Owl and the Bull

Letters For My Sons

volcanic rage eruption in a peaceful valley

The Emergence of Rage as Growth Indicator and Cultural Taboo


I sensed the tension rising.

Words between us were becoming crisp.  Sharp tones began to undercut the replies, and body language was shifting to defensive.

Neither of us wanted this conversation, but my wife and I knew it was inevitable.  Sitting in bed before breakfast, with the kids on our laps, it was possibly the worst timing for a discussion like this.  But the charges had been thrown, and we were now committed to seeing it through.

As quiet conversation, then sharp discussion, then abrasive argument persisted, I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling.  In the midst of the rising voices, something didn’t sit right. I had the distinct sensation that I been wronged. 

Exposure to Blunt Instruments

My historical reaction to this feeling had always been to ignore it and let myself be bludgeoned, taking one for the team, so to speak.  As everyone in a relationship knows, sometimes you just gotta hang up the gloves and let the other person have the last word.

But for me this habitual reaction was more than just compromising for our relationship’s sake.  I was actually unable to stand up for myself.

This reaction to argument came from my sordid childhood history of being wronged. I suffered at the hands of authoritarian parents, teachers and bullies.  They would ignore my supposedly childish reasons and reasonableness, refuse to empathise, shut down any right of reply, and belittle and threaten me afterwards when I was upset.  Emotional reactivity was seen as a threat, a threat no one was prepared to approach compassionately.

Authentic emotional response became scary, because of the threatening reactions of those closest to me.  Emotion always led to hurt.  Even the joyful exuberance of a child was controlled and shamed because it was too loud or enthusiastic. 

In response I had become a shadow of a person, restricting myself, holding my body tight and tense, keeping the emotions locked down.  I had no vocabulary for feeling, and my daily adult experience was grey and cold, a life lived in monochrome.

After this childhood of emotional shutdown, my automatic response to anger, sadness and rage in argument was to cut emotions off before they started. I started to use extreme rationality to wage siege warfare on my opponents defences, battering them down with cold logic. I copied the tactics of my earlier bullies, taunting adversaries for their over-emotiveness. 

This time was different.  

The Cultural Context of Anger

I had for years involved myself in self work, unlocking the vaults of my emotions.  Many of the people I talked to and the books I’d read talked about the subversion of anger and rage to something positive.  The men’s groups I’d attended discussed these emotions as things to be watched as they came up. The advocated overlord-style control lest they spill beyond the floodgates and cause permanent damage to one’s relationships. 

The common sentiment seemed to be one of lip service, that anger “was positive”, rage was not, and while it was important to feel the feelings, it was equally important to do so “in a safe place” so as not to hurt anyone.  In other words, people talked about the positivity of angry emotion, but when it came to the experience of truly feeling it there was precious little information about it. If one did experience it, it was best to find a small soundproof room and scream into a soft cushion (buy my Angry Unicorn Scream Pillow NOW on Amazon).

Anger is the modern cultural emotional taboo.  To show anger is to supposedly expose oneself as feeling too much, to be out of control, to actually care about something beyond what is culturally appropriate. 

Think about the last time you saw a public expression of anger.  Perhaps it was a couple you know at a dinner party.  A mid-manager in the office.  A drunk on the street.  What is your reaction?

We turn our heads.  We walk away.  We feel embarrassed.  

Why are we embarrassed?  

Is it the intensity of feeling that is hard to bear?  Seeing strong emotion publicly is difficult for modern western people.  Even witnessing pure joy, love or affection can be uncomfortable for many. We seem to like our emotional responses trimmed to a comfortable height. We want our sunflower fields short enough to see over.

Is it the razor sharpness of attitude, the thrusting, cutting, slicing nature of the angry sword that upsets us so?  We feel aghast at the blatancy of attack, the one-sidedness of the initial flurry. We see the unprepared opponent exposed to injury, neck bared, chest open and armourless.  

Do we feel vulnerable in ourselves when we witness anger, like an unprotected village seeing Mongols ride the adjoining plains? We empathise with the plight of the victim.

Or is it disdain and contempt mixed with pity, that a person cannot keep their emotions imprisoned like we can, locked in the basement until the floodwaters come…?

