Kali and Feminine Rage

Anger is an emotion.  This tradition says that all emotions are holy.  All emotions can become the path.  Emotions carry information and- if you can get to the heart of them- they bend us toward wisdom and love.

But that doesn't help much. 

Answering specific questions with platitudes rarely does.  

Anger is so uncomfortable.  It is hard.  It is bitter in the mouth.  Anger hurts.  And I think that there is a very real difference between anger and feminine rage.  

Both anger and feminine rage are things that anyone can feel.  They are not specific to gender.  But they are different both in source and in essence.  Feminine rage is not the female expression of normal anger.  Feminine rage is the physiological, ancestral, naked and embodied response to things gone wrong in the world.

This tradition, like every other, is patriarchal. It was articulated, written, and transmitted for the benefit of men.  That often leaves women in the dust.  Women's bodies, women's power, women's questions, and feminine rage.  As if menstrual flow could actually be reversed in inversion, I mean.  C'mon.

So a tradition that says anger is an emotion like all other emotions fails to answer, directly, to feminine rage. 

According to the tradition, anger is a complex of thought, belief, and physical body.  Just like all emotions.  Just like other emotions, it is fluid.  It is fluent.  It speaks some truth.  And then it passes.  However, anger is clumped together with things like greed as being something we need to train our hearts for, if not 'purify' from our system.

In that traditional view, anger is often first examined and then an attempt is made to see it with acceptance and clarity.  Clarity shows that anger is a sea change to our heart rate, our blood pressure, our perceptive field.  It's an adrenaline surge, generally.  It makes our faces hot and our hands tremble.

It's uncomfortable.

But some people like it.

Just like some people like roller coasters. 

There's a rush.  The that rush is 'energy'.  It is power.  We become scary looking or sounding, and this makes other people react to us differently; some people find that empowering.  Or convenient.

There is a common belief, taught not just in this tradition but in western psychology generally, that anger is a 'secondary emotion'.  Anger masks something more vulnerable like sorrow, embarrassment, or shame.  And I can see some truth to that.  Often in my rage there is deep, deep sorrow.  Often there is tremendous grief that is so big and pulpy it can't do anything but thrash about.  It's an animal, guttural, howl.

But I think the concept of 'secondary emotion' can be misleading. 

It's misleading because all emotions come with other emotions. We never feel just one thing.  And there are thousands of shades, endless potential shades, of any over arching emotive concept like 'sad'.  There is the sadness of lost opportunity, and this is different than the sadness of my favorite coffee mug just broke, and this is different again from my soccer team lost the match, or my partner no longer loves me as he once did. There is the sadness of nostalgia, and the sadness of running out of cookies. Part of mindfulness is starting to comb through the morass of tangled and convoluted emotions to see how much this is true.  Now pride, now tenderness, now childlike, now selfish.  As you comb, emotions become more transparent.  We see how they are laced with physiology, old patterns, and assumptions.  So often anger isn't anger: it's just fatigue or low blood sugar.  How often have you barked at someone because you were tired or hungry?  How often have you snapped at someone or stomped away not because of what they did, but because someone said or did something years and years ago? How often have you made a judgement because you assumed someone should know what you know, or share your opinion?  True, all of this.  True.

But not quite the whole story.  Saying anger is a secondary emotion is an easy way to dismiss anger.

Women's anger has been dismissed for generations.  My anger has been dismissed for decades.  For most of our lives we've been told we don't really feel what we feel.

I do think anger is sometimes a mask, a safer thing to feel than threatened or wounded or sad.  Anger is a handy container for sorrow so deep it wails.

But sometimes anger is pure.  Straight.  Solitary.  Pissed and holy. Anger can be morally, physically, archaically, down to my most private places violated, offended exasperated provoked and choked and pressed and denied and hot and heavy, outright fury.

Feminine rage is what the heart mind does when things are not okay in the world.  It is the truth that some things are just not okay.  

Kali in my pocket  

When the movie Kill Bill came out, I left the theater brazen. That was so refreshing, I said.

I find relief in images of women's rage.  I mean this physically. I find such stories comforting.  I mean this viscerally.

This can make me sad.  Complicatedly sad.  Multiply sad.

