entry 3 - Loving Anger
This entry contains swear words, particularly meandering trains of thought, and I've placed a track here for you to listen while you read. The music contains overtone singing, chanting of the text quoted from the Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, and fragments of the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,“ by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, twisted into minor modes and reverb-heavy piano improvisations. It seems polite to warn you.
It's clear when someone loves you. Right?
There I go, defaulting to the word “you“ when I really mean that it's clear to me when someone loves me. That's just me, though. I mean, it's very probable that other people feel a similar way, but I don't know that for sure – I shouldn't assume that just because something feels “natural“ to me, it feels that way for other creatures.
And yet, here's another generalization I want to make:
As a human, it's difficult not to think in opposites.
In support of my very probably untrue generalization¹, entire spiritual and philosophical traditions like Buddhism and Taoism are centered on shedding the concept of duality from one's thinking. Maybe this demonstrates that a lot of other humans also find it difficult not to think in opposites. Taoism especially – based on my personal and likely inadequate understanding of the Tao Te Ching – focuses on accepting that opposites need each other in order for either concept to exist. I got this shit memorized, so let's just examine it right here.
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
From Verse 2 (translated by William Scott Wilson):
Everybody understands the beautiful to be beautiful,
but this only creates the concept of ugly.
Everybody understands the good to be good,
but this only creates the concept of bad.
I remember walking around in high school with a clear understanding of what was beautiful and good before encountering meditative practices and this book, and ever since I've been destabilizing my definitions of all opposite concepts. Even though this translation says "everybody understands," I don't think that means everybody agrees, I think it points to how we all have our own strong ideas about what's beautiful, ugly, good, and bad.
And when someone disagrees with my definition, what do I do with that information? I tend to move in a dangerous direction with this decoupling of opposites from one another; I start using familiar words in unfamiliar ways, and people don't understand what the fuck I'm talking about. But that previous sentence can't be true, because I just generalized about “people,“ and I've got memories of conversations where friends react with delight to my particular use of the words beautiful and ugly. But how much can I trust my memory? Let's read some more Lao Tzu.
There can be no existence without nonexistence.
No difficult without easy.
No long without short.
No high without low,
and without the sound of musical instruments and human voices,
where would their harmony – and cacophony – be?
Seems like pretty basic shit², right? Difficult compared to what? Short compared to what? High compared to what? Cacophonous compared to what? More:
Before and after depend on which one follows first.
Therefore, the sage resides in non-fabrication,
and conducts herself³ according to wordless teachings.
All objects in the world come into existence,
but she does not judge them.
They are born, but she does not posses them.
The sage acts, but relies on nothing.
She accomplishes, and moves on.
By moving on, she never has to leave.
Do you think it's illegal to put this translation of this roughly 2,500 year old Chinese text here on my blog? Does this classify as fair use, if I want you to be able to read this passage here so you can be more engaged in my analysis? If it is illegal – which of course is just a temporary state of fairs, based only on our society's current moral sensibilities – what does that illegality say, philosophically, about how we think information should be disseminated? There can be no cost without freedom.
“All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.“ -from the 4th page of the book.
