I grew up around a lot of anger. Dinner plates would be thrown, furniture upturned, my mother forcibly ejected from the house in the dead of night. I learned to duck, dive and run, as well as becoming very adept at cleaning mess up. This last was part of my attempt to appease the fire gods. I wasn’t always successful, if often at all really and at times I felt the need to place myself directly in the line of fire in order to protect my mother.
One of the many effects of all this was the development of what we refer to in psychological terms as hyper-vigilance, though I was later to reframe this as the kind of shamanic super sensitivity that can pick up the subtlest cues from the surrounding environment. Children growing up with violence, abuse and addictions of various kinds, often become adults who are highly attuned to what is going on around them in ways that others are completely unaware of. Being able to read the emotional weather is, literally, a survival skill that children living in such contexts, often have, of necessity, to develop. And indeed this can become so highly attuned it tips over into the realms of what we tend to call the psychic, or unseen realms. One of the other consequences of growing up in such an environs can also tend to be having a very extended personal energy field (what we call in Movement Medicine our circle) that can make it very tricky to distinguish which feelings belong to you and which to others. It’s an intense early training ground in interconnection in some ways, as you learn the hard way that what effects one effects all. Very useful skill set for reading energy fields, not so helpful for maintaining a personal boundary. Although my favourite ever quote on the subject comes from Medicine Woman Jamie Sams, who says that sometimes life blows a hole in some folks, so that spirit can blow through.
By my late teens I was afraid of other people to the point of crippling paranoia and by my early twenties, so depressed that most days I would need to retreat into the dream space for repair. Life has an uncanny knack of sending us just what we need though. I was gifted with meeting a remarkable group of theatre practitioners and began co-counselling, various kinds of body work therapies and the study of shamanism. In my late twenties my prayers also brought me to the dancing path, by which time my commitment to living a life based in joy was reasonably well rooted, even if still challenging. Sometime last year I decided to conduct a series of rituals, with the intention of strengthening my personal circle through the elements.
I began with Earth, making a beautiful circle from flint and heather and bracken, as my lovely husband gently drummed in the bright, late summer sun. To be honest it was the visual, artistic process around this that was most potent for me in this sphere. I later made images combining this ‘installation’ with previous images of journey’s I’ve done with tree spirits that delighted me, so it seemed that in the earth element I simply revelled in the sheer joy of creation.
Fire though, that would be a different matter. Remember my early relationship with anger? The very next day after the fire circle was cast, meditated and danced in, I had some visitors. The truth was that I was too tired for visitors that day but failing to say so I allowed them to arrive into a space where I had limited resources to offer. Reflecting back on this I have made a note to self but I’ve also found myself pondering on how such matters translate when we begin to look at it on a collective level, involving say refugees. I haven’t got an answer but I can’t help feeling like I’d love to explore some kind of public ‘metalogue’ around this subject. Personally I know that there are times when I need to say no and to express what we in personal growth work call a boundary. As someone whose conditioned state falls on the political left of the spectrum I tend towards the radical idea of dismantling all geographical boundaries on the collective level but when I recall my personal needs I realise that maybe that wouldn’t work out so well. I wonder if perhaps this is one the arena’s where the conventional distinctions between the traditional political left and right may begin to melt if we started taking a common sense approach to the questions of how we care for self and others simultaneously on the collective level,though I doubt it’s a problem that can truly be addressed without significant wealth re-distribution. I digress though.
So anyway, back to the day after my fire circle ritual. One of my visitors was someone for whom emotional resources and support given from within our household would appear to have made a significant difference to her household’s wellbeing in the last few years. That day however a process unfolded wherein rather than simply taking responsibility for a decision she needed to make she became entangled in a past story (this was clearly acknowledged at a later stage) in which I was cast as the villain of the piece. I became a dark and dangerous figure who she feared may ‘curse’ her. I had a whole number of responses, including feeling hurt, unseen and in need of protection. At the same time I became aware of what strange notions can develop when we are known to work shamanically. It also provoked a long reflective process about what it means to curse someone in contemporary Western culture. Basically, I concluded that I think it means to give voice to a story line in which we inaccurately attribute negative motives or personality traits to someone else. I also think that medical diagnosis in both the generic and mental health services can function as a kind of curse or long term narrative that can be difficult for people to get out from underneath.
Nonetheless, we’ve all assigned 'negative' motives and descriptions to others. Sometimes naming something accurately forms part of an important process of discernment, decision-making and important change, sometimes the threads of past and present become entangled, as we weave repetitive story lines in which we cast ourselves as victims and others as perpetrators! And sometimes our ongoing plot line is so pervasive that we become disconnected from the wider reality’ in front of us and treat others as projection screens for our movie.
For me the aforementioned scenario gave me an opportunity to communicate my personal boundaries and to make a stand on behalf of my ‘own’ story and reality, so although I found it an emotionally and spiritually unpleasant experience, I also saw it as a very immediate feedback loop from my fire circle ritual. I communicated in a way I felt to be clear and respectful, the projection was reeled back in very swiftly and gracefully and I considered this a good result. The Universe was far from finished with me however. Over the next few months I seemed to encounter a regular supply of situations that required saying no. I engaged with this with as much clarity and as little drama as I could muster and had a whole string of clear, respectful responses. So far, so good.