As I looked within and assessed the growing argument, the feeling of being wronged grew.  I felt increasingly uncomfortable with my silence on the subject. But without my conscious knowledge, decades of self work had left a jail cell unlocked.

One of the inmates opened its door.

Eruption

I felt a flame spurt to life within me.  

This is not a metaphor.  I mean, I was not literally on fire.  But what I felt was something catch into flame with a suddenness that momentarily confused me.  My belly roared to life with a power and energy I had not felt before, least not as an adult.  There was an sudden inferno within me, yet to my surprise this energy contained by my body was under my complete control.

The vibration of an power so pure as to leave me no doubt of its name rose along the centre of my body.  I was sitting on the bed and I felt my belly and my chest grow red, and then white hot.  Pure rage swelled my blood vessels and pulsed smoothly and forcefully through my veins.  I regarded these powerful impulses as though detached from my body, admiring their power, marvelling at a feeling I did not know I had the power to experience. 

I felt like a furnace, a blacksmith’s forge, hot as a sun, but contained.  I was charged with a nuclear reaction that served to strengthen not only the resolve to right my wrong, but also the walls of my bodily container.  I sensed that the ability to hold this fire within me would build my ability to hold yet more heat and power, as if the furnace was melting down the slag and impurities to build the internal walls thicker and more impregnable. 

I watched this feeling as I listened to the last of my wife’s words.

I fixed her with my burning eyes.  I calmly spoke to her, the heat of fire creeping ever so slightly into my voice.  Incredible rage cauterised every insufficient and redundant word out of me.  What was left was a communication of such pure and white-hot efficiency that it could not be argued.  The level of self-control I felt was unending, like a thousand year old stone fortress hulked upon an age-old hill, absorbing the elements and standing strong.  Nothing could break my will both to serenity and to observing the rage within it, like a hurricane behind a wall of glass.  

Her eyes blinked with acknowledgement as I ended my piece.

My body raging with heat, trembling with power and incredible energy, I stood and walked calmly out of the room.  Once out, I leaned on the wall, exhilarated, surprised and astonished at the power I was feeling.  I was not adrenalised in the least.  Instead, I was calm, but radiating an intensity I had never experienced. 

It was rage.  I knew it beyond any doubt, but what surprised me was my level of control.  The emotion was mine to hold and direct, like a million-candlepower spotlight in my hands.  I hadn’t burnt my wife, nor scared, humiliated or intimidated her.  Instead I had stood my ground and spoken from a place of such emotional authenticity that it was beyond refutation.

I did not feel victorious.  I was not gloating over a won argument.  Instead I smiled to myself at the beautiful feeling of feeling.  Something very important had just occurred, a huge step of growth, a levelling-up, a peak experience.  

I felt stripped clean, as if every last dead branch and rotting leaf had been consumed by a raging bushfire.

And left behind was a landscape; pure, bright and seeded for growth.

Hey! I’m a Spiritual Guy

Spirituality has a bad name.

It recalls dirty hippies chanting in a forest. Yuppie city-dwellers reclining in a sweat lodge using affirmations to attract money. People talking about their totem animal, a dream they had, or a pantheon of norse gods and Crowleyan angels.

It’s time to reclaim.

I consider myself first and foremost a spiritual animal. I’ve clothed myself in the tresses of material things, my career, my role as a father and my hobbies. But beyond all that, at the fundamental level, I build upon an internal spiritual base.

But what is spirituality?

Spirituality is the quest for answers to life’s problems, answered in a way that is deeply and fully understood by the entire self.

Mentality Vs Embodiment

Western culture swims in the seas of mentality. We place great emphasis on the ability to think well. Rote memory, rationality and logic are paramount, and they are very important.

When we look to understand, we often do mentally. But this is not the same as whole-body understanding. It’s the difference between telling yourself to stay calm in an anxious situation, and simply staying calm. Its the gap between trying to ignore someone whose behaviour is annoying you, and being non-reactive. One is a call to logic and reason, and the other an integration of that knowledge into the body that needs no reminders to activate.

What we ignore as a culture is the value of embodiment, the state of having a body, and the knowledge that bodies bring. The primary value of having a body is the immediate and individual nature of body knowledge.

