‘An Eskimo custom offers an angry person release by walking the emotion out of his or her system in a straight line across the landscape, the point at which the anger is conquered is marked with a stick, bearing witness to the strength or length of the rage.’
(LUCY LIPPARD, OVERLAY, quoted in Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit (pp.6-8)).
I think mindful walking enables us to release our afflictive emotions like anger, as we take each step. In formal mindful awareness practices involving walking, you usually take 10-12 steps, stop and then retrace your steps, repeating this for a certain length of time.
The beauty of this wonderful quote above, that caught my eye, is that I think longer walks also have this capacity.
What afflictive emotion could you walk out of your system?
In J. K Rowling’s first book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone orphan Harry looks into the Mirror of Erised and sees his parents. It is a mirror that shows the deepest and most desperate desire of his heart (Erised = Desire). It is a mirror, that his headmaster, Dumbledore tells him, shows ‘neither knowledge or truth.’ In fact many have wasted their whole life sitting in front of that mirror.
Paul uses the image of a mirror in the first book to the Corinthians, and James the brother of Jesus also uses the idea of a mirror – but this is the mirror of truth, the living book of Scripture.
‘But the man who looks intently into the [mirror of the] perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does.’ (James 1:25)
The question is which mirror are we continually looking in? Are we looking in the narcissist’s mirror, where there is no room for anyone else to be reflected? A mirror that dooms us to disappointment as our appearance ages. Are we looking in the glittery mirror of our culture of consumerism, which tells us all the products we see in it will make us happy and fill our inner emptiness (until at least the new model comes out)? Are we looking in the mirror of distortion, that is suspicious, paranoid and misinterprets everything anybody says to us? Or are we looking in the mirror of truth that shows us the living book of Scripture that gives freedom? And we are doing this continuously as James urges?
James talks about this metaphor in the context of addressing anger. Anger is one of the afflictive thoughts identified by the Desert Fathers and Mothers as most destructive of community. We often feel guilt and shame for the anger that grips us and that we indulge. Paul tells us something helpful in Ephesians 4:26, he says ‘In your anger do not sin.’ The feeling of anger is itself not a sin, but what we do with it often is.
With that in mind what does James want to tell us? The first thing he tells us is that ‘Everyone’ is to be ‘slow to become angry.’ (James 1:19). The word ‘everyone’ is used a lot to address important issues in the Bible – and I talk to many Christians who want to qualify this and say ‘everyone…but me.’ They are somehow the exception to the rule, the person who doesn’t have to tithe, live in community, be chaste in their sexual practice and so on.
Anger is one of those issues where many Christians wish to qualify that direct biblical teaching. Why does James say that we must be slow to become angry? Because we are usually very quick to become angry. On my smartphone I have an icon for a game called ‘Angry Birds’ – it is a shortcut that goes straight to the game. On many of our chests we have an ‘angry man’ or ‘angry woman’ icon – which is easily pressed and provides a short-cut straight to the land of angry.
If we are to be slow to become angry we must learn to slow down the chain of thoughts that make up the shortcut in our psyche. The Desert Father and Mothers called these chains of thought logismoi. I’ll say more about that in part 2.
But the question is are we going to deal with our anger or not? Suppressing it is not the answer, nor is indulging it. There is another way.
Many access anger too quickly, and others try to suppress or avoid the feeling altogether. For some it has become an ‘Angry Bird’ icon in their minds which is too easily pressed and accessed. They need to slow down the process of thoughts and feelings that make up that hot button. Others need to face their anger and not hide from it.
Jesus recognizes that anger might stream inside us but says that it can be transformed and that we shouldn’t direct it on to others(Matthew 5:21). If we are slapped round the face our automatic response is to get angry. By telling us to turn the other cheek Jesus is challenging our automatic response(Matthew 5:39). In others words we need to be mindful of our anger.
Jesus reveals himself through his words to be the first neuroscientist (not surprisingly). In their book How God Changes Your Brain, leading neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman explain how anger is humanity’s greatest enemy. When we get angry the rational, social and compassionate parts of our brain close down…meaning no communication is possible.
John Cassian a fourth century monk says anger is a ‘deadly poison…that must be totally uprooted.’ Some researchers believe that anger is a coronary-prone behaviour that damages our bodies. But it’s very useful isn’t it for getting our own way…
I was very encouraged last night as I led a seminar at church on the latest neuroscientific evidence for how God changes our brain for the better through contemplative/mindful practices. We had over 30 people, with folk from churches, neighbours and friends. The discussion was really helpful, especially as people shared their insights about anger.