That pisses me off! But even as I react to what I personally perceive as the injustice of our copyright laws (I know, cry more), I feel myself balancing out the anger with counter arguments:
“Shouldn't the translator be fairly compensated for his work?“
“Sure, but I paid for this book!“
“No you didn't, your partner had it on her shelf when you moved in together, that's how you discovered this shit in the first place, you freeloader.“
“Ok, but she paid for it, and gave me permission to read it and use it!“
“But the permission is not hers to give. That translation belongs to Shambhala Publications, Inc. You need their permission. It says so right there on that page which you also illegally quoted above.“
“So the Tao Te Ching fucking belongs to a publishing company? That's a load of shit! Ancient wisdom, hell, modern wisdom doesn't belong to anybody, it's for all of us to learn and absorb and use however we fucking want.“
“OK, cool it with the language there, bro, you're getting emotional.“
“AND THAT'S A BAD THING? To be emotional? We are not robots, you maniac!“
“Listen: you want to survive, right? You want to provide for your family? You need money to do that. If you work with the systems of the world, they will compensate you for whatever work you want to do. William Scott Wilson spent a lot of time researching and writing this translation. If you just distribute those words willy nilly across the internet, you're making something freely available that could be producing currency for him and his family. You wanna take that away from someone else? Grow up.“
“Fuck. OK, you wanna play this game? Let's fucking GO! Yes, Wilson spent valuable time working on this really lovely product. No, I don't want to take away resources from Wilson or his family. But think about what you're really saying. You seem to be implying that a person might read this blog – so that's already a leap of faith – and then copy and paste this translation of verse 2 of the Tao Te Ching and sell it under their name for their own profit. That's so fucking unlikely. What if I was speaking on the radio or TV and recited this verse from memory in an interview? I'm tired of arguing with you, this is a waste of time. If the publishers come for me, they come, which they won't, so shut up.“
And now we've come full circle (or maybe in an incomprehensible squiggle) to last week's entry: what the hell should I do with this anger? This unfocused rage? Which voice above seems more reasonable or convincing to you? They both seem reasonable to me, because.... they are me. I don't think I can claim that conversations literally happen like that in my head (reality is more chaotic, one thought on top of the other), but real arguments truly do happen up there, they can be very strange and upsetting, and I do believe this mental phenomenon is something that has gradually encouraged me to move and make decisions slowly, in order to achieve consensus amongst all of my inner personalities.
I could tell if someone loves me, right?
Sometimes anger gets dealt with in a way that makes it seem like everything being said in an angry tone of voice is invalid. We just discard the words contained in angry outbursts as irrelevant to the argument. “Why don't we talk once you've calmed down?“ Oooggghh I shudder at the thought of someone saying that to me while I'm in the embrace of rage. This is gonna be one of those moments where I give you zero examples of a generalization, but you believe me anyway: we invalidate people's anger. I'm the cool, calm, collect one. You lost your shit. You lose.
I totally think this is how powerful philosophies have structured the world, because it's a perfect circle:
I create a situation that gives me more resources ($$$) than you.
You get upset that the system isn't treating us equally.
I remain calm, because I have lots of resources to keep me calm.
You get more upset because you have less access to health care, so you might actually fucking die because of this imbalance of resources.
I remain calm, and convince more powerful people to remain calm by giving them resources.
You lose your shit and break a window.
I calmly have you arrested, because I make the laws.
MLK Jr. cracked the code on this, at least for a little while. He said, “I'm gonna make you lose your shit.“ (Martin Luther King Jr. did not actually say this, as far as I know, but it's very fun to write down.) One observation that continually blows my mind about non-violent protest is that it relies on violence to create change. Put yourself in a public situation where the surrounding community or people in power don't want you to be, but everybody can see you. Keep calm and don't fight back as the authorities unleash violence on you. When other people see this, our invalidation of anger kicks in and we clearly see the injustice of powerful people attacking people who are just putting themselves somewhere public where they should be free to not get beaten up. Pretty brilliant tactic: use the state's propensity for violence against it by harnessing people's cultural distaste for violence.
Right now, anyways, January 2021, I see anger as a weakness. A crack in what should be my calm armor. I should always logically determine how to behave. Where the fuck did I get that idea? Is that consistent with my beliefs, my syllogisms?
All of my emotions come from me,
I am natural and of nature,
all of my emotions are natural.
Does anyone believe all of our emotions are natural? Do I? What does it even mean to be “of nature?“ All objects come into the world, but she does not judge them. They are born, but she does not possess them. I do not possess them. Shambhala Publishing Inc. does not possess them (dang, now I really hope they read this). The sage doesn't judge all the objects, claiming that this person is useful, and that one isn't, and this emotion is a weakness, and that one is a strength (ahhh, more beautiful opposites).
This analysis further points to my own suppression of Anger. I had to focus and work hard to write down angry words on the page in an argument with myself. I prefer the logical voice, because it is more familiar to me. Does that make it better? Better for who? I judge my own anger quite strongly, so much so that it is difficult for me to become angry even at the deaths of my fellow human beings across the planet. My rage is only accessed in brief moments of frustration at states of being that I cannot immediately change. Take the argument over copyright law. The law, as it is, exists. I can't argue it out of existence in a blog post. Yet I want to express my frustration and disagreement with this law that I feel is inadequate. Yes, it protects the resource ($$$) generation of a publishing company, its employees, and associated authors/translators. But, for me, it confines the spiritual generation of people everywhere.
