'A'ole e 'olelo mai ana ke ahi ua ana ia. Fire will never say that it has had enough. The fire of anger will burn as long as it has something to feed upon.
'Olelo No'eau - Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings #225 Collected, translated and annotated by Mary Kawena Pukui
An incident with my husband a few days ago caused angry feelings to arise in me. We were preparing breakfast. He was sitting at the dining room table waiting for water to boil for his poached eggs.
He began complaining bitterly (it seemed to me) about how we make so many announcements after sitting practice but don't announce what's really important. He's said this before to me but not with as much emotion. I hadn't really heard him before.
But I heard him this time. I also "heard" something extra - something that wasn't there - something I projected onto the situation. I heard him attacking me in some way - suggesting that it was my fault that announcements of upcoming events didn't emphasize what was really important. I reacted defensively and said, "Why are you talking this way? It sounds just like kvetching to me!"
He immediately toned his manner down when he heard what I said and realized what he was doing. I continued a bit harshly, "I'm just starting to have my breakfast and I have to listen to this?!"
We teach at our zen center that various situations can stimulate negative emotions in us. When that happens we have a choice to continue to make more drama for ourselves and others (having the emotion work us) or start the process of working with the emotion.
The first thing to do - then or later - is to name the emotion. For me it was anger. Second is to identify the intensity of the emotion on a scale of 1 - 10. 10 being most intense. Mine was 8. If the intensity is over 5 or 6, it's best to have a cooling off period before doing or saying anything. It's hard to think straight when you're angry.
Third is to identify the trigger. The trigger was my husband complaining about the length of announcements, letting off some steam.
The fourth step is interpretation. What is the story that I was telling myself? My story was that it was my fault and that I wasn't good enough. The story can be very seductive and may be quite habitual so even though the story is making you miserable, you keep staying with it. Notice that behavior if you can.
The fifth step is to become embodied which means to shift the focus from your mind to your body and really see what's going on there. You'll have to shift from "knowing" what happened to opening to a more spacious "not knowing."
Set your thoughts of being right aside and fully bear witness to your body. The body has incredible wisdom. When I did that, I noticed that my eyes felt a little squinty like there was pressure in my head. I noticed my chest and neck felt tight, and my body ached a bit but honestly I didn't want to be in my body or feel too much - I just wanted to be done with the feelings. I felt like I was caving in on myself.
When you feel this way, it's good to stay with the body because returning to the mind and obsessively thinking about the storyline is more fuel for the fire.
I eventually noticed an old thought going through my mind, a thought of not being appreciated or respected. When I'm in that frame of mind, it's all about ME and the other person always seems wrong. But that's not helpful or true.
I stuck with that story in my mind for most of the day and observed how I felt. I noticed that the story only fueled my feelings of being dis-respected. When I got busy and let the story go, I felt better, but it still lurked.
In Non-Violent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg teaches that when people communicate they are just saying "please" (when they're trying to get their needs met) or "thank you" (when their needs are met). Many people aren't skillful when they say "please" because they don't even realize they have needs or understand that it's ok to have them. So they overreact.
In the midst of my suffering, I did have fleeting empathy for my husband. It's a big job running the zen center. Since I'm co-founder we talk to each other whenever we're having an issue. I knew that he was saying "please" unskillfully. Yet because of my anger, I couldn't empathize with the burdens he carries.
Thank goodness for my practice of meditation. It was a beautiful day and I felt like going for a walk. I listened, walked in the warm sunlight, saw gold and red autumn leaves shimmering in the breeze. It helped to clear my mind. It wasn't my husband that was wrong. He was just expressing frustration over a need that wasn't being met. But I didn't have to meet it, not then anyway. Just listening to him would have been a gift.
I realized he was a catalyst for some strong emotions that arose in me. And emotions are part of being human. I moved through it thanks to my meditation practice and my relationship with my husband is stronger.
Meditation is an antidote to strong emotions. It helps me to pause, breathe and observe without becoming absorbed and losing all perspective. Slowing down lets us see with more clarity and respond skillfully instead of just reacting. Reacting only fuels the fire. These kinds of negative interactions are difficult but ultimately prove to be the best teachers for learning patience and humility.
by Sensei June Ryushin Tanoue Zen Teacher, Co-founder of Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago