Recently, while talking to my good friend Lisa, she reminded me of something it is easy to forget, she reminded me of shenpa. Shenpa is a Tibetan Buddhist word, a word we are not all familiar with, but it describes a phenomenon that any introspective person is bound to have experienced. Shenpa means: attachment, hooked. Specifically what this is referring to is the stickiness of certain mental states, they way they draw us in and rev up our habitual response tendencies. If that isn’t immediately clear I hope that by the end of this post it will be a bit more so.
I am 45 years old and I work at a grocery store. I have worked there for over 4 years and it is the first long term job I have ever had. As with any job there are times that I really enjoy my work and there are times when I find it monotonous and robotic and boring. I think this is par for the course regarding work. There are other times when I start to wonder and worry about what my job says about me. I am 45 years old and work in a grocery store. I am not a manager, I am not a boss. I am a clerk. Shouldn’t a 45 year old man have a “real” job? Shouldn’t a 45 year old man have a position of authority? Shouldn’t a 45 year old man put on a nice set of clothes and go sit in an office somewhere? What would women think of me? I have heard single female friends judge men by the type of jobs they held in the past (thankfully these are women I no longer have a real connection with) and I always wonder how I am judged.
I was explaining all of this to Lisa via text the other day and asking her what she thought. She typed back one single word: shenpa. It was at that moment, and with that text, that I realized I was hooked. When I say hooked, I find it extremely useful to really get the sense of that, the sense of being a fish on a hook. There is this sharp, thorny piece of emotional metal that is metaphorically stabbed through your mouth and you are being dragged all over the place by it. Not a pretty picture. It hurts.
In the case I am describing above, the hook, as I see it, is the expectations of the culture. It is expected that people work a “real” job, a career. I am not saying that working in retail is not a career, surely it is, if one wished to view it as such. I have never wanted a career. I have wanted freedom to pursue the philosophical life, to seek the mysteries. This has been the trajectory of my life since I became conscious of a trajectory. This morning I have spent an hour in meditation, and hour and a half soaking in a hot bath and reading philosophy (Thomas Metzinger’s “Ego Tunnel” and Massimo Pigliucci”s “How to be a Stoic”), all accompanied by delicious coffee (purchased at a discount because I work at a grocery store!). I now sit in a sun drenched room writing philosophical lover letters to you. If my shoulder wasn’t recovering from surgery I would be going to jiujitsu in a couple of hours. I will head into work around 1:30pm. What am I moaning about? What do I care what squares think about my grocery job…I don’t, and I shouldn’t. My grocery job currently provides the economic stability that I need to pursue my purpose in this life. The only time it matters is when I allow that goddamn hook to be shoved through my mouth.
The hook can take many forms. Last night I found myself in a painful argument with a person who is very dear to me. In the midst of the argument I realized I was hooked and so were they. The first step to ripping the hook out of your mouth is to realize that it is there. This is not as easy as you might imagine. I can’t speak for everyone but I know that for myself I typically end up hooked via some blind spot. In the case of the argument I got hooked because I was trying to defend a position (one that I still agree with but this is actually beside the point), I was trying to make the other person see things from my perspective. Because this person and myself have a long history, there are all manner of little things we do to each other on a very subtle (and sometimes not so subtle way) level that trigger habitual responses that we are not fully aware of. Trust me, you do it too. In the midst of the argument I realized I was hooked. I realized they were hooked. I spent a brief moment trying to unhook us both, but the patterns run deep. In the end all I could do was deal with my own hook. Typically this is all we can ever do. The Stoics spoke to this as did the Buddha. It is the dichotomy of control. All I can control is myself. Very rarely can I help another person get unhooked. I can however work to unhook myself.
To return to the analogy of the fish on a hook: it is usually not easy or painless to remove the hook. I imagine myself as that fish, somehow managing to tear free of that hook. My mouth is torn open, the hook has ripped right through. It hurts, it is raw, it stings….but I am swimming away into the water and I am free.
Stay tuned, there is more to come.