Fish Hooks, Shenpa and Stumbling Down the Goodness Trail

I should have known when I interviewed two Zen practitioners that the first thing they would do is question me. In my meeting with Zen Master Stanley Lombardo and Dharma Master Judy Roitman, they questioned everything: This project’s goal. My motivation.

When they first confronted me, their words felt like long, barbed whips tangled in my legs. I teetered and strained to keep my balance. Now as I listen to the recording while transcribing the interview, I hear myself struggling. At one point, I replied testily: “I’m not going to get sidetracked.”

But they kept questioning. Finally, Stan asked: “Why do you feel that you personally have to be good in order to write this?”

Darn good question. Answering that completely felt a little too revealing, so I settled on the idea that goodness is my practice, something akin to daily meditation. Even though that answer feels like an evasion, it’s also true. For whatever reasons — and not all of them are conscious yet — I’ve chosen to practice goodness, at least for 365 days.

All of which brings me to those fish hooks I mentioned yesterday. A hook is  Pema Chodron’s favorite metaphor for the Buddhist concept of shenpa. As near as I can tell, shenpa is the human tendency to shut down emotionally and/or act out or seek escape when we feel uncomfortable. In Shambhala Sun, Chodron writes:

Someone criticizes you. They criticize your work or your appearance or your child. At moments like that, what is it you feel? It has a familiar taste in your mouth, it has a familiar smell. Once you begin to notice it, you feel like this experience has been happening forever.

The Tibetan word for this is shenpa. It is usually translated as “attachment,” but a more descriptive translation might be “hooked.” When shenpa hooks us, we’re likely to get stuck. We call shenpa “that sticky feeling.” It’s an everyday experience. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.

In the last 12 days, I’ve been swimming in a sea of shenpa. Everything that could possibly hook me has been thrown into the water.

I consciously set my intention to approach a group of people with love, and they utterly misunderstood and sent me away. (I chomped down on the hook of rejection, perhaps the oldest hook in my life, and foundered in a familiar pool of self-hatred: What’s wrong with me!?)

The up and down nature of my business, freelance writing, exerted itself and a  deal went sour. There’s nothing unusual about that. Happens all the time. (I chomped down hard on the hook of irrational fear: I’m going bankrupt! By the way, I’m not. My business and bank balance are healthy, but shenpa doesn’t have anything to do with reality.)

I posted about the Goodness of Caring and the joy I felt about something my ex-husband did for me, and an anonymous soul commented: “You needed help from a ‘man’?–but you are an all powerful lez.” (I chomped down hard on a double dose of fear of being attacked by someone who hated me just because I exist and despair that I will always have to face prejudice.)

A friend wrote movingly about her daughter’s illness and her own fears. (I chomped down on grief I’ve never resolved and screamed in frustration that I couldn’t do anything to help this sweet, delightful girl I’m just getting to know.)

And to top it all off, I’m spending time with an old friend, attempting to rekindle a relationship that has more baggage than a luggage warehouse. Just about every moment we’re together is an exercise in dancing with hooks. I feel the urge to chomp down on every single one of them, to continually look at the present through a lens of the past.

I’ve chomped and chomped and chomped and swum mightily forward with a dozen hooks dug into my gums, fishing lines trailing behind. And I haven’t wanted to post about this because there’s something ridiculous in my mind that keeps telling me that to search for goodness, I’m supposed to already be good. (That’s certainly got to be another hook. Chomp!)

And yet, for all the ice cream I’ve consumed and television I’ve watched, I have been able to open my mouth and let go of some of the hooks. I was only able to do that after sitting with my fears, my grief, my frustrations and all that nasty unpleasantness. Writing this post even helped because it gave me a way to see what I’ve been doing to myself.

Not all the hooks are gone. There is still a half gallon of Breyers ice cream out there with my name on it, but I feel better, clearer for having sat and felt. I’m calmer for having allowed myself to feel the pain I always want to avoid.

Goodness is my practice, at least for now. This practice led me to sit quietly, feel, speak up and calm down. Maybe practicing goodness isn’t such a bad idea after all.

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3 Responses to Fish Hooks, Shenpa and Stumbling Down the Goodness Trail

  1. Kelley says:

    Sometimes I’ve chomped on so many hooks it felt like I needed my own tackle box! Glad to know I’m not alone…

  2. I think you’re trying to do something new and different, which is a lot harder than following a traditional path: You’re exploring goodness from both the personal and the larger point of view, as both a seeker and reporter. You’re looking to get guidance and information from those who have also thought about these things — such as the Buddhists — but you’re not limiting yourself to one set of ideas or one path.

    It’s a big challenge, but a worthy one. Of course you will run into some roadblocks, not to mention those who want to deride you (especially if they think you might succeed and want to make sure you don’t). But if it was easy, it probably wouldn’t need doing.

  3. dianesilver says:

    Wise words, Nancy, especially about the roadblocks. And Kelley, it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one! Of course, I suspect that Pema Chodron wouldn’t be able to talk so eloquently about what it’s like to be “hooked” if she hadn’t experienced it herself.

    Thanks so much to you both for your continuing support!

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