Thursday, December 29, 2011

Fear And Anger...

What Are They Good For?

Some people and some teachers, including “Yoda” from “Star Wars” have a very negative view of fear and anger. Yoda says at one point, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” I've never felt this way about fear or anger.

First let’s consider fear.

I think fear is a natural healthy response to danger. Holding on to fear after the danger has passed is another story, as is closing your heart and mind because of fear.

But fear itself, to me, is just a biological response that protects us from harm. If I jump out of an alley and scream right next to a person walking by, their reaction will be similar no matter who they are: Eyes widen, shoulders lift, hands come up to protect the torso and face, voice yells to alert others, muscles charge getting ready to run or fight.

There are people who have trained these responses out of their systems but I think a person without fear is foolish, as is a person who lives in fear all the time. I would say the same about anger too. Without it, a person is bereft of a powerful gift, but living in it all the time is Hell on Earth.

I don't think any of our biological responses are bad or "the problem". I think it's what we choose to do with them that gets us into trouble. I think a lot of New Age thinking throws the baby out with the bath and you have people walking around trying to be "peaceful warriors" or quiesced monks, and instead end up being a bunch of passive aggressive energy-less wimps. Suppressing emotions takes a lot of energy. Feeling them may be painful, but they do pass through. Not feeling them only stretches out the process because they will work their way through one way or another.

To be fully human, to me, is to feel all of our emotions, and then, like weather systems, when they've had their time, to let them pass through. But unlike a lot of New Agers, I don't think you can "let them go" without feeling them first. Otherwise, what are you letting go of?

I wish Yoda had said "Holding on to fear leads to anger; holding on to anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering."

And as far as I can tell: No dark? No light.

But don't get me wrong I love Yoda. Even if I don't agree with this aspect of his teaching.

Fear seems to be hard wired into our brains and for good reason. There's an Japanese art called "Kiai-Jitsu" that's based on animal sounds. There are apparently a handful of primal animal fears, each associated with a particular animal that we all have coded in our primitive brains. There's the wolf/dog, the bear, the snake and a few others. Practitioners of this art try to size up which of these animals their opponent is the most afraid of. Apparently we all lean towards having one of these animals that are particularly scary for us.

Just as the opponent attacks, the Aiki-Jitsu practitioner will make one of these sounds, usually accompanied by an appropriate movement of some kind. If he's sized up his opponent properly, the sound and motion will create an overwhelming wave of fear, sometimes accompanied by a hallucination of the actual animal! People literally "see" the bear, dog, snake or whatever and practically shit in their pants.

I trained with a master of this technique briefly in Seattle. I never got a chance to "see" one of the animals, but several people there had and swore by it, including people who I really trusted to not be bullshitting. He did say at one point that there were some sounds that were designed to make the opponent rise or drop their center of gravity. He asked me to attack him. As I did, he made this crazy almost pterodactyl like bird squawk, and suddenly my pelvis was about two feet behind my chest, my balance was all but gone, and his next technique found no opposition because I had no connection to my center. I also became quite flushed and I'm not much of a blusher at all. Freaky stuff.

I also like to differentiate between fear and panic. Fear is a much more useful and helpful mode of being than panic and that is why, I think, we all feel more fear that outright panic over the course of our lifetimes.

Fear alerts you to danger. As I wrote above, the eyes open wider, the shoulders lift in anticipation of protecting or attacking, and the breath draws in which readies the body for withstanding an attack, (if you're hit while your lungs are inflated, exhaling will naturally help diffuse the energy of the blow), while at the same time readying the body for attacking because we tend to get the most power when out of a strike when we exhale. In general, it's biological function is to alert you to danger and to prepare you to fight or run.

Panic is different, everything goes into a complete frantic state of activity, but not with any clear focus or control. It's kind of a flight or fight seizure or traffic jam with all signals blaring at once. Judgment goes completely out the window and blind emotion takes over. I can see how this might come in handy in a truly desperate life or death struggle when it looks like defeat is imminent. For instance, when being attacked by an animal that's seriously out to get you, or when drowning, or really anytime when death is a serious threat.

It seems to me that people's transition from fear to panic has to do with their perception of danger. When someone else is panicking and I'm not, I think it's because they think or feel that what's going on is more of a real danger than I do. I'm not talking about right and wrong here, just the degree of perceived danger.

I don't even think you should panic if your house is in flames. Panicking is never a good idea. If you can do it, take a breath, assess your situation, and take the best action you can in the best way you can take it.

When panicking is truly useful or life-saving, it's a last ditch biological freak-out, and it's not a "good idea". It's not an idea at all. You don't think about panicking before you do it. If you do it, you do it. That's why I said it's never a good idea.

