When I was 30 years old every Wednesday I would take the Trailways bus from New Paltz, NY into Manhattan. I would then walk from the bus station over to the offices of est, the human potential organization – the current self-help rage at the time. I was volunteering for them and my job was to call people whose phone numbers had been semi-willingly provided by training graduates and try to convince them to sign up and pay $250 for the two-weekend training. I was a “young 30” and a sucker for the Big Lie then – that successful organizations don’t come with dark Shadows (another way to think about Shadow is: unconscious, unintegrated neural disorganization. It turned out to be especially dark in est).
You’ve Just Won One…Million…Dollars
Anyway, one winter day, volunteering alongside me I discovered the CEO of a company called Publishers Clearing House, the discount magazine subscription service. Naturally, my first question was, “Do you guys really give away a million dollars every year to a real customer who’s not a company shill?” He replied that with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from that ad campaign alone, it would be idiotic not to give the money away. Not only that, but publicly giving that money away was invariably the highlight of his year. The joy and surprise expressed by the lucky recipient was unmatched anywhere else in his life. To date the company has given away nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. But that’s not the richest contribution I got from the PCH CEO during those days.
Permission to Scream, Sir
What I got from the CEO of Publishers Clearing House (and from est) was that I could intentionally learn to become comfortable with things that customarily made me uncomfortable. Like other people’s anger. The way it worked in the est office (you may not remember, but this is an organization that became famous for not letting participants go to the bathroom and for publicly calling them “assholes”) was that when you volunteered, you gave people permission to be “direct” with you. What that often meant was: you gave people permission to scream at you.
Initially, I gave that permission only reluctantly. The human brain comes pre-wired with an aversive response to abrupt, loud sounds. Every time someone screamed in the est office, my muscles would tense and my breathing would pause, even it if wasn’t directed at me. My options, long conditioned by the culture I grew up in, were to simply ignore angry people, or punch them in the face. Another freeing option that est offered was … activate my Social Vagus nerve and scream right back at them. So, since I was exploring human potential, and since we all agreed to be “direct” with one another, one day when the CEO of Publisher’s Clearing House screamed at me, I screamed right back, piling on one ripe, pent-up epithet after another.
His response caught me off-guard. He relaxed and smiled at me. It was like we’d cleared the air of repressed thought and feeling energy that was beginning to stink up the space between us. Things immediately felt cleaner and lighter. Once the energy was freed up, even I was able to laugh at the silliness of the situation.
There’s a considerable difference in being in an environment where screaming is deployed with agreement and intention versus simple uncontrollable outbursts that catch us off-guard and exceed our neurophysiological capacity to readily regulate in response. The first is being used in the service of training the brain to be resilient; the second – mostly because it overwhelms the regulatory capacity – is tantamount to emotional abuse (I once took my infant daughter to a Stanford Men’s basketball game. The band and crowd noise was so energetically overwhelming that she immediately went completely unconscious in a way that was energetically very different than when she would nightly fall asleep).
Two things are essential to realize here, I think. One is: our brain and body can be trained to be comfortable with situations that now hijack our emotional reality and constrict present-moment awareness. Another is: without graduated, incremental assisted training, our neurophysiology can be easily overwhelmed, and in some cases significantly impoverished.
Mindfully Observing Anger Rising
Other possibility for skillfully, intentionally working with anger is to begin a practice of mindfully watching it’s energy arise in the body and brain, and then, through this simple act of observation, watch as it dissolves and vanishes into internal and external space. While a simple practice, this is not easy in the least, since many of us have insufficient neural connections to start out with that seem to be required for this kind of self-aware observation. The difficulty becomes readily apparent when someone like the Dalai Lama – with decades of meditation training – confesses his struggle with anger as he does in this brief interview.
Bottom line: a wide spectrum of skills and abilities, from public speaking to compassionate relationship, skills that we might currently be emotionally and neurologically challenged to manifest, can be practiced and learned so that their initial hyper-arousal factor can become readily manageable. Experiment and find out for yourself.