February 18, 2007

On anger and Audioslave

Last week was a crazy week. Work’s been nuts for months and I’ve been angry. As usual, though, there’s been little cause for the intensity of my emotional reactions. Nothing I was called upon to do last week was a true hardship. Duties not in my job description, perhaps, but that’s never stopped me from doing things before. I make a point of pitching in and doing what needs to be done. And no one who needed or expected me to do things for them last week did so maliciously. But the stuff I had to do has just further delayed projects that I’m responsible for that really do need to be completed. In the end (as I muttered under my breath all week), "It’s not f@#$king insulin, it’s just f@#$king jewelry!" Regardless of that fact, it’s time for me to try yet again to get a grip on my anger.

I’ve already written here about hatred. I can still honestly say that I can’t think of a single human being for whom I feel hatred. I’m to the point I can’t even say I "hate" eggplant. I just don’t like it and don’t want to eat it. Same thing for people. There are many I’d rather not spend time around, and many I’d much rather not see holding public office or leading a country, but hatred is one emotion I don’t feel towards any of them. Anger, though, is very different from hatred, and it’s my downfall.

Maynard James Keenan, bless his heart, summed it up for me in a video interview that I just recently found on YouTube: "Hate and anger are two completely separate energies. They might have a similar emotional charge to them, but anger is a much more constructive emotion than hate." I’m going to elaborate on that. While hate and anger are two separate energies, I think people confuse them because the two emotions are so often felt simultaneously. The one can easily lead to the other, and back again. And anger is only a constructive emotion when it’s detached from hatred, when it’s recognized and analyzed. If you don’t step back and take a dispassionate look at what’s behind your anger, then you don’t allow it to be constructive. So, that’s what I’m doing with this blog. I’m taking a step back from the anger I’ve felt these past weeks and months, looking at it, trying to understand where it comes from, and figuring out a way to de-fuse it before it gets set off in the future.

Clutch it like a cornerstone. Otherwise it all comes down.
Justify denials and grip 'em to the lonesome end.
Clutch it like a cornerstone. Otherwise it all comes down.
Terrified of being wrong. Ultimatum prison cell.
(T00l, "The Grudge" Lateralus)

From what I can tell, most of my angry responses come from two sources: a martyr complex I inherited from my parents (both Martyrs Extraordinaire, though I don’t think either of them realizes it), and a shadow-side need to be smarter and better at things than everyone around me. The martyr complex clicks in pretty much whenever someone asks me to do something, or when I have to take on extra duties for any length of time. I’m certainly not the only person in the company busting butt on a daily basis to get stuff done, but I’d sure make you think I am. And those pesky little needs that I try to deny I have? They show up in a seriously offensive attitude of disdain that I often display when I’m asked a procedural or systems question. Combine those elements with a short temper and you’ll end up with an arrogant martyr stomping around breathing scorn through her nostrils like flames while muttering curses under her breath. Not pretty. And not very Buddhist.

What’s really a killer is that, very often, I realize how I’m behaving and I become embarrassed. To cover the embarrassment, I become even more angry, as well as resentful of whoever was witness to my initial over-reaction, and end up with one more brick in the wall between that person and me. Depending on my relationship with that person, I’m convinced that it could literally kill me to just stop and apologize for my behavior. With some people, I am able to do that. With others… I’m afraid to test it. What if the lightning strike from Heaven took out innocent bystanders around me?

And on I read
Until the day was gone
And I sat in regret
Of all the things I've done
For all that I've blessed
And all that I've wronged
(Chris Cornell, "Like A Stone" Audioslave)

As a some-time student of Yoga and Buddhism, of course I know exactly what I need to do to change these habitual reactions. I need to meditate and learn to practice compassion. But meditation’s so hard to make time for when there’s MySpace on the ‘net and first-season "CSI" episodes on cable tv. I’ve said many a time that I’m going to make the commitment. It’s like an addict saying that they’re going to quit, and actually, that’s a very apt way of putting it. A friend of mine once talked about quitting smoking. He said that he was actually afraid to quit because smoking was part of his identity. When he pictured himself, it was always with a cigarette. That’s my issue. I identify myself with my anger. Who would I be without it? Some namby-pamby, perky, Rachael Ray-clone? Ick. I’d rather burn in hell (which I may do anyway, but that’s beside the point).

Actually, I have thought about what sort of person I’d like to be without my anger and I have an image that I can comfortably identify with. It’s a person who can take a breath, recognize the anger, bear witness to it, and then choose a more appropriate response. No namby-pamby-ness to it. Just rational and balanced.

