I’m beginning to notice a pattern in my regular civic-duty-digestion of the news. Today seems the day to describe it, give a couple examples and then explore a different pathway of possibility. Let’s call the pattern biting the hook, eventually to be followed instead by an invitation to consider honoring-releasing the projection.
biting the hook to describe getting caught up in a visceral, snag or trigger feeling. The sensation of it is a shimmery character that first draws your mind’s attention, then an energetic charge or sting felt in the body, but mostly in the mind when you’re caught. She uses the word shenpa to describe the body’s trigger response, identifiable sometimes by eyes glazing over a bit, or facial expressions flashing a signal of charge. Her wisdom is that once shenpa has been triggered, there’s really no point in trying to have a direct conversation about the matter at hand. If you’ve unconsciously bitten the hook, you cannot hear anything except through the sting or pain of the hook. This human phenomenon can be something as simple as the tone of voice in the one you love, grating on your nerves or touching a tender spot you didn’t want to feel right then. Or it could be a news story that you hear coming home from work, causing an eruption of anger, or sadness, cloaked as anger. The internal experience for me is the mental (or audible) arguments that begin to cycle inside of me, from outrage or a sense of injustice, unfairness, disregard.
A couple of examples might flesh this out in more contemporary detail. I felt this trigger when I read a portion of Trump’s response to his acquittal in the Senate trial this past weekend. Among other things he said, I heard him say “We will emerge with a vision for a bright, radiant, and limitless American future...It is a sad commentary on our times that one political party in America is given a free pass to denigrate the rule of law." The trigger arose in me in the last sentence, particularly because only his loyalists could imagine they themselves are the “one political party in America” posturing to be in support of “law and order.” For anyone who has been willing to see the footage from hundreds of sources--not partisan, in other words--it is inconceivable to hear his words without immediate outrage at how Trump’s language mirrors precisely the opposite of what is true, real, and provable with visual and rational evidence.
Stepping away from the habitual (and unending) ‘he said/they said’ dynamic within the outrage, I find it fascinating to watch myself attempt to not bite the hook and yet so desire to bite the hook. I feel the draw to search for news media that shares my outrage at how much of a liar Trump is. I can feel the need to be confirmed in what I have seen, what I have been willing to watch, probably to my own detriment out of a sense of civic duty. I can no longer even listen to anyone who can stomach his words, his voice, his narcissism and abuse of what I hold dear. Hear the language? Hear the triggered energies?
Another example can arise within me when anyone begins to tender commentary about “cancel culture” in our public spheres today. Traditionally, there’s a close ‘chaser’ about the First Amendment, Free Speech, which battles in Americans hearts between a civic matter--the government cannot limit a citizen’s right to free speech--and a personal/cultural matter--anyone can say whatever the hell they want, no matter the consequences or implications. I affirm the First Amendment fully AND I believe corporations and organizations have a responsibility to co-create with us a public sphere dependent upon truth, vulnerability, transparency, honesty, integrity. 'Censorship' of those who flagrantly deny those values is justifiable, in my view. So for example, I read a piece a couple days ago, written from a progressive perspective by Jayson Bradley. He is attempting to mirror the commonality between the phrase “cancel culture” and the conservative habits that have “cancelled” others for a long time. Bradley is attempting to rationally alter conservatives’ behaviors here, though he does nothing to address their increasing fears of being unheard, silenced, disregarded (whether anyone else honors or feels those fears are valid, legitimate). He's pissing in the wind, in my view, but it can definitely satisfy an itch I have, on any given day.
The sensation-experience with this news-exchange differs in me, of course, but is no less noteworthy. I’m drawn into the essay Bradley writes because I already agree with him. I’m regularly shaking my head at conservative theological voices who are now increasingly strident about how they are being oppressed, silenced, disregarded. I got an advance glimpse of this in my seminary-teaching work, with conservative and more rigidly-traditional male colleagues creating safe spaces in our faculty parlance for their felt-sense of grievances when faced with grievances of others. They didn't get curious to learn more, most of them; they got more aggrieved and used the power they had to prioritize their own grievances. The conservative voice still dominates at my seminary, and I rarely mirror or confront it directly. Perhaps that's complicity in me; progressives would certainly think so. But rarely do I have a dog in the fights or debates crafted in their categories. Most of what I do is so out of their perception or consideration, we can hardly communicate genuinely. Instead, I live into don't go to war with the way things are; create alternative realities (Mary Pierce Brosmer). This has always seemed the more powerful wisdom than fighting debates created by white men's categories in the first place. The ironies never fail to make me smile, however; sadly some days, angrily other days.
