This summer, my daughters participated in a summer reading program at our local library, and as a reward, received a number of gift certificates. One was for a free shake at Jack in the Box. Even though we don’t normally patronize fast food restaurants, I promised them that they could collect their prizes. So on an especially hot afternoon, we headed into town, and the girls presented their shake coupons prior to ordering as instructed in the fine print. The employee behind the counter examined the coupons, and then said in a bored voice, “You can only redeem one coupon per visit.”
My daughters’ shoulders sank. I smiled at them, and then at the employee behind the counter.
“Well then, we can do this one of two ways,” I said. “You can ring us up as two separate orders, or we can order one shake, walk out the door, and walk right back in and order the second.” I smiled again. “It’s up to you, but we need two free shakes.” My voice was calm, but firm. My girls stared at me wide-eyed.
The employee, less bored now, examined the coupons again, and then punched some numbers into her register. She took the girls’ shake orders, chocolate and vanilla, and even added extra whipped cream topping.
On the way out the door, my oldest daughter said, “MOM! I can’t believe you did that!”
“Did what?” I asked innocently. She rolled her eyes at me.
I feigned ignorance, but I knew what she meant. Not that long ago, I would have reacted differently. Instead of firmly insisting that the girls each receive their free shake, I would have silently seethed as I took back one of the coupons. I would have begrudgingly bought a second shake, and spent the rest of the afternoon consumed by rageful thoughts about corporate America, the library program for distributing a ridiculous prize, and even my own kids for wanting to redeem the stupid coupons in the first place.
But that was before I saw the results of my endoscopy, a procedure where they sent a camera down my throat to take pictures of my esophagus and stomach. My doctor explained about chronic gastritis as I looked at the photos of my bright red, inflamed stomach lining. My only thought was, “Wow, that’s a whole lot of anger sitting in my belly. I’d better do something about that.”
In the days that followed, I started thinking about anger, specifically my anger. I realized that despite my efforts to suppress and tame my emotions on a daily basis, the reality was that I was really really REALLY pissed off. I was enraged that I’d let myself be used and abused in a couple of friendships. I was consumed with anger that my cousin died with dreams still in her heart. I was furious that I’d felt like crap for the past eighteen months. I was ticked at the cruelty of little girls that occasionally caused my daughters to cry themselves to sleep. And on and on. I’d been swallowing all this anger day in and day out for years now, and it was literally making a fireball in my stomach that was becoming more painful by the week. The worst part was that despite my efforts to tamp down my rage, my anger was seeping out here and there at family and friends, and tainting my attitude about life.
Part of the reason I’d been stuffing all that rage was because dealing with anger isn’t easy. Anger is scary. Anger feels uncontrollable. Anger is a cultural taboo, especially for women who are quickly labeled a bitch if they put a little rage out there. But anger can also feel good. I was my most powerful during the last two years of college when I was completing my Women’s Studies degree. I was pissed off when I learned that women were still receiving 68 cents to the dollar compared to men in the workplace. I was even more enraged to discover that the female professors at my own progressive, liberal arts college were generally making 30 percent less than their male colleagues. I even wrote an article about it for the school newspaper. At the time, my attitude was: Call me a bitch, I dare you.
I’m well past college now, and I’ve outgrown the need to ride the waves of outrage. I don’t want to explode all over the place, or have heated confrontations no matter how justified. For the last ten years, since my oldest daughter was born, I’ve had a need, an urgency like never before, to fit in, to squeeze myself into the role of being a mother, and navigate the rules of conformity that dominate small town living, even if sometimes I’ve had to compromise who I am.
To do this, I’ve tried to deal with all the unpleasant, stressful, and anger-provoking situations in my life by practicing lovingkindness meditation techniques. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his book Anger, “To understand and transform anger, we must learn the practice of compassionate listening and use loving speech.”
In an effort to be kind, I practiced turning the other cheek when annoyed until my neck hurt from swiveling my head so much. I avoided confrontations large and small for the sake of peace until my personal boundaries were so trampled on that I didn’t know who I was anymore. I tried to “sit with my emotions to dissolve them” as Hanh recommends, but found that instead of dissipating, my feelings gathered power and became a swirling tornado of anxiety, worry, doubt, and anger that created a perpetual negative mindset. According to my acupuncturist, Chinese medicine acknowledges that “emotions can get into your blood,” hence the expression “anger coursing through her veins.” I know that feeling. Sometimes, my emotions became so embodied that I felt possessed by them.
Despite being a faithful devotee of the philosophy of kindness, I realized after my doctor’s appointment that perhaps meditation alone wasn’t working for me. Says Martha Beck in her book Finding Your Own North Star, “To make anger go away, you have to change the situation.” I knew I couldn’t keep swallowing all this rage that was ultimately making me sick. I couldn’t just keep sitting there, I had to DO something.
“If you don’t speak up for yourself,” says Beck, “you’re sending a message to everyone–especially your essential self–that you’re too timid to fight on your own behalf.” While passively trying to dissolve my anger on the meditation cushion and practice lovingkindness as I understood it, I’d taken on the role of a victim, a role that felt terribly uncomfortable and far from the truth of who I was. I needed to get back to my essential self.
During the years I was practicing meditation, I was also studying Ayurvedic medicine, the thousand-year-old healing practice of India. According to Ayurveda, there are three types of doshas or constitutions: vata, pitta, and kapha. Your dosha “governs all the biological, psychological, and physiopathological functions of the body, mind, and consciousness,” according to Ayurveda by Dr. Vasant Lad. My dosha is pitta. Pitta people are described as intense, direct, bright, and smart. They also have a tendency towards anger, inflammation, and stomach problems. The pitta element is fire.
Over these past years, instead of honoring my essential self as Beck recommends, I’ve been trying to douse my fire, change the essence of who I am. But as anyone who has watched a wildfire rage knows, fire is not easily extinguished. Hot spots can flare up when you least expect it long after the flames have died down. On the other hand, fire, when handled with respect, can provide warmth and light, two crucial needs for survival. I searched through my jewelry drawer for the necklace with a sun charm that my husband gave me several birthdays ago, and clasped it around my neck. The sun, the ultimate fire, was a reminder of the heat burning within me.
As I perused some of my Ayurvedic texts, I realized that honoring my pittaness and managing my fire might mean that I needed some intermediate steps before attempting to dissolve my emotions through meditation. Beck writes that it’s important to “release your ‘hot anger’ so it doesn’t flare up inappropriately.” She suggests that physical movement is the best way to let fury burn itself out.
Encouraged by Beck, I revisit my secret longing for one of those large, heavy punching bags and a pair of boxing gloves. I’ve never given into the urge, thinking that a punching bag would stoke my rage, but perhaps responsibly discharging my hot anger would ultimately lead me to a more peaceful path. With this in mind, I dig out some old kickboxing tapes, and start a new practice. Each day, for twenty minutes, I punch and kick my way through a routine. Often my daughters join me. Clara, the youngest, who has a bit of pitta in her as well, especially loves the kicks. With each one she lets out a loud karate “HA!” sound. Following her lead, I add a few “HAs!” of my own to my routine, and finish calmer and more centered than I’d ever felt leaving my meditation cushion.
Whereas kickboxing helped dispel my hot anger, I still needed to do something about the negative emotions trapped in my blood. Emotions that triggered a continuous loop of internal conversations that distracted me from being present during the day and kept me from sleeping at night. I fully understand that when a situation triggers me, making me flare with anger, that the universe is holding up a mirror for me to examine something within myself, but I came to realize that before I can calmly assess the situation and learn from it, I have to do something about the unreasonable, defensive voices in my head. Since my power resides in writing, I created what Beck calls a “Hate ‘n Rage Journal.” Hidden in my drawer, and covered with dire warnings that it is not to be read under any circumstances, my Hate ‘n Rage Journal is where I can deposit everything I am thinking no matter how selfish, hateful, or childish. I don’t stop to think or judge, I just write, fast and furious, my handwriting sprawling across the page unevenly. When my mind is finally empty, I close the journal, my blood cleansed of emotion, my outlook changed.
After a couple of weeks of kickboxing and Hate ‘n Rage journaling, I feel much better mentally, emotionally, and physically. With my fire controlled, but still burning brightly, I return to my meditation cushion, and can finally invoke some true lovingkindness and compassion for myself and others. The difference is that now it comes from a place of calm confidence and power. I can accept what is, and let go of whatever I can’t do anything about. The few things I can change, I confront with calm determination.
At dinner, the kids told their dad about the little scene at Jack in the Box.
“And Mom told the lady that we would walk out and then walk right back in if we had to,” said Clara, somewhat proudly.
A smile played around the edges of my husband’s mouth. We met, after all, during my last year of college when I was finishing up my degree. He’s never been afraid of my fire.
I laughed. “The girls earned their free shakes, and I wanted to make sure they got them.”
I fingered the sun charm at my throat, my shoulders aching pleasantly with the movement from my workout earlier that afternoon. I silently celebrated my pittaness, and noticed that my stomach didn’t hurt at all.