Body knowledge happens only to us. It is absolutely personal. There is no way to describe accurately to another person the exact nature of our experience. This is the primary difference between mental knowledge and body knowledge.

Mental knowledge uses language so we can discuss and agree upon abstractions. We can discuss “communism” and approach a shared vision through discussion. Body knowledge does no such thing. It is personal and unique to such a degree that “true” discussion is impossible.

We can agree that the statement “my knee hurts” is communicable of a certain experience. “Sharp pain on the inside of my knee” makes it even clearer. But the complete experience is personal and non-communicable due to my body (including the brain and all the organs) inhabiting a different space from yours. Not only that, but the nervous, synaptic connections that tell my brain of events in my body are wired differently from yours. Even if my body were yours, your brain would interpret the inputs differently.

A Body’s Dialog with the Universe

We all have different bodies, and thus, different world views. Our histories, the nature and nurture of our upbringing, the impact of surrounding cultures, and the key imprinting moments of our childhood are all profoundly different. All these contribute to fundamental differences in our personal processes, from our baseline rationality to emotional patterns and our physicality.

We know this intuitively. Conversation with a liberal politician, a muslim shop owner, a pot-smoking hippie, and a Harley-riding bikie gang member are all going to be substantially different, and my attempts to convince them of my point of view are going to have marked variations in success.

Here’s an exercise. Thinking of these human types, imagine their bodies. Imagine how they feel in their bodies. Imagine the emphasis certain parts of their bodies place upon their abilities to think, to emote, to physically feel, to exist in space. For example, the pot-smokers lungs would have an impact on their posture and therefore the way they hold themselves. The bikie might have a very muscular upper body that impacts their felt experience.

The politician would stand and talk very differently to the bikie, who is different from the shop owner. Their embodied experiences are diverse. Now you might imagine people from even more diverse backgrounds. And these imaginings really only account for external behaviours because of the impact our own consciousness and its habits has upon this exercise. Imagine how different the embodied experience would be! There is really no way to truly understand the totality of someone else’s experience.

Cubes and Funnels

Religion has traditionally taken the role of curating the body’s interaction with the universe. At some point, someone says “How I’m living my life is better than how you’re living yours.” What they are really saying is “You cannot be trusted to operate your own body correctly in this cultural milieu. Therefore I will dictate some rules that limit your universe-interactions to a boundary comfortable for your fellow Earth-travellers.” They then develop a code for living which becomes a religion, a bureaucracy for interacting with the universe.

I define religion as the attempt to answer life’s problems as a bureaucratic experience. Many religions are literally spirituality via committee. This stems from the historical belief that we all share a common understanding and experience of the world. All of our culture, our political landscape, our religions and our education originate from this erroneous belief.

This may have been true in tribal days. As a member of a small 100 person tribe, most people would have had a very similar upbringing and life experience. Today there is such a variety of child-raising and experiences that there is very little common ground, even between people of the same culture or ethnicity.

A committee cannot possibly understand your path in the world. It cannot be inside your head, feeling what you feel, knowing what you know. It can only assess your external behaviour, which, though we have reams of research and Freuds and Jungs to explain it, is still a shadow thrown on the wall by your internal reality. A committee’s answers to the questions of life can only partially sate spiritual thirst, simply because they are not you.

Religion can be seen as a cube, a container. All the answers and rules for living are contained within a code, whether it is in a book, or defined by the preacher, iman or guru. There is nothing without that has value, and despite the ostensible views of the church that (chaplaincy-proscribed) communication with God can enter the system, in reality nothing changes the contents of the container. Proponents of religion will argue that their relationship with their God is personal, and there is no doubt it is. However, this relationship in consciousness could be compared to playing a board game, where the board and rules are defined.

Containerised limitations have been broadly positive for humans in the past. At this point though, as our culture suffers from the deepest Meaning Crisis yet seen, people sense the yawning chasm of the nihilist abyss. The containers and meaning-generators of past religions and modern Western culture cannot fill the hole fast enough with enough outdated moralities, new technology, new media, and new outrages to hide the hungry maw. This black hole is endlessly hungry for anything non-personal, for personal experience is the only thing The Maw cannot stomach.

