I’m really into this new game I’ve been playing with myself lately.
Get your minds out of the gutter, now!
Basically, I’ve been learning to control my emotions by a sort of method I discovered. It’s very interesting because I realize that it really is a choice. I don’t have to lose myself in every feeling and reaction but can just let them flit through me. It sounds really simple and I know also that it sounds suspiciously like some kind of pseudo-Eckhart Tolle cod-philosophy, but it is one thing to contemplate the soundness of the idea and another thing, utterly, actually to do it.
Several times in the past few days I have been triggered by something, usually some irritating person being small-minded and petty, and begun to feel that familiar rumbling in the tinderbox within: the sparking up of offense.
It has occurred to me many times in the past that if you went back far enough, you would probably find that the origin of all wars and feuds, wherever in the world, could be sourced in somebody somewhere being offended by something, and that if only people could just shrug off the insults of others with a little more alacrity, we’d have a lot less bombs going off.
But after all, as a whole array of enlightened masters have pointed out, peace begins in the heart of the individual. It’s amazing how many families with poisonous dynamics and estrangements amongst themselves still shake their heads at the evening news and, no trace of irony, echo Rodney King in wondering why the Palestinians and Israelis can’t all just get along after all this time.
So, I’ve been examining this tendency in myself – getting offended that is – and seeing what can be done about it. Problems with anger run in my family and I have inherited some difficulties with this important and complex emotion. I did not grow up witnessing healthy management of anger or how to resolve conflicts peaceably. What I was shown as normal is not something I wish to emulate, but as these patterns are established before cognitive reasoning has developed, it can be difficult to deprogram the self, or to even be sure where the program begins. What is “normal”? Or what do I consider “normal”?
No! Fuck that! Normal might be something really fucked up!
What I want is to be better: just better – at maintaining equilibrium, at not getting into disagreements, at solving them when they come up, at restraining the urge to vent frustrations on members of the public. I’m reminded of that standard refrain of the hypnotist: each day in every way, I feel myself getting better and better.
Without good examples in my parents, I have had to learn by observing other people’s reactions to my bad emotional habits; reluctantly recognizing them therefore (sometimes this step takes a decade or more); and then trying to change them. Or when I’ve noticed someone handling a difficult situation really skillfully, I try to work out what they’re doing. I’ve been doing this for years. I feel a bit like Mowgli observing civilizeds eating with cutlery and thinking: oh, so that’s how proper humans do it!
One of the things I’ve come to believe is that while it is healthy to feel outrage at injustice and to feel indignant when wronged, there really are a million different ways to let this out. Roughly 999,987 of them are wrong. Making sense when angry, being able to listen, being able to be silent – this is where things fall apart. The sense of inhibition disintegrates before the challenge of containing chaotic sensations in the physical body (i.e. the neuro-chemical precursors of an angry outburst). Like the moment when you realize it’s too late to catch the wave and all you can do is go under the roiling current, hoping to come out the other side.
It’s not only pure anger that is triggered by taking offense. Some of the worst anger blow-outs are initially set off by self-pity, as when one feels tender about being made fun of. Perhaps someone has taken a little dig about a few extra pounds around your middle or a looming birthday, pointed out that the new haircut is not a go-er. It is tempting – behind the congenial, self-deprecating chuckle – to nurse a poor me wound that, unchecked, could even fester until it oozes morbid contemplations that verge on the suicidal.
In romance especially, it is easy to get befuddled. As soon as the simplicity of enjoying the hang time gives way to future-tripping, it starts to sink under the weight of internal debates regarding the meaning of the relationship or how to measure, accurately, the depth of the love. One’s inner life becomes a tumult of ricocheting imaginings. Insane suspicions arise like demonic visions in the spooky mist of the interior landscape. Destructive urges to ask unnecessary and prying questions of the beloved gain strength until impossible to resist. Perspective is distorted and the worst excesses of behaviour, even to murder, can sometimes ensue.
Ever since I nearly died of drug-related illnesses some 15+ years ago, I’ve pined to discover some kind of balance within. I tried the Vipissana silent meditation retreat thing; I tried fasting and prayer; yoga, raw food and colonic irrigation; psychedelic drinks in the Amazon jungle; sobriety; celibacy; group sex. I think I’ll end the list there.
When excess got boring I went for asceticism, but that got boring even quicker so then I had to re-check out excess again.
