Walking on the estuary the other day I bumped into someone I know a little. We stopped to chat. He was curious about the sea birds. On the waters edge, they hung out in one big gang but he’d noticed, on a nearby part of the coast they separated into distinct groups.
I appreciated his noticing and curiosity and it got me wondering, what happens to our curious selves?
When we are young and learning about the world, we see something flying in the sky and it is an object of curiosity. We notice and wonder at its shape, colours, wings, flight patterns and our mind is wide open. Then someone tells us, it’s a bird. The information gets processed and stored away.
The next time we look up and see something similar in the sky, we don’t see what is in front of us with an open mind and fresh eyes. Instead we recall what our memory tells us is ‘a bird.’
Believing we ‘know’ what a bird is, we look away, hardly seeing the object at all. Freshness and curiosity superceded by our intellectual knowing. Humans seem to have a desire to name, label, classify and organise into systems everything we come across.
Even before science turned this into an intellectual pursuit, an older tradition existed, that of story telling. Stories have been used since the earliest times to teach and to share wisdom.
But some stories we make up about ourselves, others and the world, may no longer serve us and get in the way of a different, more joyful experience.
Earlier this year after attending a Buddhist Kick Off meeting locally, I was invited to get curious about family. Listen to most people long enough on the subject of family and there will be tender spots. Places of hurt, regret, conflict, loss or simply things they want to bury and forget.
It is easy for these to get set in stone as the stories of our family.
I found myself wondering what it would feel like to see the idea of family with fresh eyes. If there is sadness or anger because of loss or rifts in our immediate family, what about looking wider?
Consider, what if family extended to:-
- all your blood relatives (alive and dead, talking or not)
- your cat or dog
- your parents’ new partners (both of them)
- your in-laws (living or dead)
- your ex and their extended family (on speaking terms or not)
- your partner’s children and their partners
- your child and his or her partner
- your children’s friends
- your neighbour’s cat or dog
- your best friends
- people in your social network
- the people in your building
- the people in your street
- your work colleagues
- your customers or clients
- people on your train or bus
- people who provide food, services, education, healthcare and trash collection in your area
- people who attend an event together
- people in your village or town
- people in your county
- people in your state or region
- all the other humans on the planet, who, just like you, are seeking love and understanding, doing the best they can
And really, what stops family going as wide as you wish? Only thought calcified into belief.
A new thought can bring a new idea of family and with it new opportunities for nourishing connections any time, any where.
If we get open and curious and glimpse the possibility of opening our hearts to all who cross our paths, we may, unexpectedly, find more compassion, peace, love and understanding around the sad and sore places in our old story of family too. Extending goodwill to everyone we meet as the festive season approaches, can only create more love and understanding.
Shall we give it a go?
When dark clouds rush across the sky, you instinctively pull your jacket collar tighter against the falling temperature. You do what you can to comfort yourself when the sun is temporarily obscured. The sun is hidden but not gone. We know it will return. The discomfort of the storm is temporary. Knowing this we can watch the storm in awe and wonder. In the same way when rage shows up it is temporary. It comes and goes, only temporarily obscuring the innate well being and wisdom we all possess. Rage will pass: innate well-being is a constant.
What is rage?
Rage is an emotion. A highly stoked, physically felt emotion. People talk about seeing red, feeling possessed by something, being unable to control themselves. If you’ve been on the receiving end, you know how scary it can be to witness rage. What isn’t always understood is that the person manifesting the rage can also be full of fear, another visceral emotion. But what is the source of such powerful emotion?
Where does rage come from?
The Three Principles of Mind Consciousness and Thought, as expressed by Sydney Banks tell us that our feelings are only ever a reflection of our thinking in the moment. So rage comes from our thinking in the moment.
What kind of thinking could provoke such a powerful emotion?
That’s a tricky question to answer. Anyone who has experienced sudden and explosive rage, will tell you there is no time to notice its onset. It seems to appear from nowhere.
Traditional anger management self-help books will suggest you try to notice the thoughts and feelings that precede rage: the tensing of the neck muscles, the shallow breathing and the tightening of the chest; the irritation rising. This advice is unhelpful if one minute you are minding your own business and the next you are in a towering rage.
Those who experience explosive rage will struggle to explain the cause. They may say it was the over flowing bin or because another person wasn’t listening or didn’t understand or was thoughtless but even to themselves, these reasons sound hollow.
Deep down they likely know the response is out of proportion to the supposed trigger.
With an understanding of the Three Principles there is no such thing as ‘a trigger’ out there. As all of our felt experience is coming from our thinking in the moment, it isn’t what anyone does or doesn’t do or say that causes the rage, it is our thinking about what is happening.
The thinking may not even be about something in the present moment. It could be thinking about a past event.
