Joy and Sorrow, Love and Rage

What the Korean concept of han can teach us about working with our anger more effectively The post Joy and Sorrow, Love and Rage appeared first on Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

Joy and Sorrow, Love and Rage

In the face of global crises and catastrophes, how can we work with our anger effectively? And how can we channel our grief and rage without becoming consumed by it?

These questions are at the core of Jungwon Kim’s practice. Kim is a multidisciplinary communications strategist and advocate who has chronicled frontline environmental and human rights movements for the past two decades. She previously worked at the Rainforest Alliance and Amnesty International, and she also co-founded two BIPOC Buddhist communities.

In a recent episode of Life As It Is, Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg sat down with Kim to discuss her work integrating spiritual practice and social action, the importance of embodied practice, the cathartic power of joy, and what we can learn from the Korean concept of han, or inherited grief and rage.

James Shaheen (JS): You’ve talked about the Korean concept of han, which you describe as inherited grief and rage. Can you tell us a bit about han? In particular, how do you understand han in the context of activist work?

Jungwon Kim (JK): Like some of the best words, han is hard to translate. It refers to the embodied experience of inherited grief and rage, and it is usually related to historical injustice. Some people would argue that it’s uniquely Korean, but I personally believe it’s a really useful framework for many different peoples to consider. Naming that han is there helps us begin the work of transmuting it before it makes us ill, before it affects our psychological well-being and even our physical well-being. Right now, we’re seeing so many different aspects of how untransmuted han can be destructive.

I recently learned that there is an Arabic equivalent to the word han, which is qaher. The scholar Khadija Dajani describes qaher as “‘anger’ but it’s not. It is when you take anger, place it on a low fire, add injustice, oppression, racism, dehumanization to it, and leave it to cook slowly for a century. And then you try to say it but no one hears you. So it sits in your heart. And settles in your cells. And it becomes your genetic imprint. And then moves through generations. And one day, you find yourself unable to breathe. It washes over you and demands to break out of you. You weep. And the cycle repeats.”

Khadija Dajani is naming what other scholars might call epigenetic trauma. I think that han, qaher, and generational trauma are really active conversations in our public discourse right now, and the urgency of transmuting and healing han before it turns destructive is in the forefront of my own practice.

JS: You’ve talked about how anger and rage can backfire if we’re not aware of it. So what are some of the ways that we can work with anger effectively and transform it into more sustainable fuel for the actions we take?

JK: My goodness, isn’t that the question? I have observed in my own experience that the work of transforming han must not just focus on the mind. It has to be an embodied practice—it has to move through my physical body as well. Some people might be able to sit on a cushion and practice with han and transmute it effectively that way. I think for other people, transmuting han requires more than sitting meditation. It may take walking, dancing, being together, doing things collectively, ritual—these are all incredible ways of transmuting han.

JS: Sharon, you’ve worked a lot with people on the front lines who suffer from overwhelm, burnout, anger, frustration, and emotional collapse. What ways have you found that are effective in addressing burnout and rage?

Sharon Salzberg (SS): Well, my work in that arena actually started with the people we tend to term caregivers in society, people who may be on the front lines of suffering trying to make a difference, often facing seemingly intractable systems, often burning out. One day I asked myself, “Who does that remind me of?” And I thought of activists.

A lot of my work [with caregivers] is centered around recognizing a kind of balance that can seem on the surface to be selfish, but it’s really not. It’s having enough compassion for ourselves to realize that we need a sense of inner resource in order to keep up the work. It’s important to realize that falling apart, being depleted, and being overwhelmed is not actually going to serve anybody—not ourselves, and certainly not the people that we wish to make a difference for.

Some of this work has to do with the relationship between anger and joy. It seems so counterintuitive, but somehow being able to take in the joy as well as acknowledging suffering deeply and frankly seems really important so that we don’t fall into such a state of depletion.

JK: I agree a thousand percent that joy is part of the recipe. There is another closely related concept to han that might be a corollary or a complement called heung. Heung refers to a kind of cathartic joy. It has a sort of a wild element to it, a feeling of abandon and surrender.

