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Time to Unhook?

by Milissa on February 5, 2012

in Meditation,Mindfulness,Philosophy

I just saw The Descendants and I felt so grateful for my mindfulness practice. A cautionary tale, this movie made me want to practice, practice, practice working with strong, difficult emotions—on the meditation cushion and the yoga mat—before the proverbial shit hits the fan!

Times of transition can be tough

In the film, Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (played by George Clooney) is struggling to come to terms with his wife landing in a persistent coma after a boating accident. He and his wife Elizabeth had drifted apart before the accident. And, as Matt says, he’d been “the fallback parent”—so often away on business that he has no clue how to help his daughters navigate the difficult transition the family is going through. In their distress, family members reveal hurtful secrets to each other, without forethought about the devastating impact on others.

The barbs that the King family hurl at each other seem heartless. But it becomes clearer as the story unfolds that these cruelties are the result of the characters being hooked by strong emotions. They simply don’t have the skill to pause before spitting out what seem like truthful pronouncements at the time, but really are attempts to distract them from their own painful feelings.

None of us are immune

The hurt caused in these relationships on screen was a real wake up call for me. Personally challenged with life transitions of aging family members—at a time when I am experiencing caregiver fatigue myself—I know that I am not immune from getting hooked. When big emotions like fear, anger and grief wash over me it’s easy to say and do hurtful things.

Seeing this film made me so glad that I have a mindfulness and yoga practice. It doesn’t make me immune to unskillfulness. But it does give me tools. If I remember to use them. That’s the key.

What to do when you’re hooked

One of the meditation teachers who is brilliant on this subject is Pema Chodron. She explains the Tibetan term shenpa, that place where we get hooked.

Shenpa,” Chodron says, “is the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down. We get hooked in that moment of tightening when we reach for relief. To get unhooked we begin by recognizing that moment of unease and learn to relax in that moment.”

Getting hooked happens to everyone, she says. And I so appreciate her authenticity in sharing her own struggles. What Ani Pema recommends is pausing and simply noticing that we’re caught, hooked. Stop, wait, feel, pay attention to the breath, body and emotions. That’s the only way to go from unconscious to conscious. From reactive to mindful.

Watching The Descendants really brought it alive for me. I’ve felt shenpa in my own life, but it still can be hard to stop when there is such a strong urge to react. Particularly when it’s based in the belief that relief from the painful feelings will result from acting thoughtlessly when the emotions are full on. The characters in the film who are acting out—trying to blame and get back at others to escape from the feelings threatening to overwhelm them—are so obviously just adding to their own suffering.

There may be a brief surge of something that feels like power, a momentary release, but it really doesn’t help us feel better to be harsh and judgmental with others.

Real relief is in the pause

That’s what I’ve found in my life, but still I find myself choosing to ignore shenpa and to react to try to free myself. I have renewed resolve now to take that moment, that breath, that pause before acting from distress. Especially when it comes to communicating with loved ones. Unfortunately, those are often the ones we hurt the most.

Including our own selves. So, how about it? Do you think it’s time to let ourselves off the hook? All it takes is one mindful breath to come back to consciousness.

Need help getting started with a mindful meditation or yoga practice? Learning awareness of body and breath can improve all our relationships. Contact me for information on private sessions or click here for classes.

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