The trigger feeling here, the bite the hook moment, is one of smugness unto outrage. There is a seductive draw to being right, to feeling the righteousness of my own view as just, fair, obvious. The shimmery character of the hook may be different, but it’s no less difficult to not bite the hook. “See how that feels then, why don’t you?!?” is often the tone underneath whatever measured speech I may offer in a discussion. “Doesn’t feel good, does it?” I want to ask, with a smarmy smile on my face. (Autocorrect just helped me note ‘smarny’ should be ‘smarmy.’ LOL. When did smarmy become a legitimate word in our lexicon?) The sting of this hook, when bitten, doesn’t hurt in the same way, maybe even at all. It simply doesn’t embody the kind of person I want to be in the world. It doesn’t practice the open-hearted, compassionate listening I advocate, teach, strive for in my own life. When I’ve bitten this hook, I still cannot participate in open-hearted listening. Shenpa reigns in my body; I won’t hear a word ‘the other’ might say.
Pema Chodron’s invitation, her wisdom here, is to not bite the hook. What she’s trying to say is don’t let an old story or an old wound make you see everything in only its terms. The challenge, of course, is that the story is SO compelling, and the sensations of being incredulously outraged or righteously smug are so seductive that more often than not, we bite the hook anyway.Chodron likens it to having scabies, the incredibly itchy skin disease that will get worse and worse, the more you scratch. Folks will often scratch themselves bloody, just to try to relieve the itch. But scabies can’t be healed by scratching. It will only lessen by learning to stay with the itch and not scratch it.
So what if we changed the story, the invitation? What if we found better pathways to not scratch the itch or not bite the hook?
I’m increasingly convinced about the power of projection in human beings’ attempts to digest pain, loss, sadness, anger, grief. When we encounter something that does not fit our view of the world, or our view of ourselves, we will nearly automatically push it away, push it outward onto someone else or something else. Perhaps you strived for a PhD but didn't succeed. Now, you viscerally dislike PhD's and experts, though you consciously try to be nice. Had a rough time in high school, bullied by jocks? You've excelled now in the techworld, and you thrive in feeling superior to blue-collar workers, though consciously you think you have no prejudice or dislike of anyone. When we are overwhelmed with pain, loss, sadness, this behavior of projecting our pain or our fears onto others becomes exponentially predictable. Spend any amount of time in psychological, sociological, anthropological literatures and you’ll see different interpretations of this very thing.
A most traditional, even scriptural version of this is the notion of scapegoating. Long ago in Hebraic ritualistic practice, the community would regularly sacrifice a lamb, put the blood on a goat or the wounds of the community into the goat, and then chase it out into the wilderness to die. Scapegoat. The belief was that the sin of the community would be ‘confessed’ and ‘paid for’ by this ritual action, pushing it out of the bounds of the community, enacting atonement (at-one-ment) with God. You can feel the contemporary dynamics of this around just about any human collective. The Republican Party right now, attempting to censure or expel anyone who does not bow in loyalty to Trump. “We will push out all those who do not look like us or think like us. Preferably placing our own lack of insight onto them before we do so.” Totally unconscious, of course, so bring it up and you'll get blusters of defense and refusal. The Democrats’ version of this is Progressives who become militant about identity politics’ things, shaming and blaming any and all whose language doesn’t fit the latest politically correct version of whatever identity is in question/under attack. Here, there is an exclusion of anyone who is not willing to cow-tow to the latest language, the latest human-rights defense. The vulnerability to expulsion for ‘thinking differently than the ones in power in this Caucus matches the other dynamic. They are analogues of each other, similarly shaped behaviors if within different contexts/settings.
To our earlier point, to be clear, I feel a similar trigger-potential with both of these political ‘extremes.’ I’ll more often have empathy for progressives’ views/behavior, pointing out the years, decades, centuries of inherited trauma in their bodies inflicted by fundamentalists, ultra-orthodox religious, and conservatives. Progressives are no less acting out of their wounds than the rest of us, after all, and I can sympathize, even empathize. I’ll have less sympathy for the ongoing Republican Party struggle, simply because it’s not my struggle. It’s not as much my experience to feel sadness, loss, outrage at the loss of religious or political traditions that in my view need to change anyway.
Change or die, as the saying goes. There’s no fire for me to protect religious or political traditions that already have huge power-over structures in place to protect themselves (practically). If faith were grounded and true in the Reality beyond the human institution, then the faithful practice is trusting God to be in the process without need for ‘our puny protections.’ (Again, in my view). I've often said, "God doesn't need me to protect Him, Her. What kind of divine would that be?" (Answer: one I have created myself, domesticated to my own desires/perspectives, and made speak what I think I need to hear.)
I'm of the ilk that resistance and painful awakening are the pathways of Spirit; not comfort, not rightness, not certainty. Scandalous grace. Sacred abundance. Choiceless choices of devotion and Love that Liberates. (I didn't learn this in church, btw, but after being shaped by the church and then exiled...). So I have huge fire to hold space for anyone/everyone to be refined in the fires of necessary change, awakening, awareness. I have compassion for how painful it is for a conservative or a Republican to awaken to things s/he’d rather not have seen or known but can no longer deny. It’s painful. It begs questions of personal complicity, confession, humility and reparations or redress. The resistances to actually seeing or feeling the pain are well-defended inside.