The thinking that can provoke sudden, explosive rage, can be hidden, submerged. There can be no tangible, verbalised ‘thought’ expressed as a neat sentence. Rather a mini tsunami of thoughts and feelings rise, it seems, instantaneously, resulting in the experience of the emotion we call rage.
Just as people talk about an iceberg of thoughts with only a small proportion in our conscious awareness so a similar analogy has been used for anger or rage. The illustration below shows what might be lurking under the surface of the rage you are experiencing or facing in someone you love.
Any number of thoughts could be producing that range of emotions but from my experience fear is often a major culprit.
Fear that our wellbeing is under threat: either from without: the gas bill the government, your partner or loved one or from within – you fear you are not okay, you are damaged, you are not loved, you are not worthy of love, you can’t cope.
That fear may not be expressed as a coherent thought in the moment but it lies at the root of so much anger. At a superficial level we may feel disrespected, not heard, powerless but very quickly a dreadful feeling of desolation will kick in behind the rage especially if we realise the behaviour is not helping.
Why do we think rage is coming from out there?
That fear about our own wholeness comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of where our wellbeing comes from. According to the Three Principles we have innate wellbeing. At our essence, our core we are whole and healthy. This isn’t at the level of the physical body but the spark, essence or spirit of ourselves that lies beyond the physical. That is inviolate. It cannot be damaged or undermined by our parents, our partners, our children, the government or anyone else. Neither can it be undermined by our own thinking unless we take that thinking seriously, believe what it is telling us and act on it.
There seems to be a conundrum in this, I know.
We see daily evidence on our screens and perhaps in our own heads too of the damage we humans do, to ourselves and to others. According to the first World Health Organisation report on suicide prevention in 2004, more than 800 000 people die by suicide every year – around one person every 40 seconds. More people die from suicide worldwide than from war. Clearly thoughts can be immensely powerful (if we give them life).
Never underestimate the power of thought.
Yet I believe no-one gets up in the morning with the intention to cause misery and suffering for themselves or others.
Culturally and educationally we have been told our wellbeing comes from outside of ourselves yet at the same time and in direct contradiction that if we are not happy with our lot, we should ‘just pull ourselves together’.
The truth, as ever, lies somewhere buried in this apparent conundrum. From a quiet, settled, clear mind we are likely to make choices that propagate peace and joy for ourselves and others. Many of our thoughts are not telling us anything useful or true about ourselves, the world or other people. Left to their own devices, thoughts pass through our minds. We don’t have to listen to them or act on them. We are not our thoughts. Thoughts are not real until we give them life.
How do we realise where wellbeing is coming from?
When we realise we have innate well-being within. We’ve always had it. It is what we come from. And when we realise our experience is only ever created by our thought in the moment, we see we don’t need to be afraid of our emotions.
What happens when we realise where our wellbeing is coming from?
Once we realise our experience is only ever created by our thought in the moment we find we begin to notice our thinking. And we see we don’t need to worry about any of our thoughts, we relax and from the place of relaxation we might look more towards the ‘nice feeling’ thoughts and act on those rather than the yucky and crappy thoughts.
The moment you realise you are not experiencing what’s out there but simply your thinking in any given moment, you’ve already loosened your grip on that thinking.
You might be wondering, if someone provokes you, how can you not angry? Surely to not get angry would be acting like a doormat? There is a lovely story in the Lotus Sutra of a Buddhist monk known as Bodhisattva Never Disparaging. He took his name from the fact he treated everyone he met with reverence, seeing in each person the innate potential for enlightenment.
This was sometimes met with hostility and people would scorn him and throw rocks and stones at him. Bodhisattva Never Disparaging would move out of range but bow respectfully.
When we too can see beyond the momentary thinking of ourselves and others (and the subsequent actions), it gives us the clarity and wisdom to know how to act. We can choose to ‘step out of range’ rather than either picking up the rocks and hurling them back or just standing in the firing line and being pelted.
Just as you know dark clouds overhead mean a spell of bad weather but the sun will come out again, so too even powerful emotions are only passing through. The less we invest in the story they are trying to tell us, the quicker they pass and the quicker we return to our natural state which is one of wellbeing and peace.
Juliet Fay is a facilitator working for social change. With New York author and transformational coach, Mary Schiller, she runs programmes for families in conflict and social care workers experiencing stress and burnout. Their work is based on the Three Principles as expressed by Sydney Banks.
If you’d like to learn more, do email Juliet or find out more about Solcare’s coaching programmes for individuals and families experiencing stress and conflict.
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In Nicola Skinner’s article in last Saturday’s Guardian, Why parents are getting angrier, she wrote about the popularity of Mike Fisher’s courses, Understanding Anger in Parents, offered by Ealing Council in London UK.
