Saturday, 4 April 2015

Resistance and rage: why I don't always trust peace and calm

The last few posts I've written a lot about listening and acceptance. But in many ways I feel as if, for me, getting sober is a tug of war between acceptance and resistance, peace and rage. Talking about acceptance in sober blog circles goes down well, but I'm not always so sure it's OK to talk about resistance. But I'm going to try, as I want to see if I can make some sense of it: what I'm resisting, and why it matters to me.

So what am I resisting? One of the things I've learned about getting sober is that a person goes through a lot of changes. Of course, I am the same person, but I am also becoming a new person. That's wonderful. There's so much promise in it. But there's danger, too. Who do I want to become? I need to think about that, because I believe the methods I use to take care of myself will in part fashion the self I am becoming. Foucault calls this sort of thing "technologies of the self," and after railing against Foucault for ages it turns out I like his work a lot. But you don't have to go to French philosophy to see that the kinds of things you do to change affect the person you become. That's what's at the heart of the "I want what she's got" approach to getting sober. You find someone who you want to be like, and do what they did to become like that.

But often, I seem to need to do the opposite. I have a big dose of, "Please God don't let me end up like that!" Not when I see someone who's struggling. For some reason--and that's what I'm trying to figure out in this post--I react that way when I see someone who has been set up as a guru, someone who I am supposed to want to emulate, a beacon of peace and calm and so on. Confronted with these gurus, all I can see is their faults, and I recoil. And I rage against that as an ideal.

Here's an example. So many of the sober bloggers seem to love Tara Brach. Sometimes I want to love Tara Brach. People I really respect love her and find her helpful. What can't I just love Tara Brach, dammit? But the thing is, I can't stand her. I have tried listening to her online. I bought her book and read it, and a while later I took another look to see if I could take up what I couldn't get the first time. But she tells a story about her kid interrupting her meditation session because he needed a ride to school, and she sounds so precious and feeble, and I wanted to yell at her, "Get a grip lady! Drive the kid to school, admit you're pissed with him, and move on!" Reading her, I get the feeling I'm supposed to beat myself up when I'm not perfect and then use this meditation stuff to alleviate that self-flagellation. But I think, no, just don't beat yourself up in the first place! Clearly I will once in a while be annoyed with the people around me. I don't want to have to set myself up in a protected bubble where I am calm as hell all the time. To me, Brach performs the most horrific mix of Western psychology and self-indulgent buddhism and sanctimoniousness, all in one calm and patient show. And I don't believe her. To me, she looks like she is as tense and angry as all get out. When I watched her video, I want to get her to walk out of that quiet room and come stand on top of a cliff with me and rage at the ocean and the sky for a while, and maybe then when we got tired of yelling we could sit down and laugh at how ridiculous it all is.

I felt the same years ago when a friend gave me her Eckhardt Tolle book to read. His pious calm enraged me! (I didn't want to take Eckhardt out cliff-yelling, so maybe my Tara Brach reaction is a kind of progress.) Ditto  my attempt at yoga class. My blood pressure actually increased in the class. I had to go for a walk or a bike ride afterward to calm down. I have tried several times to get back to being Catholic after years away, but the stuff I hear makes me want to stand up and yell at the priest, and I know that's not on. At the AA meetings I've attended, I wanted to call sexism on the chairman's side comments, and the fact that everyone laughed enraged me even more.

Similarly, a lot of what passes as the "science" of psychology infuriates me. So much simply doesn't stand up all that well to criticism, and so much is takes as true because it's spoken by experts. For example, one hears a lot about the virtues of "self-regulation" but self-regulation has a lot in common with becoming more docile, more easily governed. Maybe a little chaos is healthy, then?

Now this might sound like I'm filled with rage all the time. I'm not. But I have a healthy respect for anger and I appreciate that tension and conflict are helpful and productive at times. Anthropologist Ruth Behar writes about "using your subjectivity" as an analytical tool, and maybe that's what I'm trying to do here. One of the things I know about meditation is that I'm supposed to notice my own reactions. Behar adds to that and says, don't just notice what you feel, use your feelings to help give yourself a new perspective on a situation.

And yes, I know, part of the thing is not being attached to those feelings. But aren't they me? How am I supposed to have a personal engagement with the world if I accept that all my feelings and hopes and fears are all going to pass like so much water under some bridge. Yes, some day I'll be dead, but I'm alive now. How do I know I'm alive? I guess in part because I feel something. So come on feelings! Bring them on! Years ago when I was depressed, I didn't have a whole lot of preferences or feelings. These days I have them in spades. And I welcome them. I think they are probably how I know what to make of what's going on around me. I sure don't want to distance myself from all that!

