This is the first of a set of three blog posts on the three great agendas that we secretly (or not so secretly) commit to when we let the Ego run things. The first of the three agendas is… Aggression
Not many of us want to admit to being aggressive. It’s not ‘done’ in polite society to show ones teeth, so-to-speak.
But the bitter truth is that on a subconscious level many of us are still functioning at the very red-in-tooth-and-claw level of a toddler who rages and tyrannises to get what they want and to annihilate those they fear.
No one is denying that human animals have the in-built ability to rage and destroy. We only have to look around the world in 2017 to see evidence of it in every country on the planet. But from a Buddhist point of view the biggest problem – the poison – comes not from anger itself (defensive or aggressive) but from the denial or displacement of anger.
All living organisms will rage at threats and fight for limited resources. But that is not the end of the story. Human beings are successful not because they are good fighters but because they co-operate in groups. We thrive, essentially, because we are able to over-ride the primitive part of our brain and use our sophisticated “human” brains to communicate what’s going on and see a bigger picture.
This requires two things: one, that we can accurately know what is going on for us emotionally and two, that we can parley that knowledge into sensitive pro-social action. We may experience rage but we are sophisticated enough to take that emotional information and work with it constructively rather than lashing out in fruitless fury.
This first step – to feel the aggression at the core – is absolutely essential. To deny it leads to a fundamental lie: I am not feeling what I am feeling. And, in many ways, it’s this “second level” aggression (i.e. denying space to the feeling) that causes the most problems.
We can be scrupulously honest and recognise that flash of murderous rage when an old person is being slow at the ticket gate when you have a train to catch. Or we can pretend it’s not there and act it out 2 minutes later by screaming down the phone at our partner who made the fateful error of calling us when we were on the platform. The anger gets acted out. On the wrong person.
This is the poison.
Recognising our rage and aggression is not about acting it out, it’s about digesting it and feeling its power. And recognising it so that we can work with it and so we can sympathise for others who are in its grip, not judge them. It’s also about recognising that we are pretty aggressive at our core – and it’s better to acknowledge that than pretend otherwise.
How are we aggressive?
We’re aggressive when we immediately find fault with something our husband suggests out of habit.
We’re aggressive when we sulk in a work meeting and deliberately bring the mood of the room down.
We’re aggressive when we force friends to see a movie that we secretly prefer by discussing and discussing until they finally concur.
We’re aggressive when we talk over people, monopolise the conversation with monologues or lay in wait with smart-aleck put downs when listening to someone else.
We’re aggressive when we ‘innocently’ gossip about a friend who said something mean about us months ago. We’re aggressive when we hold a grudge.
We’re aggressive when we hate our friends for being so cheerful / pregnant / married when we’re feeling lonely, single and depressed.
We’re aggressive when we insist on staying in control of the music for a long car journey.
In all these examples, the aggression is under-wraps and its two-facedness makes it particularly mean. Most people can work with a good clean rage followed by an apology but an everlasting grudge is a really toxic thing.
Meditation is never about beating ourselves up. And though we may become increasingly horrified by the layer upon layer of meanness we discover as we sit honestly with our mind stream, it is usually a tonic process. Tonic in the same way a good doctor is tonic who tells you you’ve got appendicitis and removes the offending appendix rather than pretending everything is fine and telling you that you just have some trapped wind.
Horrifying as it may be to see your inner Ghengis Khan, it is the only way to move from being an inner despot to being genuinely kind and useful in the world.