I would know if you had love for me, right? Enough. It's time to talk about Star Wars.
Just one of the many, many, many things I love about the mythology of this galaxy far, far away is the particular trajectory of Anakin Skywalker's transformation. It unfolds beautifully (that just feels like the right word to use!), unstoppably, logically. A slave leaves home, free, but never really leaves his mother behind. She tells him not to look back, and although he keeps the physical part of that bargain, he remains “attached.“
Anger is a result of attachment. I am attached to the idea of being successful in a game; when I am not successful, I lose sight of the reality I want, and if I am unwilling to let go of my attachment that particular day, Anger wells up, saying, “We'll take it from here, silly Logic. Somebody's gotta win this game!“ **tackles close friend**
The Jedi, in the end, really do fail Anakin. They fail to convince him that discarding his attachments is a good idea. It is, admittedly, a hard case to make. Will discarding your attachments to the people you love and the physical objects and sensations you desire make you more happy? What if you also let go of your attachment to happiness and sadness as a dualistic reality? Happy isn't quite the right word, anymore. Peaceful, perhaps. One with the flow. The Way. The Force.
But what has peace ever done for anyone? The U.S.A.'s current vice president Mike Pence said something after the brief occupation of the capitol building last week: “Violence never wins. Freedom wins.“ Huh? For me, this rings pretty hollow. So we're dropping bombs on people in Syria in order to teach them that violence never wins? Police officers shoot unarmed civilians of color to remind us that violence never wins?⁴ There can be no violence without non-violence.
The Jedi fight all the friggin' time! They very clearly pick a side, The Republic, and fight whoever they need to in order to keep senators and people “safe.“ I'm currently working my way through the animated TV series Clone Wars, and there are lots of really engaging plots that involve characters – like Queen Satine of Mandalore – critiquing the Jedi's own hypocrisy. She demands the republic stay out of her planet's affairs, she is confident in her diplomatic ability to figure out divisions: “Even extremists can be reasoned with.“ For me, that's gold. Can you imagine Dick Cheney saying that? What a wonderful world this could....
The Jedi kill to protect life. Hmm. But how else can we do it? If I want to preserve a life, and another life wants to end that life, what other choice do I have than to destroy the life that is threatening other life? It's a trap!⁵
Anakin doesn't shy away from this paradox, he embraces it. His deep attachments to his mother and to Padmé cause him to elevate the importance of their lives over the lives of others. Boom. Darkside. “Then they should be made to agree.“ “And who's going to make them? You?“ *sly smile* “I don't know, but someone!“
When you're willing to kill to “protect,“ you probably don't say things like “violence never wins.“
So who's right? Ha! Did you really think I was going to answer that? There's more unpacking to do, oh tortured reader. Inherent in ‘violence never wins‘ is a definition of winning. What does it mean to win when we're not playing a game, but trying to live with each other on this increasingly cramped planet? Is living victory? Is death loss? Again, who is death bad for? What about suffering?
Obi-Wan slices off Anakin's legs and one arm, and leaves him to fucking BURN on a slope of molten lava. He catches fire, and Obi-Wan screams at him one last time before he turns his back and walks away. Is that non-violence? What about a mercy killing? Is it possible that Obi-Wan enjoyed his hard-earned victory over his supremely confident padawan? That Obi-Wan was trapped in the embrace of rage as he realized he wanted everything in that instant to change, but was powerless to change anything at all? In that moment, are we not sympathetic to Obi-Wan for deriving a little bit of pleasure out of Anakin's suffering?
Fast forward to Episode 4, and remember Obi-Wan's final lightsaber duel against Anakin, now wrapped in a permanent black suit of rage and destruction. Obi-Wan simply turns off his lightsaber and allows himself to be killed. Although his body vanishes, and he later returns to counsel Luke from within the Force, Obi-Wan – as we knew him in this world – is gone. Who won that fight? Do you have to survive in flesh and blood in order to win?
