Mindful Anger, Wellness and Activism in Covid-19 Times
Two foundational components of meditation and mindfulness are:
awareness of the present moment.
Right now, breath, in an epochal sense of the present moment, looks like this:
Covid’s crushing damage to lungs.
Asphyxiation and the stealing of life-breath via police brutality and white supremacy.
A felt sense of suffocation in prolonged isolation.
This moment of breath is very much about life and death.
In contrast, the embodiment of our personal present moment may look very different depending on our position in the world. Perhaps we’re lucky enough not to be sick or not to be exposed to the risk of getting sick. Perhaps we aren’t the immediate casualties of racial violence and systemic exclusion and oppression. Perhaps we have spacious homes and gardens, access to parks or second homes, no children, financial safety nets, or a willingness to disregard lockdown, and so feel free to move as we wish. Maybe this moment doesn’t feel so much about life and death.
Still, we are living in globally challenging and changing times, and the practice of meditation and mindfulness are effective tools for tending to our personal experience, whatever it may be. We would be remiss though, as practitioners at any level of meditation and mindfulness, not acknowledging the reality of this moment beyond our direct experience of it; this is as much about being informed as it is about compassion to painful experiences that are not our own.
It’s useful to think of how we react when we do experience iniquity firsthand. If we feel we’ve been personally wronged, our reaction is intense. We think hard about the nature of the transgression. Perhaps we want people to be outraged with us, confirm we’re justified. When it’s a cause close to us, we feel righteous in our anger.
Anger is an emotion not given much room for constructive expression, particularly in mindfulness and wellness circles. Often it’s seen as an inferior emotion, one reserved for those not mindful. Specific to Buddhism, anger is described as one of the “poisons” that keeps us away from No-self liberation. There are wellness circles that speak of the shadow self or acknowledge a “dark” side with avatars of wrathful gods and goddesses. Often these symbolic expressions of rage are kept contained within teaching stories and spirit realms, not taught to be skillfully expressed in real-time life.
Anger energy is valid and as natural as any other, it is a survival response to perceived injustice, both against ourselves and others. While we wish to have more skillful responses in any situation, we have come to gloss over the skillfulness of anger -particularly in life and death situations. In reality, not all anger is unskillful, and mindfulness allows us to discern this.
One key from an earlier sentence is that of “perceived” injustice. We need discernment regarding IF an injustice has occurred. Skillful, mindful perception, particularly in times of heightened, polarising politics is crucial — we don’t wish to be swayed by instigators and distractors. We don’t want to be riled up by bullies and manipulators. We don’t want valuable challenges to our behaviour or beliefs muffled by petty defensiveness. Devout practitioners may say we can never know for sure. There are teaching stories told for this particular lesson: that a “bad” thing can happen that may not, in fact, be bad, like a broken leg that leads to a young man being spared from fighting in a war. This is meaningful in terms of managing catastrophe-style thinking around inconveniences, limiting beliefs, and periods of challenge but this, when applied to greater injustice and the anger roused by it, like that of centuries of racialised murder, oppression and inequality, is the depth of spiritual bypassing.
John Welwood was a clinical psychologist who wrote about Western psychology and Eastern spiritual traditions. He coined the term Spiritual Bypassing in 1984. He writes:
“When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to try to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we fully faced and made peace with it.”
In Western wellness communities, in particular, spiritual bypassing is a form of tone-policing that includes the avoidance of “bad vibes”, an exaggerated detachment, or overemphasising the positive — especially to the exclusion of other present emotions. It’s as though a misinterpretation of enlightenment, non-attachment or spiritual evolution is performed by occupying a “perfected” embodiment that is above darker tendencies. It’s as if to say not having certain emotions is the result of high-level spiritual practice when in fact it’s masking a fear of opening the door to natural and present feelings that cannot be permanently excised. Applied to ourselves this bypass results in passive aggression, somatic pain and inauthenticity. Shaping another’s anger into a palatable form because we are uncomfortable, is invalidating the present to protect our ego -this is the harm of tone-policing. In contrast, true awareness knows that in our current climate, the original offense, that of racial violence, was not policed, that police brutality, was not policed.
In my youth, anger had two examples: It was wielded “acceptably” by dominant fathers and wielded “poorly” by emotional mothers. This was an early introduction into who has access and permission expressing anger and who doesn’t. In addition, there is the element of who has the privilege and protection to NOT be angry. This access is not only limited by gender but class, race and other identifiers that shape our tolerance to expressions of intensity or passivity. There are familiar tropes: male rage is visible and rational, and female rage is hysterical and unsightly.
As a competitive Muay Thai fighter in my 20’s, occupying the historically masculine space of a Martial Arts Wat gave me the freedom to explore the subtleties of anger separate from abuse, trauma or hysterical femaleness. I explored aggression, force, even violence, in a safe and contained way. I also found a constructive environment to transmute the rightful rage contained within my culturally objectified, light brown, bisexual female body. Through my time training and competing, I came to learn that anger in an unskillful form of impatience, reactivity or vengeance had no place in the boxing ring. Anger’s skillful form though — decisiveness, action, directed energetics — was an excellent place to be.
