I had purchased a couple of magnetic bumper stickers for my car. They’re great: They don’t mar the finish and yet still say what you want to say. My stickers had symbols on them. I don’t have too many causes or organizations that I can be certain to be associated with, and only a couple that I’d be willing to display on my car.
One was the “Om” symbol, which is full of meaning. It is sanskrit and can be broken down to symbolize the various states of our consciousness. Generally, It represents the one-ness of the universe. The other was the yin-yang symbol. It graphically displays the duality of the universe and simultaneously shows how two parts can be interrelated and also be one. This second symbol holds such significance to me that I’ve literally had it tattooed on me. It’s the only thing I’m absolutely positive is good for me to have emblazoned on my body: my only tattoo.
Then, I stumbled across a disturbing reality last month. I had to fetch some toilet paper from the cache in the trunk of my car (Long COVID19-related story). Upon approaching the car, I realized that my yin yang symbol (the one on my car) was gone.
I don’t go off the handle too much, I’m relatively calm. I had a fairly strong reaction to this though. I was angry and sad. My self talk was going a mile a minute. “Who ripped me off?” “Why would you steal something like that?” Almost immediately the irony of the situation occurred to me. “How could someone steal this symbol of peace and equanimity in our lives? This was not just a normal theft, this was an attack on the good and the just in the world.” I had clearly been snared by the hook of Shenpa. It’s easier to be hooked during these days of forced isolation: everyone, including me, is just a little more on edge these days.
Shenpa is a Zen term that refers to attachment. Attachment is a Zen no-no, felt by all of us humans: we can have an attachment to a possession or a relationship or a thought, to give some examples, and experience a need to keep it. Zen claims that it is important to be able to let go of these kinds of things. For our purposes a useful translation of Shenpa is “the hook.” It happens when something bothers you, distracts you, and takes you off your path. There are many examples. Someone might upset you with a report on the COVID19 death toll in your county, you might stub your toe on a chair, or you can even hook yourself: you might recall a memory about something that happened five years ago that bothers you now. When you've been hooked by shenpa, it’s in your best interest to be aware of the hooking, embrace that which you've been hooked by, and find a way to let go and allow yourself to be unhooked.
I found a way to do this with my negative feelings regarding the symbol theft, probably as a result of skills that I learned through meditation. Loosening my grip on this mental state made me feel a little better. As my mood became more peaceful and my neurotransmitters and hormones (mainly testosterone: male here) began to return to normal levels, I was able to think a little more clearly. In this relative clarity, it occurred to me that maybe the magnet had fallen off my car. I hit a bump and it just bounced off. While this was very unlikely, I had given myself an opening to consider the possibility. In this slightly more relaxed mood, I was able to process information a little better and evaluate the situation. This new thinking calmed me a bit. Maybe it hadn't been stolen after all. Unlikely, but maybe. I at least began to see that there might be other realities to consider.
My mind couldn't help but race through other possibilities. As I chilled out I also thought of varying perspectives. I wonder what it would feel like to be the person who stole the magnet? Was this person desperate? Were they just ill-natured and vandalistic? I considered the possibility that this person was morally deficient and worthy of my pity. The vandal option pissed me off a bit. (This is not a smooth process) While I was coming off of my initial angry reaction, I still was not totally back to normal. At least I was thinking a little more clearly now.
By this time I was open to some actual grace. It occurred to me that whoever stole this symbol was deficient and not performing with integrity, but the fact that they stole this and that it was now in their possession may help to inspire them to be more graceful themselves. Maybe they stole it simply to transfer it to the bumper of someone who’d tested positive for the virus. I had started into the realm of empathy and compassion. I'd even gone down the pathway of hope for this poor soul.
As anger subsided and clarity began to dominate, it occurred to me that maybe I had hit a bump and the sticker was abruptly jarred off. Maybe someone had simply walked down the street, seen the yin-yang magnetic sticker laying in the road, and picked it up. They may have seen this as being as valuable as I have. They may have simply seen an object without an owner and sought to embrace that which it symbolized. At this point I started to experience some joy. I could imagine having a sense of pride and fulfillment in having supplied inspiration to someone in an indirect manner. I imagined being proud of myself that I had chosen such a great sticker and so had unintentionally and inadvertently done a little bit to help a fellow human being: indeed, via the ripple effect, our entire species.
I did come back to earth and the symbol wasn't gone. It just no longer was stuck to my vehicle. It still exists. I still exist. I was still disquieted by the absence of an explanation for its absence. I had become attached to the hope for an explanation. I was still uncomfortable about not having my magnetic yin yang sticker. I had become attached to that too. Oh yeah, and like billions of us, I long for life before COVID19. I have tried to relax with the discomfort of not having the things that I want. The discomfort is diminishing. I'm finding peace. I have not bought another yin yang magnetic sticker, I'm growing to be indifferent and peaceful toward it being wherever it is now. My longing for the past has diminished as I begin to accept life as it will be from now on: different than it ever has been.
I experienced the full range of dualities that could have explained my situation at that time. I also experienced the full range of emotions corresponding to those realities. In fact, they were all true. They all exist at the same time. It's completely a matter of perspective. We, as humans, can choose any perspective we wish.
This tale/blog might serve as a Koan for you. A koan is a story, dialogue, question, or statement which is used in Zen practice to provoke the "great doubt" and to practice or test a student's progress in Zen.
By the way, isn't it ironic that my “Om” symbol is still with me?
By the way again, this letting go is a big chunk of sport psychology.
Dr. Joe Havlick