16 Jun What I Learnt About Anger at a House in Verona
‘Depression is anger without enthusiasm’ – Osho
A year ago, I walked watchfully up the drive of a tired but affectionate house on the outskirts of Verona, Northern Italy. As I handed in my phone, saying a digital farewell to my safety net, I peered warily at the strange faces filling out forms alongside me. The scene invited that same lump of non-familial discomfort I first knew 17 years before as a young boy with a boarding school trunk in hand.
Along with 35 others from across Europe and the Middle East, I opted in; no speaking outside the sessions, no leaving the grounds at any point, no sexual activity, alcohol, caffeine or contact with the outside word. That first morning, I peered over the wall at a nearby farmer and yearned to swap places.
I stood at the foothills of a week-long exploration of the self, and I was terrified.
Ahead of the retreat, I spoke at length with one of its leaders Praful, ensuring it was the right time for me to walk through those wrought-iron gates. In this conversation, he likened our internal emotional framework to a five-storey house. As you descend the stairs of this home, you delve deeper into the depths of honesty. Where, he had me ponder, does shame implore me to drop-off colleagues, contemporaries, bosses, suitors, lovers, friends, family and, finally, myself? As we finished the call, he put an invitation to me; “We want to go into the cellars, Simon. Are you prepared to go there?”
Standing at the front of my ‘horseshoe’ (my group of 12 for the week), raising my eyeline to the same number of staff (previous retreatants returning to ensure you are seen) sitting in twin rows behind, and speaking to our two facilitators, I was intensely vulnerable.
Bar the clothes on my back, I was naked.
In those seven days, I found a route into the undergrowth of honesty that I hadn’t accessed in seven months of therapy previously. Others said the same of seven years. It has changed the narrative of my therapy, and, slowly but surely, my approach to the myriad of relationships which give my life meaning.
On ‘anger day’, the second day, with my right leg tapping the floor as incessantly as a child at the door, and my eyes flittering between my shoelaces and the many willing me forward, I spoke quietly in declaring; “I am just not really an angry person. All I feel right now is sadness.”
It was a truth. It was how I felt. For a period, I had passed through the ebb and flow of regulated human emotion, into a disconcerting, but conversely deeply comforting, expanse of despondency. It was an emotion that wasn’t really an emotion, rather a default for genuine feeling; joy giving way to guilt, anger to sadness or excitement to introversion. Like many, I turned to alcoholic aids to cut through the fog, to give me sight of the self I once knew. But it is a current which cannot be out swum; in the soaring high of a friend-filled night, the creeping sadness of its cessation or the difficult reality of the morrow, the numbness remained. It was this which led me to Italy.
In response to this declaration, Rupda, our lead facilitator, shared the insight; ‘depression is anger without enthusiasm.’ The illness has many faces, but for me that concept proved as profound as it was simple. That day, and throughout the week, by means of articulation, unshackled dance and dynamic meditation, we gave expression to our anger. In an instance, it added vivid colour to the monochrome of melancholy. The term ‘depression’ in itself indicates a contraction; a tyre without air. In accessing my anger, I found new life. And in life, there is always hope.
“If we’re not supposed to dance, why all this music?” – Gregory Orr
I had always associated anger with aggression and conflict. Opting instead to move inwards; a tortoise protecting its head with its shell, or me protecting myself, and others, with my silence. It is hindsight which has shown me that my suppression was in fact achieving just the opposite.
Throughout my life, my failsafe outlet for anger was the theatrical ‘sulk’; expecting those around me, invariably those I cared for most, to know intuitively that which I was failing to communicate.
“At the heart of a sulk lies a confusing mixture of intense anger and an equally intense desire not to communicate what one is angry about. The very need to explain forms the kernel of the insult: if the partner requires an explanation, he or she is clearly not worthy of one.” – Alain de Botton
Since that week in Verona, I have begun to overhaul my relationship with anger. Accepting it as the lifeblood human emotion that it is and choosing to not shy from it but use it as an enabler for honest expression.
I do this through a concept we learnt that week, that of the ‘burn’. When still waters are stirred, through one of the many triggers that litter life, I find an outlet to ‘burn’ these emotions.
Our means that week was dance; music blaring, eye masks on, inhibitions shelved, free reign seized. However, there is no rule book to what a ‘burn’ might be — running, dancing, singing, boxing, drumming, shaking, shouting, swimming, roaring, banging, or anything in between — the bolder I’ve been, the freer I’ve felt.
Its secret lies in the discharge of tension from the body. By detaching anger from the propensity to harm, it can be a life force which enables action and subsequent clear, calm communication. In that vibrance there is clarity; these are my boundaries and it is not okay that they’ve been crossed, or; this reaction is a defence and I’ll deal with it without smashing plates or upsetting a loved one.
“Speak when you are angry — you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret” – Ambrose Bierce
As the drawstrings of lockdown are being loosened, I’ve certainly shared in the cautious but collective out breath. The valve on our individual isolation hubs is being opened, and the compression, for now at least, abated. It was a compression which created such inspiring connection and innovation, but, conversely and unsurprisingly, also significant pressure, fear and intensity.
It generated, in my experience at least, an intermittent gnawing feeling of containment. Working from home, living at home, socialising at home, being at home; it is little wonder that this feeling was at times tangible.
When it is that close, close enough to reach out and touch, it is invariably a straw which breaks the camel’s back. Perhaps a jar that wouldn’t open, a hot tray that’s breached the oven gloves, an early-morning tantrum from a frustrated child, an ill-timed dishwasher-tip from an isolation ally or a late-night anxiety-offloading email from a colleague.
The reaction — the exclamation, expletive or exasperation; surliness, silence or sulking — is seldom about the jar, the tray, the child, the housemate or the email. Its root cause sits, uncommunicated beneath. The momentary explosion is so out of kilter that it is amusing. If not at the time, then certainly on reflection. A fitting snapshot of just how wonderfully flawed we all are.
Along with those that existed before, the new world will be lined with jam-jar moments; of isolation bubbles bursting, of social angst returning, of unease or frustration at differing interpretations of ‘staying alert’ or attitudes to offices re-opening, of the long-term social, cultural and financial ramifications of this interlude becoming a reality, or of old habits dying harder than we hoped.
So next time you feel the dam compressing; have a holler on a walk, a roar on a run, a scream behind the wheel of the car, or a headphones-on-all-clothes-off dance round the room. Peculiar as it may feel at first, you might just find it a gateway to simplicity. I certainly did back in that house in Verona.
Written by Simon Lamb
First published in Medium.com