Have you ever taken a tango lesson? Like any new skill, it can be awkward at first, even if you’ve danced other forms of partner dancing. The holding position is different, it’s closer, it’s hotter, it’s… ‘um…I can totally feel this dude’s crotch on my leg.’ As the woman, in basic step, you walk directly backward, as the man, you walk directly toward, or into, the woman. There’s this slight squat, that at the beginning can make you feel like you’re wearing a diaper as you figure out how to tuck your tail bone, reach your spine long, out and away from each other while your thighs take turns in each other’s space. At the beginning, there’s not much expression. The steps are very specific and trying to execute them takes a lot of thought, a lot of attention. It can feel rigid, awkward, clumsy and sometimes even embarrassing. But over time, with practice, you begin to glide. Not only do you move more skillfully, but you stop counting the beats of the music and start to feel the music. The dance, over time, goes from being a conscious execution of steps to a passionate expression. And so it is practicing with emotion. Tango and anger, both hot dances, so let’s look at moving and dancing with our fury.
In a recent article Those Crazy Bitches, I explored some current archetypes and how they impact the experience and expression of anger in women. This is a follow up article exploring the practicality of evolving past these challenges. As I’ve pointed to above, becoming more skillful with our emotional selves takes practice. At first contrived or clumsy or painful, over time with awareness and intentional engagement with our emotions, we can embody new moves such that they are automatic, natural, healthy and supportive. Let’s move, starting with a basic dance position, asking…
What is Anger?
Wikipedia tells us that anger it is an automatic response to ill treatment. Of course Wikipedia expands on this and I’m going to too. Anger doesn’t only respond to ill treatment, but even to the perception of it. Anger arises when we perceive a boundary has been crossed. Anger arises to protect and defend us; it says “See this line here? Get on the other side of it!”
When considering working with anger, it may be helpful to muse on our emotional experience and capacities themselves and where we may be in our own development. How do we experience our anger or our emotions in general?
At an earlier stage of emotional maturity, we may not feel our emotions at all or we may feel them strongly, but the sense here is of not having much control or awareness of our emotional selves. Early in our development, we may have a difficult time naming particular emotions or articulating what we feel at all. The interior experience can range from being numb to our feelings, or totally at the mercy of them.
As we develop emotionally, we can readily name our feelings and are perhaps aware of where we experience them in our bodies; are aware when they arise and what’s brought them on. But we’ll likely feel contraction about them, wanting to control them or make unfavourable emotions, such as anger, go away.
At a higher or more progressed stage of emotional development, we can be aware of our emotions arising within ourselves and can feel their texture and heat, where they occur within us and their movement and intensity. We are rarely taken over by them at this level and also trust ourselves with them, feeling them fully. We’re able to experience, express and move with them with skill and curiosity.
Practicing with Anger
Awareness of what’s happening strikes me as being very helpful when discerning what ways to practice. When feeling anger arise, it may be helpful to ask if this is the primary or secondary emotion. For people who are less comfortable with their anger and feel sadness more readily, it can take some excavation to find that below the sadness or grief is anger.
Alternatively one may have feelings of anger more readily arise but when looking beneath; this anger jumps out to cover other feelings. This can be observed often in someone who’s called out or challenged in a particular way and reacts with aggression. It’s less likely that they really feel angry than that they feel ashamed and have the impulse to protect and defend themselves.
Doing a bit of exploring of what the primary emotion is can be helpful. Those of us who are at a loss on how to connect with our interior in this way may seek out the help of a trusted friend to explore this with or a professional therapist.
When we know what we’re actually feeling, facing and fully experiencing that feeling can be terrifying or painful. But when we turn towards it, a couple of things happen; we gain greater access to being able to engage with our anger resourcefully, that is seeing a path for what action or expression would most serve us and others, as well we gain practice with being able to stay in difficult emotions. The better we are at staying with difficult emotions, the less likely we are to try to escape them, suppress them or bypass them.
It seems to me that we’d all be better off if we put less energy into trying to feel better and more energy into being good at being in pain. Practicing staying with difficult emotions can be most directly accessed through somatic; or physical body practices.
