by Donna Quesada: While clearing the saved programs on my Tivo last week, I found myself watching old Oprah episodes…
There was one in particular that shocked me. It was about overweight teens and their families. I continued watching, as a pair of therapists instructed overweight teenagers to vent their anger with emotion. In this intervention episode, the suffering kids were encouraged to “GET IT ALL OUT!”
To get the kids going, the therapists gave them starter phrases, such as “If you really knew me…” or, “I’m angry that…” They were told to complete those tag lines. While standing in the middle of the circle, composed of the other teens and all their parents, the outbursts began. They cried out things like, ”If you really knew me, you’d know that I’d rather be dead than overweight!” They were told to give free rein to their pent-up frustrations, to pour out their pain so their parents would understand what they were going through. So, as if someone had opened the hood on an over-heated car, they let loose the anger and inner torment that had been building up below the surface. The parents then took their turns.
I had a rough time as a teen, too, and my heart broke for all of them. I can only imagine the suffering they have endured internally, at home, and through ceaseless bullying at school. But, I knew that something was very wrong with what I was watching. Here were kids–already carrying the burden of too much weight and too much frustration–screaming in rage to the point of tears, coaxed into it in the name of therapy.
I’m surprised at the continued popularity of this trend, at the continued belief, even among big shots in the field, that this kind of intense emotional purging is the optimal method in advanced therapy. This TV-viewing experience shadows another one, which was similarly unsettling. Not too long ago, a friend brought my attention to a reality show calledCelebrity Detox. With a stupefied expression, I watched as patients were taken to a junkyard and were then told to smash things with baseball bats, urged on in the name of treatment.
This violent sort of catharsis is thought to be useful in itself, but is also thought to be important in uncovering the roots of dysfunction. The recovering addicts with baseball bats purged themselves of their suppressed resentment. They shouted out their anger, they flung fragments of their pasts into the sky and the louder they hollered, the more their mates cheered them on. With this image fresh in my memory, I now watched as the overweight teens bawled out their distress and self-hatred through tears.
I recoiled at both displays, the same way I recoiled at the mall one day, when I watched aghast as a young man shoved, what I gathered was his girlfriend, against a wall while blasting her with a profusion of verbal assaults. It was a hairline away from blatant physical abuse. It was a totally shameless and totally naked public display that unfolded while shoppers simply continued on their way. They continued on their way, without intervening, for their own reasons. They were busy, scared, or–and this is what I fear–because as a people, we’re becoming impervious and immune to this kind of brutality.
I recoiled because I know that these displays of anger will only reinforce the anger.
I keep some of my favorite spiritual books on my nightstand, which I often read from before going to bed. Among them is Man’s Eternal Quest, by Paramahansa Yogananda. In it, he warns of the dangers of venting negative emotions, like anger. He refers to those who do, as “mental alcoholics” and explains that continuous indulgence in any extreme emotion only reinforces it, until ultimately, we become a slave to these bad habits. It is especially crucial that we take notice of this behavior in kids, he says, and that we take steps to prevent children from becoming a mental alcoholics. Yet, here we are encouraging what are essentially…tantrums!
It’s a theme that comes up time and again in the great wisdom traditions. The Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, has explained in his writings, that by engaging in violent behavior, you are merely “rehearsing it” and reaffirming it rather than curtailing it. By venting, you are nurturing the combustible mixture of blame and resentment, clinging to the short-lived illusion of relief due only to the effect of exhaustion. How much better it would be to nourish true insight and to step into a true refuge that will forever serve you.
Similarly, in the renowned classic, Kundalini Yoga; The Flow of Eternal Power, Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa pulls no punches about the cost of indulging in fits of rage: “When anyone loses his temper, it means he has lost self-control,” she says. Proponents of the type of therapy I witnessed, may claim that the fits were controlled and monitored, and thus, acceptable. But, controlled yelling is still yelling and it strikes me as inescapably barbaric. I can only lament the fact that this is still the method of choice.
Any cathartic release comes at too high a price. The harm outweighs any benefits. Like those medication ads, where the side-effects are worse than the original ailment–you go in for headaches and come away with hives. In these cases, we are not only strengthening bad habits, but we are robbing ourselves of the chance to experience more mindful behavior.
Unleashing our rage creates a false sense of personal power due only to the adrenaline surge. But worse, as Kaur Khalsa explains, it strains the the adrenals and the entire nervous system, which in turn, prevents the mind from ever becoming peaceful.
So, does that mean we’re supposed to suppress our emotions, and just suck it up? a student of mine asked, when I spoke of a similar issue in class one day. Striving for more conscious means of managing our emotions doesn’t mean we’re suppressing them; reaching for better ways of dealing with our demons doesn’t mean we’re ignoring them, and aiming for higher methods of working with our rage doesn’t mean we’re harboring it. It would be gentler on everyone if we could learn to work through those negative emotions without the toxic blowout. And if we could, the whole notion of “bottling it up” may soon appear outmoded.
The teens admitted that much of their overeating is due, not to the craving of food, but to the craving of acceptance. There was a follow-up episode with Dr. Oz, who helped the teens with making better nutritional choices. But this still misses the point! For their own well-being and for the sake of their evolution as human beings, I pray they can learn to make healthier psychological choices, as well as healthier eating choices. I pray we can help troubled teens find inner peace.
As Thich Nhat Hanh explains, the starting point is the cultivation of mindfulness. Learning to simply be aware of our emotions brings us out of what he calls “the war zone.” It is the beginning of a peaceful demeanor, and when you are peaceful on the inside, everyone around you feels it and responds peacefully in turn.
It is called mindfulness meditation, and is yoga’s most fundamental tool. It is free, it is available to anyone, and its transformative potential is indisputable. It starts by simply becoming aware of the breath. Like the sun, we take breath for granted. Every morning it appears on its own, yet it is the reason we live. And just as we can learn to harness and transform the sun’s energy, through mindfulness we can transform negative emotions by simply working with the breath. It is where a peaceful response begins.