Bottomless Wells of Misery and Anger

I got an email from a friend of mine the other day. He wanted to talk about dealing with a person he knows, who he described as “a bottomless well of misery and anger.” 

I don’t know about you, but I know people who fit that description. A lot of people I know also know people like that. 

I have a real affinity with people who are bottomless wells of misery and anger. Because I feel like that’s where I would have defaulted to if I had not gotten into this Zen practice 35-odd years ago. I am kind of bent that way. That’s a bad phrase, but I mean that’s sort of the way I go naturally.

Nothing that I’ve found conventionally, other than Zen, has worked in terms of dealing with my own propensity to be a bottomless well of misery and anger. The idea of trying to replace anger and misery with positivity and good vibes, for example, was useless to me. Drugs didn’t work. Sex didn’t work. Getting lost in my work didn’t work.

The only thing that’s ever worked for me is facing down my own anger and misery in real time while doing this stupid shikantaza (just sitting) practice. And I do mean stupid, because it is the ultimate stupid kind of meditation. That’s why the name my Zen teacher received when he ordained means “The Way of Stupidity.” 

The problem is there’s only so much you can do. There are people who are so stuck in misery and anger that there’s nothing you can do for them. Or at least for me, there are certain people that I’ve been in the orbit of who I found there was nothing, there was zero I could do for them.

One of the mistakes that people who have a certain amount of compassion for folks like that will make is that they keep trying and trying and trying to help these “bottomless wells of misery and anger” type people. But a lot of these people have such attachments to misery and anger that they will keep trying to find things to be miserable and angry about. 

I mean, on the one hand, there’s always something to be miserable and angry about. Just turn on the news. But for some folks, even if there isn’t something immediately misery-making or immediately angry-making, they’ll go and find something to make themselves miserable and angry. And they do it constantly, at every opportunity.

One of the things I have noticed in my current position as a as a public figure — even a sort of bottom-feeding low-level public figure — is that I’ve become a target of obsession for some of these sorts of people. Even this article you’re reading right now is being monitored by certain people who are obsessed with finding things about me to get angry and miserable about. They only clicked on it to get angry and miserable about it.

And that’s really weird. Because most of the people who I am acquainted with who are bottomless wells of anger and misery, they really have legitimate reasons to be angry and miserable. Of course, anybody has reasons to be angry and miserable. But these are people who may have more reasons than most of us to be angry and miserable.

If your life is already full of misery and anger, you might think that the best strategy would be not to add more of it. That would be the sensible, logical thing to do. But I think what happens is maybe it’s an attempt to control anger and misery by getting angry at certain specific targets. Like me for one.

Or if you’re the good-natured friend who tries to work with the endlessly angry and miserable person, they glom on to you. They turn their anger and misery on you because you’re a safe target. You’re the one that won’t smack them. You’re the one that won’t walk away.

And that’s a tough position for anybody to be in. One of the things I’ve found, after a lot of trial and error, is that walking away is sometimes the only thing you can do. I know that’s sad. I know that’s harsh. But sometimes that’s all you can do.

The other thing I’ve also discovered, for whatever it’s worth, is in the Zen communal tradition, a lot of people come in who are troubled people. Some folks have this idea that people who come to Zen are all peaceful, spiritual people. 

That’s usually not the case, not in Zen. People who come to other sort of more fluffy meditations or often those kind of people. But the people who come to Zen are often the most miserable people in the world. They’re the people who are most aware of their own misery and their own anger at everything. They come to this practice maybe because it’s very austere — or at least that’s the image of it. In any case, if you’re into Zen, you’re often encountering people who are bottomless wells of misery and anger. 

The way we deal with that in the Zen tradition is we set up boundaries. That kind of surprises some people, because they think Zen about having no boundaries, accepting everything. Well yeah. Philosophically it is. But in terms of day-to-day interaction with people it’s not like that. 

The Zen attitude is that we are doing this. If you come into this monastery or this Zen Center, we are sitting down and we are looking at this wall for 30 gosh-darn minutes. That is what we’re doing.

We are working on this practice. We are not listening to your stories of misery and anger. We are not kvetching with each other about the state of the world. We are gonna do this practice. Join us if you want, or go somewhere else and do something different. Either way is fine with us. But if you’re in here, this is what we’re doing. So if you want to stay, you’re gonna have to sit down and shut up just like the rest of the people here. 

That’s something that I find very powerful. That’s kind of the attitude I generally take with folks like the ones we’re talking about.

I sit zazen for those of you out there who are endless bottomless wells of anger and misery. That includes you right now who are reading this blog to find something to get angry with me about, and bitch to your Facebook friends about how I’m a fraud or whatever.

I am doing zazen for you.

Take it or leave it. I’d generally prefer that you leave it. But whatever. That’s what I do.

That’s been my solution to my own bottomless well of anger and misery. The trick is finding the balance between the anger and misery, and the awesome beauty and wondrousness of the world, finding the place where those things meet, and where those things intertwine together. You wouldn’t think they would. You’d think they’re opposites. But they’re not.

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