Practices that bring our awareness to the sensations in our body are helpful. When anger is present, it’s always there in the body. The more aware of and connected to our gross and subtle bodies we are, the more intimate we can become with our arising emotional experience. Often when taken over by anger, or when trying to get out of angry feelings, we can begin to identify greatly with our thoughts and the stories that are playing out in our minds. As we explored the archetypes in the last piece, it’s not uncommon for the fears that are associated with being angry to have us quickly become upset with being upset. If you pay attention when you begin to feel angry, or other emotions that may be laid over top of anger, you will probably notice that your internal dialogue intensifies, becomes faster and louder or looping. Somatic practice asks us to become aware of the anger, not as a response to the narrative it’s associated with, but as it’s arising in the body.
Let’s look at two different types of dance moves here, Awareness and Expression:
Here we pay attention to what’s happening. It’s good to be still here, but if the energy is too intense to do so, walking can be helpful. Then we watch and ask. Where is anger arising? What does it feel like? What is the sensation of the movement, the pace, the heat, the texture? For me anger rises like a rush or wave, often up my midline and then crashing over my lungs. It rushes and pulses, up and down, up and down in my solar-plexus as a kind of fluttering anxious energy. My throat constricts and there’s often tightness in my jaw and behind my ears. There’s heat in my face and a soft throb over my skin.
Practicing with the sensation of anger is one way to help us turn towards it and be curious about it, thus making it easier to stay with, rather than push down or explode out of.
Have you ever broken skin by punching a wall? A tennis racket into a pillow is a lot safer. Or kickboxing. Or running with Rage Against the Machine on your iPod. I went to the shooting range last week…that was alright too. Somatic expression is taking that energy that you have become attuned to within yourself and expelling it physically. Yoga, dance, screaming in your car. Really any movement where you are holding your anger in your awareness and are awake to its movement. Here we are literally dancing with fury, moving her, shaking her, unleashing her in creative ways. Movements that can be the most cathartic are ones that express boundary setting, like pushups or bench presses as there is a ‘pushing away’. Or squats or warrior 2 pose as you are deepening in the ‘holding of your ground’, strong in your spine.
In cognitive practice we explore what is in our interior experience and aim to understand it more fully in relationship to ourselves and the world around. These practices are helpful when we have no idea why we’re upset, when we’re just angry or agitated or short tempered or impatient. Let’s look at opposing cognitive practices, one that fleshes out and deepens our meaning and one that re-contextualizes and distances us from our meaning.
Why am I angry? What boundary has been crossed? What values of mine have been violated? Why does this matter? In this practice we’re looking to, in a healthy way, dig in our heels. Doing this with a journal can be helpful, because when putting exploration to page, our exploration becomes more grounded and clear. Here we’re looking to become intimate with our own meaning about what we’re feeling and we’re looking to justify it. That’s what anger wants, justice. What I’m not suggesting here is that we dig in and justify blame. This practice is not about the other, the practice is about our self and what matters, why it matters and why the violation of that is unacceptable. This kind of clarity can be very supportive when feeling overwhelmed or when wanting to express our feelings to others.
Cognitive re-contextualization of anger
Separating incident from meaning can help to get some distance from rage, looking at it rather than being in it. We do this by separating the fact from the interpretation, the observable behaviour from the interior experience. For those of you who dig on integral jargon, separating the right hand quadrants from the left (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it, you won’t miss out.) Let’s take an example for this one…
You’re meeting a friend for coffee and they’re late. You feel very angry about this. They’ve done this before, you feel like you can’t count on them and that they don’t respect you or your time. Cognitive re-contextualization of this moment looks at what is actually happening that is factual and observable: You have an agreement to meet at a specific time. They’re not there. The meaning or interpretation you’ve constructed is that they don’t respect you. You feel hurt by this and angry. There could be other meanings. Perhaps they respect you greatly and were hit by a bus. Perhaps they suck at getting anywhere on time and it has nothing to do with you and little to do with respect, it’s simply something that they have low capacity with, moving through space and time with awareness.
When we cognitively re-contextualize, we take on other possible perspectives and notice where, specifically, we’re adding meaning. Now, the pitfall to this practice is that it’s fertile ground for emotional bypassing or repression, if we start making our meaning wrong or invalid. Also, for the ‘superwomen’ and ‘beauty queens’ in the crowd, this is one of their favourite methods for accepting too much responsibility for what’s occurring and not allowing anger to have her say. This can happen when you stop at the re-contextualization and resolve that there is no meaning other than that which you give it and that constructing meaning is somehow irresponsible. However, if one’s in a state of overwhelming rage or severe blame towards another, this can help to soften the intensity. But from here, the practice is noticing the meaning that was made and how you feel about that meaning. Whether your friend actually does respect you or not, you feel disrespected. This is where opportunities to express more healthily open up. When your friend shows up, rather than telling her that she’s an inconsiderate, disrespectful bitch, or saying nothing in order to hide that that’s how you feel, or making a snide remark to communicate you’re upset, you can let her know that when she’s late you don’t feel respected and then check with her about what’s going on.
