In the last week or so I've had a couple of opportunities to observe anger -- from a relatively safe distance, but obvious nonetheless.
I'm not talking about what we're seeing on the political front these days; I'm just observing fairly normal human interactions (not that they're not tainted by what's happening on the political front, but that's a chicken and egg problem I don't want to go into here.)
The first anger I observed was my own (whenever you're pointing fingers, it's always good to start with yourself, right?): As I've probably mentioned here before, we have an elderly blind diabetic dog in our household.
This dog, Nemo, was quite adorable as a puppy, and is still pretty easy on the eyes: he's a Polish Sheepdog, white and fluffy, slightly bigger than a Springer Spaniel, a little smaller than an Australian Shepherd. But he's always been an extremely stubborn dog, and he's never really exhibited the sort of unconditional love that most of us have come to expect from our canine friends.
Now that he's also gone almost completely deaf he's quite difficult to live with. He's extremely obstinate, and doesn't trust us to guide him anywhere, even though we're trying to help him find his food, find doors, and save him the inevitable bumps when he runs into things. So the other day we had contractors in the house and we were trying to go outside without letting the dog out, and I pushed him aside with my foot. And the contractor said, "Don't kick your dog!"
He said it with a laugh -- he could see it wasn't a real kick -- but the observation stung: I don't like to think of myself as someone who kicks dogs. And I was forced to face the fact that far from being tender with this poor aging helpless creature I am mostly just frustrated by all the constraints he puts on my life.
Around the same time I was in rehearsals for a play, and I saw frequent instances in which the director vented his anger on the actors, something I'd never encountered before on a stage set, and when he later explained the stuff in his private life that was raising his stress levels, it didn't seem to be a particularly convincing justification.
But something I read this morning made me look at both instances again, and what I realized was that the real driving force behind both instances, mine and his, was an unacknowledged should. In my case, the should takes this sort of shape: I see myself as a kind and loving person, and I've always loved dogs, and dogs have always loved me, and why is it that I have never won the love of this dog, and never been able to control him without occasionally having to forcibly yank or drag him? I should have been better at loving/controlling/managing/acquiring this dog: he exposes my failures as a dog-owner.
For the director, without addressing the stresses in his world outside the stage, I suspect the issues were similar: I'm good at directing, I've always gotten along well with actors, I'm good at polishing up plays, why is it this play isn't coming together smoothly, why can't they just shut up and listen, why is it I didn't catch those flaws in the script myself? I should have been better at writing/correcting/organizing/casting this whole process: they're exposing my failures as a playwright/director.
So my thought for today is this: behind every rush of anger, there's the hard spike of a should: some expectation we have of ourselves -- not of others -- that we should be better at whatever it is we're doing. Over the years in my life I think parenting has most often been the thing I thought I should have been better at, but there are lots of other triggers in the world. At any rate, I think that if we can figure out what that should is, accept our own sense of failure and forgive ourselves -- we are, after all, most of us, doing the best we can with what we know -- we'll find the anger dissipates quite quickly. But we'll see: the proof is in the practice.
I painted this a few days ago, and have very mixed feelings about it. I love it because I feel it was painted THROUGH me; completely un-influenced by anything I've seen painted by anyone else, which is rare: more often my paintings are inspired either by something someone else has done or by something I've done in the past that someone else has liked.
I also love a lot of the color in it, the way the colors beneath poke through, and the way the interference gold on it gleams (trust me: in person the gold is yummy!)
But the division of it bothers me: I love the ethereal quality of the right side of the painting, but the darkness, the rigidity, and the sensuality of the left side, while I wouldn't change them exactly, made me reluctant to post it here -- which is why I cropped and inverted the right side and posted it a couple of days ago.
But this morning, after hearing of the division of Britain, which, in its own way, reflects the very painful division in our own country, I immediately thought of this painting.
And now I see that it needs to be called "The Divided Self," and that it depicts both the pain and the potential of that division. Though I couldn't see it when I first painted it, I now understand that somehow the agony of labor is tied to the pain of division; that in the birthing of something new we are no longer concerned only with our own welfare but with that of others/another, while at the same time something we held close and dear is now separate, released into the world to stand on its own; that we can no longer guarantee its safety; no longer protect it as completely as we were once able, and have no choice but to realize how very frightening the world can be.
It is, in a way, the loss of illusion: we are forced to face the darker side of things. And that's not easy.
Here's the short form; read on beyond for a longer explanation:
Reflecting on the language
of the church of my childhood,
it seems we were trained to believe we were broken,
competing for God's conditional approval.
With time and experience I've come to believe
we were born into an infinite stream
of unconditional love,
and called to carry that out to the world,
each in our own unique style.
I'm sad that our churches
still so often mislead us that way...
As a young child, growing up in the Presbyterian Church, I was fascinated by the sermons, and decided at an early age that I wanted to become a minister. In those days, in that church, every sermon began with this prayer:
"May the words of our mouths,
and the meditations of our hearts,
be always acceptable in thy sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer"
Recently, at a retreat on Teilhard de Chardin, I found myself sitting at lunch with a delightful young man, an Episcopal priest, who proudly proclaimed that he had returned his congregation to the old prayerbook; that he loved the Elizabethan language.
