Scary, huh? Whether it’s welling up inside your own body, or whether you are witnessing it in another. Well, that’s what the culture would have us think.
According to the yogic tradition (on which, I am certainly no expert), all emotions are holy. They speak truth. For those of us who have difficulty with our emotional lives, this can be a useful idea. Turn your emotional awareness practice into a spiritual practice, right?
But rage is different from regular old anger. The lever for rage (unlike anger) is not tripped by any one, specific, identifiable thing. Rage, once it is tapped into, feels like it is beginningless, endless, limitless, transpersonal, even historical, even ancestral. It burns like an unholy fire, or like the froth on top of a bottomless lake of howling, unmanageable despair. Allowing it feels like allowing an uncontained wildfire.
At risk of sharing too much about myself, I attended a Psychedelic Integration workshop in January this year, co-hosted by a licensed marriage and family therapist and a nurse practitioner. At one point, we were supposed to partner up and practice a Jillian Wellwood exercise for accessing our least favorite emotions. The exercise goes like this: You sit across from your partner, facing each other, so that your partner can witness you. You begin to repeat the phrase, “I am willing to feel my [insert emotion you are typically not fond of feeling],” while stating what you are feeling in your body between each affirmation, as the emotion begins to move and shift.
Well, I chose “anger”. Anger was hot. It started in my stomach and moved up as a red heat in my face and ears. By the time all that red, hot anger got into my face, I was surprised by the tears that came into my eyes. I started to cry. I enunciated, almost not even completely believing the words myself, “I was never allowed to be . . . a full . . . person.” Then I began to sob. Uncontrollably. One of the CIIS workshop attendants noticed this and made his way over to me with a box of tissues. He asked me if I wanted to step outside. I did, kind of. I knew that what I had just dropped into was so big that I literally needed someone to hold me while I howled. But I didn’t know him. Was it a safe place for that kind of major emotional release that I never even knew I was needing? Would people decide I was the “unstable” one in the group? What would happen?
Meanwhile, my partner packed up his “integration” gear and made his way off of the premises. We never switched roles. I held myself and convulsed, stemming a river of tears, alone, for the second half of the exercise. His departure did not surprise me. I had a strong gut feeling (aided, of course, by the non-verbal indicators of glassy eyes and a strange, distant, careful manner) that my partner truly was integrating some kind of heavy psychedelic experience of the day and/or night before, and that my *shit* was probably just too much for him to witness in that moment. I could respect that, I supposed.
And yet, I left feeling like I’m still carrying this bottomless well of wild, compartmentalized grief inside of me. If the workshop was not the appropriate place for opening it up and understanding it, well it would go on my list of “things I need to attend to at some point”.
Pause. I want to make it clear at this point that my statement (which I surprised even myself by making) that I was never allowed to be “a full person” was not directed at any one person in particular, any parent or caregiver, school, job, friend or lover. It was a wild thing to say, precisely because it came from the inner wild of what is absolutely true in my experience, and possibly also in the experiences of many others designated as ‘female’. There is more to say here, but I want to bend this tract of writing at this point more in the direction of the universal.
There are damn good reasons to feel enraged, and to feel grief and despair as a citizen of this country and as a sentient, female animal packing a prefrontal cortex on this planet. It’s just that these particular ‘transpersonal’ feelings (if you will) can feel so uncontained, so wild, and so endless, that many of us find ways to tuck them away, compartmentalize them, repress, deny or disown them. This is especially the case if we were socialized to be “nice” and “pleasing” at all times and at all costs. Oftentimes this is done through some form of socially acceptable, addictive, numbing or comatic behavior. Surveys seems to indicate that both identified men and women are uncomfortable with “female anger”. An angry woman is hysterical, crazy, or a bitch, right?
Perhaps feminine rage and despair deserve to be honored, and can be transmuted into a practice. Lord knows they can push people into action. Political action, artistic action, or radical truth-speaking action in any one of the myriad forms it can take.