I’ve also had what I’m tempted to describe as failures. Times when my no has not been respected no matter how clearly or often expressed and I’ve exploded like a firework…adolescent daughters are wonderful teachers in this area. The upside is that in spite of the shame I feel when I fail to live up to my own values, I seem to be in a slow learning process around how to witness my own trauma triggers and communicate more clearly about my needs in highly charged exchanges. I’m also learning (as many of us in parenting roles do) about repair, forgiveness and compassion.
Meantime, there’s been an ongoing situation, unfolding over many years, where I’ve found it too challenging to what I perceive as the fragile balance of interconnected diversity in my wider family system to just say it how it is. One such scenario recently arrived at a point where enough was quite simply enough and boundaries around two apparently irreconcilable sets of values needed to be stated. What do we do with apparently totally oppositional values from our own when there seems no will to find resolution? How do we respond to racism, homophobia, pro-lifers, bring back hanging advocates, rigid fundamentalism or just the simple adoption of the I’m right/You’re wrong position, that seems to have lost all colour in the spectrum other than black and white - especially when it arrives in your front room? I guess that one of the amazing gifts of family is that we have to stick with conversations that we just might not even be prepared to entertain elsewhere. Though we have hot spots in my family system where communication has ground to a complete stand still and the best that we can do is offer each other the space to exist on our own terms. Again, on a collective level, it’s the places where we can’t manage this that we have war or violent eruptions over reality and value clashes.
Just so nobody gets the impression that I myself am immune to either black and white thinking, casting someone else as the villain in my drama or justifying my own need to discharge and direct my anger as someone, I’ve sat in that place in the circle too whilst I’ve been asking Grandfather Fire to come and instruct me. Retrospectively I can see that I was triggered in such a way that I began to impute negative motive where there was none. In a context in which I had already reached my frustration tolerance, I began to feel unheard, undervalued and excluded from a decision making process in which I had a ‘right’ to have my voice heard. Before you could say Jack Robinson (don’t ask me where that came from) I was furious, full of blame and that kind of righteous anger that ‘knows’. None of this is easy to own up to, especially in public. I don’t want to be pidgeon-holed or judged and yet somehow my urge towards transparency feels healthier than my desire to hide. I was expressing my shadow. It's human. At the time this happened, I had another high stress situation unfolding in my life. I can’t speak for the other person but over a period of many years I have gradually come to the conclusion that conflict often occurs at the meeting point of two wounds. Fortunately for me, I apologised and the other party graciously accepted this.
Interestingly, I too needed to make a ‘complaint’ about what I perceived as disrespectful treatment from someone I’d been working with, who took full responsibility and apologised very gracefully. But just as my elemental cycle morphed from fire to water I also experienced one another situation in which the do-er and the do-ee became very confused in the communication process, neither apology nor grace seemed to make the slightest difference and the only element which could sooth the scorched earth was flowing water.
In other words I felt very hurt and distressed in the communication process and having made an intention to make my water circle on the coming Sunday I found myself crying for two days over finding myself at the receiving end
of anger which seemed closed to all attempts to appease, apologise or make amends for behaviour on my part which had no malevolent intent within it but was at worse a product of a lack of clarity and exhaustion on my part.
Invoking fire as a teacher has been an intense process. Once I was able to step into a reflective space and contemplate all that had unfolded I could see that fire had indeed responded magnificently to place me in every
position around the wheel of conflict, enabling me to experience victim, perpetrator, and rescuer, as well as skilful diplomat and assertive but agreeable boundary setter. As someone interested in astrology I gather that there has been a lot of planetary activity involving Mars and others in
oppositions and retrograde activity during this time.
Whilst I wouldn’t be keen to repeat it again in a hurry, I’ve learned a lot from it. Anger, or fire, when it is functioning in a healthy way, arises in the present and quite simply functions as a way to maintain our personal integrity. That said, people encountering each other in such interactions
don’t always come into them as “equals”- there may be age, class, gender, race and contextual power differences, that make clean interactions very problematic. Most of us have experienced this on many occasions in our lives, from childhood onwards, where our shadow patterns are often wired in. When we don’t take time to become conscious of our backlog anger and/or our stories or habitual roles, then we have the world we live in on a daily basis, one in which we often dishonour each other through the inappropriate dumping of old toxins on sometimes unsuspecting passersby. I know that one of my own patterns is to repress the expression of my anger, store it up and then explode. I don’t want to upset the apple cart, suffer through disharmony or risk relationships and yet over many years I have also learned that holding back on my authentic feelings
oftentimes leads to eventual disruption in relationships anyway. I can’t help feeling that conflict resolution and non-
violent communication should be core elements of our school curriculum. Until such time as it is my own commitment is
to continuing the hard emotional labour of clearing up my own backyard, working on my capacity for personal responsibility and intending a general stance of forgiveness for the beautiful, crazy soup we call humanity…
Ali Young is both a published poet and academic, with book chapters in collections on
embodiment published by
Routledge, as well as a
variety of academic papers.