Street Corner Challenges

Today in Calistoga, two young men set up a table at the corner near the post office with political propaganda. They were there to speak on behalf of perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche. All well and good. But their main signs were two large face shots of President Barack Obama, with a drawn-in Hitler moustache.

The post office is just next door to the Tribune office. All day, people stopped in to vent, speaking in outrage about their reaction to the use of Hitler as an image. We explained that we were aware of the men, that they had been present in Calistoga the previous year and we had run a story on them, and we were choosing not to cover it this year – because that’s precisely what they want, more press coverage.

Still, it was making my own blood boil. I hated the fact that they were out there. At lunch, my boss Pat and I decided to hop in the car and drive out to Home Plate cafe for grilled cheese sandwiches (me) and fish and chips (her). The stop sign out of the parking lot put us directly alongside the men at their table. One young man stepped clear of the sign, gestured towards it with his hand, and looked up at me with an inviting expression.

And I calmly flipped him off.

He wagged his finger at me, equally calmly, with a “Tsk, tsk” look, and then we drove away. As soon as we left, I regretted my reaction. What made it even more ironic, even comical, was that on that very morning, on the way in to work, I had been listening to a book on CD by Thich Nhat Hahn called “True Love” about the practice of awakening the heart. He spoke extensively about calming the mind before action, so that one can reach out with love. I don’t think he meant to be calm while giving someone the finger!

It gnawed at me for a couple of hours. Finally, I walked over to the corner, and apologized. I said, “Earlier, I flipped you off, and I wanted to say I’m sorry.” The young man said, “Oh, I don’t remember you. There have been a lot of people who have flipped me off.” I then said, “What I have a problem with is…” And he said, “It’s the moustache, right?” And I said yes. He then proceeded to go into a nonsensical political diatribe equating Obama (and every other president since Kennedy) to Hitler because they are “budget cutters,” saying their policies of “depopulation” are the same as genocide. I listened for a few moments, attempted to explain how Hitler should never be used in any comparision, then realized it was fruitless. I wished him luck with his free speech, and turned to go.

In the end, then, I accomplished little in the way of communication. No minds were changed on either side. But I did, at least, clean up my mess by acknowledging my bad behavior. And that left me feeling much more at peace than I had after the moment in the car.


Walking Around with No Skin

On Tuesday night, I gave a student dharma talk at our Zen sitting group. The topic that I chose was anger, the precept that I have been studying, and struggling with, and turning inside out on a daily basis for the past few months.

I spent several days carefully planning what I would say, trying to balance my own story with a few insights culled from the pages of Buddhist teachers like Robert Aitken and Thich Nhat Hanh and Seung Sahn. It felt pretty reasonable and coherent, on paper.

But when I sat in front of my sangha members, fourteen of them, and began to talk, all sorts of doubts cropped up. As part of my dealings with anger, I chronicled instances from my past when I had lost my cool. In sharing them, speaking them out loud, it seemed they became shocking, startling. It felt as if I was portraying myself as a person who snapped easily and often, a walking time bomb. I grew uneasy as I looked around the circle, trying to read everyone’s faces. Did they think I was a monster?

A piece of me wanted to backtrack, and rewrite the script, to begin making explanations. After a reference to anger with a girlfriend, I longed to say, “I have been in a relationship with Sabrina for six years, and not once in that time have I ever yelled at her, or even raised my voice.”

I scrambled through my memories, thinking of all of the other reactions that come with far greater frequency than my own anger or outward violence: disassociation, depression, fear, self-doubt, nightmares. Those have been my main battle.

But, no. That is not the point. I also have anger. It is there. It is inside me, often buried, but inside me nonetheless. And at times, it does burst out, usually inappropriately. I need to face that in all honesty and courage.

After the talk, a couple of my sangha members thanked me for my honesty. This, too, is something that catches me a little off guard. I appreciate the comment, since I know it is offered genuinely enough. But, there is simply no other way I know how to be. Even when at times it might be better to keep some things more private, out of self protection, I’ve never been very good at drawing that line. Most of my life, I have walked around with no skin. All you need to do is ask. If I know the answer, I will tell you. It’s all here, right on the surface.

The downside to that, of course, is that on the day following such a talk, I feel completely naked in front of the world. And it is only through sitting, and breathing, and writing it down, that I can begin once more to believe that I will be able to walk into that room and face those people without fear. It is a process, one that I undertake over and over again.