So I guess the resistance I'm talking about is integral to all that listening I've also been talking about. I pay attention when I am enraged, because in that rage I start to get a sense of what I am actually thinking and feeling.

Sometimes I agree with what I read. Recently, I read an article by Simone de Beauvoir in which she rejects the idea that personal happiness is a good basis for a life, on the grounds that happiness is often conflated with "being at rest," which is a kind of death. Instead, she argues from an existential ethical standpoint that freedom is a more worthwhile basis for life decisions. De Beauvoir writes that liberty "is achieved only through a continual reaching out to other liberties" and she seems to condemn acceptance when it means "the brutish life of subjection to given conditions" (in New French Feminisms, edited by Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, 1980, p. 55). Instead, she talks about possibilities. Now that lifts my spirits! I worry about the project of psychology and the ongoing exhortations to psychologize ourselves. What if it just make me docile? Do I really want to accept the world as it is?

Here's my real worry. I am so bloody happy that I quit drinking. It's been almost 15 months now (hooray me!) and I feel a deep sense of the possibilities that life might have that I simply couldn't get to before. That's fabulous. Now that I'm here, I don't want to stagnate in a mire of self-indulgent concerns and shallow self-improvement. I want to find a good way to live, make good choices, contribute to the world. I'm not sure how to do it, but that's my project. I think it's worthwhile. And I think resistance and rage is helpful to me in this. The world is moving in some scary directions, and it might take some spitting rage to help me push back against what feels like a pressure to be calm and docile and accepting.

So for me, that's the other side of acceptance. It's less pretty and poetic, and it's not likely to be popular. And as always, it's possible I'm wrong about everything and I'll learn that in a while. OK. I'm fine with that. But for now, I want to stand on my cliff and yell and say I don't always want to accept things and I will not calm the fuck down and even in my rage I have to say that I am very, very happy about that!

Wishing you love joy and maybe even a healthy dose of rage.


  1. interesting thoughts here on the value of anger. one thing I've been thinking about since my recent post on the Wheel of Emotions is why, exactly, Plutchik decided that the opposite of fear is anger?

    and whether if, perhaps, we (by which I mean, me) have a difficulty in expressing anger - either because we have been exposed to too much of it, or too little, being taught that it was an 'un-safe' emotion - we retreat into fear as our default emotion instead? I'm not sure whether this is psychologically logical...I'm still brewing on that one so would be interested if you had any thoughts.

    I think I've blogged about being surprised when I started meditating that one fairly rapid change was an ability to more easily express mild anger, and to move on through it....

    and I'd agree that valid, justifiable anger (as opposed to out-of-proportion irritation) is a valuable lever to achieve desirable outcomes. we are in the middle of election season here in the UK and I am having plenty of opportunity to experience both ends of that spectrum!

    PS - Tara Brach - me, too ;)

    1. Prim, thanks so much for your comment. I don't think I've ever been so grateful for a comment--something about a ranty posting about rage makes me assume no one will want to talk about that, and therefore talk to me. Which I guess means I'm not entirely comfortable with anger and rage either, as much as I'm not comfortable pretending they don't exist. (I grew up around far too much anger. And I have a strong sense that being angry is discouraged just about everywhere. But there is the world, and sometimes being angry seems like the most rational reaction.)

      I am very curious what you say about anger and fear. I find myself suspicious of attempts (like Plutchik's) that sort the emotions out as though we understand them all quite well. I get that it's worth it to know whether you are madly excited or hopping mad, so of course I don't think all labelling is senseless, and I am working on my own mediation-like practices that help me with that. But I think there has to be an openness in understanding our own emotions, a sense that sometimes we don't know what to feel, because there is more thinking to be done. Sometimes labelling seems to foreclose that thinking, or it does for me, though I can see that it might not have to do so. Also it seems that anger, and maybe even all the uncomfortable (or what sometimes get called "negative") emotions often get explained away as soon as they are labelled. (There's some sort of truism that fear is at the bottom of anger, which seems to take what might be justifiable anger--say at severe income inequality, or rampant sexism--and reduce it to something irrational.)

