Today I felt irritable. Suddenly and unaccountably irritable. I realised that it's Father's Day. And I lost my father eight months ago.
The funny thing is, consciously I am not recognising that the loss of my father, and the nature of the day, are influencing me to feel irritable. As far as my conscious mind is concerned, I am just irritable, and that is that.
In evolutionary terms, I can understand this. It would put a pretty heavy load on the conscious mind, if I was required to consciously register every unconscious influence on my system. It makes better sense for my body to deal with the distress by finding a channel for aggression, than it does for me to build a perfect conscious model for all of my circumstances. Put in straight English, unconscious reaction requires less intelligence than conscious appreciation.
Unfortunately, the consequences of this evolutionary economy can be considerable. If I take my inner conflict out on the world, a consequence is that the world feels distressed, and then decides to fight back. There begins a loop which can only end in an escalating battle with the world until one of us loses. And, the world being bigger than me, it's going to be me who is the loser. Hence, we have a systematic explanation for how many people deal with distress:
1. An inner conflict arises, a bit like the 'inner mess' of a well-used house if it is not cleaned. It arises because I haven't got the intelligence to keep tidying up after life, and making sure my brain is clear and clean.
2. This creates tension, which has two possible directions, inward or outward.
3. If I take it inwardly (for instance by being hard on myself), then I can cause myself to be totally 'messed up', or depressed. It is a bit like throwing the mess around in an already messy house - it's not going to help.
4. If I push it outwards (for instance by being hard on others), then I cause conflict with the world. I will find myself in arguments which just add to the burden of living.
5. Under both scenarios, I lose, and end up overwhelmed.
OK, so how to avoid the overwhelm?
MEDITATION AND PLAY
Well, our bodies and minds do have a couple of tools up their sleeves. One is natural, and the other is less natural.
The natural tool is play. Play rebalances us in much the same way as food cravings rebalance us nutritionally. Play is letting your system demand what comes next - giving free rein to your inner urges, but harmlessly. It can be play-fighting or play-talking, but the understanding is that no one takes it personally. It's only play.
The less natural tool is meditation. Meditation is a more disciplined approach to internal hygiene. You sit with your self, and you watch what comes. You retain your focus, allowing what comes to fall away and retreat. You keep your focus on an object, or on your breath, and repeatedly let the distractions come, and then fall away. It is similar to play, in that you let things arise. The difference is that you do not act externally. The other difference is that, instead of staying engaged with what arises, as in play, you dis-engage, or detach, from all the things that your mind wants to attach to, or engage with. It is as if you have grown a layer of grease on you, and nothing sticks. You are left with just your self and your awareness.
So next time you find yourself irritable, try one of two tactics.
1. Play - listen to your inner workings, see what they have an appetite for, and find a harmless outlet for that appetite. Play a ball game, play-fight, joke around, seek some adventure, go for a swim... whatever, for you, seems to be the play that your body wants in order to unwind. You will know if it works, because you will feel rested and relieved. It may even be that you need to cry, which is a form of play, viewed this way.
2. Meditate - listen to your inner workings, but stay focused and aware, and let them play themselves out until they calm down of their own accord, and trouble you no longer. Again, you will know if it works, because you will feel rested and relieved, and extremely calm.
Whatever you choose, do take some time to take care of yourself. Viewed this way, both play and meditation are important tools of self-care. It also helps you to take care of others, because how can you help others if you lack the calmness to make good decisions in their interests?
Today, I cleared myself some time for this. I took my irritability as a sign that I needed to tend to my own inner workings. That way, nobody gets hurt, and everybody, in the long run, gets helped.