I think of Sylvia Plath’s poems. Her rage sometimes leaks like a not-so-secret, defiant tear of blood out of the masterfully crafted containment of a poem, sitting neatly on the page, naked and absolutely true. I also think of Courtney Love’s anthems, described by Barbra Walters as “music with teeth”. Say what you will about Courtney. She certainly embodied feminine rage. I also think of so many of the badass feminist activists of all the waves of this country’s history.
I hope to embolden readers to honor not only their day-by-day, moment-by-moment emotional lives, but to also honor any aspect of your “feeling” life that taps into something that feels bigger than you, historical, ancestral or transpersonal, and to transmute it into productive, desperately needed action, or art. Feminine rage feels like a place where all has been violated and stripped, even the most sacred and secret places. But consider the Pablo Neruda line, “They can cut all the flowers, but they can’t stop the Spring.”
Any one of the fierce feminine deities of the world’s traditions could be a guiding image for this practice. Having been brought up Catholic, and having studied the Black Madonna to some degree, I think of Her energy as being the right kind of energy to transmute anything that feels scary, hidden or “dark” into something sacred, useful and loved. In a recent interview, comparative religions scholar Meggan Watterson stated that when she visited a Black Madonna shrine in France, all of the women passed the “regular” Virgin Mary statue and bee lined straight to the Black Madonna, sometimes falling to their knees, sometimes reaching for Her feet, to anoint them with tears. When she asked why, one of the women shared, “She has been through the fires. She knows our pain.”
The right practice may not look the same for everyone. Whatever emotions or feelings you typically compartmentalize could contain a blend of rage and anger: Valid anger about some chronic, ongoing, current situation as well as some rage about childhood abuse or rage about systemic, historical injustice as you’ve experienced or witnessed it. The right practice for facing and managing these emotions does not come in a one-size-fits-all formula. The only direction I do want to offer, however, is this: Anger about a current situation can feel hot and strong in the moment, and it is often related to the ego. It feels like getting “ticked off”. I don’t want to demonize the ego. It helps you know whose mouth to put food into. What I would encourage for moments of being righteously ticked off are practices like emotional vipassana, or a practice called ‘self-emptying love’ from the Gnostic gospels — Any practice that allows you to witness and validate yourself, to love yourself enough to be present with yourself in this difficult emotional state. And once the reaction has been witnessed sufficiently, the response to the situation that pissed you off can be chosen. And I would emphasize that these practices are like going to the gym. You don’t just lift weights one day and then you’re jacked for life. You are going to get righteously ticked off again. And again, and again.
When it comes to rage, on the other hand, you may want to make a special trip for this one. Buy a whole bunch of brand new dishware, drive out into the desert and smash it all. Find some yawning chasm in the earth and scream into it until you lose your voice. Give it a name. Give it a guiding image. Again, the world’s traditions offer many options. Imagine this holy image when it flares up in day-to-day life. Imagine this holy image transmuting that uncontained fire of rage into holy action, in whatever form it takes. Holy action is the wild freedom of art-making, the wild freedom of speaking truth from the heart. Holy action, when channeled into activism, takes stock of the probable outcome of the action, and makes that the focus, even more than the action itself. Although, some activist actions, done from the wild purity of an enraged and loving heart, become their own feral acts of beauty. The night of the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., I saw another young woman, topless, at the top of a monument which had been covered in the rainbow-colored signs of protestors from the largest protest in this nation’s history, which had taken place that day. Painted across her bare chest was the word, ‘PEACE,’ and she shouted at cars that flew past her where she stood in the middle of the road, “Kindness! KINDNESS!!” with both hands up in peace signs. When the feminine (in each of us) has been repressed, suppressed, devalued, scorned, disbelieved and ridiculed for millennia, there is something wild and beautiful about a young woman uttering with such simplicity the word, the voice, the side of all of us that hasn’t been tried yet.