Shakey: An Essay on Anger
Jay Michaelson

I called him Shakey, because he couldn't sit still. About forty-five or fifty years old, with thick white hair up front and a bald spot on the crown of his head, Shakey sat near me during my recent forty-day meditation retreat. He moved constantly: during a 45 minute sit, he almost never was still for more than one minute at a time. (Yes, I timed it once, using my breaths as measurements -- he never made it past eight breaths without moving.) Shifting his posture, moving his feet, scratching -- and always making noise.

So, Shakey made me very angry.

A little context: this was a six week long, silent, Buddhist 'insight meditation' retreat. Each day consisted of seven "sits," of either 45 minutes or an hour each, interspersed with "walking" periods. During the sits, practitioners sit absolutely still (some people don't even swallow) and place the attention first on the arising and passing of the breath, and then on whatever object or mental state becomes predominant over it. During the walks, it's the same basic practice, only using the experience of walking (lifting, moving, placing) rather than the breath. While there are a few other things we do, just doing this core practice, for twelve hours a day, leads to deep, life-changing insights into the nature of mind, the nature of reality, and the causes of our personal pain and suffering. Try it some time.

Now, in the context of the sitting practice, a disturbing noise is not, itself, "wrong." It just becomes your focus, instead of the breath. You might make a small mental note of the hearing of it ("hearing") and then, perhaps, any emotional response that arises ("anger," "amusement"). If the attention wanes, you return to the breath, and go back to noting that ("inhale," "exhale"). The point is, it doesn't really matter what the object of your attention is; what matters is how you relate to it. Are you mindful of it? Are you mindful of your response to it? Are you clinging to it -- do you really love it and want it to stay forever and ever (that comes up a lot with "bliss," "harmony," "rapture")? Do you really despise it and want it to go away?

In theory, then, Shakey was not a "disturbance." He was just the predominant object. The very predominant object.

"Shakey," by the way, is Neil Young's longtime nickname. I went through other nicknames for the person on retreat -- shifty, itchy, scratchy -- but Shakey seemed to stick. So, apologies to Neil.

The fact is, though, I was not doing very well in my relationship with Shakey. I was getting lost in anger, unable to build concentration. I spun out long, long stories about maybe he was disabled somehow, or had ADD, or maybe he was just totally clueless, or maybe there could be some way, somehow, that I could talk to the teachers.... I got lost in anger, and lost in thought.

Ideally, anger is just another object of attention. It arises, it passes. It causes suffering. It's not really "me." So by watching anger -- i.e., seeing how it unfolds and goes away -- you can directly see some of the core insights of Buddhist philosophy. More on this below.

Moreover, because many of us suffer from anger, working with anger in a retreat context is very useful. I found that there are many ways to be with it instead of our conditioned reaction, which is to try to get rid of it as fast as possible. For example, over the course of time, working with anger, I came to know it as an "energy" in the body and the mind. I learned, by observation, that I experience anger mostly in my arms -- a heat, or a quaking -- together with constriction of the jaw, tension in the mind, and an increased heart rate. This is very different from how I ordinarily regard anger. (This is not my innovation; seeing emotional states as energetic states is a core Insight practice.) Most of the time, I evaluate anger according to the content of what I'm angry about -- Shakey, the political situation, some misunderstanding -- and then judge it according to whether it's defensible or not. So anger can be righteous indignation, or irritation that I should learn to live with, or whatever. All this, in Western Buddhist-speak, is known as the "story" of the anger, and it's not where we usually want to place our attention, for a number of reasons. The main one is that the whole object of meditation is really very simple: to be here now, with whatever is arising. The content of the story is not really here now -- it's here in the form of thinking, so you can note "thinking." But all those judgments, accounts of causation -- the content of those thoughts exists in a projection of the past or future. Remarkably, when you just focus on whatever is arising now, even if what is arising is very unpleasant, an indescribable feeling of equanimity and peace arises.

Well, that all sounds rosy, but it rarely works out that way for me. Usually, anger is not merely another object of attention; it swallows me up. In fact, of all the emotional demons I've wrestled, and there are many, anger has been the hardest for me to accept, vanquish, or live with in any way. I have gone through intense periods of sadness and loneliness, and learned to experience joy even in the midst of them. I have uncovered deep-seated feelings of self-hatred and self judgment, and have learned ways to accommodate them too. But anger? When I get angry, it gets me. I can note it all I want -- and sometimes I'll still just get angrier and angrier and angrier.

So, while I was able to 'be with' my anger at Shakey some of the time, sometimes I really couldn't. I could not resist going into the story -- i.e., what was so wrong with him, and why I was either right or wrong to respond the way I did. I went through a lot of possibilities. Maybe he has no idea he's even doing it. Maybe he has ADD after all. Maybe he's just a lazy practitioner. Maybe I am really being too judgmental. Maybe I=m a lazy practitioner. Maybe my concentration is too weak. Maybe the teachers should let this guy know that he's disturbing other people.


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Image: Maria del Pilar Reyes Noriega, Asi So Yo

March 2005

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Jay Michaelson

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From previous issues:

Abba Kovner: The Warrior in Old Age
James Russell

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