I can make whatever rules I want for my individual game of life. I could train myself – like Thich Nhat Hanh⁶ and his fellow monks trained themselves – to accept death calmly, even while burning alive. If someone else kills me, but I accept the death impassively, do we both win? Is it any sort of victory to leave this consciousness as we know it? Is it even worth wondering about what leaving consciousness is like, since it is ultimately unknowable? I can't accurately compare death to life – who among the living truly knows who Death is?
When Obi-Wan comes back to Luke to offer him guidance, he doesn't speak about his own death, about why he did it (so I can come back as a blue ghost, isn't this shit sick?), or whether or not it was a positive or negative thing. He talks about life, about Luke's life and the lives of his friends. He talks about how to preserve those lives. This week, I aim to think about preserving life – when do I actually behave in a way that preserves life around me, and when do I behave in a way that is careless with the life around me?
Am I really paying attention to the creatures that love me? And if I'm not paying attention – if I'm not heeding Padmé's words that she doesn't want me to do this – if I'm ignoring their love, how will I be able to use my anger in a loving way? Is it appropriate to love anger? I feel I need to call a truce between myself, Anger, and the world. We need to figure some shit out. The time to sort this out is but one example of my many privileges; how desperately fortunate to be able to feel safe and calm enough to figure out how to use Anger in a way that suits me. And remember that a privilege in this context is in comparison to every other human on that planet. In the same way that a generalization can't truthfully apply to every other human, examples of my privileged behavior are obviously clear when compared to every other human. Clean, temperature controlled, running water whenever I want it! A government that's not directly trying to kill me! Family and friends who have money to give me! Do I feel guilty or angry about this? Neither, to be honest. It simply is. There can be no privilege without disadvantage.
Can I help eliminate that duality? Is it possible to live in a world, even in a small community, where every creature has equal privileges? I'd like to say to tune in next week to find out, but that would be pretty misleading. I offer no such certainty or clarity. Check in an ancient text.
1: If truth is consistently true, then generalizations are never true. “Generally speaking“ means “what I'm about to say applies to most, but probably not all of the world.“ So my phrase “untrue generalization“ is an oxymoron, repeating itself. But it still seems necessary for me, because I think people are really good at ignoring the “generally speaking“ preface if they really agree with what is said; if it really just FEELS true. And that's another generalization! The point is, I'm only truly certain that the shit I think applies to me, not to other people. I'm consistently in my own mind, so I know my own consistent truths, and no one else's. (back)
2: Does it make it easier or harder to engage with ancient wisdom if I swear while you read? I'm honestly curious. (back)
3: As I've memorized the words of this book, I've changed all of the male pronouns to female ones. I have specific philosophical reasons for that: I believe that the repetitive association between the word “sage“ and he/him/himself would inadvertently result in thinking of sages as generally male. I would picture a sage, and I would picture a male figure, and associate that imagined sage with other male figures in my life, including myself, and not associate women with sageliness, and I think that's a problem because I believe all humans have the innate possibility to be a sage, one who exerts effortless effort on the world, one who is in harmony with themselves and others, who is equally capable of leading as of following, who is both powerful and gentle as the day requires.
I want to behave in a way consistent with my belief that all humans are equally valuable. Is that really the best way to say that? What does equally mean here? As usual, I need to get more specific in order to behave more consistently with this belief. How ‘bout: All humans have equal potential to be equally valuable. That covers the bases a little more thoroughly, allowing for a human's present day shittiness (do you have a favorite way you like to spell that word? Let me know in the comments :)) to be counteracted by the potential that they could change and become valuable in a different way. “Do people actually change?“ I hear you ask. “Not easily,“ I reply. (back)
4: No, I'm not going to link examples. Google "police shoot unarmed civilians" and you'll find lots of terribly real stuff to sift through. (back)
5: Negative 6 billion points if you don't get this reference. I'm sorry, that's just how this game works. (back)
6: I promise to write a ton more about Thich Nhat Hanh in the future; the words in his books have deeply altered my consciousness. The title of this entry is a phrase from one of his books. There are some references here to monks in Vietnam who burned themselves alive as a political statement, attempting to focus more global attention on the suffering in the Vietnam War. I don't know very much about these events, so I'm not digging into them yet. No promises about next week. Oh yeah, did you read that scholarly paper about bloodlust? Me neither. (back)