Another element of the recipe is doing this in sangha. I think that when people are confronting something as profound as han, doing things in a collective formation gives individuals the strength to face something really huge and painful. These are all complex and immensely painful things to bear witness to and to respond to, and I think that the sense of overwhelm and burnout and the corrosive effects of anger are greatly mitigated by a dedicated joy practice that is done in community. In that way, we hold hands and face together what is too daunting or painful or scary to face individually. It somehow gives us more strength when we do things together.

JS: You’ve mentioned solidarity and community a few times. Can han also be a source of solidarity? How can we work with our anger and rage to create greater solidarity rather than divisiveness or isolation?

JK: I think this is also a big question of the day. I do think han can create great solidarity if the right kind of wisdom and understanding is applied. You are right, James, in saying that han could also lead to division. I think that untransmuted han or han that doesn’t take a wide enough view can definitely lead to division if we are not careful. And so for me, the practice of spiritual activism is to bear witness to each other’s han, and we’ve seen so many beautiful examples of that. There’s been wonderful solidarity work, for example, between Black and Korean Americans in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising. Even the existence of BIPOC sanghas is a kind of solidarity-building exercise where we begin to bear witness to each other’s han. That waters seeds of generosity and trust among marginalized communities that are often pitted against one another by the dominant power structure. We all learn about each other’s han, and I believe that learning process waters those seeds of solidarity.

SS: Once, I was invited to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to do a program for National Nurses Week, and a friend of mine who was a nurse there arranged for me to have a short tour of one of the wards. At the end of the tour, my friend turned to me and said, “The nurses who can stay here are not the ones who get lost in sorrow. The nurses who can stay here are the ones who can connect to the resilience of the human spirit.” And for me, that was almost like a different definition of compassion. Since burnout is so prevalent amongst good-hearted people trying to make a difference, all of those elements of community and joy seem to be a part of that movement toward greater sustainability. Jungwon, I’m wondering what your experience has been in terms of preventing burnout and fostering sustainability.

JK: [The Black feminist author and filmmaker] Toni Cade Bambara said that the job of the artist is to make revolution irresistible. I think that the practice and cultivation of joy, especially communal joy, is essential, and we will never last if we don’t practice the values of the world we yearn for as we struggle and work for that world. And the world that I yearn for is one where everyone deserves and has access to food, water, shelter, healthcare, and joy, where we are not just stridently criticizing each other and ourselves but where we are really participating in the potential for creating beauty that we have as humans.

SS: We recently had the poet Ross Gay on this podcast, and he spoke about how joy and sorrow are inextricably linked and how joy actually merges from how we care for each other. I’m curious if this resonates with your understanding of han.

JK: I think so. I think that some of the best humor comes from people who have han in their lineages. My own maternal grandmother was just hysterically funny. She had such a sad life. Northern Korea was essentially decimated by the United States in an extended bombing campaign as the U.S.-led forces withdrew, and many historians now call it a genocide. Three million people were killed, and the United States carpet-bombed many villages. There was no differentiation between civilians and combatants. [My grandmother] had the experience of displacement. She had the experience of having to flee and becoming an internal refugee. She lost her mother at age 11 and was never able to return to her homeland because Korea remains divided. There’s an entire generation of people who were forced to leave their homeland, their home village, their gohyang, never to return, never to be reunited with their spouses, their children, their parents, their friends, their siblings.

I think about that sometimes because it makes me think that pain carves out a bigger space in the heart, and that space also becomes the capacity for joy, hopefully, if you’re cultivating it. As you were saying, Sharon, joy and sorrow are inextricable. The depth of sorrow one feels can also carve out a greater space for a different kind of joy, and it’s a kind of joy that doesn’t turn away from sorrow. If you know sorrow, your joy is tinged. The sorrow gives it the dimension, the shadow that makes something three-dimensional. And so it’s not a sort of blissfully ignorant joy where you’re just indulging in happiness all the time. It’s a deeper kind of joy. It’s a joy that understands how precious life is and how precious every moment is because that space has been carved out by sorrow.

This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.