February 19, 2012
Aggression and Anger
For whatever reason, when walking back home the other day, a seemingly normal, seemingly sane couple blocked my path and shouted at me to pass on the right. Confused, I stood watching as the violence quickly escalated. The man and woman yelled at me “What’s your problem? Don’t you understand English? Habla Ingles? Are you dumb? Can’t you speak?” The man then started walking into me. I tried passing him on the left, and he grabbed my waist and pushed me right, yelling at me a number of other extremely derogatory, obscene and misogynistic insults as he and his wife passed. I sort of laughed to myself as they passed. Ironically, I’d been listening to a lecture by Pema Chondron, reflecting on aggression and anger in preparation for this next article for the 108 blog.
I’ve been thinking a lot about times when I have been aggressive or angry and acted on it or lashed out. I’ve also been thinking about times when I played a part in people’s tendencies to act on their anger or aggression. About the world, and how we have a tendency to believe that the answer to aggression is with more aggression. And about our training and its approach. Where does it fit in?
What I have been reflecting on lately is what it felt like as a beginner to walk into the school and spar for the first time in my life. In the first couple of months, an incredible amount of anger surfaced every time I would spar. It was like clockwork: we bow, we spar, I get angry. It was inevitable. I believed that I was just like this. Nothing would ever change. And also, that the only way to deal with it, was to not deal with. To keep ignoring it. Of course, something needed to happen to change that way of thinking.
After a particularly bad round of sparring, where I was hurt physically and emotionally, I got angry. Visibly, tangibly angry. To the point where, I had no idea what to do with it except find a hallway and hide. Literally hiding from my anger and hide from myself because I was ashamed that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. Let me tell you, trying to completely shutting myself off to experiencing any kind of emotion did not work. I was more scared of myself than ever before. It was the first time since I had begun training that I deeply doubted whether continuing was a good idea. If it was more of this, I wasn’t sure I could handle it.
Sifu came and talked to me afterwards. What he said was that the Shaolin call this “embracing the tiger”. I remember thinking, “what the heck does that mean?” I’m sure I kinda just nodded, and said “okay,” and eventually started to train again, but it did feel like this riddle and I had no clue what he meant. In the last couple of weeks especially, I’ve had some particularly aggressive encounters with others, as have the people around me. It’s got me wondering again, what does it mean to “embrace the tiger”? I started to visualize and breakdown each word and really think about what meant.
Tiger, let’s start with that. A tiger is an aggressive, powerful animal. You do not want to get on the bad side of a tiger. Heck, you don’t want to get on the bad side of a house cat. Our family cat, Pee Wee, gave me deep gashes in my right forearm that I STILL have to this day. I don’t even remember what I did to provoke her, but I can almost guarantee I never did that again. You learn very quickly to stay away from the things that cause you pain.
Now, embrace. An embrace is to welcome, to hug, to greet, to bring in, etc. I think of embracing my family and friends when I see them. I think of inviting people into my house and welcoming them into my life. Well, I don’t know about you, but I do not think of hugging a tiger when I think about the word “embrace”. That’s pretty much the last thing in the world I want to do. You all remember what happened to that boy at the San Francisco Zoo. No way I’m going near a tiger. The tiger is the anger we feel. Imagine hugging that. Letting that uncontrollable animal roam around your house, lay on your couch, eat all your good food. No.Way.
That’s exactly what needs to be done though, when anger and aggression come up. Embracing the tiger, in my mind means allowing yourself to feel fully that emotion, but not being reactive or repressive. It takes a lot of courage to be able to lean into your fears rather than look for escape routes or lash out. It goes against what we want to do. What our instinct might be. And to do that takes a lot of practice.
Having even an inkling of understanding of this concept has changed my approach to anger and aggression in myself and others. I used to think that if my partner in sparring or Chin Na was being too aggressive, that I needed to either take it or return it. I don’t necessarily think that way anymore. I’ve started to notice almost instantly when I’m starting to feel even the slightest bit annoyed or irritable (the pre-cursors to full-on anger), and I’m trying to press the pause button at that point. It’s in these moments that I become intensely curious about myself and the situation. The dialogue in my head may go something like this:
Why isn’t this working?! What’s the matter with me?!
Oh…I think I’m angry.
Why am I angry?
Oh, this person is striking at me with a lot more force than I feel comfortable.
What should I do?
Well, I could ____________.
And so it goes. It reminds me of something I learned in the Advanced Down and Ground Sparring class this past Saturday, where Jay told us that often times when we’re trying to force an application that isn’t working, if we just relax, a lot of options suddenly become apparent. This is true whether practicing Chin Na or sparring, or dealing with a couple on the street who suddenly become aggressive. Suddenly it dawns on us, “Oh! I don’t need to engage with this person anymore!” Or whatever other solution seems most appropriate.
Taking a moment to pause and relax is essential for moving through aggression and anger. It’s the embrace part of “embracing the tiger”. It’s being able to recognize and take in the present moment for what it is. It takes a lot of courage to wait out fear and aggression when it has the potential to be dangerous, destructive and even lethal. That is certainly what some situations in training or in our everyday lives feel like or how they present themselves. I’ve found that it’s very easy for me to lash out or hide. It’s very difficult with me to stay with the pain and fear of the moment.
The good news is that I’m building up my tolerance little by little. Everyone does, the more it’s practiced. Just like anything that I’ve learned in Shaolin so far, the more you practice it and the more you’re exposed to it, the better you understand it and feel comfortable with it. Think of “embracing the tiger,” or embracing your anger like iron bone training for your emotions! It doesn’t take much for them to become very resilient over time. Until suddenly, one day, perhaps a situation that would have had you ranting and raving, is simply amusing, and you just shrug it off.
It’s something to think about the next time a situation arises and your first instinct is to act out of anger or hide from that emotion. Maybe try embracing the tiger. What happens? Post a comment and let us know your own experiences!!
Written by Barbara Jwanouskos