It is Sunday and I am home now, back to the soggy land I love that is Seattle in November.
The past few days were spent with family in Tennessee, where my brother generously hosted and took us all in: two parents, three adult sisters (including me), one husband, one boyfriend, and two babies under one roof.
Extended time with my family of origin always seems to feel like eating a mixed bag of jelly bellies in a dark movie theater. I am going to eat the whole bag because my favorite flavors are in there. But so are some flavors I don’t particularly enjoy. I let my taste buds linger longer on the sweet cherry, buttered popcorn, and coffee flavors. I tolerate it when I get a black licorice, sour green apple, or worse, a cinnamon fireball. I breathe through those as best I can. It’s all sugar, honey. It’s life.
The people we love may not always taste like sweet cherry jelly bellies (or whatever your favorite flavor is) and the uncomfortable truth is, neither will we. We can only do our best.
Two things I have been practicing a lot these last few months: 1. Living less in a state of anger and 2. Living more in a state of gratitude.
Anger triggers lurk around every corner these days. Those of us who tend toward internalizing madness, criticizing and judging ourselves, and stuffing this difficult emotion without processing it may appear to be cool as a cucumber to a stranger, but just underneath our skin lies a dizzying spiral of circular thought that can be difficult to break and really hard on our most intimate and important relationships.
The recent recognition that I alone get to choose which state of mind I will move toward next is a formidable blessing. A blessing because the knowledge that I can meet anger when it arises in me and choose to move in the direction of understanding, love, and compassion is life-altering. Formidable because it also requires coming face to face with the discomfort of owning my emotion one hundred percent. It takes practice and dogged determination—a willingness to persist in the direction of what is most tender, rather than turn away from it.
One of my secret lifelines to living less in a state of anger (a daily practice) has been a small paperback book. It is a dog-eared copy of “Transformation and Healing” by Thich Nhat Hanh. He translates the teachings of the Buddha on the four establishments of mindfulness, which are basically this wisdom: When body and mind are one, the wounds in our hearts, minds, and bodies begin to heal.
I stumbled on this book in a Paris shop one afternoon the way I imagine a Knight Templar might blunder upon the Holy Grail: My hands simply fell onto it, and I knew. I paid 16 Euros and it has been with me ever since. I keep it by my bed and often turn to the chapter on the Fourteenth Exercise, Mindfully Observing Anger:
The mastery of our anger is an important step on the path of practice. Identifying the presence and the absence of anger in us brings many benefits. For our work of mindful observation to be wholehearted, we combine the work of observation with conscious breathing. - Thich Nhat Hanh
Breathing. Yes. So much breathing.
The text goes on to describe how simply by giving our anger a witness (our mindfulness) we can lessen its destructive ability. Oh, the feeling is still there, and it is still hot, uncomfortable, even painful. But rather than trying to escape that feeling by lashing out at whoever or whatever triggered us (whether we fight them internally in our private thoughts, or externally with our words and actions) we instead witness the feeling as an energy that is moving through us. We focus on our breathing. We meditate when we can, either sitting or walking, and we follow the emotion as it moves in our own body. We get curious about what lies beneath the feeling. We go deeper into our body with it. We let our hearts break open.
There’s more, of course. I highly recommend the book to anyone who struggles with what to do with anger.
I find gratitude to be a balm after a tender night doing this kind internal of work. Gratitude is a salve the way a cup of coffee is a comfort on a cold winter morning. It takes a little time to brew and prepare, but then the first sip delivers you, and each that follows transforms.
Last night after a flight home from my "bag of beloved jelly bellies" I went for a walk and took a bath, and meditated to witness and honor all the emotions—each metaphorical piece of candy I ate over that magnificent Thanksgiving.
This morning, I bought coffee and wrote a thank you card to my brother. He welcomed the whole mixed bag including me with brave open arms and grace. I am grateful. And (hopefully) growing up.
I hope your Thanksgiving was warm, wonderful, and filled with the many flavors of love and life. Thank you for being here. We are all in this together.