Sunday, February 14, 2010


The reason I was first drawn to following a mindfulness practice in the tradition of Plum Village (see sidebar) was the first Thich Nhat Hahn book I ever read.  In French it's simply called "La Colère" (Anger) and the cover shows a picture of a very cranky-looking Buddhist monk.  In English the title is "Anger:  Wisdom for Cooling the Flames," which aptly describes the book's main message:  we need to take care of our anger, understand it,  and let it cool down before we enter into communication with others.

I bought the book in a Tibetan Buddhist center in Lyon that I went to a few times, but never felt quite comfortable in - too ceremonial and religious-feeling, plus not particularly welcoming.  I was drawn to the book by its title and unusual cover (how often do we see images of unsmiling Buddhists, after all?), because I was feeling a bit like that monk looked - pretty darn pissed.

I've long struggled with anger issues, though I may come across as perfectly nice and sweet to most people who meet me (though once they find out I'm a Scorpio they get a little more worried).  I'm not necessarily quick to anger, but once I get going, those flames burn hot, steady, and long.  I was quite proficient in the silent treatment back in high school (as a few former friends may remember), as well as being a champion grudge-holder and extremely slow to forgive.  I've mellowed out over the years, and I'm more conscious of the excesses I am capable of.  But the depth and breath of my anger is a big part of what drew me to mindfulness practice, since my occasional fits of fury have created, and continue to create a great deal of suffering in my life. 

I recommend Thich Nhat Hanh's book to anyone who struggles with conflict whatsoever, but won't give you a review of its contents here.  Suffice it to say that I found his wisdom inspirational and priceless, so much so that I decided to participate in a week-long retreat at Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hahn's monastic community in Western France.  I went during a particularly difficult time in my romantic relationship, when I was seething with resentment and not sure if I could continue on with my partner.  I knew the rage was just festering within me and I had to let it go instead of projecting it all onto kevin, but I just couldn't do that work on my own. And since my anger was a huge trigger for kevin's anger, we kept ending up in a painfully vicious cycle.  So I went to Plum Village to breathe and 'find myself' and learn to let go. 

Within minutes of my arrival it began to snow, and all of sudden dozens of young Vietnamese nuns came rushing out into the falling flakes, giggling and squealing in utter ecstasy.  Thich Nhat Hahn is orginally from Vietnam, and he invites young men and women from his home country to come live in his monastic community in France.  For these women it was the first time they had ever seen snow, and their joy was unbounded. 

I had arrived at Plum Village with a heavy heart, but the delight in these young women's faces as they ran around throwing their first snowballs would have rubbed off on even the darkest of souls.  I was suddenly filled with wonder at the beauty of the soft snowfall, something which I always take for granted given that I have lived in many cold climates over the years.  And I realized how easy it is to forget to see the beauty around us, just because we've seen it so many times before.

The nun's joyous energy was infectious, and as I stood peacefully basking in the sound of laughter all around me, I felt lighter and happier than I had in a long time.  The first person I wanted to share that feeling with was Kevin, as my resentment towards him had completely faded while I was busy being blissful.  Funny how joy and anger just can't seem to share the same space.  So I called him, told him I loved him, and spent the next week working on my breathing, learning how to be present, and simply enjoying the presence of the nuns, who are just about the smiliest people I've met in my life. 

My week in Plum Village was transforming, because I became vibrantly aware that I was choosing happiness or suffering at any given moment.  When I chose to be touched by the nuns' joy, there was no place for anger anymore.  And when I chose anger, there was no more room for joy.  All too often I made choices (albeit unconsciously) that created suffering for myself and those around me, rather than choosing to be joyful.  Realizing that this was a choice was extremely empowering, because it meant I could make different choices with happier results.

Of course, in real life it's not as easy to choose joy all the time.  The benefits of Plum Village lasted about a month or two, but without a strong mindfulness practice, it's all too easy to fall back into old patterns.  That's why my bi-weekly meditation session with my Plum Village sangha is so important to me.  When I can't go I find it more difficult to make the right choices, since it's hard for me to meditate on my own. So the first trimester of my pregnancy was doubly difficult, since in addition to my constant nausea I was too exhausted for my group's evening meditations.

Anger is particularly present for me at the moment, since I got into a big fight with kevin this past week.  My mindfulness practice has been suffering of late, and I haven't been taking care of myself in general.  Last week in particular I hadn't had time to relax at all over the weekend because my mother-in-law was visiting, and things just ended up exploding once she left. 

It's tempting to beat myself up over this and to tell myself that I have a terrible practice and that I suck at being mindful.  I KNOW that I need to let myself cool down, perhaps even more than most people because of my grudge-holding tendencies.  But against my better judgment I lashed out at kevin the other day, and while he was able to withstand my attacks for a moment, eventually his own anger took hold. That's the bad news.  

The good news is that we fight much less often than before, the peaks don't get quite as high, and the drama doesn't last quite as long.  While I'd love to eliminate the fights completely, I don't think that's realistic anytime soon given my stormy scorpio nature; and perhaps that shouldn't even be the goal.  But there has been immense progress, and when things go badly it's a wake-up call to take better care of myself.  While I used to see fights as a failure, I'm trying to notice instead how far I've come, and how well my mindfulness practice actually works - when I do it.

At Plum Village we talked about how it's so much easier to feel happy and peaceful in the context of a meditation retreat, and how so many people are tempted by monastic life for that reason.  But the real challenge is remaining happy and peaceful in normal hectic life and in relationships with people who may not practice mindfulness themselves.  That's the true work, and it is indeed hard work.  Retreats help to give us strength to face the outside world, but ultimately it's up to us to wake up every day and make the best choices we can.  This past week I made the choice to remain stuck in my anger and lash out at kevin, but then I also made the choice to let it go much faster than I would have a year ago.   Knowing that I'm going to be a parent soon is all the more motivation to make sure I continue with and try to deepen my practice, so that I can be as present as possible with my child and provide him/her with as peaceful a context as possible (all the while trying to forgive myself when I stray from perfection...).

I've always found it ironic that my middle name is Joy given that anger has been such a defining emotion in my life.  My mother tells me she gave me the name because she was so happy at my birth.  However I spent a long time feeling like the universe was playing a bit of a cruel joke on me, since I seemed doomed instead to unhappiness - in large part self-inflicted because of my own anger.  But I'm starting to redefine my relationship to this name, and to see Joy as my birthright, or my path in life - a guiding light of sorts.  And above all as I choice I can make each and every day.  


Lily said...

This is wonderful, Diana! I`m happy for you, and encouraged myself. I also find that the hardest part is remaining peaceful in the hectic-ness of life, especially when you went out peaceful in the morning but everyone around you is frustrated and anxious!

オテモヤン said...