Disempowerment and Anger

by Ryder Johanson, L.Ac.

                In the past few weeks, I’ve talked to a lot of people with strong opinions on the protests that have followed the killing of George Floyd and other black men and women by police.  As a white guy, I don’t feel like it’s my place to mansplain the police brutality/structural racism/Black Lives Matter situation and how people should be responding.  But I just keep thinking about what it would take to get me emotionally to where many protestors now are.

How angry would I have to be to line up against a line of police in riot gear?  What kind of experiences and suffering would have to happen for me to risk my health, safety, and freedom like many of the protestors are doing?  How much would I have to suffer first?  What would it feel like to feel like there was no other way to have my voice heard?

Anger is probably the most vilified of emotions—and I can see why.  It’s the emotion driving some of the worst crimes and unkindnesses humans inflict upon each other.  People who are angry are likely to lose control and do things that disturb the peace in our households and our communities.  Most of us learn early on that it’s not OK to be angry.

But in my experience, anger is often a cover emotion for significant past wounds underneath.  It’s the Protector aspect of ourselves that’s standing up for the wounded, scared Inner Child.  Maybe a big, scary display of our outrage can prevent us from getting hurt the same way again.  With sadness and fear we feel disempowered and even hopeless.  Anger, in contrast, is a huge rush of energy and a sense of empowerment.

To borrow a term from one of my favorite spiritual teachers, anger arises when we feel like a situation is “unworkable”: we feel like we deserve better than we’ve got and it doesn’t look like there’s any way for us to get it.  And so we think that maybe a big show of aggressive energy will be able to make a shift in a stuck, unworkable situation.

                Figuring out if and when and where and how to express anger is a bigger subject than I’m going to try to tackle here, but I think it’s important that we understand that someone who is very angry is usually very hurt underneath.  Moreover, anger can be a powerful tool to motivate us to stand up for ourselves and set good boundaries.  Very often, some of the biggest changes I see in my patients suffering with autoimmune diseases come after they start speaking up to their family members or their employers about the things that are bothering them.

                Most of the time we use coping mechanisms to distract ourselves from our anger.  We all know about coping mechanisms like mind-altering substances, comfort eating, TV, playing with our phones too much, but even “healthy” activities like extreme exercise and spiritual practice can be used to distract ourselves from the emotional pain in our minds and bodies.  But that anger is going to keep coming back until we take the time to heal our past wounds and find a way to feel more empowered going forward.

                I know personally it can be a big relief to have an angry outburst and get something I’ve been bottling up out in the open.  But I’ve felt even better, more lasting relief when I’ve realized that the angry parts of me are just trying to stand up for the sad, scared, disempowered parts of me. Moreover, it’s made it easier for me to see that same dynamic playing out over and over in our society and have compassion for other people.

Ryder Johanson treats autoimmune and other chronic diseases with Traditional Chinese Medicine at Middleway Medicine in Talent.

Pests as the precursors of change

by Clark Zimmerman, LAc.

One of the first things that my wife and I did when we moved to our mountain home was to cancel the pest exterminator services.  The previous owners had used the exterminator for years with “great success, “ as evidenced by the lack of bugs around the house.  Since my wife and I are organic gardeners, we were uneasy with the idea of spraying the entire exterior of the house with substances that would not only kill the pests, but other creatures as well.  The first year there wasn’t a noticeable increase in the pest population, but the second year was a different story.  Suddenly we had an explosion of bugs of all sorts, both inside the house and outside in the newly established gardens.  We used small amounts of natural pest sprays in very specific places, but the bugs kept coming.  We wondered if we had made a mistake, and briefly considered  calling the exterminator back in to help.  But we chose to wait it out another year.  Our patience paid off in the the following year when an amazing thing began to happen:  That is when the lizards began to arrive.  They were beautiful, iridescent and colorful new inhabitants of the landscape.  The frogs were next to arrive, serenading us with nightly choruses.   The lizards and frogs couldn’t show up until the insects that they feed on became plentiful. What initially felt like a potential mistake in letting the insects run wild actually became an invitation to other forms of life to arrive and begin to make the ecosystem more whole, more alive.

So often we have agendas.  We prefer that things go the way we think that they should.  We don’t want to be inconvenienced by pests.  We are conditioned by our society to try to root out anything that gets in the way of our comfort or plans.  But seeing the world this way doesn’t allow us to enjoy the true fullness of life.  At first glance things don’t always demonstrate their value, but when we can attend to the things that we are given with patience and curiosity, we begin to notice that things begin to transform.  This is true of the pests in the garden that invite the lizards and ladybugs;  it is true of the mice that invite the owls that call to us in the nighttime.  The challenging part to all of this is that typically the difficulty shows itself first, and we often have to wait for the gift to arrive. 

