In a group of over sixty people, I was asked in a small group, “What breaks your heart?” My answer, in a weak voice, was, “All the suffering and pain that my community endures, as well as what it inflicts on itself again.”
I thought about the drama that exists in my community. The struggles between politics and love. Incarceration. Abuse when systems meant to “help” are often more harmful. The harassment we face for wearing what we wear or holding hands with our lover.
I thought about the unemployment rate among transgender people.
I thought about the homicides, suicides, and other news that regularly arrive in my voicemail, news feed or inbox.
Seane Corn said to me that she understood how much I cared for my students and wanted to protect them so they don’t have to go through the same things I had. She told me this was not sustainable. She said that I could not do all this for my community and that it was unhealthy to try.
She helped me to uncover my anger and frustration as we talked in front of sixty people. My chin was jutted forward, I had my voice lowered, and my stomach was raging. I was unable to express my anger and fear at the injustice.
Seane asked if I wanted to scream and how I could let out this anger. As a quiet, soft-spoken man, I reluctantly agreed. I then breathed in my stomach and let out an incredibly loud and guttural roar, which I had never thought I could do. Seane told me to repeat it twice more and then instructed me to yell on my Brooklyn roof as part of a yoga practice to release tension.
It took me a while to learn this lesson; I had built walls of anger around my house for a good decade. My experience with social justice has taught me that part of being progressive and taking on leadership involves being angry about injustices everywhere. I moved in, feeling righteous and pointing my finger at politicians, corporations, family members, and friends who were harming people and the environment.
I thought I would be irresponsible if I was not angry. I also felt that I wouldn’t have been aware of the issues at hand if I didn’t look for injustices in my life to fight.
In college, I had a bumper stick on my car that read, “If You’re Not Anger, Then You’re Not Paying Attention.” This is a phrase I have lived during the decade I spent working for social justice until that moment when I met Sean. My anger was fuelled by judgment–judgment against any language or behavior that wasn’t on point, not understanding or forgiving ignorant ignorance despite that I also had been and still am ignorant of many specific sufferings.
A broken heart lies beneath anger. After the anger has subsided, it is important to acknowledge the broken heart, including the hurt, betrayal and disappointment.
The Lama Rod Owens says: “The work of turning our attention back to woundedness is a really intense, profound journey of transformation. It doesn’t feel good to just respond to anger because anger gives us a feeling of power.” Many of us, especially those who come from marginalized communities or positions, use anger to feel strong and valid.
Being in pain is very vulnerable. Many of us have come to realize that this vulnerability can be a danger, even endanger our lives. Being in pain requires a lot of tenderness. We cannot change the pain if we do not take care of it. It will eventually seep out. Both the pain and the resistance to it are addressed.
Anger is sometimes a necessity because we need it to survive. Anger is an important emotion. It tells us when something is wrong. We can’t get rid of it. Anger is necessary to spark social justice movements. But it must be balanced by self-care, compassion, and love.
Our movements need to be fueled by emotions other than anger.
The goal of activist work was to eliminate any harm. If we continue to cause damage, activists will fail. Eliminating penalty is still the goal.
The causes of my anger are many:
Privatization of water, pollution, state-sanctioned violent acts against Black, Brown, and fat bodies, and queer, female, and disabled people.
US material support for harmful governments in other countries.
The suicide and homicide of trans and queer folks.
High rates of sexual abuse during childhood.
The vast wealth gap within the US includes its history (stolen bodies, land, stolen labor).
I honor my anger. It doesn’t need to be like this. We could all make better choices with more integrity. We can put people and the planet above profit. My anger is a visionary–it believes that another world is feasible. My anger is like a toddler wanting to see that world now.
In my 20s, the activist circles I belonged to needed more patience for changing one’s political and religious beliefs. Thich Nhat Hanh says that anger is a fireball we throw at others, but our hands are burned in the process. We must learn concrete ways to deal with anger and let it go. Otherwise, we risk burning our hands, homes, communities, and potential alliances.
Yoga has taught me that anger can be a fire that will consume me if I let it. Anger is indeed motivating and valuable but also a fire. We must transform this passion into a commitment to justice fuelled by love.
Tibetan Buddhist Tonglen practice uses the breath to make meditation a bodily event. We rehearse with the breath different phrases. These phrases are changed four times in the reflection. Stay with each set of terms for several minutes.
Concentrate on your breathing to focus your attention. You may close your eyes or have them downcast. Focus on your breathing for several minutes, noticing the inhalation and exhalation.
Sit for several minutes and say inwardly, with each breath: “Breathe in love, breathe out love.” Inhale the love around you and exhale it back out.
You can then change your words inwardly so that you are breathing in love and exhaling suffering. We turn our attention to hell, allow it to touch our hearts, and then return love rather than passing along the suffering. You can empower yourself to have a relationship with suffering while breathing out love.