“… simply by recognizing what’s happening we can nip aggression or craving in the bud—our own and that of others. As we become more familiar with doing this, our wisdom becomes a stronger force than [the impulse to react]… Our training is to acknowledge when we’re hooked...”
—Pema Chödrön, in Practicing Peace
We made it to our final dinner with relatives from out of town before one of my in-laws went off on a provocative political tangent.
My heart began to race. I glanced around the table. It was clear from the careful lack of eye contact that no one else was going to engage. I was tempted to just put another forkful of spaghetti in my mouth and wait for someone to change the subject.
But I don’t believe that checking out is the solution. Nor did I want to go on attack mode. Whether a conflict occurs in my family, my church, or my country, I believe I will be most effective if I can choose a different path than the aggrieved one trod by my relative.
I noticed the agitation welling up in me. My thinking was suddenly clouded; my jaw clenched; my foot tapped out some energy. I took a deep breath and resolved not to lash out or make harsh assumptions about this relative—but not to remain silent either. My child was at that dinner table, listening. How could I model another way?
Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön invites us to start by “not biting the hook.” Can you picture the fish in the stream, startled by the dangerous gleaming hook that has just appeared, ready to attack this silver stranger? But the angry fish who bites the hook will only hurt itself.
Chödrön describes four R’s for transforming this urge to bite the hook: Recognizing what is going on in us; Refraining from embracing those feelings; Relaxing with the underlying urge to react; and “Resolving to interrupt the momentum like this for the rest of our lives.”
For myself, I add a fifth R: Rechanneling that energy to other, better uses. That’s the reward I get for putting space around my instinctive response: I get to choose how to use the energy that would have been expended thrashing on the hook, so that it might instead be spent well.
I did my best to open a dialogue, sharing my perspective with my kin. While my ranting relative carried on with the diatribe, the other detractor at the table entered an earnest conversation with me that included mutual listening. Because I had paused before speaking up, my words carried a bit more wisdom and a bit less reactivity.
Spirit of Life and Love, help me to notice when I am hooked—or even to notice the hook coming—and to take pause. Thus may my wisdom grow stronger, and my energy be well channeled. Let my example be worthy of emulation by young people, so that in the family, the community, and the nation, we learn to engage conflict constructively. So may it be. Amen.