I have been considering this truth a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic.  We are all aware of the many challenges that the pandemic presents, whether we have lost a job, are worried about our health, or are separated from people we love.  But we haven’t had enough time to experience the fullness of the gifts yet.  I keep wondering what new ideas or realizations will come from this difficult time.  The problems are evident at this stage of the game, but the gifts remain somewhat hidden.  We are being forced to reevaluate our priorities, our relationships, and our careers.  We are still early in the process though.  It is as if we are all aware of the insects that are nibbling on our lettuce, but for now they are dining alone.  They will inevitably be followed by the other characters that they attract.  The lizards, birds and beneficial insects that all add song and color to the landscape.  It can be tricky to wait for a difficult issue to begin to show its gift.  Often, like the bugs in our garden, we are tempted to go for a quick fix. We don’t want to linger in the discomfort. 

When we try to kill or sanitize an unsavory situation before we understand the gift that it is calling in, it may make our lives seem cleaner and more controlled, but it can also make our lives less alive.  Life is a complex matrix of seemingly incongruent forces and situations.   When we think of life as something to be controlled or conquered, we commit to a more short-sighted understanding of things.  We begin to focus on control more than coexistence, on directives more than curiosity.  This encourages us to falsely assume that we know more about things than we really do.  If we can’t weather the discomfort or the pests, we don’t get to enjoy the unknown fruits that they eventually bear.  When they say that it takes both clouds and sun to make a rainbow, they often forget to mention that sometimes the clouds last for awhile, and the rainbow doesn’t appear until the storm begins to break.  So now is the time to believe that there is a larger story at play.  Now is the time to practice patience and to practice faith.  Now is the time to be curious about what changes will be arriving in our garden.  Just like the lizards in my garden, sometimes we just have to wait for them.

The Taste of Honey

 

My daughter didn’t get her first taste of sweets until she was almost a year old.  My wife and I knew that once she tasted sweet it would change her relationship to food, so we figured that our daughter couldn’t crave what she didn’t know about.  When the day came, we decided that to start her out with a small spoonful of honey.  She had seen us put a little honey into our tea before, but until this day it didn’t register in her awareness what she was missing. When the spoon touched her mouth, her eyes widened as if she had discovered some great secret:  This is the magic of experience.  Someone can tell you about something; you can read and study about an idea, but you don’t really understand something until you personally experience it.

I’ve heard it said that if someone writes the word “honey” on a piece of paper and you try to eat the word, you will not get to enjoy the sweetness.  This is true of everything that we study with our minds.  We can read the words, we can try to understand them as a concept, but until we find ourselves in the middle of something, we really have no idea what it feels like.  It is like someone who has never been next to the ocean going to the beach for the first time.  Maybe they have read about the ocean, or seen it on television, but nothing can truly teach them the essence of the ocean except direct experience.  They won’t know the ocean until they hear the crash of the waves, smell the distinct blend of salt and seaweed, or get moved around by the waves..  They won’t understand until they feel the sand and salt stick to their skin. 

So often we think that we know something because we have studied it, or someone has explained it to us.  But how can we know unless we have been immersed in it ourselves.  One of the greatest gifts of this time of uncertainty is the opportunity to slow down enough to notice things, to experience things.  When we are in “normal” times, most of us are moving so quickly from one thing to another that we give ourselves little opportunity to truly taste the sweetness of our lives.  We don’t give ourselves permission to stop and smell the roses, or to notice the sharpness of the thorns.  As this period of social isolation has dragged on, I have been amazed to notice how often I think that I should be doing more, learning more, accomplishing more.  Though I can write lists and cross things off of them one by one, I am also being encouraged to taste each moment, even the ones that aren’t on a list. Having more time and space offers us greater opportunity to learn to be more present in each moment.  I still have my list of things to do, but without the same urgency in my schedule, I get to notice how often my agenda is simply serving as a distraction.  I get uncomfortable if I slow down enough to hear the chatter in my mind.  I am constantly looking for a way out of the suffering that is born from trying to always be in control of my life.  If I am on mission to check things off my list, I often miss the swirl in the clouds or the hummingbird that says hello through my window.  The only way to truly and authentically “taste” something is to be with it in the moment completely.  It requires that we give the moment our full attention. 

Before the pandemic we all had so many reasons why we had to hurry off to be somewhere else that we didn’t notice the mysterious magic of being right where we are.  Though many of use are still very busy worrying about what is next, caring for our families,  or trying to stay afloat financially, in many ways we can find more time to be curious about what is right with us here in the moment.  Never in my life have I been forced in this way to sit in each moment.  There is nowhere else to go, less to get done.  So I can sit and watch with all of my awareness how life is unfolding in the here and now.  This is same place that life is always unfolding, the only place that life is truly alive.  The future that we are usually positioning for, or the past that we are often trying to untangle or integrate are both just concepts in our mind.  They are not alive like the present moment.  You can remember something from yesterday, or imagine it in a tomorrow, but it isn’t that wide eyed discovery of a secret that can only happen in this very moment.  

Like my daughter who didn’t notice the honey that we were putting in our tea until she tasted it herself, we are being encouraged to taste the honey ourselves and to understand its sweetness.  We are being beckoned to put down the word scribbled on a piece of paper and enjoy the spoonful of golden sweetness that is this moment.  

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