      Or maybe it's more like this: Plutchik's theory is based on a phsyiological/ evolutionary understanding of emotions. When he describes it, he moves back and forth between various animals and people, and emotions are linked to survival and to "an organism...determin(ing), on the basis of limited information, whether there is food, a mate, or danger in it's environment" (taken from the American Science article that outlines his theory, p. 347). The point seems to be to boil emotions down to some commonalities so they can be understood biologically and studied objectively. But I think when we are trying to figure out what we feel, we are interested in the subjective sense of the emotion, not the objective. And I think our human emotions are more culturally complex and more interconnected with each other and how we are trying to live together than biological theories allow for. And that's where I think these sorts of wheels can be dangerous, because they slip between the descriptive--this is one way of describing what the emotions are--and the normative--this is how you are supposed to understand them then you have them. If we limit ourselves to a biological understanding, then yes, it makes sense that we want to get rid of negative emotions. But I think being a person takes place on a broader canvas than that which can be depicted by talk of biology and survival, and that's where the less comfortable emotions might be useful. For now, I am comfortable and happy in my immediate existence--food, mate and danger are dealt with nicely, and I seem to be surviving. But I worry that reducing the emotions to biology leaves out important things, like ethics, or an important sense of us all being in it together, and my worry that I am letting the side down by getting comfortable/complacent in focusing on myself and my own life.

      (To be continued--I just hit Blogger's comment limit!)

    2. (Part 2)
      In my post, I don't think I'm entirely coherent, and I worry that I may have just sounded irritable, but I really am concerned with trying to figure out how to live, which might in part be finding out when my anger is justifiable and figuring out what to do about it when it is. I just ordered a book called "The Wellness Syndrome" by Carl Cederstrom & Andre Spicer, so that may help me get at some of what I'm getting at here.

      Like you, I am more able to express some anger than I used to be. I'm certainly less afraid of conflict, though some would argue that I wasn't afraid enough at times. Canadian politics can bring out justified anger and spiky irritation in tangled skeins as well, so I'll live through that here with you! (And I feel perversely pleased and much less left out of some elusive club to find that you are not a fan of Ms Brach either, so thanks for that!)

      Thanks so much for your thought-provoking comment. I will continue to think about this anger and its uses. Let me know what you come up with, too, as your thoughts are always interesting. Big hug to you! xo

    3. great to read this humdinger of a reply!

      I share your reservations on the pigeonholing of emotions. they are like butterflies, perhaps, that they are better served by flying free than being captured, killed and speared with a taxonomist's pin in a museum drawer? but at the same time our emotions are not like the ball falling randomly into a slot in a roulette wheel - there is some logic and system behind them, whether it is nature, or nurture, our upbringing or our experiences, or our inherent personalities be they sunny or overcast.

      and getting to grips with and using our emotions as they are intended perhaps makes us all as much like our true selves as we can be, without the impedimenta arising from our upbringing and society? which I hope is a valid aim and in its turn could help our wider communities be the best places they can be, too?

      keep thinking - and reading! joy, peace and a healthy dollop of fierce rage on the side to you! xxx

    4. Yes, I did go a bit gangbusters there in my reply. Maybe I should really have been writing that paper I'm working on! I agree with you on emotions, needing to keep them open but not taking them as incomprehensible either. I read a great line from Lorrie Moore in a recent NYReview: "We don't always know what intimate life consists of until novels tell us." I love that! And that's kind of what I think about emotions, that fiction and poetry help us make sense of them as we go. But seeing our own patterns can be helpful, yes. I'm working on that, too.

      And I'm still thinking about the question of self. The sense of being authentic is important to me, and I think authenticity can help us turn towards our communities as opposed to merely inwards. I'm still thinking about the "true self" thing, though. More to think (and read) on there for sure!

      Thanks for the fine conversation. Peace joy rage and the whole shebang to you, too! xo

  2. Dear Thirsty,
    You are giving me a lot to think about! I am glad some people are able to use their anger to make changes for the greater good. I am thinking of Rosa Parks, for example, who used her anger over not being able to sit down on a bus because she was black. I often wish I was that strong. Personally, I am trying to express my anger in a way that will help me be understood. If I get so mad I am screaming, I lose my power. If I can state my anger clearly, I feel stronger.
    I'll think some more!
    (I have not read or heard Tara.)
    Hugs from me!

    1. Hi Wendy! Thanks for your comment. You make a good point that I forgot--it's important not to get so overwhelmed with anger or any emotion that you're just paralyzed by the whole thing. That used to happen to me used a lot, and now it doesn't. Yet another benefit of the sober life! I agree with you about Rosa Parks--would that we could all use our anger so well for sure. Thanks for being here and reading my rambling thoughts and thinking along with me! xo

  3. I'm not a huge lover of tara brach or tolle.
    I know, for me, happiness is more a state of comfort. As opposed to my old state which was full of hatred for myself and a constant desire to change until I was fixed.
    It also included a real sense I had missed my calling to do something "important". That I had accepted a life of stagnation.

