a field guide to getting along

‘Tis amazing how much anger starts leaching out when one is on one’s way to a ‘Buddhism and Anger’ Seminar. Snitty about how everyone was loading the dishwasher. Snotty about how I was always the one who had to get everyone moving in the morning. Before I could embarrass myself any more, I sheepishly turned to my beloved and began, “Do you think that maybe, because of where I am going this weekend, I’m a little bit…?” Before I could finish, he burst into laughter and hugged me. So did my girls. And then they hurried me off to the airport.

He said, “It is in the arising of anger that wisdom can be found, for it can tell us where we need to direct wise action and compassion. But, there is no wisdom in the sustaining—much less the targeting of—anger, for it puts us in a big cloud of delusion.”

“Anger should neither be avoided nor indulged. We can transform anger, and transform with it. We can see anger as our spiritual guide.”

“We think of anger as something that ‘bursts’ at certain times, but actually it is an undercurrent, a part of the way we are living. It is an ongoing nurturance of resentment.”

I couldn’t take notes quickly enough. My entire upbringing had been darkly clouded by anger, and the weakest link in my present emotional concatenation is my own temper. The biggest accomplishment of my spiritual practice has been to let go of any justification of any anger. But, escaping anger itself? I had come all the way to a bucolic retreat in upstate New York for yet another round of wrestling with my own volatility.

Our esteemed faculty overflowed with insights for contemplation and practices for the actual work of rewiring our more usual patterns of response and provocation. But, it was an anecdote from a fellow student that, like a leaf blower to my brain, cleared away years of over-analytic rumination. He had grown up with a robust and passionate young man who was stricken at an early age with multiple sclerosis. In his early twenties and already in a wheelchair, he had become a systemically angry person, but within ten years he had metamorphosed into one of the most peaceful souls on earth. An aunt who had cared for the young man for many years finally asked, “Why aren’t you angry any more?”

“I noticed it didn’t help,” he replied. We all burst out laughing.

That night, I finished naturalist and philosopher Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide To Getting Lost. It is, simply and lyrically, awareness in action. As the title implies, it wanders, a lot. As the title also implies, that is the whole point. The word “anger” never appears, but implicit throughout her poetry is how much has been let go of in letting go of the usual presumptions of a life’s story. In letting her life tell her its many stories instead.

While watching butterflies clamoring out of their chrysalises, she muses. “The strange resonant word instar describes the stage between two successive molts, for as it grows, a caterpillar… splits its skin again and again, each stage an instar. Instar implies something both celestial and ingrown, something heavenly and disastrous and perhaps change is commonly like that, a buried star, oscillating between near and far.”

I departed the seminar floatingly calm. Flowing down the Hutchinson Parkway and at one with the dappled light and the gentle pulse of humanity, I seriously thought, “I really could never get angry again!” Then, I had to veer to the right and into the snarled jam of the two “cash only” lanes at a massive toll facility before the Whitestone Bridge. “Oh well! All is well! This wait is but an opportunity to enjoy the view!” I was still a glowing neon peace sign.

Until the first car cut ahead of me from the left. And another. Many others. I began immediate aggressive counter-measures. I got bumper to bumper with the car in front of me. I straddled the yellow stripe to my left. I was about to hit the horn hard. I was getting really angry when it hit me… I’m getting really angry!

Not one hour after the conclusion of a weekend entitled “The Wisdom in Anger.” Cosmic irony exploded inside of me like a supernova instar, and I burst out laughing. Hysterically. Tears flowing and face flung to the heavens, I laughed and laughed. For a looooong time. I no longer fought the onslaught of cutters. I spent the time imagining their many stories instead. I imagined laughing hysterically in front of my dishwasher. And, truly, a butterfly landed on my windshield.