"Out of evil, much good has come to me. By keeping quiet, repressing nothing, remaining attentive, and by accepting reality— taking things as they are, and not as I wanted them to be —by doing all this, unusual knowledge has come to me, and unusual powers as well, such as I could never have imagined before. I always thought that when we accepted things they overpowered us in some way or other. This turns out not to be true at all, and it is only by accepting them that one can assume an attitude towards them. So now I intend to play the game of life, being receptive to whatever comes to me, good and bad, sun and shadow forever alternating, and in this way also accepting my own nature with its positive and negative sides. Thus everything becomes more alive to me. What a fool I was! How I tried to force everything to go according to the way I felt it ought to!"
From a letter to Jung from one of his former patients, discussing her acceptance of her shadow side. Quoted in Jung’s Map of the Soul (Murray Stein)

An article in the March 2007 issue of Shambala Sun was well-timed to assist me in this latest commitment to change through meditation practice. This particular statement from Buddhist teacher David Nichtern almost directly addresses some of my concerns:

"A revolutionary approach we can take is to see that the obstacles can actually become the stepping stones of the path. Our irritation, boredom, emotional upheavals, and wandering mind are the basis of the meditation practice itself. Without them, there is no meditation practice, just some kind of gooey, vague, and highly suspicious sense of well-being that lacks any real strength or foundation. We are just trying to pacify our mind in a superficial way, without working with ourselves as we really are— emotional, speedy, tired, anxious, spaced out, or whatever arises."

Bingo. No gooey-ness, instead strength and foundation. So far, so good. The article then goes on to discuss the specific practice of maitri, or loving-kindness. Now, I have trouble with my attempts to practice Buddhism whenever that term comes up. It’s just too gooey and namby-pamby for me. But, while "maitri means loving-kindness or unconditional friendliness… [it] is also a further step into overcoming and transforming our habitual patterns of selfishness and aggression." Dammit, they got me there. The only excuse I have left is the pull of those "CSI" episodes.

So, how to practice a maitri meditation? Beginning with the image of a loved one in your mind, direct the following wishes to that person: "May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be at ease." Next, extend those wishes to your self. Then, towards some person or persons to whom you feel neutral. Finally, direct those wishes towards some person or group of people that irritates you, or that you would consider an "enemy." Through this practice, one can "deliberately cultivate and direct… goodwill and positive intentions toward ourselves and others." Knowing myself, though, the computer and the tv will win out over any form of meditation.

Another method I’ve considered, a sort of shortcut, is something I remember from a television interview with Richard Gere. Gere is, of course, the most well-known "celebrity" Buddhist out there, and he’s apparently sincere. In this interview, he described a practice he uses that he described as "so simple, and at the same time, so profound." And it is. In any situation dealing with another person, whether positive or negative, merely think "I wish you peace" towards that person. When the barrista at Starbucks gets your order just right, look at him and think, "I wish you peace." When a woman with a cell phone growing from her ear cuts you off in traffic, look her way and think, "I wish you peace." I mean, really, do you (do I) honestly wish that she’d crash and her car burst into flames? No. Honestly, at that moment, you (I) really wish yourself (myself) peace, and the best way to achieve it for your (my) self is to wish it for her as well.

So, what excuses do I have left? I’ve found a self-image that’s genuine, that accepts the emotional response yet catches it and allows me to choose before I react. If the anger’s valid, then I can choose to use it as a vehicle to change whatever inspired that emotion. If it’s not valid, then I’ve found a quick’n’easy choice in the "I wish you peace" practice. And, one day, maybe I’ll even begin sitting my ass down on a cushion for some real meditation in order to more easily achieve the goal of becoming that new peace-wishing self-image. Any MySpace Friends out there want to give me some words of encouragement along the way?

On another note: Late last week, Chris Cornell announced that he’s leaving Audioslave. I was surprised, yet not surprised. Contrary to most of the reviews I’ve read of Audioslave’s albums, I felt the first album was the only one on which they gelled. The music and the lyrics on that album have a much more organic feel to them, I believe. They fit better than on the second and third albums. Most reviews seem to say the opposite, but I can think of two examples on the second album, in particular, that indicate otherwise. The song "Out of Exile", for which the second album is titled, begins with a martial, military-sounding drum riff. By the time the lyrics begin, though, it’s become a sappy, romantic love song to Chris Cornell’s new wife. How could the guys in ‘Slave think that those two elements went together? The first song on the album, "Your Time Has Come", is lyrically about various people Cornell has known who died senseless deaths while still young. In the third verse, he compares these deaths to the feeling he had seeing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, the "wall of names". While the song’s not about war, specifically, wouldn’t it have made a tad more sense to pair that military-sounding drum beat to those lyrics? That’s just one glaring example of the synchronicity that Audioslave seemed to lose between their first album and the last two. So, as much as I loved Audioslave, I can’t say I’m disappointed. And I can’t wait to see what Tom, Tim and Brad do next, whether it means reuniting with their old Rage Against the Machine pal, Zack de la Rocha, or not. They’re talented guys who craft some killer tunes.

As for Cornell, I really think that anyone he works with is gonna have to realize that they’re taking a back seat to Chris. Even if Chris himself tries to believe that he’s working as part of a greater whole, any musicians he collaborates with are going to end up being nothing but a vehicle for his talent and drive. While I haven’t been 100% thrilled with everything he’s done on the last two ‘Slave albums (Too many sappy love songs to the new wife. There’s one song in particular that wins the title of "First Chris Cornell Song I Just Won’t Listen To"), I’m still eager to hear his upcoming second solo album. The man’s been through so many transitions in his life that have been reflected in his music, it’s been fascinating to follow along and hear how he’s grown and evolved. At this point, I may not love everything he does, but the fascination’s still there, as well as the anticipation that at least some of his words will still move me.

Forget how soon
You become a fool for words when I speak
(Chris Cornell, "Flutter Girl" Euphoria Morning)

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