"I love that language, too," I replied, "but how can you reconcile what you're doing and saying on Sunday with what we're learning here, in this place? Don't you find that language jarring?"
He assumed I was objecting as a feminist, so the conversation got a bit off track at that point. But what I was trying to say -- and the reason I now find it so difficult to attend the churches I once loved so much -- is that I find it impossible to reconcile the concept of God expressed in that language with what I now believe to be true.
Cynthia Bourgeault reminded us, at that retreat, that the word person comes from the Latin words per sonare, meaning to sound through. I read that definition again this morning in Richard Rohr's wonderful book on Franciscan theology, Eager to Love, and found myself thinking (having been caught in a weekend of drama and arguments where I've been trying to consistently sound a voice of reason) how important that is to me: to be a person who is sounded through; a channel through which the Divine voice of compassion and reason can be heard.
So of course that old prayer came to mind -- I sincerely want the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart... but then I came to a stop. "Acceptable in thy sight" implies that God is somehow separate from me, an authority figure whose approval I crave, which is not what I'm thinking at all. What I'm asking is that I be a clear channel so that what I say has truth and resonance; is not cluttered with my own egoic needs but comes rather from that deeper source within that is fed from the still deeper stream of wisdom and love to which we are all connected. I don't want to "Look okay." I want to sound true, in the fullest sense of that phrase.
... and then there's that word "redeemer," as if I am somehow broken, unsalvageable except through divine interference. And I don't believe that anymore either. I don't think Christ was sent to save us (and folks, I get that some of you think this is heresy, but bear with me here) because we are terrible human beings. I think Christ was sent to show us that we are ALL both human and divine, that EACH of us carries within us that essential goodness and wisdom that links us to the divine stream of wisdom that flows through all of creation.
It's okay if you don't believe that, too. But I think if we continue to believe we need God's approval (which is conditional, and we're supposed to somehow know what those conditions are), and that we are broken and need to be redeemed, then, like children -- and especially siblings -- we'll always be competing for that approval, defining those conditions, and pointing our fingers at others claiming they're more broken than we are.
That's never going to foster a sense of oneness with humanity: as long as we are separate from God then we'll continue to remain separate from each other, in competition for some limited dispensation of acceptance rather than sharing in God's infinite wealth of love.
I suspect most people assume that those of us who meditate are looking to create a few moments of peace in the middle of a busy day. Even we meditators often come to it hoping for a taste of Nirvana, for enlightenment, for some magical sense of comfort or contentment or well-being.
But it seems to me, as I look back over my years of meditation, that the process is more about wrestling with all the entanglements that keep us from that holy peace within. When we sit quietly, we can't help but notice all the places our minds take us; can't help but hear all the voices clamoring within -- the irritations and annoyances, the fears and the angers, the blaming and the shaming.
It's not so much that the ego is trying to keep us from finding that quiet place of rest below its interference; it's more like we're coming to know ourselves, observing and befriending all the obstacles we toss into our own paths that keep us from being the calm, compassionate, centered, and fully present individuals we'd like to be.
Which means -- to me, at least -- that I find it easier to be more objective and compassionate for the REST of the day; the time AFTER meditation. Having visited with the less complacent parts of myself, having come to know them a little better, I find it easier to recognize them when they surface in various interactions throughout the day. Having learned to greet them, to acknowledge them, and to release them during meditation, I can greet, acknowledge, and release them when they emerge ready to do combat during the course of my daily activities.
And that, in turn, allows me to move through life with just a little more presence; just a little more equanimity. And it's all good.
I know. I'm supposed to be bringing beauty into this world. And the photos I post that are "pretty" always win more likes than my grittier pieces.
But these days it's hard not to see that the world is not a particularly pretty place. The venom, the hatred, the racism and misogyny that fill our news headlines these days are hard to miss, and when the dog woke me at 3 am this morning I was never able to return to sleep because my mind was so filled with sadness for all the horrendous things people are saying and doing to each other.
And the truth is, the church, though I haven't engaged with it for several years now, has just let me down again. So a part of me, when I see this message scrawled upon a city wall, recoils: I strongly suspect the writer is as naive in his or her faith as I once was, awash in sentiment and longing to convert the world, with little or no respect or thought for those whose lives they seek to change.
And yet -- deep in my heart, I believe this statement is true. For all my Buddhist leanings, I still believe there was this divine man, Jesus, who was somehow able to feel and communicate God's immanent presence and immense compassion for all of creation. And so I find some small childlike part of me is somewhat reassured; reminded that despite all the ugliness, entitlement, anger and greed there is still love. Certainly I have that love in my own life, from my family and my friends; it seems stronger every day. But is it enough to overpower all that hate and vituperation?
Perhaps not in every moment of every day. But like the rope in the snowstorm, that leads the farmer from house to barn and back again so he can keep his animals fed, the thread of that love helps keep me on the path, and guides me back to the heart of being. In times like these, overwhelmed as we can become by the repulsive and grotesque dark side of human nature, I think that's all we can ask.