taught that contemporary times are a "dark age" where the forces of materialism and dehumanization are prevalent, and we are often cut off from the experience of our own basic, fundamental goodness and that of others. Current events in the United States seem to give evidence of this, as aggression and prejudice, fear, and ignorance are on the rise. The challenge for a practitioner of a spiritual path, for a parent, during difficult times is to maintain clear seeing and continue to cultivate compassion and patience, gentleness and dignity in daily life. This can be difficult, but to cultivate within our own families and homes the seeds of goodness, can actually be a powerful action for the greater good.

So, first off, let's breathe. Just feel your feet on the ground, solid, really there. Breathe in slowly, for four counts, then out for four counts. Repeat a few more times. The more you can do this throughout your day, the steadier you will feel. Times of chaos remind us of the truth that life is inherently groundless and always changing, which adds to our feelings of fear and anxiety. So ground yourself in the breath, whenever possible. Our breath is always with us, and we can always touch it and let it anchor us to the present moment. This kind of deliberate slowing down of the breath is a useful tool to use even with young children when they are also anxious or upset. When very small, I use the "Three Little Pigs" technique - I have them blow down first the straw house, then the wood house, then the brick house. Just that can help calm and anchor.

The quote at the top of this post is from an excellent Pema Chodron piece on working with anger/difficulties. These teachings are pulled from the lojong, or mahayana mind training slogans of the great teacher Atisha. These four pithy reminders can help us in our daily lives with our children as we transform our own aggression. "Don't set up the target for the arrow" - in other words, if we don't keep strengthening our anger habit, when our children misbehave or disappoint, those actions will cease to solicit our push button response - we will no longer have a button that can be pushed in that way. Have you noticed that when our children begin to irritate us, that irritation often builds and builds, and however hard we try to ignore or push that anger away, however hard we really wish we did not respond with anger, we eventually blow up? Just this morning, my middle son, who gets very anxious if he is late to school, began to send out arrows my way that all hit their target. First he didn't want to get out of bed for school. Then he insisted I come back upstairs and choose out his clothes for him. Then he didn't like the clothes I chose. Then he wouldn't eat his breakfast quickly. Then he ignored my warnings that we would be late for school and instead chose to play with his Legos, without responding to my reminder that we needed to leave. When he finally got in our car with his brothers, when we were at this point 5 minutes late, he chose to fiddle with something in the seat rather than sit down and get buckled in. I finally blew up at him. Each time I saw him actively work against both his own and my own goal of getting him and his brother to school on time, rather than feeling that discomfort of anxiety and anger, and then choosing something different, I chose to feel exasperated, anxious, and mad. Which built to the point of blowing up.

Here is where I need to pause and add that like all afflictive emotions, anger has a seed of wisdom or enlightened energy it. In this case, clear seeing. I could clearly see that the choices my son were making would make him and his brother late to school, which would upset all of us. Where I ran into trouble was then trying to push the anxiety around that away - rather than just acknowledging it. I find when I am able to really touch my fear (which is often what lies beneath anger), and really acknowledge it, then it releases its hold on me and I can be resourceful and playful in what I do next. So, rather than pausing, and getting present to my son and to my own emotions, I just carried on with the busyness of the morning routine, allowing myself to get annoyed and frustrated at each impasse, until it all fell apart. I allowed my view of my son to change - I viewed him as an obstacle, rather than as a small human who was struggling with waking up and going to school after a weekend at home. That is another way we set up the target. We view other beings and phenomena as for us or against us. What better way to prime ourselves for aggression?

This leads us to the second little slogan above - "connect with your heart". By connecting to our own discomfort which lies beneath our aggression, and with the discomfort that is often being experienced by the person giving us trouble, we can begin to feel some compassion for our shared predicament. Just as we can welcome into our arms the toddler who stumbles and hurts himself, we can begin to welcome our own stumbles with some love. Holding our anger in loving arms encourages us in turn to look on the aggression of others with compassion, and even curiosity. Millions of other humans are tripped up many times each day by anger. We can hold that truth in our heart-minds and create a kind space around all that misery, rather than continue to respond with aggression, feeding into an endless loop of mutual lashing out.

The last two reminders are encouraging us to cultivate gratitude and equanimity around the things and people that provoke us. By seeing all "obstacles as our teachers", we are reminded that until we have transformed our own aggression, things will keep showing up in our lives to help us to do so. One of the many profound ways in which our children teach us is by ripping off any mask we may have. My children have shown me repeatedly how much aggression lives in me, how deeply it is rooted, and how much of a habit it is. These small people, who I love more completely than any other being, are also those who provoke me the most. When I am able to be grateful to them, to view them as teachers intent on awakening my heart to a more boundless compassion, a more genuine patience, any anger or irritation becomes workable. If I instead lose mindfulness and just become resentful, then our day (or evening) together is lost. Our last reminder, "regarding all that occurs as a dream"- I think Pema does the best job explaining this:

"Rather than making it so important, we can reflect on the essencelessness of our current situation. We can slow down and ask ourselves: “Who is this monolithic me that has been so offended? And who is this other person who can trigger me like this? What is this praise and blame that hooks me like a fish, that catches me like a mouse in a trap? How is it that these circumstances have the power to propel me like a ping-pong ball from hope to fear, from happiness to misery?”

When we believe the story our ego has written around us and our lives, thinking it solid and true, we suffer. If we can view every situation and being (including ourselves), as like a dream - a passing memory, constantly changing and shifting - those stories lose their grip on us. It becomes a bit harder to get so angry, to feel so at war with what we think opposes "us". So, try some or all of these today, during this difficult time. The more we can use these reminders, and unseat our habitmind of aggression, the more manageable the aggression of the larger world will become.