If the aim for Buddhists is to alleviate suffering for ourselves and all sentient beings, a good place to begin might be with teachings about the Hook and the Sacred Pause. The Hook is a term used by Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist Nun, in her book Taking The Leap. The Sacred Pause is a term I use to describe the concept of “stopping” perhaps most famously taught by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Most of our suffering happens around reactivity to something that triggers us or hooks us. Something happens - we react. BAM - in a nanosecond we are off! Our mouths open and words spew forth. Even more dangerous, our fists fly. Suffering is always added onto someone else and to ourselves, (although we might not initially think of it in this way). We react out of anger, frustration, jealousy, fear, the need to be right, and the list of reasons could go on and on. The thing is, if we want to lessen the suffering we feel and the suffering we cause, we first need to get to know The Hook.
Close your eyes and recall the last time you reacted unwisely to something someone did or said. There was a moment, so brief, when you felt it - the hook. That moment when something happens and the hook is in. Where do you feel it in your body? Can you remember? Most times I feel it in my chest or my gut. In the next millisecond our brain sort of does a double take, “Whaaattt?” and in the next millisecond, we react - without thinking! We just strike out - mostly with words, but sometimes people react physically, slapping or punching or worse. It all starts with the hook and the sooner we recognize that the sooner we can start doing something about it.
A Brief Science Lesson
The hook triggers a very small part of our brain called the amygdala. It was one of the first parts of the brain to evolve. It’s important because it’s our “early warning system”. It tells us when danger is near and tells us to fight. This was pretty important during more primitive times in history, but in the twenty-first century, most of the time a calmer, more reasoned reaction is called for. We’re not fighting off predators so much anymore, right? Enter the portion of our brain called the prefrontal cortex. This portion of our brain is our center for analysis and reasoning. It is the last portion of the brain to develop. This is why toddlers throw themselves to the ground and teenagers are so impulsive. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until age twenty-five.
All of our past feelings from events that scared us, or made us angry or fearful are stored in the amygdala. When similar situations occur in real time, those old feelings get triggered or hooked and the amygdala can hijack those feelings and cause those hair-trigger reactions that can leave us feeling awful about something we said or did “in the moment” or at worst get us into some real trouble.
What Can We Do?
What we can do is train our brain to take the Sacred Pause, meaning at the first sign we’re hooked, instead of reacting, we stop, we breathe, we wait. I wish I could say this is easy. I can say it gets easier with time. This is why we practice on the cushion. Spending quality time on the cushion daily, no matter what, is practice with the Sacred Pause. No matter what’s going on - whether we feel like it or not, we come to the cushion and sit with life as it is in the moment, and we don’t get up. We just sit and breathe with whatever is happening in our lives and around us, for 15, 20, or 30 minutes. When we start to get squirmy, when the thoughts are swirling around and we’re sure we’re not doing this right, this meditation thing, we stay seated. We don’t run away. We don’t get up and turn on the TV or a podcast, or go shopping or call a friend. We sit. This is practicing holding our seat and not reacting.
We do this practice so that when the moment comes, and someone says or does something and the hook is there, we don’t bite. We pause. The Sacred Pause can be used in the big moments - when a friendship ends, when your husband or wife asks for a divorce, when you find out someone you cherished has passed. The Sacred Pause can also be used for the small moments, when someone cuts you off on your way to work, when your toddler is slinging spaghetti all over the kitchen, when your teenager is full of snark, when your partner gets under your skin. The Sacred Pause is for all the moments in life when we want to be snarky, yell, scream, pound something, rage. We use the Sacred Pause instead of thrashing about on the hook. We take the Pause to regain our equilibrium. We do this so we can choose to respond in a way that doesn’t create more suffering.
Where To Begin?
My answer to this always is to start a routine of once-a-day meditation practice. But maybe you’re reading this and you want help today. Just as above, a starting point would be to think about the last time you felt hooked. What happened in the second before you reacted? What kinds of things hook you? A good way to start with this practice is at home on the cushion (or bed or sofa…). So maybe it’s your partner, or your neighbor, or your child, or your mother,
or maybe you come home from work frustrated with something that happened there. Instead of reacting, pause. Go sit on your cushion, or bed, or sofa - anywhere you can be alone. Take some breaths. Ask this question: “What’s really going on here?” Asking this question helps us get to the heart of the matter. Many times the answer to the question is telling. Sometimes, for instance, anger masks our fear. When we ask the question, “What is real?” or “What am I really feeling?” and take the time to look at our emotions, we often find something else entirely. And then, we sit, and we breathe with that feeling. The mask is off. We’re not trying to hide it or stuff it. We’re letting it be here in the moment with us. I call this abiding. We don’t have to loathe it or take it on in any way. We just let it be while we breathe. We might cry. We might feel like getting up and running out the door. We don’t. We stay. We sit. Soon, the pressure valve releases and we feel a little lighter, and a little more able to deal with whatever is in a way that is a response instead of a reaction.
This takes time. The reaction grooves are deep. Sometimes we’re able to jump the groove of our old habits, and sometimes not. We keep practicing. Hopefully, we find a teacher and a community to practice with. We invite you to practice with us. You can find us on Facebook and Instagram or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You’re also welcome to download our app here.
May we each be a blessing.