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Don’t Get Mad, Get Curious

December 11, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about anger, and the various schools of Buddhist thought regarding anger lately.  As one of the more passionate, gripping emotions, anger is a tricky concept for Buddhists. On the one hand, on the path of mindfulness you try to prevent any strong emotion from grabbing hold of and overtaking you.  On the other, to completely deny your anger, and refuse to give it voice can cause a welling and festering of emotion, which is likewise toxic.

The most cogent answer to the question of anger I’ve come in contact with is to let it be, breath through it, and get curious – in the spirit of mindfulness – of its nature, its root, where you feel it in the body, how it seems to be manifesting, where it is being projected, etc.  The hope is that instead of just blindly being moved by the emotion, you can foster some space, and let it exist without immediately giving license to its potentially damaging consequences.

So, I thought I’d write here about something that makes me angry, in hopes that this neutral forum – where I have the power of a backspace key and an “edit post” option – will allow me to hold and view my anger with compassion.

First off, when I told a friend of mine I was planning to write on this particular peeve of mine – which concerns sobriety – she mentioned attending a “traditions” meeting of AA, where they talked about the 12th tradition, namely:

Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

She said that the discussion at the meeting revolved around one’s own personal, private experience with sobriety, and the tendency for newly sober people to want to shout its virtues from the mountain tops.

I mention this, because I think I run the risk of this behavior a lot.  A big part of my personality is the excited desire to disseminate information I’ve found useful. (If only I had remained a Catholic, I would have rocked at proselytizing.)  It’s not a flaw, really; I mean, it’s why I’m a teacher.  But it can have its unskillful permutation, which I think might come out in particular sensitive situations, like the question of alcohol use.

So, point being, please know I’m not trying to preach sobriety to anyone.  If you find the choice to drink a positive one for yourself, and you’re not hurting yourself or others with that choice, party on.  I’ve made a choice, too.

So here’s the thing.  I’ve found over and over again, when the subject comes up that I’ve been sober for 8 months now, the first thing out of a person’s mouth is not “Oh great,” or, “Congrats,” but rather, with few exceptions, it is a befuddled and often mildly irritated, “Why?”

Please don’t do that.  Please, if someone tells you they’re sober, just say good for you and move on.  I’m not saying you have to be sober, too, just acknowledge that that’s a difficult and – apparently – non-normative choice to make, and good for them for sticking to something challenging they decided to pursue. Please.

(That was my pissed off paragraph.  Here’s my holding space and compassion paragraph…)

My therapist, always amazed at the booze-centric culture of my 40-years-her-junior social circles, suggested that when someone presents me with “why?” I come back and ask something along the lines of “why do you ask?” I laughed at first when she said this, but it certainly turns my frustration on its head. The conversation is then not about my eccentric decision, but rather we can foster a dialogue on why my decision is considered “different,” why it bears discussing at all, why ask why?

I have to admit, the thought of actually doing this still seems a little preposterous to me, but my discomfort with the suggestion has been educational in its own right.  She pointed out to me further that part of my irritation with this common reaction is my own still-teetering comfort level with my decision.  I haven’t fully owned the fact that I am now a non-drinker, so their lack of immediate acceptance is really mirroring my own.

It makes sense. And it’s made me wonder if many kinds of anger are just this – a toxicity toward that which we see in ourselves.  I won’t say all anger has this seed – I think there’s a lot to say for the righteous anger of the enslaved and the oppressed – but that a great deal of seething irritation we feel is really with behavior which resembles something within us.

It is frustrating to constantly have to explain yourself as a sober person, and I do really implore those of you who are drinkers who meet a sober person to take the time to validate and honor their choice before questioning it, but, thanks to my anger, I am given an opportunity to become curious, and more closely grasp a level of comfort with myself and my decisions.

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