Still pretty much the same trip as before: sometimes fun, sometimes not.
Sometimes an enchanted evening with a mesmerizing madman on top of a giant Golden Buddha in Battersea Park, sometimes a black eye and a bruised heart from tumbling backwards down piss-soaked stone steps in love’s abandoned basement.
I met a guy in a Texas rehab, after that first time I nearly died, who joked that “balance is that place you briefly glimpse when you’re swinging wildly from extreme to extreme.”
Maybe it’s a cliché but I never heard it until my own see-saw had capsized and nearly crushed me to death, so it struck me as particularly grimly funny and true and still does.
But as the old spirituals go: Lawd, I sho’ is weary!
To elaborate: I just can’t be bothered to sweat the dumb daily stupidities any more. The quotidian aint worth it folks. While often unconvinced that there’s much point in worrying about the big stuff, I’m increasingly certain that the small shit really really doesn’t matter. There’s no reason to bug, and if I don’t I’m sure to catch some longer glimpses of that there slippery ole balance. Maybe someday I’ll even chill there for a while.
But it’s one thing to calmly and beatifically receive this ancient wisdom from within the safe confines of one’s spliff-smoke-filled flat, quite another to follow the vibe of unflappable tranquility when confronted with an inept and surly sales clerk on a sweltering afternoon in a shop without air conditioning and Rick Astley on the Tannoy.
I had a chance to feel jealous and insecure yesterday evening. Reason: meeting the ex-fiancée of the new boyfriend for the first time.
I started to feel all the symptoms in anticipation of the person entering the room: increased heart rate, shallowness of breath, slightly accelerated feeling in the thoughts, quick bustling movements and an uncomfortable build up in energy from inside my chest. I applied mascara with shaking hands.
Then I suddenly just stopped, shrugged and said to myself:
You see I’d just remembered that I’d already decided that whatever I do, just always treat my relationships as temporary. Have no expectation, except that it’s odds-on to end, just a matter of whether sooner or later. This might sound pessimistic but it’s actually liberating. In the clean sober air of this realistic view, the relationship is actually far more likely: 1.) to be free of the stress brought on by the weight of expectation (future-tripping) which absence may even, paradoxically, add longevity to the deal, and 2.) to be finished, if parting does indeed precede death, with a fond farewell rather than a bitter repulsion that takes years to get over.
This is a big part of why some of my best memories of romance are snapshots of briefer encounters, whereas the things I went through with the real rulers (and wreckers) of my heart lasted much longer and are much more complicated and painful to recall. The other part of the why is the fact that those who have gone into double digits of months with me have often been selected by virtue of exhibiting un-mistakable signs of incurable narcissistic personality disorder (more family programming, as you might have guessed). But I have always shown remarkably good taste when it comes to summer flings, holiday romances, long-distance casuals and the like.
Some years ago, I had the most wonderful casual open thing for a few months with a beautiful boy named Cameron Seymour. Cam was easily the best looking guy I ever dated. I remember walking into a room once with him a couple of paces ahead of me leading me in by the hand and the look on the face of my bass player’s girlfriend – who was pretty drop-dead beautiful herself – was priceless: as soon as he couldn’t see her anymore, she literally bugged her eyes out like she was having a seizure and bit her own hand. Hard. Then she gave me the silent high-five, still wide-eyed with astonishment. I went up several notches in her estimation that night. It was like that all the time.
And yet, as gorgeous as he was, and as likely as it was that he could have had his pick of most crowds, and despite the fact that ours was a no-strings deal and he was free to do whatever, still and all – when we were out together he made me feel like everyone else was furniture. Literally only had eyes for me. He was respectful, attentive, passionate, honest, funny, style-y; the sex was good and I felt totally secure of his like for me.
At no time, were either of us ever in danger of losing our minds or souls over the whole thing.
Eventually he went back to Maine and we lost touch. I’ve tried to find him but without luck (Cam, if you get this – get in touch my dear). Someday I’d really like to give him long overdue thanks for teaching me something important about the difference between being loving and being “in love”.
It’s taken me a long time to realize that the former – the experience of treating and being treated well – is vastly preferable to the latter, which to me describes an altered state of exaggerated emotional response. The best one can hope for is that it’s a shared delusion, but x times out of ten, one of the pair feels “it” more than the other. Been on both sides of that fence, and sat on the middle too. Bollocks to that, my friends. All we gotta do, as Bill and Ted so outstandingly pointed out, is Be Excellent to Each Other!
