2013-06-11

The Real Work

Seneca
As protective strategies go, anger is not that great. It’s an impulse that comes out of pain or fear of pain, and seeks to inflict pain back. Aristotle defined anger as “a burning desire to pay back pain.” In the process, it does more harm to us. Holding on to anger, the saying goes, “is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

When anger arrives, it comes with a certain energy. Breathe into it. That energy is usually not immediately useful outside of situations in which fleeing and fighting actually are the only two viable alternatives.

There are times when a protective use of force may be called for, yet it’s best not to use that first wave of anger energy to carry out whatever protection is needed. Protection is better served without being carried primarily on anger’s energy because that energy is so narrow, so tunnel-visioned, all it can see is the hurt or the fear and how to hurt back.

Anger makes it harder to get things right. Think of the old Kung Fu TV show from the 1970s. Caine, played by David Carradine, was indeed formidable at protecting himself. He’s able to do that all the more skillfully because he maintains inner calmness while fighting. The point was noticed many centuries before by Seneca, the first-century Roman philosopher and statesman:
“The energy of anger is not steady and reliable. It attacks violently at first, but quickly wearies and cannot sustain the fight....Nor is anything great which is not at the same time calm.”
It’s not having anger that is the sin, it’s indulging it – resigning ourselves to the fire of anger and letting it burn us up. Cultivating understanding, insight, patience, and forgiveness, allows the fire to settle into an energy for creative and healing engagement.

In the end, we are not separate. Most of the stuff I am made of, everyone is made of. And everything that I am made of exists in a lot of other people, too. Not born, not destroyed, just constantly shifting around. When that is not forgotten, the anger energy can transform into healing.

What then about Amos’ anger? Amos relays God’s view that:
“I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. If you offer Me burnt offering – or your meal offerings – I will not accept them”
Is Amos, or Yahweh, indulging wrath, or is he using the energy to be a calm voice for healing? It seems more like indulging wrath – but we can’t say for sure.

I’m reminded of an old Zen story. The semi-legendary founder of Zen, Bodhidharma, migrated from India to China. In China, his reputation as a spiritual teacher spread to the emperor who, himself a Buddhist, asked to see this foreign teacher. The emperor said, “Since I came to the throne, I have built many temples, published numerous scriptures and supported countless monks and nuns. How great is the merit in all these?"

Bodhidharma answered, “No merit.”

The Emperor then asked, “What then, is the essence of the holy teaching?”

Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness. No essence, no holiness.”

The stunned Emperor said, “Who are you?”

Bodhidharma said, “I don’t know.”

Amos was saying, “Your shallow rituals count for nothing.” Bodhidharma was saying, “Your outward displays count for nothing.”

Is the practice of your faith doing the real work of connection? Or do your faith practices merely protect you, bolstering ego in its delusions of separateness and specialness? Probably, at least sometimes the one, and at least sometimes the other. The energy of anger, the fire whose first impulse is aggressive protection, provides a key practice ground for re-directing energy to that real work of connection.

May that path be found, and the courage to take it, step by step.

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This is part 17 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 4 of 4 on Wrath)
Next: Part 18: "Wanting the Cow Dead"
Previous: Part 16: "Powerful and True Bad Examples"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sin"