Friends, we are in the midst of so much tragedy in our country and in the world. Extreme fires and hurricanes, neo-Natzis, DACA, North Korea, and so many more examples of natural and human destroyers. I don’t need to dive into the details here… you know them already, and there’s a lot of fuel to feed the fire of anger and to exacerbate anxiety. My intention in writing to you is to give you some tools to navigate these tumultuous emotional waters.
FEEL ALL THE FEELINGS
It’s essential that we allow ourselves to feel whatever’s arising in our hearts… that we not turn away from our experience. The important part here is that we learn to cultivate a healthy relationship with anger and we learn how to allow it to be digested properly and released. Sometimes in spiritual circles there can be a tendency to categorize emotions as “good or bad”, and then the practitioners grasp onto pleasant emotions like joy and shun unpleasant emotions like anger. This spiritual bypassing is toxic. It’s the shadow of how some practice spirituality. I’ve seen this in organized religions and in yoga.
Before I learned the term “spiritual bypassing”, I referred to the folks that vilified the “bad” emotions as “bliss bunnies”. And when I began my yoga journey I was weary of these “bliss bunnies” that floated around on clouds of denial and superiority. I came to this practice with a lot of trauma and upset in my life, and there were times in those early days that I was left with an aftertaste of “otherness” and rejection. I felt bad for feeling bad.
As I continued to practice I came upon teachers and traditions that welcomed the entire range of human emotion. They offered tools to help with facing the difficult stuff, so it didn’t linger longer than was needed. After the Orlando shootings I shared one of my favorite techniques called Embody the Mind with you. In this mindfulness practice, we learn to transition from ruminating on the story of the emotional experience, which keeps it stuck and spinning and festering, into feeling the emotion in our bodies and allowing our bodies to do the work of processing the experience. I highly recommend you revisit this meditation. After you practice it a few times, you can take it on the go and do mini versions in the moment when intense emotions arise, rather than waiting until you can get on your cushion.
EXCITED ANGRY VS. EXCITED INSPIRED
Nervous system excitation can manifest in so many ways. When our sympathetic nervous systems are activated, we might feel anxious, fearful, angry or enraged. We might want to leap out at someone or something in aggression, or run the opposite direction. In other circumstances of sympathetic arousal we might feel enthusiastic, motivated, or inspired. And often our body’s physiological response can even feel similar in these very different emotional experiences, such as a quickening of the heart, breath that feels bigger in the chest than in the belly, or an increase in temperature.
Paying attention to the flavor of nervous system excitation is useful for a couple of reasons:
- Discerning different types of excitation can help us to better identify what’s really going on in our emotional landscape and when there’s chronic anger or anxiety, we may be able to gain more leadership in how we feel when we realize that perhaps some of the times we had translated the excitation as anger or anxiety, it was actually inspired.
- We can learn to transform an excited anger or anxious state into an excited inspired state. Sometimes when I’m feeling my nervous system up-regulated, I lean into the excitation and explore how I might direct that energy in different ways. Do I need to go for a run or dance? We can discharge pent up stress by moving or shaking, because our bodies are wired to “shake it off”. But not in a “don’t sweat it” or “let it roll off your back kind of way”. No, the shaking actually completes a stress response cycle that’s innate in how our bodies function. It helps our bodies digest and release the stress. We’ve just learned to over-ride the impulse, unlike a dog that shakes after barking at the mail carrier to re-set his nervous system. And maybe after the run or shimmy session I feel inspired to organize a support event or donate? Whether it’s anger or love, it’s all Shakti, the primordial cosmic energy. In all the yoga practices we’re working with Shakti – directing it, harnessing it, building it. We can apply the same process to working with anger. How can we transform the energy and utilize it for our benefit and the benefit of others?
The more we speak openly and honestly about where we’re at and how we’re feeling, the more we normalize being human. It can feel lonely when it seems like everyone is actually living their Facebook happy selfie lives. One way to break down this isolation is to be real with ourselves and with each other. The next time someone asks, “How are you?” pause before an autopilot answer rushes out of your mouth. While it’s not always necessary or the right timing to launch into the whole story (though sometimes it is and it’s useful!), you may be surprised the big impact that can be made from just a little more real talk in our day to day lives.
If you need more support, I’m teaching a workshop that can help! Yoga Therapy for Anxiety on Saturday October 7th at Yoga Refuge. Register online early, as there are only 7 spots left!