It is sad proof that I am a pent and coiled harpie of spitting indignation and outcry.  It is suggestive that I carry deep and abiding inner pain.  I'm not denying this.  It is sad that I have such subtext, always and still.  And it is sad that I know I'm not alone.  And it is sad that any expression of feminine rage is dismissed as personal trauma, rather than valid, even when it's concerning things like other women and children. And it is sad that the angry woman is an archetype that makes people uncomfortable - an Angry Woman is symbolic of hormonal irrationality, civilly inappropriate, a Bitch -while simultaneously touching real women's hearts in a sweet way.   Real life women recognize something in images of Medusa and Kali and Athena like we recognize our own name called across a noisy chattering room.  We cock our ears almost instinctively.  The duality of women recognizing and feeling rage while society is made uncomfortable by it ends in a repression of women's reality.  This is all so complicated.  It's woven and unwoven like a Sutra.  Or Penelope's rug. Or the circulatory system.

So we react with sadness.  Sadness is nice.  I find it interesting that general anger is considered a secondary emotion to sad or afraid.  But sad or afraid are secondary emotions to feminine rage.  

I once went to a shooting range with some friends, just because it was a thing to do.  I vomited when the handgun was put in my hand.  My girlfriend, however, took a stance and a solidity I've never seen her stand before and threw bullets as though they were coming directly out of her mouth.  Or her pussy.  She reacted one way.  I another.  

I've had conversations about martial arts and kickboxing and such, because people often say I would be good at it.  People have suggested that such things are empowering for women. 

I shrug.  I've tried.  But I can't even punch a bag, let alone a face.  There is such deep aversion and repression in me that my arm locks, as unconsciously and unstoppably as a reflex. I, like so many other people I know, have pushed even the hint of anger down so deep inside it solidified to self-hate.

One of the reasons I knew I needed to quit drinking, back in my still drinking life, was that the bleariness of wasted all the time meant I had hurt people.  I mean violently.  Aside and apart from the fact that I was hurt.  Violently. I remember a conversation, way back in that still drinking life, about gun ownership.  My response was not first or foremost political, although it is those things.  First and foremost, though, I said I can't have a gun because sooner or later I would go ahead and use it.

I am glad that I quit drinking, and I truly don't want to hurt anyone. And at the same time, it is infuriating that repression is one of the core realities of who I am.

I often carry an image or a murti of Kali in my pocket.  She is with me.  I've taped her portrait onto the bathroom mirror and I've tucked her into the pages of books for years and years.  I consider her a saint.  She's sacred.  She is a comfort.

And I am not alone in this.  

I used to work much more directly with sexual assault, domestic violence, reproductive rights and immigration than I do now as a yoga teacher.  And here's an interesting thing: even though the context was infinitely sad, the resources never sufficient, even though moment by moment by moment I was in direct contact with real women's lives being broken or ended or hurt, just hurt, I have never felt more safe or beloved in my life.  I have never been so comfortable in my own skin.  The laughter, when we laughed, was rich like glorious food.  The eye contact was heady like wine and hard, sharp, like lightening.  Like lightening it was always a little dangerous, but also pretty.  The voices were like live orchestra, vibrating the bones inside.  

There are some things I simply can't do by myself.  There are some emotions we can't hold, alone. So we make goddesses, witches, and fairy tales.

Feminine rage is communal.  And it's personal.  Both.

 The Erinyes, or Furies. The 'hideous' goddesses of vengeance.

The Erinyes, or Furies. The 'hideous' goddesses of vengeance.

The Myth of the Divine Feminine

There's a lot of talk in our (the yoga world's) circles of 'reclaiming' the divine feminine.  I am uncomfortable with this. 

First, because it often appropriates other people's mythology or spirituality.  Fond as I am of Kali, I am not nor do I want to be Hindu.  What she means to me is different than what she means to Hindus, or historically.  And to invoke a 'universal' earth mother is just a way of trivializing world history and cultural difference. Much of our spiritualizing, imaging, and positioning of femininity uses concepts to deflect from reality rather than work with it.  I empathize with the longing for 'juicy hips', but I have serious questions about the real life consequences of such practices physically, socially, and personally.  We tend to indulge in 'hip openers' and 'sacred circles' in the same way we indulge in bulimia.  Trading one harm for another is not progress.  It's like a lateral career shift.  And any good yogi knows that same old story told over and over again, even if it's told a little differently, is the very definition of there being a problem.

Secondly, talk of the divine feminine doesn't really address the fact that there has never, ever been a culture that respects the bodies of women.  An historic matriarchy is a myth.  Even in societies where women have held positions of power, that power took place within a context of patriarchy.  Her position did not serve the interests of other women in that society.  She was a figure head. 

There is a relatedness between queens and whores.

I'm not making this easy.  I know it. 

It's complicated.