“They” say you always hurt the one you love, but no one ever died for like, as far as I’m aware. When you like someone, you can’t help but want to be nice to them. But when you think you are in love, you can even imagine killing them. Some do.
But I was intending to describe the physical containment of the impulses to act out emotionally.
OK, here goes – I once had an anarchist, revolutionary, polyamorous lover that I’ll call here Quetzelcoatl (both to protect his anonymity and because he may read this and be amused) who dubbed it my “chaos demon”, “it” being the tempestuous outbursts of uncontainable feelings that would sometimes erupt out of me in stressful situations. Being the kind of guy who didn’t ever seem out of his depth or rattled by anything (can’t tell you how annoying that was), Quetzelcoatl calmly talked me through it and asked me to describe what I was feeling.
It starts with a feeling of racing within. Like one of the science class movies of fluids circulating inside the body, only incredibly speeded up. A fluttering in the chest like a bird, no- a goose, is trying to flap its way out. I have an irrational desire to run around, to pace, to make sharp quick movements, to avoid eye contact. The sides of my head start to warm up and my mouth starts to go a bit dry. I can hear myself breathing, my lungs seem to end just below my chin, and it feels like the dams have burst inside my arms, releasing millions of gallons of liquid fire that rush like a flood in a storm drain, trying to suck me down into the inferno. But it shoots up like a molt iron geyser too; exploding in the centre of my clavicle. Heat from the explosion scorches my face.
If I give in to the feeling, and I want to, I really really want to, then it is like opening the hatches to a thousand creepy crawlies; the thoughts come crowding in, over-shouting each other, interrupting and being generally, just so fuckin’ rude. Bastards get me in some kind of lock-down, borrow my body-ship, and shoot the most vicious missiles right out of my own mouth!
I have committed the absolute worst excesses of behaviour in the grips of this type of emotional frenzy: hurled microphone stands from stages; put a cheating ex’s mobile number in the gay sex ads (under the heading “bi-curious, wife away”); left hysterical messages on the answering machine of another one’s father a few days before his son’s wedding; I even betrayed Quetzelcoatl once I realized he wasn’t going to change his lifestyle for me and dump his other 7 girlfriends. Giving in to the chaos demon has cost me love and money and respect, mostly my own.
And yet, not to sound like an arrogant cunt, I am usually correct. Mostly. By that I mean that I do not trip over imagined logs, take offense at innocent remarks, misinterpret or over-read situations. Not much anyway. If I feel like I’ve been fucked with there is usually a damn good reason. I don’t get mad for nothing.
But being right is a funny thing: it doesn’t make the sour grapes taste any better. The loneliest person in the world is probably fucking right about everything. Big whoop, as my friend Persia used to say.
Can I really just decide then, just like that then, not to give in to the surging tide of heat and thought and agitation in the heart (that could be triggered by a trivial altercation on the bus as well as by the sophisticated tricks of a histrionic serial seducer)?
It seemed at least worth a try.
Yeah, I know about all those “six deep breaths” and “count to 10” techniques and I’m sure they work if you can remember that you know them before your brain signals get completely fried, you can’t think straight, can only see in monochrome and are sure your amalgam fillings are picking up Aphex Twin.
So that never worked for me, my calming mantras only returning, mockingly, in the reverberation of the slamming door.
Instead, I decided to just notice when the feeling started to occur. Then, when I noticed it, I would quickly see what it was about, and kind of break it down, like I was doing a 1 line synopsis of a film for the TV guide.
As the little meerkat puppet with the Russian accent in those irritatingly enjoyable car insurance ads on UK telly circa 2010 says:
“Un Femme de Certain Age gets nervous about meeting her much younger new boyfriend’s ex-fiancée.”
Like magic, this new, rational-sounding voice in my head (the commentator) says to me:
“Fuck that. That’s where it all starts: you don’t want to be ‘in love’, you don’t want to lose yourself or get thrown off your centre, well this is how it all starts.”
Now that my conscious mind was engaged, it chipped in with “Yeah. Don’t go down that road” in a transparent play for shared credit.
I know it sounds ridiculously over simplified but – so then, I just ….. didn’t.
I just didn’t go there.