Sitting in a Hut With Anger

The passage in Jack Kornfield’s “The Wise Heart” that spoke to me goes something like this:

Jack Kornfield had graduated from college, and gone to Thailand, where he had joined a Buddhist community and taken monk’s vows. One day, he became upset because he felt he had been mistreated by a senior monk. It made him feel angry. He spoke to his teacher about the incident, hoping to find resolution. His teacher said, “Good. Go back to your hut, put on all of your robes, sit, and be angry.”

It was in the middle of summer. He went to his small hut, put on all of his heavy monk’s robes, and sat down to meditate. He was hot outside from the heat of the day and the heat of the robes. And he was hot inside, from the anger churning inside of him. The anger boiled up, all out of proportion to the incident which had occurred with the senior monk.

Kornfield had grown up in a home with a father who beat his mother. As a child, he had tried to be the peacemaker. All of his life, he had imagined that he was incapable of anger, that it was something that did not exist within him.

Sitting in that hut, he began to open that old wound, and slowly started the process of healing, by experiencing the anger. He worked with anger over the next few years. He realized that all along, he had been much closer to his father than he ever realized – so close, that he had suppressed the anger out of a deep fear of hurting himself or others.

I completely understand the flash anger that is out of proportion to the incident, such as Kornfield experienced when mistreated by the senior monk. My sense of righteous indignation is strong and fierce and sudden. Most recently, I have been dealing with some issues in my work, where I feel people are not being truthful with me. It is not personal; we are playing out roles, with me as a representative of “the press,” while they are representatives of “interviewees.” But I become incensed, enraged by the apparent dishonesty. I am quick to judge, and relentless in my determination to “win.” My years of training have allowed me to camouflage that anger in their presence – I am a master at playing nice. But in the office, in front of my peers, I pace and rant and storm about. It seems that I am gradually losing my ability to tamp down the feelings. They keep popping up unexpectedly, lingering, following me home. I’ve been feeling really pissed off.

Although this feels like a loss of control, it is, ironically, I believe, a move in the right direction, a step towards greater cohesion. If I can face these little irks and problems, maybe then I can begin to tap into that deep well of rage boiling deep down inside of my gut. I think it is my time to go sit in my hot hut in all of my heavy robes.


Does That Evil Little Voice Ever Shut Up?

In two short months I will go through my jukai ceremony. I am feeling woefully unprepared. It’s been so crazy recently – with the extra load at work, first because of a co-worker’s illness, and then because of my boss’s long vacation, and then my grandmother’s hospitalization and recuperation, and now this ongoing worry about our parrot – on Saturday, just as I was about to head out the door to my Precepts class, he had another “vascular event,” as the vet put it, and we had to race him to the emergency clinic to put him in a tank with oxygen again. He is home, but still weak, and we have no idea what the prognosis is, and that is too much to even think about right now, so we are taking it one hour at a time.

There is this naggy little voice in my head that is berating me on a daily basis. You missed your Tuesday sitting group again. I can’t believe you’ve missed Precepts twice now! And you had to find a substitute last week for doan duty! You’re not blogging regularly! When was the last time you had dokusan? Are you serious about this? What kind of Buddhist are you, anyway?

It would be bad enough if the evil voice was only echoing around in my head during the day time. But it even shows up in my dreams. The other night I dreamed that Tony and Darlene were both mad at me, and took me aside to tell me how disappointed they were in me. The next night, I dreamed about my mother being disappointed in me. The next night, it was my boss. Hey, get in line! Apparently, everybody gets a turn!

In the middle of all of this mess, though, there is a tiny little voice saying, “But you’re working really hard on some big issues now, too.” The precept I chose to study for my year leading up to jukai was the one dealing with anger. For a while, it seemed that I had made a mistake, that it wasn’t the right one. But in the past two months, I have come to realize that it is exactly the right one – my anger was simply so deeply buried that it has taken a long time for me to unearth it. Lately, it is spilling out all over the place, and I am learning a lot, about anger, and about myself.

When Tony and Darlene said people were one of three types, either greed, hate or delusion types, I could never figure that out. None of them seemed to fit for me. But reading a book by Jack Kornfield recently, I finally heard an analogy that opened it up for me, and I clearly saw myself – and I knew instantly that I was a hate type, which horrified me. I’ve been burying that for my entire adult life. That’s where all that anger is.

So there’s this part of me that knows that even though I haven’t been able to keep every commitment I wanted to keep recently, I am still doing the work. I am still here, opening my heart every day, looking deeper, showing up.

I wish that other evil little voice would pipe down every now and then and give me a break. Any suggestions on how to hit the mute button?

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved