Sunday, May 20, 2012

Dance of Anger

Those who, having been dismissive of suffering,
Destroy the enemies, anger and so on,
They are the heroes who have gained the victory;
The rest (merely) slay corpses.

-Guide to The Bodhisattva Way of Life, by Master Shantideva
Chapter 6, The Art of Patience

The convicted Lockerbie bomber passed away. Libyan national Abdel Basset Al-Megrahi was the only person convicted of detonating bomb that killed hundreds in mid-air over Lockerbie, Scotland. For years he maintained his innocence. A few years ago the doctor said that Abdel only had a few months to live because of an aggressive form of cancer. The Scottish judge then did something almost unheard of in the annals of Western justice: he let him go.

Abdel was allowed to go home and an international outrage exploded. The reasoning of justice was that he only had a few months to live. Abdel was a walking corpse. He was greeted as a hero by Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi and a sign of a moral victory over Western powers. American and British media seethed. Reporters interviewed the family members of the Lockerbie victims, ambassadors, Senators, Congressmen. Everyone expressed the same blanket outrage that Abdel was now being treated as a hero and, despite the doctor's promises, he kept on living.

He lived longer than 3 months. While dictators fell, celebrities overdosed, children starved, Osama Bin Laden was shot in his Pakistan mansion, Abdel kept on living with his family. Gaddafi himself was hunted down in a sewer pipe, paraded around in tattered rags, anally raped with batons, bludgeoned over the head, and finally shot to death, and all on TV for our viewing pleasure. Abdel was nowhere in site. In the midst of the revolution his family said he was passing in and out of comas. His government doctors had fled, his medicine was looted. The conquering hero/walking corpse was silent. There were calls for him being sent back to his Scottish prison. He was surrounded by family. He was allowed the dignity of privacy and intimacy in a world gone mad. He was a monster afforded the luxury of compassion. Abdel was taking too long to die.

Now he is dead. Two years later than expected. The media response has been a mix of satisfaction at his demise and a slow simmer that he had continued to live for so long.

I read the responses. His family's continued claim the he was innocent, and observers curses his cancer-riddled corpse to the hell, while other justified the attack. As volleys of anger, post-life revenge, pleas of innocents go back and forth, Abdel can not speak on the matter.

Tears began to fall from my eyes. I don't know if it was for Abdel or for the ridiculous parade of violence. Suddenly a few words from Bodhisattva vows popped up in my mind:

"The rest just kill corpses.'

I didn't know where the in text it said that, but I was sure it was in there. I google searched that phrase and it was under the chapter on anger. The teachings are hazy in my mind but I interpreted the context to be about the real accomplishment is conquering my own anger. All other military victories, business conquests, and triumphs are like killing things that are already dead.

The world is a burial ground of bodies with different names, labels, nationalities, religions, notoriety, infamy. We pile the bodies up in different categories and the few walking corpses run back and forth between the writhing hills to stab at the lifeless bodies, planting flags, retrieving treasures to take back to its pile, set fire to others, and claim victory. And soon the walking dead fall inanimate with their treasure still in hand. And someone else runs over to their pile, stabs them, steals the treasures, spits on them, and runs back to their pile to fall dead. And this goes on and on since the beginning of perceived time. The jewels are covered in mud and eventually get lost underneath the corpses or destroyed in the transfer from one pile to another.

It's not sexy to talk about life in this way. We disguise the corpses' perfume with distractions. Games, lights, accolades, and future plans. I have won many of these things and for the life of me I can hardly remember anything at all about all the awards I have been given. I don't even look at them or think about them any more.

This weekend was a time of patience. I got angry at a friend, they got angry at me back, and I got angry at their anger. At a certain moment, it just made me sick. We both rushed to apologize, paper over the differences, but I wonder if the problem has been fixed. I vowed to be more patient for the rest of the day and to practice the art of avoiding anger. On the crowded subways and streets, I planted that seed in my head. I went to dance class and the teacher dedicated the period to Donna Summers: legendary singer who is now gone because of cancer.

We danced to Donna's hits. At the end of class, each person ran into the middle of the room and improvised a dance to a Summer's song before bowing in her honor. It was a brief moment on stage to do something. When my turn came I ran out to a slow ballad croon and swayed to the rhythms. By the time I hit my mark the song had switched to uptempo disco. I changed my dance into a groovy disco motion with slides, spins, and something that felt stolen from a figure skating routine. The class erupted into cheers. I bowed to Donna and ran off stage. The entire performance was no longer than 20 seconds.