Since my Martial Arts training, I have often said womxn need to know how to take a punch. Not because we’re on the receiving end of abuse but because knowing the intense sensation helps us not be overwhelmed by it. This is the same with anger — we need to feel it to know it. We don’t wish to be shunted into the blind reactivity of fight, flight, freeze but to have a new reflexive response, one that processes the intake of energy and turns it into a next wise action. Like Martial Arts, focused and disciplined meditation and mindfulness teach us to do this.
When you tune into the moments you’ve experienced anger, how much can you remember? Could you feel how the body surged with the rage of that perceived injustice? Can you remember how it felt to have your heart rate rise, perhaps prickles radiated over the skin, jaw clenching and fist tightening, almost involuntarily? Maybe the body to this day holds onto that rage, lodged in stricken shoulders, tight throat and seized up belly. Did the anger initiate a positive change or a regretful one? How much anger sits within us is deeply related to our incapacity to express it skillfully. Noticing how it activates our body is the beginning of skillful relation to it. Instead of suppressing it or letting it run wild, we sense it has arrived. We feel its impact on the body. We process that surge then decide what happens next.
So what is unskillful or skillful anger? Unskillful anger is lashing out, pettiness, impatience, bullying, violence, intimidation, and belittlement. It’s rooted in untended to trauma. Awareness of and soothing our trauma is a vital step for arresting the cascade of emotional dis-regulation leading to self-harm, perceiving threat where it doesn’t exist, violence, exploitation, and vindictiveness — all the ego defence of unskillful anger.
On the other hand, skillful, mindful anger identifies injustice and clears out the defensiveness of the overly identified self. It is the delineation of a healthy boundary, the initiation of change. We see it manifest as eloquent polemic writing and speech. Mindful anger is not haunted with regret because it creates something better than before. Such as in the skillful anger of Activism — the righteous vibration of energy activated to destroy delusion. It is tactical, heartfelt, a drive to act in the face of the senseless loss of life, the imbalance of structures forged on pain and prejudice, not for the preservation of the ego, but the preservation of humanity. It isn’t violent, but it does crack our hearts open — if we let it. Here I like to think of the concept of Prajna, an almost flow-state form of high wisdom, often depicted as a sword that cuts through delusion and ignorance. A sword is a threatening tool; it’s sharp, its sharpness is incisive and decisive. This is the edge on which anger lives. Prajna, like anger, is a bit scary, it threatens our way of thinking and being — this is not necessarily a “bad” thing. Indeed it can be used unskillfully and in so doing is harmful even fatal, but when used wisely, cuts cleanly through nonsense, threat, or injustice.
Living with this degree of awareness is difficult. It takes deliberate and careful practice. Our stamina as meditators allows us to sit in moments of heightened energy and strip away the ego in the anger -both our own ego and others’. We become practised in holding ourselves through the discomfort of seeing anger within ourselves and others. We allow anger’s energy to vibrate the wisdom it contains, revealing the wise insight of when to walk away and when to stay fearless and grounded in the face of it.
To deny the presence of anger is to deny the present moment containing the mass loss of jobs, lives and the gaping flaws in our societies. Spaces of mindfulness and wellness may indeed be refuges but cannot become islands of their comfort and ease, safe and protected by privilege, whiteness, class, and no immediate threat of harm to our person. Spiritual bypassing and tone-policing is denying justified expressions of anger, particularly of black, brown, female and non-dominant voices. As we practice healing, loving-kindness and seek our liberation, we act to make these gestures manifest beyond the self — this is true embodiment. As meditation and mindfulness practitioners, we are warriors of a sort. Can we walk the walk of the fierce deities destroying obstacles beyond those that lie in our path? Can we harness the anger energy that transcends the small self and reaches for greater benefit?
At this moment, presence is asking us to think beyond our own breath.
What injustice feels personal to me; what injustice does not?
When I witness another person’s anger, how do I respond, and where do I feel it in my body?
When I feel anger in me, how do I respond, and where do I feel it in my body?
How have I perceived injustice to mask my discomfort with challenging ideas?
How might my white fragility make it hard for me to validate another’s anger?
What could (does) my version of skillful anger look like?
What does my version of unskillful anger look like?
How does my interest in Wellness, Mindfulness, Buddhism, Meditation, Martial Arts or Yoga perpetuate my white privilege or perpetuate exclusionary spaces?
Am I occupying predominately gentrified or white-dominant spaces to learn colonised philosophies?
What can (will) I do to integrate, diversify and make these spaces informed and inclusive?
How much do I know (think) about the colonisation of indigenous practices, Yoga, Buddhism and Mindfulness?
How might my attachment to an identity as Spiritual Person affect my ability to analyse my racism, privilege and tone-policing?