“I stand in the way of the things I can be.”
This week I drove to Lake Fayetteville for a run, and as I pulled out my phone to start my running playlist, I saw an email notification with the first few words of a message. In the few seconds I took to read it, I felt criticized and irritated. I didn’t bother reading the whole message, but the half-sentence I glanced at was enough to convince me that someone was attacking me. I was hooked. When I say hooked, I’m referring to how Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön describes attachment or shenpa. Shenpa is the thing or urge that pulls you in. If you’re a fish, shenpa is the glittering lure that is leading you to your eventual demise.
Instead of dwelling on my anger, I quickly put my phone away. I was determined to stay on task and not get sucked into online conflict. But like bad takeout, those annoyed feelings kept coming back up. I was enjoying the scenery, and all of a sudden I would think, “How dare they criticize me!?” Every time I would choke my anger back down it came back up again with fuller force and usually some witty comebacks I had thought up for my eventual defense. I couldn’t tell whether I was irritated more with the email or my own inability to let this shit go.
After 30 minutes of running and having imaginary arguments inside my head, I sat on a bench by the lake shore. I did what I’ve learned to do through TIMBo, yoga, and meditation so many times before. I focused on just the physical feeling of being annoyed. As all the thoughts started to arise that were saying, “But!” or “How dare they?!” I just redirected myself to feeling annoyed and noticing any body sensations. After about five minutes I was still irritated, but at least I was feeling a lot calmer about it.
Accepting that I was just going to be irritated for the foreseeable future, I decided to at least enjoy the view. As my eyes scanned over the water, I saw what I thought was a floating black stick, but I soon realized it was a snake. Without thinking too much about it, I got up and started walking near the shore to get a closer look. I was pretty sure it was a cottonmouth (a poisonous snake), and I wanted to make sure. The shore was filled with a lot of debris from a recent flash flood, and I was struggling to find my footing on the extreme incline. I kept chasing the snake (it in the water, me on land) while stumbling over rocks, trash, and tree branches. The snake’s coordination and unobstructed path only increased the distance between us. I knew I wouldn’t be able to catch up to it so I stopped to get a picture with my phone. I wanted proof this happened. As I stood taking blurry cellphone video, this sort of booming voice from inside said, “Stop chasing poisonous snakes.”
In that moment, the danger of what I was doing finally hit me, and I snapped back into reality. I could have been bitten. I could have slipped and fallen. I couldn’t even think of a good reason why I was doing this. Was it just for the bragging rights? the five seconds of social media feel-goods?
I crawled back up the bank to walk to my car, leaving the snake to his swim. I looked at my phone to finally read the email that offended me so much I had to sit and breathe about it. If I had only taken the time to read the entire first sentence, I would have realized that the email wasn’t criticism at all. I had completely misread it, and I had created this whole world where I needed to prepare for a fight when there was nothing to defend. The most difficult part to swallow was that I wasn’t getting hooked by the promise of feeling good. We know why it’s so hard to quit cake: it’s so dang tasty. But this wasn’t cake. This was fighting. I wanted to fight so I could feel correct. Fighting is probably one of the ickiest ways to build your self-esteem since it always involves hurting someone else so that you will feel better.
When we flitter from one desire to the next, we are at the mercy of that desire. No matter how much we chase or get pulled in, our urges are never really satisfied. We just move on to the next shiny attractive thing. (Can we go back to talking about cake again?) It’s only until we can slow down and get some space from our thoughts and actions that we can unhook ourselves. The good news is that with practice it does become easier. At first, we might get pulled in way over our heads before we begin to wonder why we can’t breathe. Later, we might get to the shore before that voice inside urges us to slow down and think. Eventually and hopefully with practice, we see the bait, how it glitters, and beckons us like it has so many times in the past, and we remember, “I don’t chase snakes anymore.”