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Come Rain or Come Shine

Meditation and yoga allow you to weather the sudden storms in your relationships.

By Mark Epstein, M.D.

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.

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