On the one hand, this practice and history in general disparage women.  On the other, contemporary western women have found this practice empowering.

I tend to think that modern feminists can, and should, change yoga.  Just as we can, and should, change the world.  This is earth shattering stuff.  Yogis don't like to think about yoga changing.  Yogis tend to revere yoga precisely because of it's ancientness, 'the tradition'. What I'm suggesting is really hard.  It's terribly scary.  There is a lot of bathwater.

But listen.  Babies are precious.  And there is a difference between myth, tradition, and truth.  We should try to practice truth, not tradition because it was our first experience of truth.

The Practice of FEminine Rage

Feminine rage is distinct from anger.  Feminine rage can be felt by any one.  It is the body mind's response to injustice.  General anger is a signal that a boundary has been crossed.  Feminine rage is the specific boundary violation of social injustice.  It can be both or independently personal and impersonal.

We can practice with it. 

Just like all other sensations, thoughts, and emotions, the first stages of practice are about recognition and seeing things as they are.  It's so freaking important to recognizing the difference between low blood sugar and anger at the person in front of you.  And it's important to discern the difference between boundaries violated in the here and now as distinct from the times a current situation brings up a boundary violation from the past.  That's what being 'triggered', means.  I've often 'gotten mad at' joe schmo in front of me, or my partner, when I'm really mad at someone else entirely.  Sometimes I've felt a flare of anger for people who have been dead for years.  

And it's important to recognize all the tremendously different ways in which our boundaries can be crossed, to be really really clear about what and where boundaries are. Sometimes, we cross our own boundaries but then project our anger - as resentment - onto other people.  Sometimes, we get angry because the boundary of ego has been crossed or called out.  We feel impeded or challenged in some way and we don't like it, even if the Other was totally within their right. Sometimes we get angry when we are not given credit, but sometimes we get angry when we are given responsibility we didn't ask for. Sometimes, we get angry in traffic.  But it isn't that traffic violated our boundary (of time, of responsibility, of where we are supposed to be), it's that circumstances did.  Or, we over scheduled or procrastinated and we did it to ourselves.

If and when a boundary has been crossed, the work of anger is to rectify the boundary.  The work of the practice is to clarify boundaries.  Anger is a call to take some action, to right some balance. 

But in all honesty, that often means nothing in the current scenario.  It means we need to reapply some breathing room and give ourselves a time out.  It means we need to shut off Facebook and go for a walk.  It means we have to renegotiate, often tenderly - by which I mean both prickly awkward to ourselves and gently patiently toward the other - family roles and expectations.  We'll have to keep renegotiating roles and expectations, over and over again. We'll have to keep the question of our ego, going.

So often we get angry in at work or in traffic or in a conversation that we can't just take a time out from; then boundaries mean we need to center ourselves in our body, slow down our words with care, both feel our crazy heartbeat and not be driven to a frenzy by it.  We can learn to stay in our body.  Things like resilience and tolerance can be improved.  We can be fucking zen masters if we need to be and for spaces at a time we're able to stay with the experience rather than projecting into stories.

Once we start to realize we have old anger, we eventually have to work with that.  Once we realize a current relationship is chronically boundary invasive or enmeshing or obscure, we're going to have to figure that shit out.  Once we get clear evidence of how often we're doing our own selves some trouble, we've got work to do. Once we start to know what anger does in our body and mind, we're going to have to learn some down-regulating or grounding or stress management, skills.  Working with anger means feeling all of this, coming to know and coming to see, and feeling that the feeling passes.  It will.  Emotions are fluid.  And they are fluent.  

However.  Feminine rage is going to be unique in that question of the feeling passing. It's going to keep happening, simply because the issue is systemic.  Feminine rage persists because it fucking has to.

Fury and Blessing

There are about three people who know this in the world.  That old twitter name of mine that became my instagram name that keeps hanging around just because it's locked and loaded and familiar? That's a direct bow to feminine rage.  Coal was a baby I couldn't have.  Fury invokes the Erinyes.  There.  Now my private is your insight.

The only way to 'transform' or 'heal' feminine rage is through civil justice.  Civitas and lady liberty, Kali and whatever other old old myths you can find.  It is both vital that we take care of ourselves and that we see how self care ultimately ends up being community.

Let me tell you a story.  Once upon a time, the Furies were born.  Some say they were the children of Uranus: when his genitals were thrown into the sea following his murder, Aphrodite was born of the sea foam but the Furies were born from his flecks of blood.  Some say they are even older and more chthonic than this: they spring from the very merging of earth and wind.  