Spirituality on the other hand can be imagined as a funnel. The individual is in direct connection with their body, which is funnelling information at all times from the universe to consciousness. The answers one seeks are found in this diaphanous connection, the interpretations a body can make with this information. A body can use only the consciousness at its disposal, therefore a body will only find the answers its consciousness is able to observe, decode and integrate. Hence the saying “you only get what you can handle”.

The benefit of the funnel over the box is that the amount and variety of incoming information is infinitely bigger. Comparing this to the board game metaphor is to say spirituality is the table the games can rest upon. More games can be chosen according to the person, the time and the place (in the broadest possible terms), and there is even the potential to leave the table altogether (or upset it, if that’s your cup of tea).

Applied Spirituality 101

To an experienced body this universal information can be decoded in infinite ways. In my personal experience I’ve decoded inputs via words in (reading), words out (decoding consciousness via writing, speaking, song and conversation), physical movement (dance, exercise, practice, paratheatre, trance-like writhing, complete surrender to non-mental bodily control, conscious movement), art (drawing, painting, sculpture, pottery etc), metaphor, music, landscape interpretation, relationship interpretation, personal narrative overlays, meditation, mindfulness, and more.

Answers are always there, ready to find. Our job is to remain flexible in our approach, to be ready to try new things or reuse old ways of knowing.

Personally, the arrow I follow is toward joy. The approach to joy is found through feeling entirely in my body, regardless of the emotion or feeling state. In this state my body answers all my questions. All the knowledge I have ever needed has been discovered through listening to my body, listening to my Self.

Again, spirituality is the quest for answers to life’s problems, answered in a way that is deeply and fully understood by the entire self.

Not just the mind.

Not just the habitual thought processes we journey through daily.

All the answers are found through one’s own body. And moreso, answers are found only this way, and only for oneself. It is precisely the personal nature of the direct embodied experience that enables spirituality.

Sieging the Fortress of Guilt

There are three kinds of people:

  1. Those who are lazy and have infrequent punctuations of activity that soon lapse,
  2. Those who are driven and have infrequent punctuations of inertia, usually through depression, sickness or injury caused by excessive action, and
  3. Those who are happy and partake of both activity and relaxation without guilt or self-loathing, as and when they feel like it

This last group is by far the smallest, incredibly rare in todays society.  This is because we are taught to feel guilty about our actions in some way from a young age.

We feel guilty about our action or inaction, and depending on our personality, react to that guilt with drive or laziness.

The goal is to destroy this guilt centre, and live life happily.

I’ve found three pillars that enable the destruction of this fucked-up guilt complex:

  1. Self-Appreciation
  2. Self Awareness
  3. Self-Driven Movement

Each one feeds the others, and they are all built up together.

Self Appreciation

Self appreciation requires that we cease judging ourselves.  We stop our guilt, and our self-loathing, and accept who we are in the moment. 

There is a difference between striving to become better so we can be more satisfied and happier, and being driven to not be so hopeless and weak.  In the first case you are already accepting of your current state and want to become better, in the latter you hate who you are and thus are trying to escape it. 

In the beginning most of us come from the latter state, and it’s why many of us start self-work in the first place.  We want to escape ourselves and our pain.  We want to become different.  It is only with time spent in self-appreciation that we finally see that pain and difficulty has made us who we truly are. And it is from this recognition that we can finally start to appreciate ourselves.

Self Awareness

Self awareness is important because it tells us both what we are feeling and what we are doing.  Am I feeling guilty?  Anxious?  Happy?  Ecstatic?  Why do I have this pain in my stomach?  Is it anxiety, or simply an upset tummy? 

We also become aware of what our body is doing in real time, and cease to be completely robotic: 

We find that we have a twitch in our right eyebrow when we are unhappy in a converstation. 

We find that a certain movement in our hips twinges our hip flexor because our abdomen is not engaged. 

We find that our thoughts turn sour when we have eaten certain foods or gone without exercise for a day or two. 

We are no longer slaves to our feelings, but are able to predict and  control them to some extent because we are more aware of what creates them.