One of the students asked how I just did that. I shrugged my shoulders. I had no idea. There was no thought to it. My body responded to the unexpected uptempo kick and there was no time to think or plan.  The song changed so I changed. Earlier in the day I had responded to the dance of anger without thought as well. The tempo changed and I changed without thinking. I realized the art of patience was something that had to be ingrained into me more deeply so that I didn't just have a mirror reaction when the world's song became wrathful.

I went about my business, meetings, talking about art, and hopped on a bus to New Jersey to see friends. One was supposed to be driving us to an event. At the last second he emailed to say he was canceling. I realized this was another chance at dancing with anger.

I had about three seconds to act before my impulse took over and responded to the tune change. I had traveled all the way across the river, set aside my day, got cash to help him pay for gas, the reasons for rage were already starting to cooly list all the things I had done. The immediate words of forgiveness came to my mind, but I knew that wasn't going to be enough. Anger was much more sophisticated than being quelled with simple forgiveness. I began running through my head the thoughts of Buddhist refuge and Christ-consciousness. I grabbed at "The Diamond Cutter" and the view of indivisibility, A Course in Miracle's 'pure non-duality,' quantum physics 'holographic universe' theories. I could feel the red tide of rage stirring.

All is forgiveness. 

This is not real. 

The universe is a holograph. Where could my universe come from except from me?

Maybe there was another reason. Maybe something else is going on here. 

My friend sat at his keyboard responding to the sudden cancellation. I asked if he wanted to show me around his new apartment. He sat there staring at the screen. I knew that look. It was ice-cold rage. He was going to be my refuge. My mind switched to checking in with him and trying to get him away from the computer, away from responding in the moment.

I suggested a movie and he mumbled something while he continued typing. Perhaps we could cook a meal. Or see something in the area. Finally I suggested that he not send the email just yet. Perhaps he save it as a draft in his inbox. He told me that normally he would agree with such a policy but this called for an immediate response (retaliation?)

When he finished he got up from his computer and silently sat on the couch. I went online and wrote an email apologizing to the event planner, explaining we would not be able to make it. I added the word 'flaky friend' into the email. It felt strange. The red tide was beginning to rise again in the form of inquiry.

"I wonder what happened to him?"

"Did an emergency come up?"

My friend reminded me that I was supposed to be calming him down. That's right, thank you. I switched to distracting ourselves for a bit. A movie was in order. We watched "Inception." That pretty much took up most of the night. How appropriate to watch something about dreams within dreams.

I walked back to the bus stop with my friend. The inquiry started again on my part. My anger was trying another subtle device of looking for answers in someone else, in something outside of myself. I stopped myself in mid-questioning. We stood there silently waiting for the bus. Dancing with anger was more difficult than I expected in this case. She was a very skilled partner at trying to elicit my trained reaction.

My mind switched to pity, which was another form of anger. I imagined the pain this depressed friend  must be going through to cancel unexpectantly. This pity took the form of vivid imaginings of his anguish. I didn't like where this was headed. I realized that as long as I kept the focus on 'him' that my mind was skillful enough to use every single psychological device, from curiosity, to pity, to fantasy, to demands for explanations. My anger going to twist the world back into its rhythm. By the time the bus arrived back in New York, I had a miracle. My anger hadn't erupted into a violent fantasy of torture, I didn't have curse words on my lips, I wasn't updating my facebook profile seeking 'likes' or comments. I was convinced the purpose of that trip was purification and to see "Inception." That was it. I came back home and checked on some projects online. Then I went to bed.

I woke up this morning and lay in bed for a few minutes. I thought about the message of "Inception" and this moment. Buddhism would agree that this was a dream. This body, this breath, this room. I looked at my arm. Still an arm even in a dream. But what was the purpose of this dance of illusion? Heal the rift that created the universe? Forgive? Learn to dance different?

I thought about the last 24 hours of illusions. I purified in my mind and let it go to atonement.  May I dance to a different tune. After making TV I read the news of Abdel's death and began to cry.  It feels like my anger has taken a step away from me. Now I am observing others react in anger at someone else. I feel neither pity for them or rage. It is my dream and my turn to dance differently with my illusions.

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