Where does the Anger go? Equanimity and rage.May 25, 2023
I worry that the women who come to yoga have found a really effective way to by-pass their rage. The rage that comes from "being seen but not heard" in some upbringings. From the sexual abuse or assaults we know many experience. From a life of coping with sexism and misogyny. With bearing more than our fair share of work at home, always having to fulfil expectations beyond our capacity. Beyond anyone's capacity in a society where we lack the support of the wider family or community.
The concept and practice of "equanimity" has served me well, over the years, to create space around my experience.
Or to acknowledge that I do not have as much power over life-events as I often assume. When is it really “me” that makes any decision as opposed to the forces that be! After all stuff just happens- not many of us anticipated a pandemic to come along and swipe away all our plans for a couple of years, forcing us to reassess everything we thought we knew in the process. But it did.
But I also feel drawn to share about rage- rage that is valid and needs a space to be processed. Rage that can provide a fertile ground for action on justice, and action that helps us move forward, away from the cause of our anger.
So how can these two things sit alongside each other? Can we find a way to acknowledge and process rage that is compatible with the yogic path?
Equanimity is a concept we find revered in both Buddhist and Yoga texts.
The Patanjali Yoga sutras- a 5th century text which brings together the key themes of yoga into the first “systematised” yoga approach offers us the sutra or verse on four keys to happiness or to peace, are sometimes referred to as the Brahma viharas.
- maitri- friendliness
- karuna- compassion
- Mudita- joy
- Upeksha- equanimity
Yoga Sutra 1.33 from Patanjali says: “Maitri karuna muditopeksanam sukha duhkha punyapunya visayanam bhavanatas citta prasadanam.”
Patanjali advocates that we find equanimity in our dealings with those where we might otherwise feel antipathy or jealousy. It’s the classic practice of reflecting back at our own experience- why is it this person makes us feel angry or upset. To take responsibility for our own reaction and to realise that so often it is based in a fear response- I want what they have and it makes me feel inadequate. Or their recklessness makes me feel threatened but I could just steer away without needing to jump in.
The sutra or verse translates as something like:
By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.
(The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda)
The Buddhists describe these same qualities as the four pillars.
Equanimity is fertile ground for wisdom and also acts as the protector of our compassion and love. We may think of equanimity as neutrality or cool aloofness, but mature equanimity can enable us to radiate warmth and offer kindness beyond the confines of a more narrow personal preference. The Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.” Perhaps you have experienced or witnessed the warmth or kindness that comes from this sort of person? For me I think of my aunt, who’s love shone beyond all the adverse experiences I had as a child and her presence was one of the very few people I got to feel safe with.
Upekkha (equanimity) can also refer to the ease that comes from seeing the bigger picture. Colloquially, in India the word was sometimes used to mean “to see with patience.” There is a story in the Zen tradition where a farmer’s horse runs away right before harvest time. “Such bad luck” cry the villagers and the farmer, a wise man is unperturbed- “Good or bad luck- who knows?” he says! The following night the horse arrives bringing 10 wild horses with him to the farm- ready to be tamed! His son now arrives to help with the harvest time but breaks his leg, taming one of the wild horses - the villagers all commiserate with him for his bad luck. But being a wise man, the farmer simply says “Good or bad luck- who knows?”. Sure enough when the army arrives the next day to round up all the young men for war the farmer is relieved his son is left behind. The man continues his life undisturbed by these changes in fortune.
Equanimity is a protection from the “eight worldly winds”: praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute. Becoming attached to or excessively elated with success, praise, fame or pleasure can be a set-up for suffering when the winds of life change direction.
For example, success can be wonderful, but if it leads to arrogance, we have more to lose in future challenges. Becoming personally invested in praise can tend toward conceit. Identifying with failure, we may feel incompetent or inadequate. Reacting to pain, we may become discouraged. If we understand or feel that our sense of inner well-being is independent of the eight winds, we are more likely to remain on an even keel in their midst.
Perhaps we too can simply train to see the long-game. Remember that it will all resolve in the end. That our distress may not change the course of things to come. But what in the shorter term if we have experienced hardship that leads us to feel rage. How do we process the rage that arises from abuse for example or mistreatment of ourselves or others? Or our anger at our political leaders who ignore all calls towards climate action or justice.
When I first came to yoga I was so drawn by the image of peace and calm- one so at odds with my own tumultuous inner life. I thought that doing yoga properly was being calm- pretty much always. I saw this reflected in those around me, those tip-toeing around Buddhist centres, trying to seem so serene!
There is definitely a massive benefit from realising it’s not all to do with “me”, not to take things so personally. We can use wisdom to facilitate equanimity by being mindful of when equanimity is absent. Honest awareness of what makes us imbalanced helps us to learn how to find balance. Insight, a deep seeing into the nature of things as they are shows us the nature of impermanence. In the deepest forms of this insight, we see that things change so quickly that we can’t hold onto anything, and eventually the mind lets go of clinging.
Letting go brings equanimity; the greater the letting go, the deeper the equanimity.
Yoga is not a path of inaction. If anything, the peace and tranquillity we muster can energise us to fight for justice. Perhaps even on the personal level, the calm we can find through practice can offer us a space in which to start to process the realities and challenges of life.
We also know from the world of psychology and trauma therapy that adverse experiences need to be processed, not ignored. The neural pathways associated with adverse events only become more entrenched if we do not reframe the experience with reflection, or movement or sharing in a therapeutic context- with friends or therapist.
Yoga can have a role in this emotional processing- the benefits for trauma recovery are well documented, but we need to allow for all emotions to be welcomed equally.
The fundamental yoga teaching is that we are not broken, we cannot be broken. We are whole and magnificent- but we need to remember this as our natural state.
Yoga can give space for emotion to arise, and the means to move away from shame- as we understand from yoga psychology that we are whole. So we can honor exactly how we feel rather than assuming we should feel calm- this is not wrong.
As yogis and yoga teachers it’s worth considering how to give every feeling validity and space. This for me is integral to the “inclusive” yoga I advocate. A yoga which can accommodate those with strong, passionate emotions. Emotions that may be untamed, as one therapist described it to me, if you never got to express anger as a child it's likely you have about as much experience as a toddler in communicating your rage. Imagine an angry toddler who has been ignored for a long time!
From this context equanimity needs to be a practice of acknowledging and rewiring our experiences, rather than pretending we only feel calm. Finding effective and clear means to communicate our anger rather than putting a calm face on it.
I am continuing this path of finding space for life, all of it, the messy and the calm. I invite you to join me with your full self- all thoughts and feelings welcome!
- My Equanimity Retreat Day is now available on the Yoga Hub. Please join us. If you have not signed up before the first x5 days are free to try.
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