Self-Driven Movement

Imagine almost any small child you know, and think of how mobile they are. Their whole bodies are moving, shaking, flicking, tapping. It can be annoying as an adult! They get taught to restrain themselves, to be quiet, to control their movements lest they break something or upset someone.

But movement is the nature of the body; it is the physical representation of the mind and spirit.

As adults we have controlled this movement. And that’s mostly ok! Control of our body is part of becoming an adult. What is problematic is that we no longer give ourselves the option of moving as and when we like. Our control is almost total, and that control is linked to feelings of guilt.

It’s remarkable how, even alone in the privacy of one’s own room, we control ourselves so strongly that we feel embarrassed to move, flail, thrutch and spasm. Noises are especially difficult to release, as children should be seen and not heard (at least 35 years ago that was the case), and this triggers big guilty feelings, and a feeling that we are doing something very wrong.

Some notes about self-driven movement:

Self-driven movement comes from within. 

There is no reason for it. It is not exercise.  It is not for fitness. 

My body is doing it “on its own”.

It twitches and spasms.  It shakes.  It moves all parts of my body in all manner of fashions, none of them pretty or cool in any way, all of them spastic and occasionally undulating.  But I’m not “doing” the movement. Instead I’m “allowing” my body to move, as it wants, when it wants.

What is surprising is how smart my body is.  It homes in on the parts that are tense.  It moves them and breaks them apart.  It keeps going past the point of mental pressure and continues until the muscles don’t need it any more.  Then it stops.

By allowing ourselves to do these things, to just release and let the body move, allows our character to push up against the fortress of our guilt. We start to siege it, and over time we reduce it to smoking ruins of rubble.

And we finally get the chance to experience joy.

COVID-19 – What the Hell am I Worried About?

I’ve been examining my mental state closely over the past six months.

First we had two months of the worst bushfires my area (and my country) had ever seen.  My semi-adrenalised state during that time never really normalised.  I was ready to stand and fight if need be, or run to the hills if it was all too much.  At one point there were three seperate and massive fires surrounding my village. The steady impact of the unknown, and the rise and fall of the intensity of the situation led to many sleepless nights.

Directly following the fires we had six weeks of torrential rain.  We received half our annual rainfall in two days at one point.  I’ve been building an earth house for several years now, and the rain washed away large swathes of earth render from the external walls.  I again lay awake at night in emergency mode, hoping like hell the water would not seep into the straw bales inside the render and rot them from the inside.  

And now we have the most interesting thing to happen to our culture and our species for eighty years, since the end of the Second World War.  A now-familiar anxiety sits uncomfortably in my stomach, noticeable when I am quiet.

What is most fascinating to me is WHY I feel this way. Why the hell am I anxious? It’s worth asking yourself the question.

For example, I am now sitting at my desk typing away, while the birds sing outside, my children sleep in bed, and my coffee cools in its cup.  The last three or four days have been completely normal for all intents and purposes.  We’ve done some shopping and found some shelves empty, and we haven’t interacted physically with any friends or colleagues, but besides that, it’s been pretty ordinary.

So why the anxiety?

I’m not concerned about catching COVID.  The statistics quite clearly show that I’m fit and healthy enough to not require medical intervention.  I believe my family is strong enough too.

I’m not concerned about giving it to any at-risk people in my community.  My parents-in-law are self-isolating, and so are many older people.  We are taking measures to protect those people by isolating ourselves as well.

I’m not concerned about the apocalypse.  I don’t believe it will get that bad that we are all fighting each other and the covid-zombies.

So where is this internal tummy-ache coming from?

After weeks of self-assessment I’ve realised: it’s the social unknown.  It’s trying to understand and normalise a local and global change to the way we operate. 

The goal of government is to keep things ordinary for it’s citizens so they can buy and sell and breed and sleep at night.  The government is unable to keep this outbreak ordinary.  And so we see social restlessness.  I wouldn’t call it upheaval.  There are no riots in the streets.  But things have changed, and we can’t see an end to it.

And that, in a nutshell, is the source.  No end in sight.  We do not understand the endgame, because we can’t see all the moving pieces.  It’s near impossible to strategise as an ordinary citizen as we have no visibility as to the aims and desires of our fellow nation states, and even our own government.

