By Alex Chong Do Thompson
In January of 2014, I made the decision to stop drinking alcohol. I quit cold-turkey. I’d like to tell you that sobriety has been all sunshine and rainbows, but it actually sucked in the beginning.
I was meditating daily at that point; my practice made it impossible to ignore the consequences of my drinking.
All of my friends were heavy drinkers and most of them disappeared when I stopped partying. The ones that didn’t leave made a point of telling me that I was more fun when I drank. Needless to say, I started spending a lot of time alone. Worse than the social isolation, however, was being forced to actually feel my emotions. I’d been using alcohol to keep myself numb, and hobbling through the week without that crutch was difficult. That being said, it did allow me to learn some difficult truths about myself.
I learned that I have an anger problem.
Anger has been the fuel in my engine for as long as I can remember. In fact, I joined the Marine Corps, largely out of anger. I was mad at my parents and I wanted to get as far away from home as I could. I walked into the recruiter’s office one day and never looked back, but the anger didn’t go away when I enlisted.
Quite the opposite.
During recruit training my drill instructors stoked the fire of my rage until I thought it would burn me alive. Then they taught me how to use it as a weapon. Anger kept me warm at night during mountain warfare training. It gave me energy during the last stretch of 10-mile runs, and it gave me strength during force-marches when I could literally feel my body breaking down.
Yet, anger is a two-headed snake—it can’t be used without succumbing to its venom.
The Marines gave me a useful outlet for my anger, but it didn’t teach me how to cope with it. I think that’s why I started drinking. I had all this pent up fury inside me and nowhere to put it. I turned it on myself. I was a master at finding self-destructive ways to blow off steam when I was pissed. My first instinct was always to lash out at the people around me. Failing that, I’d attack inanimate objects. I remember one time when I had a bad day at work, I responded by breaking every stick of furniture in my living room. Thankfully, I’m not that stupid anymore.
My Zen practice has given me tools in the way of meditation, and an understanding of karma which help me cope with negative feelings.
Some people think Zen is about getting rid of emotion; that hasn’t been my experience. Rather, it has taught me how to feel my emotions intelligently. Anger is still a constant in my life, but I’m no longer a slave to it.
Now when my temper flares, I don’t lash out at others or attempt to make myself numb. Instead, I bring my focus to my breath. Malevolent thoughts come into my head, but I ignore them as random bits of karma and focus on the actual feeling of anger itself. It’s hot and painful—a ball of molten metal stuck inside my chest. It hurts, but the longer I sit with the feeling without judgment, the more I notice that there are small holes in it and I sink into one of them. Underneath the fiery top layer of my anger, there is a cold bottom layer of sadness. I’m sad because the world has hurt me, in some way. Anger is my defense mechanism. Feeling angry is much easier than admitting that I’ve been hurt.
The pain is almost unbearable in this bottom layer, but I stay with it.
The many hours I’ve spent sitting in meditation dealing with the pain in my legs have prepared me to deal with the pain of sadness. Once again, I ignore the karmic thoughts that pop into my head and focus on the feeling of the emotion itself. Slowly, it begins to dissipate until I’m left with a feeling of contentment. I rest here for a while and enjoy my newfound equanimity.
Now that my mind isn’t clouded by anger, I can see the world more clearly. I understand this is all karma playing itself out in a cosmic dance. I realize my anger is a partner in the dance and it’s not a problem as long as I don’t take it personally. Naturally, this is easier said than done, but life gives me many opportunities to try. In this way, coping with anger has become a key part of my spiritual practice.
Sometimes I go through this meditation once a week. Sometimes, several times a day. Practice makes perfect. The feelings of anger and hurt become a smaller part of the experience with each repetition. They’re being replaced by a feeling of calm as I let go of my attachments and views on the way the world should be.
Anger has stopped being a poison in my life. Instead, it has become medicine, which helps me along the path.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak