Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tapas and anger

A disclaimer: the title may have lead you to think that tango philosophy has finally succumbed to one of the dominant strands in mainstream Australian culture and become a food blog. But no! Whilst I can see a connection between anger and tiny, overpriced plates of food, if you’re looking for a discourse on jamón and tortilla, you will need to go elsewhere. The kind of tapas you’ll find discussed here is fiery, but it has very little to do with pimientos de Padrón.

Zhander Remete

The inspiration for this post in fact came from a public talk by Zhander Remete, the founder of Shadow Yoga, a graceful and challenging form which I've recently discovered thanks to Peter Ujvári, who teaches it at City Yoga in Melbourne.

A lot of what Remete had to say went over my head, but one point made me sit up. He said that yoga began as a way of dealing with anger.

At the end of the talk I asked him to expand on this point. He explained that the core practices of yoga create a kind of fire, tapas. He used the breath as an example: focusing on and controlling the breath creates friction, which generates heat. He said this fire burns away anger.

I’d heard this word, tapas, before, in Buddhist contexts. One of my favourite monks (now a layman) used to be called Tapassi, which means ascetic, or one who has tapas, the purifying ‘heat’ of meditative practice. Heat is in scare quotes here, because as Richard Freeman, another yoga teacher puts it, tapas “is not necessarily a physical heat; it is a metaphorical burning, an awakening to what is really happening within the mind or the perceptions. When people first experience tapas, there is often a sense of discomfort, a desire to squirm away from the situation because it is so authentic; it is as if the border of life is being eaten away by fire” (The Mirror of Yoga). (Ok, so maybe there is some connection with chillies here…)

Remete’s remarks about anger make me wonder: if tapas burns anger away, does this also mean it needs it to get going? Is anger a fuel for spiritual ‘fire’?

American psychologist Simon Laham calls anger “the positive negative emotion.” If emotions are categorized as either “approach” or “avoidance,” anger is best described as an “approach” emotion: it leads us to engage with the environment, and focus on rewards and incentives. There’s evidence that the same areas of the brain (the left anterior regions of the cortex) are active when you’re angry and when you’re experiencing unambiguously positive approach states. This makes sense, in that anger usually arises because a positive goal has been frustrated. The anger doesn’t negate that goal – it ups the ante, motivating us to keep trying to get what we want, even if the cost is high. As Laham puts it, anger “is both a gauge of our progress toward a goal and a force that makes us persist in the face of obstacles” (The Science of Sin, 118).

Simon Laham

Laham’s analysis suggests that anger is basically frustrated desire, which only becomes stronger (and less reasonable) for having been thwarted. It occurs to me that spiritual discipline – or any kind of discipline – also centrally involves frustrating desire, or controlling it until it subsides. So anger – or something closely related to it - is likely to be a core part of spiritual practice. Maybe this is what Freeman is talking about when he describes the uncomfortable, but authentic feeling of having the border of life eaten away by fire. It’s the experience of feeling anger without expressing it outwardly. You are experiencing an “approach” emotion without trying to get anything. Maybe the result is that you get closer to yourself.

Let’s consider this process more carefully. You start off with an ordinary desire – to attain something. You might want to get into full lotus position, say (all right, some people may be thinking this is not a ‘ordinary’ desire, but just substitute your own example – Laham talks about people wanting to get coke cans out of an automatic dispensing machines that are not working). Now suppose you can’t get into full-lotus, no matter how you try. You get angry. But instead of having a tantrum of one kind or another (or shaking the dispensing machine until it tips over and injures you, possibly fatally – apparently this is a real problem), you discipline yourself to focus on your breathing, from whatever uncomfortable position you’ve managed. What happens?

If Remete is right, your anger gets burnt up. Does this mean that the original desire to get into full lotus just dies away? Or does it get transformed? We could say that initially, at least some of your energy gets redirected toward the goal of staying focused on your breath and whatever is happening within the mind. At this point, there is a battle between competing desires. If your zeal or diligence (what is called in the pali Buddhist texts ‘appamāda’) for practice is strong, and this desire wins the battle, then both anger and the specific desire that gave rise to it give way, or are converted, to a much more subtle form of desire – concentration. You are no longer thinking about any particular achievement or goal and how to get it, you are just focused on the activity of observation (of the breath, or simply the movements of the mind). You may become absorbed to the point where there is barely any discernible difference between intention and activity. Just the occasional distraction and conscious effort to keep concentrating appear like tendrils of smoke still rising from the fire in which anger has been consumed.

This way of looking at anger confirms Laham’s point that this emotion typically causes us to focus even more tightly on goals and incentives: suddenly we feel we must get into this and no other yoga pose, or that nothing can satisfy us but a coke from the machine that has eaten our money. If the intensity of anger remains focused on a trivial, specific goal, it can lead us to take actions that are out of all proportion to the worth of the target. We may wreck our back for the sake of a pose we may never be able to do, or die for a can of coke. If, on the other hand, the persistence typical of anger can be channeled into an activity that is without any specific goal, but is rather attentive and responsive to experience in an open-ended way, then this “approach” emotion might be a key to enlightenment.

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