At his wedding, Chuck’s godmother gave the new couple one bit of advice. “Never go to sleep angry,” she warned them. “Make up before the day is done.” Chuck thought this was very sensible; it went right along with his study of Eastern philosophy. Greed, hatred, and delusion were the causes of suffering. Why would he and his wife want to feed the fires of such destructive forces?
Yet things had not worked out as he had envisioned. Some years into the marriage, Chuck and Rachel had fights that never seemed to get resolved, at least not in the way he thought they should. Chuck still believed that they should not go to sleep angry, but as a consequence he would stay up all night processing his rage while his wife slept.
In a session with me several days after the latest argument, Chuck told me what he had been through. He and Rachel had been driving to a friend’s party, but the printed directions were wrong. Chuck got off at the indicated exit, headed west as he was instructed, but could not find the next landmark. Why wasn’t it there, he wondered? He snapped at his wife, assuming that she wasn’t reading the directions properly. Irritated with his tone, she assured him that she was reading them just fine, but she asked him to stop for directions.
He assured her he would but then sped past the gas station. They were late already, and he was convinced he could find the place: It was somewhere on this street. He had passed it the day before, he remembered. Careening about in search of the landmarks indicated in the invitation, he finally stopped at a neon-lit fast food joint straight from a David Lynch movie. A group of four youths in gold chains eyed his car. He headed back in the other direction as his wife grew more and more irate.
He asked her very calmly to please stop yelling at him, but inside he was seething and indignant. Rachel did not find his forced calm appealing and continued to be irate with him. He became withdrawn while fantasies of crashing their car began to flower in his brain. There is nothing that Chuck hated as much as being yelled at in an automobile. He did not like asking for directions and took pride in his ability to find his way, even when lost.
He felt that Rachel did not trust him when she lost her temper like this and routinely took it as a blow to their love.
He finally stopped for directions at a local motel, drove to the party, and spent the evening waiting for her to apologize, even after they discovered that their host’s printed directions had, in fact, been faulty. Chuck and Rachel danced once, to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” The irony of the lyrics was not lost on him.
My friend Michael Eigen, a New York psychoanalyst who, unlike most of Freud’s descendants, is not put off by the pursuit of the sacred, tells a story in his book Psychic Deadness (Jason Aronson, 1996) about a meditator named Ken who came to him for help with his abusive temper. Throughout my talk with Chuck, flashes of Ken kept breaking through. Ken’s case study is entitled “StillnessStorminess,” with the arrows indicating a dynamic relationship between the two states, one that both Ken and Chuck were unwilling to accept.
The heart of the story is Ken’s anger, and his efforts to use Buddhist meditation to calm it. Anger faded and peacefulness opened within him in meditation. But it was not a peace that could last. Ken still got angry in the midst of family life, much to his dismay. His expectations, for himself and for his family, were too great. He demanded that meditation calm domestic life, and, disappointed every time conflict broke up his meditative stability, he blamed himself or his family. He wanted his family to live by his values, to orient themselves around peace and calm, to make meditation the center of their lives, too. He was outraged by the turmoil of family life and drawn more and more to the simplicity of silent sitting.
“Part of Ken’s difficulty,” says Eigen, “was his hidden wish to control his family (perhaps life itself) with one mood. He was not content to enjoy calm, then pass into the tumult of real living. He wished to rule the latter by the former. An unconscious severity structured his tranquility. Meditation centered him, yet it masked a tyrannical demand that life not be life, his wife not be his wife, his child not be his child.”
The tyrannical demand that his wife not be his wife…I talked to Chuck about that. He wanted an apology from Rachel, and he could not believe that she would withhold it. An unconscious severity structured his tranquility. What about what his godmother had said? Why could Rachel never say she was sorry? “Why can you not just let go?” she kept insisting, in a knowing reference to his years of meditation practice.
Chuck felt that he had to stand up for himself, but he was missing the opportunity to zero in on the sense of self that was at the root of his suffering. Tibetan Buddhists call such times “injured innocence,” when you are falsely accused and you think to yourself, “I didn’t do that!” The self that we take to be real is most visible at these times of indignation, and in order to have the liberating insight of egolessness, we must first find the self as it actually appears to us. Those moments of injured innocence are prime occasions for this most psychological of spiritual work.
In his book, Dr. Eigen probes Ken’s relationship to anger and his devotion to stillness. Ken was not just trying to quiet his own mind, he was endeavoring to silence a chaotic early environment. “In time he realized that he tried to get from meditation the calm he never got from his parents. In part, he used meditation to calm his parents (in unconscious fantasy), as well as himself.”
But meditation frustrated Ken in its failure to transform his life. He wanted too much from it, and he began to hate what could not be changed. Instead of using meditation practice to move between states of storminess and stillness, to let go of one as the other took hold, he tried to use meditation to dominate life. He needed therapy to teach him what he might have also learned from yoga: how to move between positions with awareness and flexibility. Chuck was very like Ken in his relationship to anger. He had a formula for how things were supposed to go. If he and Rachel had a fight, they should be able to process it. He would try to admit his faults, but his wife should be able to, as well. If she was going to get so angry with him, she should at least be able to apologize. But Rachel did not like to talk about such things. She got mad, but when it was over it was over. She did not like all of Chuck’s rules.
Chuck had difficulty allowing the fight to disappear by itself. He kept wanting that apology. Several nights after their fight when going to sleep, Chuck had turned his back to Rachel but was surprised as she nestled against him. Almost against his will, he moved into her softness and warmth. She felt good to him, and he momentarily appreciated her gesture. Some of his anger melted. “As in yoga, so in the emotional life,” I said. The movement between forms is as important as the asanas themselves. If you are fixating on what an asana should look like, you are not really doing the asana. Awareness is more important than the external form, and awareness may pass through several states: anger, frustration, or bliss. Yoga is accepting all the states without holding on and without pushing away.
I told Chuck a story from Jack Kornfield’s new book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry (Bantam Books) about Zen master Suzuki Roshi of the San Francisco Zen Center. Students were always asking him how to deal with difficult emotions like anger, even though they already knew what he would say. “You tell us to just sit when we sit and eat when we eat, but can a Zen master just be angry in the same way?” someone once asked him. “Like a thunderstorm when it passes?” Suzuki Roshi responded. “Ahh, I wish I could do that.”
Mark Epstein, M.D., is a psychiatrist in New York and author of Going on Being (Broadway Books, 2001). He’s been a student of Buddhist meditation for 25 years.