    I'm enjoying the ability to feel contented. To sit still and marvel at the beauty of life. I see rage as a blinding emotion. But I still shrink from anything too scary. I admit openly I am afraid of becoming depressed again. Sigh.

    INspiration comes to us all differently. That is the joy of life. You should embrace that!! Rage carries a lot of power.

    1. Hi Anne, I'm very pleased you are feeling contented these days. It's wonderful to take in the beauty of the world. (I can be a little afraid of getting depressed again, too, so I hear you there.) And yes, we're all so different, and I do embrace that! I don't want other people to be like me. I just want to make sure there's room for me being the me who I am in this world. It seems every now and then I start to feel alienated from the online world, and I have to carve out a space that sits me all over again. Thanks for being here and keeping me company all this time! xo

  4. Ha ha you should read 10% Happier by Dan Harris. He couldn't stand Tara Brach either! xxx Big hugs xxx

    1. Mrs D! You're one of my heroes and I know Tara is one of yours, and I wish these things were transitive but it bewilders me to find that they are not. That's another strike against logic being the way the world works right there. But the great big mystery is a fine thing anyway. Big hug to you, too! xo

  5. You may feel a little self-conscious about your post above being too "ranty" or whatever, but I would love to read more like it. You may not feel like your thoughts are organized, but that isn't really how emotions work, do they? Plus, it's not an academic paper, although I'd be willing to bet you could take this beginning and create something convincing and concise. Thank you for writing it.

    I am terrible about acknowledging anger and am just learning how to speak up about it without, as Wendy said, letting the thing overtake you and your ability to think coherently. I read somewhere that anger is a sign that your boundaries are being pushed/violated. I'm not sure if I necessarily agree with that all the time, but it's definitely been the case occasionally when I'm angry.

    And I get what you mean about gurus, but for me I think it's because a lot of times I don't trust people in positions of "authority," which for better or for worse these people are in. Like you I have read and re-read things, trying to see what others see. Finally I decided it's a matter of taste. Life and living is art after all, and we all do it differently.

    Hugs and happy belated birthday :D

    1. Hi Rebecca. I'm super slow to respond here. Sorry! The anger thing is tough, and I seem to need to out myself on it here ion the blog every few months. Thanks for appreciating this. Hope you're enjoying a lovely May. xo

  6. Haha Thirsty, your post gave me a good laugh, thank you! I applaud you for your honesty and perception and guts. For some reason Tara helped me immensely with getting a perspective on emotions and relating to them (previously I just boozed them out of existence). I grew up around rage and anger that was never expressed--both parents were pressure cookers with their lids permanently locked tight. I've been hellishly afraid of anger when I see or sense it starting to steam out of other people, and I definitely keep my lid screwed on tight too. But the soberer I get, the more I can watch anger and rage (in me, in others) and just watch it. Not get all flipped out and terrified. This is what the Tara Brachs and Echkart Tolles of the world have given me. A new emotional viewpoint. But it's just a good start to learning how to be an emotional being. Anyhoo, not sure where this came from or is going, but happy Sunday, and thanks for writing. I always love reading your posts.

    1. Hi Sue. Always a pleasure to make you laugh. You are of course one of the people I think of who likes these people I really can't take, and that helps me see that there's good in what they are doing even when I know it's not for me. Interesting to hear how you are changing as you are farther along the sober path. Learning how to be an emotional being, now that's a good way to talk about what we're doing here. Thanks for visiting and I hope your new home is treating you well. xo

  7. I like yoga and the lovely relaxation session at the end because it means I am out of the house doing something diverting just for me. It's fun I guess. We're not very good at yoga so people giggle and topple over. I really feel more focus ought to be on fun. I think that's what we're looking for in drink, harking back to heady less responsible days when we thought only of fashion and boys and dancing and getting high. An adventure playground knocks spots off meditation. Run and jump and climb and holler and laugh. That's the way forward x

    1. Hi KT. Yes, adventure and fun, I think I need more of that sometimes. And sometimes responsibility sits heavy on me, even though I don't really have a lot of it. I still think of other people as adults. My mother used to say that never changes, though, so I may not outgrow that one. Thanks for stopping by the blog! xo