Later on, the lovely lover tried to lure me to bed around midnight. But I wanted to stay up and write. Write this, actually. I told him I’d be to bed around 3 a.m. and he balled up a soiled sock and bounced it off my nose. I laughed “what was that for! He sulked (gorgeously) off to bed, only half-jokingly, and I felt very merry indeed.
Reason: in the past, when I have been consumed by that dreadful “in love” mental illness that popular culture products are always trying to program us to crave, I would have given up all the things I love doing and that are for me, part of me, what forms my identity, if it meant spending more time dissolving myself in the victim, sorry – object – of my love.
If the building of my life was burning I’d still try not to leave the metaphoric bed of love until the flaming beams of harsh reality came crashing down through the ceiling of denial and concretized that abstraction for real, yo!
After the fire’s been put out and the crowd has dispersed, I hate and resent my new ex for stealing me from myself, for wasting my time, for delaying my projects and making me lose my mind; for tormenting me and for torment’s end.
This is why, sweet brothers and sisters and inbetweeners, I have made this decision to publicly announce my intent to master my emotions.
I don’t go to bed, despite the temptation, but get most of this down instead. It feels so good to follow the need to write. The beautiful guy will still be in the bed tomorrow night, if I don’t screw up and can follow my own new advice, but the compulsion to write this might be gone, and the awareness with it.
So remember, always remember (this is me speaking to myself): If I don’t control my emotions, I don’t have the clarity to choose the right course of action.
I can do it as long as I view it as a game, like mastering a difficult shot from a weird position at the pool table. This makes it actually fun!
It goes something like this:
if I can manage not to betray – not on my face, in my voice-word formations, nor by my movements – that there is a half-cocked chaos-demon banging a tin cup on his cage bars about a half a millimeter below my skin; if I can disable the nanobots of cognitive dissonance before they build a maze of funhouse mirrors in my mind; if I can become an adept of the art of observing but not identifying with or responding to the physical sensations that precede rage, then I find myself negotiating the situation with ease. No problemo.
The tempest subsides.
No one, save me, is any the wiser of what has just been narrowly averted. It’s like a secret victory in a silent war. Or maybe it’s the other way around, because surely the victory is in the silence. I feel quite pleased with myself. My inner super-nanny sticks a little gold star on the rewards chart of my inner hell-spawn.
So I’m going to keep playing this game. I want to get really, really good at it.
I’ve always been of the opinion that writers take a cheap shot when they borrow the words of undeniable geniuses to elevate their own works. I had a boyfriend once who was supposed to be reading me his novel when I eventually realized that he had, for quite some time, been reciting a passage from TS Eliot, the brilliance of which was matched only by its length. Apparently this was how the novel, which I never did hear, began. It felt like cheating; like he was trying to gain profundity-by-proxy; like deliberately standing next to someone famous when they’re gettin’ papped. A poor wordsmith tarts up his own inferior efforts by borrowing the grace of a great poet, inserts an eloquent passage into his muck, hoping to drag it up by the scruff of its rump, perchance?
When you think about it it’s not such a great strategy, as putting a truffle in the middle of a shit sandwich doesn’t have the effect of making the shit more truffley-like, rather it reveals how shitty the shit is, whilst being a disgraceful abuse of a perfectly good truffle.
Nonetheless, I’m going to risk accusations of exactly this type of literary laziness by masking a clumsy segue to my concluding point with the insertion of these two stanzas from Blake’s The Tyger (1794):
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Now to me, the symmetry of the tyger and the lamb is not just to be understood in the symbolical context of the Christian (ish) mythos of Blake’s visionary pantheon, or even as necessarily a pondering on the nature of the Creator, which are the typical and obvious interpretations of this simple masterpiece.
Rather, I see it as being more about the conflict in the human psyche: between peace and war; herbivore and carnivore. The “fearful symmetry” is the duality of heaven and hell, sure: but aren’t those domains themselves symbols for the drama taking place on the human stage, in the dance-to-the-death between love and hate?
If the tyger and the lamb are to lie down (and make love) together then I’m pretty sure that I have to get them to do it in my own pasture first.
But that doesn’t mean chasing and trying to reconcile extreme experiences, as I think I used to think. The battle is daily, it’s everywhere, it’s inside, and it never ends.
This is starting to feel as though it’s meant to be profound and that there is going to be some deceptively simple culminating statement, like a Zen koan or something, that brings all the opposites and extremes together and ties the whole thing up somehow.