Humans don’t like wobbliness in our lives.  We strive for control.  We in the West have lived the last couple of decades in a highly controlled environment, and have begun to believe that this is the way life is. 

Sorry.  Wrong.  Life is highly dynamic, and we’re now seeing the cracks in our beautifully controlled snowglobe. 

One thing we can be absolutely sure of though: It will end. There can be no doubt. In some way, somehow, this will end, and the next chapter of our lives, of our species, of our planet, will begin.

Can my belly get used to the unknown?  Let’s give it a go.

Treasuring Discomfort – Transcending Childhood Boundaries: Part 1

Parents know all about limits and boundaries.  We make them because our children need them.  Children need to know where the edge of their behavioural world is.  They need to know what they can and cannot do for their own safety and for the tolerability of their behaviour for those around them.

Some parents define loose boundaries.  The child might be allowed to watch youtube endlessly from a young age,  eat whatever they want, and define their own bedtime.

Other children are watched closely by their carers, disciplined for tiny infringements, and have a small world defined for them by religious belief or plain bloody-mindedness.

Most kids are somewhere in the middle.  Regardless of the type or size of boundary, if the boundary is enforced, the child feels a sense of safety.  

Fast forward to adulthood and we are still living within these childhood limits.  We have deep, hard lines in our minds and souls that tell us where we can and cannot tread.

We know those boundaries easily.  As adults we spend most of our lives in our comfort zone, behaving in ways that make us feel comfortable and safe.  It’s when we do or say something that makes us uneasy, anxious or guilty that we know we are dallying close to the heavily guarded prison wall that is our boundary.

In my mid-twenties I was living with my girlfriend (now my wife) and I was a well-trained pet.  I didn’t leave our bed until she was awake and indicated it was ok.  I didn’t leave the house except to go to work, sometimes the gym.  I rarely saw my friends unless it was sanctioned by her.  She was not particularly overbearing or controlling, but I didn’t want to upset her. She never asked me to do those things, but by doing them I felt I could maintain a life of quiet security.

In the internal world of my childhood memories, an upset family member meant danger, insecurity.  My history told me that if my mum or dad were mad or sad or upset it meant potential physical harm to me, or emotional damage.  It leant a wobbliness to my world.  If anyone was upset around me I felt a deep background hum of guilt and anxiety.  And so, not because of my partner but because of myself, I continued to remain in this comfortable but limited place.

You might know someone like this.  I know many men, even in their middle age who are tied to their wives (and the reverse of course is true).  It’s easy to comment in this example that the wife is a bitch (and maybe they are) or overbearing (could be) or controlling (likely).  But consider the needs of the man.  He has strong boundaries that he still holds to feel safe.  Having someone tell him what to do and when to do it fulfils a deep need for him.  Even though his existence looks like a miserable excuse, he is living the caged life of his choice in a form of relative comfort.

Living a good life, a life of choices, dreams and happiness means crossing those boundaries.  That is a terrifying thought for those trapped in the example above.  It took me years of slow and disciplined progress to move past those invisible walls.  I had to play a long game, one that stretched my own sense of comfort around the uncomfortable, while ensuring that my new and unusual behaviours were expanding my wife’s boundaries.

My wife wasn’t the issue.  It was my own internal dialogue, which had the high-pitched voice of my upset parents.  Imagine having your parents screaming at you into your twenties and thirties to “do the right thing”!  So many of us have this without realising it.  Some of us have it all our lives, into our fifties, seventies, nineties!

Maybe you are living this life.  As we get older, we can fall into patterns of long term safety that are so habitual they are very difficult to remove.  Imagine the old (and not-so-old) couple who have the same routine each day.  The same greeting, the same breakfast, the same cup of tea, read the paper, lunch at the same time etc etc.  It looks boring.  It IS boring.  But it makes them feel safe.

Some people refuse to try new foods, try new clothes, go to new places on holiday.  Instead of judging them, ask yourself, why?  They may sound stubborn or obstinate, but what is the underlying reason for their fear?  Could it be that their boundaries are so terrifying they decided on a safe and pleasant psychological picnic table to sit at for life? 

In the next part, we’ll look at ways to gradually break down the limits of your life.

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