My son is 9, huddled down beside the toilet. I’m leaning over him, grabbing at his arm. We are both screaming, shrieking, cursing one another. All the energy in the house, in the whole universe it seems, has become a concentrated white light burning into this tiny bathroom. I am so wild with fury I can’t see, can’t even hear the words coming out of my mouth.
This is me, a Zen Buddhist practitioner of nearly twenty years.
Anger brought me into practice in my twenties. I was falling in love with the man I would later marry and have children with, and it was painfully clear that even his kindness wasn’t enough to defuse my rage. In fact, my anger seemed to expand alongside our growing intimacy, in a kind of terrible tango.
So I started to sit. With a Zen group, and alone. I read books, and listened to dharma talks. I sat through sesshins. I started to look at my anger with softer eyes, to pay attention to the terrified feelings beneath. I remember in a sangha discussion on the precept on anger, a friend recounted her appreciation of its liberating energy. But for me, despite Zen, and despite having an excellent therapist, anger still snapped at me like a metal trap. What l really wanted was to keep out of its way.
In time our daughter was born, followed closely by our son, and a few years later, another son. Three beautiful, healthy, wanted children. It was demanding of course, and a little dizzying to reorient from career and travel to domestic life. I was so grateful to have found a tradition that honored the wisdom of repetitive tasks done with a fresh mind. Chop wood, Carry water! Change diaper, puree pumpkin! We played, read stories, cuddled, laughed, baked cakes. All the astonishing ordinary acts of a loving family.
But as they grew into toddlers and beyond, the rage which could flare in my relationship with my husband, began stalking me as I cared for my children. That’s exactly how it felt: a stalking beast breathing on my neck, using me to invade our home. The stakes were so much higher now. I knew that my anger risked marking my children, in body and spirit, even horribly disfiguring our relationship. The Indian philosopher Shantideva, never one to mince words, reflects in The Way of the Bodhisattva: “Good works gathered in a thousand ages. A single flash of anger, shatters them.”
Shantideva would have had some things to say about what had happened in that bathroom.
One night, in the midst of another heated and quickly escalating conflict with my son, I escaped to the bathroom and closed the door. Every one of my muscles was coiled and tense, driving for action; my ears were ringing with the furious accusations racing around inside my skull. I found myself shuddering and shaking, gasping for breath. It was not unlike the final stage of labor where your body feels as if it is being cleaved entirely in two. But I stayed where I was. I sat with it. The fury blazed in full and eventually abated. The arrow of Mara had passed through me and left a flower of insight.
To be really angry is to experience a radical contraction of the self. It narrows the vast infinity of awareness to the very tightest clutching of I want and I don’t want. And for me it was at that very moment of most extreme contraction that the door into emptiness and impermanence dropped open. The teachings of no-self suddenly became intimate. Not in a place of calm on the zafu as I had imagined they might, but in hot furious tears sitting on the edge of the bathtub. Anger was pointing its giant red neon sign at where I most strongly divided the world into self and other, right and wrong, him and me.
This flash of realization was powerful. But it was not enough to dissolve the habits of a lifetime, and I didn’t have lifetimes to play with: there was still an angry child on the other side of that bathroom door demanding his playstation. I had to leave the bathroom, get up off the zafu each morning, and keep on parenting. To help me bring wisdom and compassion to the intensity of family life I came to understand that my practice needed something more than “just sitting.”
Pema Chödrön’s book Practicing Peace stood on the bookstore shelf like a little blue flag marking a great treasure: dig here. The book introduced me to the Tibetan practice of tonglen, which offers a way of working directly with the painful sensations of aggression. This practice of “sending and receiving” gently but powerfully strengthened the insight I had in the bathroom that night—that there is no fundamental separation of self and other. The final step in tonglen is practicing for all sentient beings who have known this pain, underscoring that the experience of rage, however shameful it may feel, does not make us monsters but is part of our rich, messy, human inheritance.
Pema also wrote about practicing the paramita of patience as an antidote to anger. So from my Australian living room I signed up for an online course on the paramitas, offered by Pema Chödrön and given to her students at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. Paramita is a Sanskrit word meaning “perfection” and traditionally there are six qualities that encourage the perfection of character. Pema shared an excellent mnemonic to help remember them:
Gosh — Generosity
Darn — Discipline
Please — Patience
Eat — Enthusiasm
My — Meditation
Pizza — Prajna (wisdom)
Reassuringly (as “perfection” can feel way out of the realm of possibility), Pema emphasized that it is effort, stretching beyond our habitual ways of acting, that allows these qualities to flower.
I had never given much attention to patience, mistaking it for meekness or repression. But I discovered that patience is a discipline and a commitment like no other. Shantideva again: “No evil is there like anger. No austerity to be compared to patience.” While anger is all about the misguided urge to control, patience is a willingness to be with whatever is as it is. Patience can demand the most determined effort, especially when the habits of irritation and anger have built up over a lifetime or more, yet it is enlivened by the sweetest of qualities, such as humor, lightness, and perspective.
In seeking to cultivate patience I am constantly learning to pay attention to my body off the cushion. The sensation of rage is so physical that taking care of anger often means directly addressing the body: cooling my face with ice, exhaling all the way to my toes, or placing my hand on my heart. It also asks that I pay attention to the wider physical context: am I getting enough sleep, enough food, enough quiet? Working with the body in this way has the great added benefit of bypassing the storylines that fuel fury: He never listens! I can’t handle this!
It is nearly three years now since that night with my son in the bathroom. Through expanding my ways of practicing, life at home has become calmer for all of us. At 11 my son is curious, smart and kind. He is also quick to anger. I could blame myself for that, for the hot blood I passed to him through example or the hidden workings of genetics. But my intimacy with anger also means I can help. I have walked that path, hung on to that cliff. He doesn’t need to feel abandoned to the intensity of those feelings or lost in shame in their aftermath. We can burn that karma together. All beings awakening as one. Right here in the bathroom, and everywhere.