More and more parents are being referred to the council’s parent commissioner by social services, the NHS, police or solicitors on account of anger issues. It transpires the most common trigger for parental anger, as identified by the parents, is children not co-operating.
As I read this, it brought to mind a dog toy I once had. It was a little hessian sack on a string. When you squeezed the sack a cat miaowed. It used to drive my Jack Russell mad. She was convinced there must be a cat somewhere in the room and would get in a frenzy trying to find the cat. Each time, the little hessian bag miaowed, the dog would go nuts. Of course we laughed because we knew it was a trick. There was no cat. It’s easy to get tricked.
As Mara Gleason of One Thought illustrated at The One Solution Conference in Oslo earlier this year, correlations are very easy to draw and they are masters of misdirection. It is easy to see how the dog made the correlation; the sound of a cat must mean there is a cat in the room. Yet there was no cat because the sound came from an audio recording not a real live cat.
In the same way, you can understand the correlation parents draw between children being unco-operative and their feelings of anger, one seems to follow on from the other. Yet once you realise how our human experience is actually created, it is clearly impossible for the children’s lack of co-operation to be the cause of the angry feelings. How so?
Mostly we grow up believing that our experience of life comes from out there, outside of ourselves. The things that happen to us, the people we hang out with, the family we’re born into and the country of our birth. These things, so the thinking goes, shape us, our character and our destiny. Yes, there may be some influence from genetics, making us short tempered or patient types, but generally, the view is, it is our circumstances that shape our experience day to day.
What if this was completely and utterly untrue?
What if, in fact, our experience was coming entirely from within? What if everything we experience moment to moment was created by our thinking in that same moment?
Sounds far fetched? Just look at this a little more closely and see for yourself what is true.
Even for the angriest parents in Mike Fisher’s courses there will be times when their children’s lack of co-operation doesn’t provoke rage. Times when they simply sigh and are resigned to it, other times it may seem funny, times they deliberately ignore it and still other times when they don’t even notice their children being unco-operative.
So what is going on? How can this commonly cited trigger be so inconsistent?
Let’s take an example.
You ask your teenage daughter to clear up the dishes. She rolls her eyes and walks out the room.
So far we have the facts. What happens next depends entirely on the thinking that goes through your mind and your daughter’s mind in that moment. Any of the following thoughts might occur to you:-
Perhaps she didn’t hear me
I love that eye roll, it’s so teenage
She’s clearly not in a receptive mood
It will only take me 5 minutes to stack the dishwasher
How dare she be so insolent
Why won’t she help, even just a little bit?
She shouldn’t walk away from me when I’m talking to her
I’m running late and she’s being difficult again
I could go on. It’s like a pick and mix. Any or all of those thoughts could occur and we could take any or all of them seriously, believing they are telling us something useful about ourselves, our daughter and the state of the world (or the dishes). Which thoughts we listen to will then influence our next move. The same is going on for your daughter. She might have any of the following thoughts:-
Why does she always go on about the dishes
Can’t she see I’m busy?
Why doesn’t she go on at my brother to do dishes?
It’s so unfair
None of my friends have to put up with this from their parents
Why is she nagging all the time
This is so boring
Which thoughts you and your daughter believe and then act on, will determine the outcome of this exchange. If we believe the thoughts that tell us the other person is uncaring and out to get us, so our emotions will rise to reflect this perceived ‘threat’ to our wellbeing.
The simple solution to parental anger (and conflict in general) is to understand where our wellbeing actually comes from. It doesn’t come from anything outside of us. Innate wellbeing and wisdom is something we all have, all of the time. It’s just most of us don’t realise it.
Conflict is a natural result of mistakenly believing our wellbeing is under threat. We prepare to defend our wellbeing by going on the attack or defensive. An argument quickly escalates. During an argument we lose all sense of connection with the other person, fail to hear anything beyond the words and before we know it both parties feel horrible.
On the other hand, when we see that our wellbeing cannot be damaged by anyone or anything outside of ourselves, and we start to notice when our thoughts are sending us off track, then we can pause. When we pause, it’s like taking a breath to settle yourself, then you see past your own fears and past your children’s defiance. You realise too that your children are also innately well and that the grumpy, difficult behaviour is just that, some grumpy difficult behaviour. It’s not who they really are.
From this vantage point, it is easier to take some time out when thoughts are running away with us, to zoom out and see what really matters and not to get caught up in our own or our children’s momentary insecure thinking.
Like the oh so convincing sound of the cat in the sack which isn’t actually coming from a real cat, we can easily get tricked into thinking our feelings are coming from what is happening out there, when in reality they are only ever coming from our thinking in the moment.
Find out about programmes for individuals and families in conflict.