Which brings me to…
This is the one we’ve all been waiting for right? Actually expressing our pissed –offedness to others? This is where it gets scary and clumsy and most of those fears from Those Crazy Bitches get all activated. While there are many ways we can practice interpersonally and building communication skills can support this greatly, let’s look generally at active and reflective interpersonal practices
I call this active because we’re dancing in the flames with the person we’re all riled up about. This is where we practice expressing how we feel, what’s not cool and what we need. When engaged in an active interpersonal anger practice, probably the most helpful piece is leaving blame out of the equation. Telling others how they are or what’s wrong with their behaviour doesn’t really serve anyone. For those of us who feel particularly clumsy or unskillful with anger, practicing with those practices described above as training may prove helpful. But no matter how you slice it, if you’re going to healthily experience and express anger, at some point you’re going to have to confront someone. If this is not something you’re practiced at, it’s not going to feel like you’re gliding along a dance floor. It will probably feel awkward and painful. As a general rule, talking about how you feel and what you need and leaving some space for the other to be in their own reactions can support you in staying on track. Blame sucks, try as hard as you can to see beyond it or you’ll both burn.
This is where you’re expressing or exploring your anger with a neutral party. If it’s just gossip, this ain’t a practice, don’t lie to yourself here. The practice is asking for the other to both hear you and to reflect back. This, as a practice, has us build the capacity to state what our boundaries are, what works for us and what doesn’t and what we need. Practicing in this way can help us to expel excess energy, gain more clarity, receive support and be exposed to alternate perspectives that enable us to move our anger.
Practicing in Public
In public!? By golly, what could she mean by that? We’re so funny, us humans, trying to protect ourselves all the time, projecting a self-image that doesn’t line up with what’s actually going on. What I mean by practicing in public is coming out and telling people around you what’s happening: Hello, my name is Chela and I’m pretty pissed off about some things and would rather just sweep it away than do the painful work of facing it. I don’t like feeling angry, it enrages me. I don’t like feeling afraid, it scares me. I don’t like being in pain, it hurts me. Wa wa wa. We’re all dealing with different versions of the same thing. Welcome to Earth, welcome to suffering. If there are people in your life that you trust and can share with about what you’re grappling with then your practice extends. Let’s take this article for example, and the last one. Now there’s a discussion. In fact this article was first inspired by Trish’s comment in the dialogue thread of Those Crazy Bitches. She wanted more…what now? How do we deal with it? This article is an up-late-after-putting-my-kid-to-bed-urgent-response-to-a-need. We’re in pain, what do we do about it?
Face it. Investigate it. Feel it. Know it. Practice with it. Dance with it.
And let others in dammit!
It’s an illusion that we’re having our own experience.
Anger, given its texture, can pit us against each other and isolate us. Let’s grow beyond that. These suggestions for practice; this exploration is just the beginning of an attempt to create some change for us, so how can we build on it? What other moves are there? How can we further confront these archetypes and free ourselves?
Slow. Slow. Quick quick. Slow. This is the timing of the Tango basic. We can expect the same in our practice and development. Sometimes things will click and move quickly. Other times we’ll find ourselves rolling around in the same drama, the same struggle, like practicing those excruciating swivels over and over and over, thinking ‘my core will never be strong enough to be graceful in this dance!’ What really has Tango come alive is the interdependence that’s required. Each partner must be solid in their own space, have their own center and balance. Yet in the dance, they support and leverage each other, moving in ways that would be impossible on their own. I invite this metaphor into our own engagement with our anger practice. We can relate to our anger as our dance partner. We are awake to where we are and what we are experiencing and that awareness is our center. Our anger informs us, educates us and becomes a resource for us in setting our boundaries, waking up to what’s important and knowing what change we need. With a strong spine and open, fluid heart, we dance, practicing with this emotion. Slow. Slow. Quick quick. Slow. In, out. Taken over, calmed down. Pain, liberation, contraction, expansion. All of it; moving and ablaze.