However they were born, and birth in general is always going to be a mystery, the Furies have forever been wailing, screaming, endless rage.  They personify vengeance. They moan for justice.  They punish, through agony, people who commit crimes.  

They have been described as having snakes for hair, bloodshot eyes, dog's heads, bat's wings.  They are 'infernal' and 'hideous'.  They live in the earth's depths. They pursue, like guilt, those who have done wrong.

They do this for millenia, until Aeschylus writes the Orestes stories down.  There are a number of stories, a lot of murder.  First a daughter is offered to the gods for success in battle, then mother takes vengeance and murders the father.  Then the son takes vengeance and murders mom. This goes on for a while, with lots of choral singing and the Furies hounding people down over the whole damned world.  Eventually this son is brought to trial in the play The Euripides, with the Furies standing in for all those murdered folks as 'accusers'.

The trial becomes a debate about blood vengeance, the honor due to a mother compared to that due to a father, and what respect should be paid to ancient deities such as the Erinyes. The jury vote is evenly split. Athena participates in the vote and chooses for acquittal. Athena declares the murderous son acquitted because of the rules of the trial. 

A little disgruntled by this verdict, the Erinyes threaten to torment all inhabitants of Athens and to poison the surrounding countryside. Athena, however, offers the ancient goddesses a new role as protectors of justice, rather than vengeance, and of the city. She persuades them to break the cycle of blood for blood. While promising that the goddesses will receive due honor from the Athenians and Athena, she also reminds them that she possesses the key to the storehouse where Zeus keeps the thunderbolts that defeated the other older deities. In the play, the "Furies" are thereafter addressed as "Semnai" (Venerable Ones), as they will now be honored by the citizens of Athens and ensure the city's prosperity.

The Furies become the Beatitudes, see?  

Justice is a hard thing, but beautiful.  Just because it doesn't exist doesn't mean we shouldn't fight for it. 

That fight is an attempt, a repeated over our lifetime practice, of being fully and heartfully present in a crazy world. It's hard.  But I would rather have a hard practice and a better life than a feel good practice and a hard life. 

Since life is desperately hard, practice matters.  

Anger and Hate

Women's stories, women's bodies, and women's reality are almost transgressive by definition. Given all that history.  This is another complexity. If you are a woman, everything is political.  You didn't choose to make it that way, and at the same time if you choose to be 'non-political', it's political in spite of what you want. 

We don't get what we want.  We get life.

I'm not talking to women, exactly.  

I'm talking about anger and hatred. I've had to wrestle with both.  I'm still trying, as so many of us are these days.  It's still hard.

It turns out the platitude, the teaching, was right from the get go. There is a difference between anger and hatred and the difference is this: anger is love. 

Feminine rage does not need to be healed; it's a sign of life.  If I could tell you how little I need someone to feel sorry for me or how little I need anybody to fix my problems, you might realize that love is about presence.  And if I could remember that there is a time and a place for my truth but it will almost never be where it's easy for me or how I want it to be, that I have no business feeling sorry for anybody but it is my work to keep myself present, I might actually feel togetherness rather than projection.

Presence is so hard - it's so hard - because anger is uncomfortable. But it's okay to be angry because anger needs presence, not healing. Anger bends toward wisdom and reparation, solidarity and resolve; it's a wild and terrible call that says we have to deal with boundaries and renew relationships.  It's a throaty, impassioned urge to settle down and in.

Feminine rage persists.  It has to. It has to because it literally defines the future. Its suppression is harmful to everyone.  Suppression is related to hate.  And hate, unlike anger, will need a lot of healing. Hate needs the kind of healing that is so hard I wouldn't believe it possible unless I knew some folks who've done it.  Stay soft, I said while teaching: stay strong.

This may not feel like I'm being helpful.  I still haven't told you what to do.

I think you should stick Kali in your pocket.  And the Virgin Mary.  Work with women.  Work with children. Do whatever you need to do to keep your own body safe and happy.  Take up kickboxing, if it helps, or yin yoga if that does. Mother yourself, and let your self be mothered.  Cry.  It's very yogic to cry.  Make a ritual for your body and if you need to you can use the bodies of the gods, the demons, all of angels and ghosts and stories. Use the whole consort of mythology because there are somethings we cannot hold alone.  Realize that your body is not the only wounded flesh. 

Use this as solace.  Also use it as urgency.

But repeat, like a mantra, for the rest of your life so that the children behind you know it and might have a shot at better lives: there is a difference between anger and hatred.  My anger always means that something has to be done, something is being called for, love has been obscured.