Listening to Oneself

Last week we spoke of listening both to oneself and to one another. And of listening from the core or heart of who we are. This week we might explore a little more the notion of listening to oneself.

One striking example I discovered was on the facebook page dedicated to the writings of Thich Nat Han, the Vietnamese monk who died recently at the age of 95. His writings focused on the practice of mindfulness, and developed what he called an engaged Buddhism. He stressed how being peace within oneself was both essential to one’s own inner growth and at the same time called for outward expression in one’s presence in the world.

One example that he used was the experience of anger. He suggests that this and other emotions we perceive as negative are our way of letting ourselves know that something needs taking care of. He says that anger can never remove anger but only promote more anger. He adds that at first we think that our anger has been caused by someone outside ourselves. But in reality the main cause of our anger is the seed of anger in us. And if we do not deal with our anger, it will spill over and hurt others.

It is also important, he says, to help rather than punish those who are angry. We can only do so if we recognize that an angry person is suffering. But to help others, we must learn how to help ourselves. We cannot help to transform the anger in another unless we learn to transform it in ourselves.

To do so, he suggests that we learn how to breathe mindfully, to smile to our own anger, but not to say or do anything out of that anger. If we then look deeply into our anger, we may discern its roots, and then act out of compassion. In his words:“Only understanding and compassion can put down the flame of anger in us and in the other person. Understanding and compassion is the only antidote for anger. And using that, you heal yourself and you help heal the people who are victims of anger.”

In a not dissimilar manner, some years ago, I reflected on our experience of anger and wondered what were its positive counterparts. I found that they were a drive to life, to meaning, and to compassion and justice. Let me give some examples.

On one occasion, a very young child came up behind his father and bit him. Without thinking, the ordinarily non-violent father instinctively reacted by swatting the child and sending him across the room. Neither was really hurt and the incident was soon forgotten. This little event suggested that one occasion of anger is the experience of hurt and, on a larger scale, a threat to injury or even to life. The counterpart would then be a drive to life, to stay alive, and the anger would be a reflection of our longing for life, to stay alive.

Yet, it is not enough for us to stay alive. We want also to be alive, to have a life that is meaningful, to feel that our life has worth and purpose. As another example of anger, I recall once phoning someone early in the morning and being the recipient of that person’s angry attack. I learned right away that she had just burned her hand while cooking breakfast. This was certainly an experience of hurt, but it was also the result of frustration at something going wrong. I recall another occasion when I was greeted by someone who said that they were very angry, but that it had nothing to do with me, but was a result of a number of frustrating events during that day. Frustration can be an occasion of anger. This would seem to be a result, not of a threat to life itself to be things in life going well, or being good. It was a result of a threat to meaning. The positive counterpart, then, would be our longing for meaning, for a sense of worth and purpose.

Finally another incident occurred when a boy punched my daughter when she had returned home from surgery as a small child. While it was intended more as playful, the fierceness of the anger that arose was startling. This incident illustrates another occasion of anger, that arising from harm or injustice done to another person. Spiritual writer, Wayne Muller, recounted how in a counselling session, they discussed her anger. He suggested that she use that anger as alerting her to something to which she might make a positive contribution. It tuned out that, on such occasions, some hurt had been done to another or an unjust social situation had occurred. A third counterpart to anger springs from a sense of compassion and justice.

It would seem, then, that it is important to recognize and allow ourselves to feel our anger, but not to unleash it immediately. Rather, we can allow it to unveil our deep longing for life, for meaning, and for compassion and justice. We can then act from that place within us. We have quoted Richard Rohr as asserting that suffering that is not transformed is transmitted. To recognize that expressions of anger in ourselves and others are most likely rooted in some form of suffering are helpful in that process of transformation.

The same approach might be helpful when all kinds of difficult feelings arise. Meditation and Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, suggests that we regard difficult emotions as visitors. We may let them in but we don’t give them the run of the house. “These forces are visiting — greed, hatred, jealousy, fear. They’re not inherently, intrinsically, who we are, but they visit. And they may visit a lot; they may visit nearly incessantly, but they’re still only visiting.” This imaginative approach matches what we have said about such feelings telling us where we are a t that moment but not telling us how to respond or what to do. They do not negate the underlying sacred worth that is the essence of who we are.

Spiritual writer, Morton Kelsey suggests that the maturing process involves the self-awareness that comes from being alone with ourselves in silence. At first, he says that “disturbing emotions often come to the surface. … They can range from vague apprehension to terror and panic, or they may vary from bitterness and indignation to aggressive hatred and rage. Usually we attach these feelings to some object in the outer world. … In the silence one can allow the feelings to arise, disconnected from their ordinary targets in the outer world, and learn to deal with the depth of the psyche directly.” As we do so, he adds that we can move towards a greater personal wholeness and brought into relationship wioth what he calls the “Centre of Meaning.”

Gordon Cosby, late pastor and social activist, says similarly that it is important to overcome the resistance to sitting still, “With time to listen and to reflect, we will awake to what is in our hearts–all those feelings that in the rush of our days we keep hidden from ourselves and from others. Silence will put us in touch with yearnings, anxieties, pain, despair, envy, competition, and a host of other feelings that need to be put into worlds if we are to move toward a place of centeredness and come into possession of our lives. The fact is that most of us have an incredible amount of unfaced suffering in our histories that has to be looked at and worked through.” He adds that this journey to our own quiet centre is long and arduous. You will be tempted a thousand times to forget the call to make this journey, this pilgrimage, but will one day bring an immense peace.

May you come to a gentle awareness of the whole range of human feelings, and experience your own sacredness beneath them, and move towards a healing compassion for yourselves and those who come within the circle of your light.

Norman King
August 29, 2022