Christmas day arguments

Lots of us have a good time at Christmas. 

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Lots have families who are supportive and loving though some of us had a family before and now no more. 

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Lots of families find it tense.

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And sadly, some of us never had a family and wonder what it might be like. 

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I’ve passed through all these phases. I remember as a child being so excited by Christmas (for the presents, of course) until the year I woke up and with dismay said to myself Oh, Christmas is a day like any other and its lustre evaporated. In my early 20s, I spent time with extended family in the UK and discovered the highlight of English cuisine (the brussel sprout!). In my late-20s, I learnt the French Christmas celebrations require sufficient wine for when the yule log is served, a political argument is de rigueur. In my early 30s, I returned to family and found it unpleasant. In my mid-30s I often avoided it and went on retreats or the movies (you’d be surprised by how many people secretly envied me).

By my mid-40s, I found myself more at ease with Christmas. For the past few years, I’ve been celebrating with my brother’s family. And this year at 52, I’m trying something new: I’m going to spend Christmas and Boxing days meditating on loving-kindness (12 hours of recordings on finding love for oneself, friends, strangers, difficult people and the whole world). By Boxing Day evening, I will be full of love!

My journey to love started with hate. In the early 2000s, I went to a 1-day ‘learn to meditate’ class. We were introduced to the loving-kindness meditation practice and at the end, the leader asked how it went. I confessed it had opened my eyes to how many people I hated – everyone.  

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About 3 years ago, I started listening to Pema Chodron speak about training the mind (meditation is ‘mind-training’). She said every time you’re grumpy, you increase the habit of grumpiness. So, if you keep being grumpy, you’ll become grumpier as you age until all you are is a grumpy old person.

About the same time, I worked fairly closely with a colleague from another team. She sure was a grumpy old lady (she once slammed down a pile of papers and said to me This was a waste of my time!). I don’t suppose she came into the world like that but she was sure going out like that.

Given that neither my colleague nor I are the only angry women I’ve come across, it seems surprising that society sees women as not being allowed to express anger and that men are the angry ones. As far as I can tell, women are disproportionately more often aggressive than men though it tends to be verbal (like me and my colleague) or relational (e.g. Crazy Rich Asians) rather than physical (domestic violence) or sexual (#MeToo).

Recently, a friend and I discussed anger. His perspective is I want something to change and I don’t care how I get it. For me, anger is one of the few emotions to trespass into another’s personal space.

Given my tendency to verbal anger, I saw the writing on the wall. If I wanted to be less angry, I had to learn to be less angry or I was going to end up like my colleague. Every time I got angry, all I did was wire more neurons together. As the saying goes Use it or lose it. If you don’t use it, you lose it (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing). 

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A couple of weeks ago, I decided to investigate what makes a mind hostile. Given my history of being quick to anger, my own mind seemed a good place to start. 

Last Sunday I went to a study day at the Buddhist centre. In the Shrine room (a beautiful light fresh room surrounded by gumtrees) I found an empty chair at the back. Most people were seated and the meditation had begun. The leader said the meditation practice was Let’s see what arises and notice our responses.

The man sitting next to me had missed the usual shrine room etiquette to turn off the mobile. That the phone received a text didn’t bother me too much. But that he decided to respond did. He started typing. 
…… tak tak tak tak ……………………………..tak tak….. tak……………….tak tak tak tak……. tak tak tak….. tak tak………………….tak tak tak

I was trying to be with what arose.

Tak tak tak…… tak tak tak tak…….tak tak tak…………….tak tak…..tak……….tak tak……………….tak tak tak tak tak…………..

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I really was trying to be with what arose.

tak… tak …tak tak…… tak tak tak tak ……………………………..tak tak….. tak……………….tak tak tak tak……. tak tak tak….. tak tak………………….tak tak tak

Until I became irritated.

tak….tak tak tak tak tak……………………..tak tak tak……………………………..tak tak………………………. tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak! 

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At the point of being no longer able to concentrate, I lent over to say It’s very distracting when the person leading the session looked at me and sharply reprimanded with This meditation is about noticing what arises.

I was silenced. Cut short. And wronged.

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I felt angry, humiliated, self-righteous, dismissed and dismissive. My mind whirred with how I was right! and she was wrong! and he was wrong! and they were wrong! and could I go home?!?!!!!! 

Then it occurred to me that this was a perfect opportunity to understand hostility and anger. 

So I sat. And waited.

Occasionally the person leading would ask a question to the group and I sometimes replied politely and sometimes sharply. 

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Slowly the anger eased. 

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Then an image appeared. My hand dipped into the depths of my heart to pull out kindness. It was then I understood what transformation means. It doesn’t mean to transform an idea of me or another person. It means to find care for the uncomfortable feelings inside of us that we don’t like and don’t want to admit to.

I came to see my anger was a younger me in the midst of a temper tantrum.  

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Martin Luther King said, Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love… Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.

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So, like Martin Luther King to white people, I responded with love to this hurt rather than shun it or hate it. The temper tantrum eased. 

There were 2 aspects I understood about the frazzlement in the shrineroom.

First, distraction draws the internalised body to outside the physical body. I know that sounds weird (well, it does to me) but when the internalised body and the physical body don’t sit together, it jars.  

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Second, anger is a by-product of living with a mind that splits the world into good and bad. When the world is split into good or bad, agitation occurs when ‘not-good’ appears in the mind. 

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When things feel ‘not good’ it feels physically unsettling, uncomfortable. 

Like at the Christmas table it can feel physically unsettling and uncomfortable. Especially after a few glasses of wine when Uncle Fred declares that Trump’s my No. 1 man or Brexit is good.

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How to respond when someone says a provocative or inflammatory statement?

Perhaps you say I’m just being the Devil’s advocate here but… The Devil’s argument is an unconstructive approach to resolving an issue because it’s oppositional rather than collaborative says Charlan Nemeth

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Maybe we’re the one picking the arguments and becoming righteous. Are we the problem? 

As Pema Chodron says, the buck stops with each of us. When you reflect on conversations where you changed your mind, were you ever won over by an argument? 

So, how to navigate tense conversations when you’re crammed at the dinner table having eaten and drunk too much?

It’s a sign of the times that my Pilates newsletter is a font of wisdom. It says:

  • Instead of saying I disagree, say I see it differently or I don’t know what makes people do what they do or I don’t understand all aspects of the situation.
  • He quotes the Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca who said The greatest remedy for anger is delay, i.e. get up to make a cuppa or help in the kitchen.

Apparently, anger arises when we feel under-resourced and under-appreciated. Here’s a story which will make you feel resourced and appreciative.  

I’m not saying anger always has a bad outcome. Here’s an interesting perspective about the positive side of rage. 

In any case. No matter what happens, be kind.

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PS: If you have an idea about how to work with anger, let me know or post a comment.

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