Anger and Sadness, Emotion Resolving Into Virtue
In our current saddened state, violence has erupted again. (Did it ever stop?) The fatal misuse of force by a white police officer toward a black man, has enflamed the country. All in the midst of the pandemic that has people scrambling in fear, stir-crazy with home confinement, job loss, social distancing, the closing of schools, churches, restaurants, sports and entertainment and the shutting down of gatherings of all kinds. Is it any wonder that society has reached a boiling point?
Anger and Sadness have long been recognized in Chinese medicine as the emotional expression of the Wood and Metal elements. Students of the Five Elements will be quite familiar with these. As these emotions appear in our lives, we recognize them as clues to unlocking the pattern of dis-ease we are experiencing.
Wood governs Liver. Metal governs Lungs. Western medicine is beginning to recognize that anger damages the liver, and sadness damages the lungs. The deep correlation between emotions and organ functions is irrefutable.
The body/mind connection is more and more recognized in the practice of true medicine. The strictly mechanical model that separates the physical from the emotional and spiritual may be expedient and stoic, but sadly it misses the majority of signs and symptoms, and ultimately the path to the remedy for the troubles that beset us.
Fear enters our story regularly, the emotion associated with Kidneys, the Water Element. This connects us to our very deepest feelings about life and death, the vital essence of life itself. We all face these basic issues of access to resource, and the management of that resource for the good of all.
This is not superficial bullshit going on. This cuts right to the core of humanity and the crux in which we find ourselves.
Wood, Metal and Water are three of the Five Elements represented in our story so far. Their examples provide a touch stone for launching off into the discovery of what is going on here. Yet our personal, social, and ultimately our cultural response to the fiery moment in which our civilization finds itself calls upon us to access and express all the elemental qualities.
Fire Element joins the discourse, the element of the Heart, the very core of our sovereign nature, the seat of compassionate insight, the spark of awareness in each and every heart. When adulated, the Heart suffers anxiety that can further fuel the flames.
In my last article I wrote about tears. I spoke of the key part they have to play in making our way through this difficult passage. I bemoaned the stoic culture that eschews tears. The instructions and conditioning to which we have all been subject at one point or another, to “suck it up.” Truth be told, sorrow is messy. Tears are messy. Anger is messy. Grief is messy. Anxiety is messy.
Tears have many faces, one of which is angry rising up to attempt to correct the injustice of untimely loss.
These are not light subjects my friends. The deep medicine of emotions and virtues does not shy away from any of it.
The question is whether our culture is mature enough, strong enough, wise enough to create a container that is strong enough to hold all of it? To welcome all of the honest emotional expression of the people. That is the truly courageous act called for in these times.
To allow emotions to be expressed, so that they develop into sweet virtues, that is the promise of a full expression. It represents a mature response, a powerful invitation to growth, beauty and love.
When we freeze our grief, freeze our tears, we limit the expression of that which needs must be expressed. When we restrain our voices, when we hold back our anger, we test the bottle in which we are trying to contain it. When we ultimately create containers in which we can allow for the true expression of all of our honest emotions, without explosive destruction and into beauty and love, we will be able to transcend this bottling up, and ultimately save humanity’s place on this precious Earth.
The Earth Element, the last of the Five to be mentioned here, is the ground upon which we all stand, the very atmosphere in which we all live and breathe. The fertile ground of all life. With meat shortages threatened, supply chains shut down, farm workers sickening, we worry. We worry about where our next meal may be coming from. We grocery shop wearing masks, the store shelves still being stocked by “essential” workers.
It’s quite a chapter in the long story of human life being written this day. How will our culture creatively move through this time into a resolution of all the terrors and challenges that face us? It’s an initiatory time. ALL of humanity, is going through an intense rite of passage. As with all rites of passage what is old is being burned away, a new beginning emerging.
What will that new beginning hold? Will we be more mature? Will the passage lead us to a brighter day? That remains to be seen on many, many levels. Each of us in our individual situations will experience a variety of outcomes as each of us evolves through these times.
Yet there is hope in the emergence of virtue. Let’s return to the emotions that are heralds of the pattern, and take a look at the energy of promise contained within each one. In Five Element study we learn the correspondences and correlations of the functions of body, mind and spirit. Indeed, we learn that the emotions do not exist in a vacuum, but actually are a part of a continuum, and an intricate interrelation with all of the other emotions.
Take Anger and the Liver for instance. There are many levels of the expression of anger. From frustration, to indignation, to anger, to rage. These are all expressions that take place when boundaries (Metal) are violated, and needs (Earth) not met. Anger is a righteous response to unacceptable conditions. Indeed, it is reasonable and right to expect that when boundaries are violated, honest anger is sure to follow.
The question is whether the expression of that anger is allowed for and contained so that it doesn’t boil over into violence. Sadly, it seems in many instances that only violence speaks loudly enough for this important emotion to be acknowledged and responded to.
Yet, I beg to suggest that there is another way. Those who have been initiated through to that other way have the responsibility to shepherd in the possibility. You see, the virtue associated with the wood element is Benevolence, or Kindness. Rather than malevolence, malice and violent rage, we have the chance to evolve into Kindness. Let me give a mild example.
Once in my mid-life I happened to be invited to attend Zazen meditation services at a Zen monastery deep in the forest of California. I was a teacher at a “nearby” healing arts institution, about a 45-minute drive from the little monastic enclave. I thought it would be instructive and exciting for my healing arts students to enjoy a taste of Zazen practice in this very beautiful and real setting. So, I organized a field trip! Seven or eight of my students piled into two cars to make the trip to the monastery. The service began at 9am. We got into our cars by about 8:10.
We arrived at the monastery about 9am on the dot. We quickly got out of the cars and made our way to the Zazen hall for services. The monks and others had already entered the hall. The Roshi, greeted us (silently, for this was a Zen meditation hall). He busily organized us all without words and got us all into the meditation hall and on our cushions in efficient fashion. We enjoyed a fine service and deep meditation. I must say that I was quite pleased that I could bring my students to this profound experience.
After the meditation service, we retired to the tea room to share a hot green tea and receive teachings. After all were settled into place the Roshi called out my name.
“Matthew,” he said. “It would be unkind of me not to admonish you! You arrived late for service, with 8 new people unaware of the ways of our service. This caused great disruption at the last minute!”
I blinked, calmly took a sip of hot tea, swallowed, and acknowledged my transgression. I was indeed at fault. Had he not admonished me, I would not have been aware of this. Without that awareness, I would never have the chance to correct it. Indeed, the Roshi’s admonishment was a kindness to me. He also acknowledged that I “handled the admonishment well.” Which helped me to understand the “right and elegant use” of anger in this case. I bowed in silent gratitude. I was never late for a service ever again!
You see from this rather “mild” story of what can be considered a “minor” transgression, that the expression anger is indeed a kindness. Indeed, when we are not made aware of our transgressions, we go blindly forward, trippingly oblivious to that fact that we have stepped out of line.
To this I suggest that here is the root and hopefully the promise of the fiery demonstrations taking place all over the country in reaction to the use of fatal force by police officers. The killing of innocent men is indeed a transgression that must be brought to light. Will the admonishments given by the crowd be heard by those who are guilty of these transgressions? That remains to be seen. So far, this cycle of violence has not yet restored a lasting peace.
Yet, if we can as a culture, creatively allow for this natural expression of rage, then perhaps we will begin to wake up to the necessity for change, and a more elegant and effective, culture-wide creative response.
Revenge and violence expressed in demonstrations across the country is simple, not at all elegant. It’s easy to access the energy of anger and revenge. The harder part is doing the work to reform the culture and convert our collective pain into lasting positive benefit. It is doubtful that these demonstrations will be seen as a kindness. It is more likely that they will be seen as “senseless” and be met with even greater tightening of response, and a continuation of the violent cycles that are all too familiar in human history.
For “Wood Element” alone cannot solve these intense “Wood Element” conditions. Other energies must be brought to bear. The root of the matter must be plumbed.
It is not within the scope of this article to explore and exhaust all options. Indeed, Water could be used to douse the flames that have risen from the addition of Fuel to the Fire. The Ashes of destruction left in the wake of the unrest may be built into Monuments, a solemn reminder of the monumental struggle undertaken here. Ultimately, Ashes can be scattered in loving, honorable mourning for the loss of life, limb and sanity.
Sadness lies at the root of this whole sorry affair. Losses long felt and left too often unacknowledged and expressed in isolation. Tears choked back. Grief frozen into monolithic towers within bodies, minds and hearts of the people. Frozen grief, long unexpressed, foments into violent retaliations. Unless containers can be built for the honest full expression of our pain, without fear of being carted away to the asylum or incarceration, I’m afraid the cycles of violence will only continue.
The great ocean, great salty body of tears laps upon all of our shores. It refuses no rivers. The wetlands and the estuaries are teaming with life. The mountains covered with snow spawn rivers all over the planet, and deep underground rivers continue to flow. Our tears too must be allowed to flow, our righteous anger to find expression, our world be awakened to kindness and compassion.
I offer the following verse. I beg you read it slowly and take it in.
Allow your Anger to resolve to Kindness,
so that you will not be overwhelmed by Sorrow.
Allow your Sorrow to resolve to Acceptance,
so that you will not be overwhelmed by Anxiety.
Allow your Anxiety to resolve to Love,
so that you will not be overwhelmed by Fear.
Allow your Fear to resolve to Wisdom,
so that you will not be overwhelmed by Worry.
Allow your Worry to resolve to Faith,
so that you will not be overwhelmed by Anger.
This is the fullest expression of true medicine to heal the wounds and woes of this world. Emotions, honored as signs, can be taken for what they are, the impulse for creative expression and transformation. This can ultimately transform ashes into virtues. Virtues arising in cleansing tears. Kindness, acceptance, love, wisdom, and faith all the virtuous expressions of power and beauty for a weary world.