There’s little space in (personally) conservative habits of mind for confessing error, responsibility, or even guilt without the whole machinery of Shame coming down on the one confessing. No wonder our post-Christendom/Evangelical-Protestant implosions are so painful to see, watch. This is one of the difficulties I have with conservative theological-religious socialized communities (like the ones I grew up in). These communities/traditions have great social machinery in place, well-suited for the needs of white men to try to face their pride, learn to humble themselves, and return to the community with a sense of participation and equanimity more than power-over or dominance. For women, for 'bodies of culture' (Resmaa Menakem)? The social-machinery not only sucks, it wounds and damages. Survivors either stay unconscious--easiest pathway, actually--or get to learn double-speak and talking out of both sides of our mouths. We get to learn the two-step of playing the shame-games and trying to get free of them, all at the same time.
We can watch the power of projection in a variety of public and personal expressions. Watch the political-projection arguments take hold in the stories of loss in manufacturing, blaming the overwhelming pace of change and loss onto Black people. (This is a tried and true Confederate strategy from way back, usually so sub/unconscious that folks overwhelmed by loss will defend against any whiff of accusation of believing it. “I’m not racist” and "Systemic racism is a ploy of the Left to take/steal our businesses, our history). Or perhaps it’s a household thing. I don’t know how to hold my deep-belly need right now to be in physical spaces with close friends while loving and honoring my husband’s need for the smallest ‘covid-19’ bubble as possible. I can project my anger onto him, though I am perfectly within my own capacity and ability to make choices that I need for my physical and emotional-spiritual-psychological health. He has to live with me too, after all. He can deal with his own reactions and responses, just as I tend to my own. I’m becoming more aware of the anger at him rising, which is really only my own sadness and grief, sense of isolation inside, projected onto him. It's easier to be angry with him than to face the challenges of naming what I need in a global pandemic where such things are riskier than science/authorities recommend.
But we human beings do this even with positively-tinged things, things that are deep within us but seem too impossible or abundant to actually pursue, consider, or attempt. Secretly, I may have a desire to publish a book that seems out of reach or not a skill set within me. So I push all that energy into my admiration of published authors, supporting all others who may be writing to publish but not facing my own desires. Or perhaps in a CrossFit gym. I wish I could do butterfly pull ups, but instead of putting the plan-of-action in place to take the small steps to get there, I project all that energy onto those who already can do it. I cheer them on and celebrate them, because of something that is actually inside of me. Same pattern of projection.
So...what if the new story, the new pathway, was simply seeing the projection? Honoring the projections of others that you can then release, let go, disregard? So much of Trump’s language is all about him. I laughed when I saw the final tagline of a governing commandment he demands of all in his sway: Thou shalt not ignore me. The trick is, with this projection of all he refuses to allow to be true about him, his loss of the election, his role in the Capitol Insurrection, he can get the media and the Republicans to pay attention to him. To prick the outrage. To be so preposterously untrue that rational, compassionate human beings bite the hook, every day. To refute him. To defend against him in rationality’s terms. Buddhists would call this aversion, simply the negative version of attachment. Let the attachment to Trump GO.
The different pathway is to not bite the hook. To honor the language for what it is--pure projection, inability to accept his loss, his own emptiness and woundings--and release it as the projection it is. Refuse the projection, we sometimes say in my circle-way world. Refuse to play in that energy, and move your energy to constructive, compassionate outlets.
Or the conservative outcry about cancel culture… See the clear projection of fear of being silenced, unheard, disregarded...just like those who have been excluded, disempowered, silenced for centuries. We are mirror images of one another, Progressives and Traditionalists, Liberals and Conservatives. We're polarized, and speaking in oppositions, but the underlying dynamic of biting the hook is exactly the same. The wounding force is the exclusion and isolation, not the silencing. It is the focus on victim-culture and attempted re-graspings for power-over, not actually being disregarded. As Bradley tries to show (mostly unsuccessfully), it’s not cancel culture inflicted upon conservatives. It’s finally being confronted in public, without shame. It's invitation to a discussion that no one controls. It's invitations to transform, evolve, change--that will more often be refused by Traditionalists or Conservatives. They are not as adept at this, in comparison to those who have had to learn that journey simply to become who they are. And no one wants to look foolish or admit they are wrong, regardless of 'camp.'
The challenge here is, of course, that refusing to bite the hook, focusing on seeing and honoring the projection, doesn’t feel the same in the body. The initial sensation is unbearable itch. Reactive defense. The challenge is breathing into both of those sensations. Just breathe. Stop. Sometimes when I become aware that there is a hook, I pull back. I pause. I breathe. I count to ten, slowly. Maybe again, even more slowly. Then I return to the shimmery thing that has caught my attention. Will scratching assist my compassion? Will the smugness I could feel assist my learning? Can I simply see that what is being thrown at me is all about him, them...and has nothing really to do with me, right now, this moment?
If I can get to that question, I’ve not bitten the hook, and I won’t be doing so in the near future.
One 5-minute victory, until the next one comes, probably within the hour.
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