But, if you can help it, if you can notice your own personal panic escalator, and as you feel yourself going up it, if you can then look around and assess what's going on rationally, or even intuitively, it's possible that by giving your body an accurate assessment of the real danger level to you right now, that that alone can put the brakes on panicking. Maybe not, but I think it's worth a shot. It's also really helpful, through any awareness based physical training, to become more aware of the connection between breathing and muscle tension, and in general to be familiar with preparing your body for physical action and then acting. All these things can help keep you from panicking in situations when it isn't warranted.

And now let’s consider anger.

Anger too gets a bad rap, but as I see it, every single thing that's hard wired into us as human beings, no matter what it is, has value, can't be banished, and if it could, it would not be a good thing. If it's in our DNA, it's got value or it would have vanished long ago.

Anger lets me know when my boundaries have been, or are about to be violated. It helps me gather and focus energy to fight or run from danger. A human being without the ability to get angry is pretty useless in my book, certainly unhealthy. Actually, I don't think such a human exists.

The problem as I see it is holding on to anger, not the anger itself. Anger itself is like weather. It will pass. But if we hold on to it and extend its life past the period of time when it's useful, then we get into trouble. It the same with fear, sadness, resentment, all the so called "negative" emotions. Let them in, accept their benefits and let them go and all will be well. Fight them, control them with force, suppress them, disrespect them, medicalize them, de-spiritualize them, hold on to them, and get the world we have right now.

As I see it, it's not the feeling itself that's the problem, it's how we handle it.

I think the key for me is that when someone has made me angry, it's a fact. I am angry. To try and short cut to "letting it go" without acknowledging or feeling the anger itself just buries it, but I don't think it's gone. We've all had experiences where our anger at something is way out of proportion. I think this is a sign that a bunch of undelivered anger was buried inside waiting for an avenue to express itself. And I'm sure we've all known passive aggressive types who claim they're not mad and then set fire to your couch "by accident".

But reacting with blind rage and acting on impulse without any connection to myself is equally ineffective. We all know raging people who never seem to get it out of their systems. If I feel in control of my actions and have a clear feeling of "I" am angry, and toward who, and for what reason, then I know I'm on solid ground. But if I feel completely overwhelmed by anger and there is no sense of being in control, no sense of "I", and the anger just IS me, or HAS me, then I'm in trouble. At these moments, the old adage to "count to 10" is amazingly effective, even if it has to be repeated a few times.

What works best for me is to first of all, just feel and accept that I am angry. No actions yet, just feeling it. Once the initial wave has peaked, the next step is to see if I can let it go. If so, great. If not, then I have to choose the best way to express it. I might have to tell someone who's wronged me that they've done so. But they might be dead or unapproachable or dangerous, so I might just have to beat the bed or write a song or vent to a sympathetic friend. But one way or another that energy needs to move. I try to move it in ways that do as little damage to me or anyone else as possible.

I like any method really, as long as the initial anger moves through rather than gets buried. If a person who’s angering me is a beaten down person who doesn't really deserve more anger, or an innocent person with no intent to harm me, he can still piss me off. If seeing his situation helps me let it go, great, but if not, suppressing my feelings only makes them worse. Another thing that really works for me after feeling what I'm feeling is to recognize that Life deals out, by far, much better revenge than I ever could. All I have to do is nothing. "Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord!"


  1. "I don't think you can "let them go" without feeling them first. Otherwise, what are you letting go of?"

    I'm glad to have that reminder. I've been putting a lot of attention on noticing the experience of my emotions, allowing them to come, and letting them go. But often times with painful/uncomfortable sensations or emotions or trains-of-thought, I notice in retrospect that I have been try to "let them go" simply as an attempt to get them away. And so I sometimes end up feel pretty confused about whether my resultant actions are expressions of the energy, or they are simply efforts to not feel the energy. I often end up skipping the "feel it fully" step, and try to jump straight for a resolution.

  2. @Current Pattern Thanks for your comment. I don't think you are alone in that tendency. A lot of us want to rush to "letting go"...But alas, I don't think it can be done. Trying to skip anything with force just postpones the day when I have to face it. Real surrender comes to me when I see the futility of further action and real letting go comes to me when I feel the feelings first. If either is just a tactic to avoid life, it isn't real, doesn't last, and doesn't work. There's a part of me that just wants to meet my experience, whatever it is. There's another part that wants control my experience and avoid pain. Both seem to be indelible parts of myself that have their value.their time and their place. Figuring out what that is a always work in progress. ;~)