Something As Simple As Chinese Chickens

"How do you check your mind? Just watch how it perceives or interprets any object that it encounters. Observe what feelings—comfortable or uncomfortable—arise. Then check, 'When I perceive this kind of view, this feeling arises, that emotion comes; I discriminate in such a way. Why?' This is how to check your mind; that's all. It's very simple."  -Lama Yeshe

THIS WEEK, someone I know from the church where I lead a meditation group every Tuesday night wrote the word ICK! on my new profile photo in Facebook, where all my friends and their friends and so on could see it.

Try to imagine my reaction: this simple, three-letter word carries enormous weight. According to, ick is a slang term that means:

1. A nasty substance;
2. The exclamation “Nasty!”;
3. A disliked person, as in, “Tell that ick to leave. He’s polluting the place.”

Mind you, this is a photo I took of myself in a sort of height of giddiness—a storm had blanketed the farm with snow the night before, and the sun had finally come out to play. On a whim, I’d decided to leave my home office to join it, and had taken my camera with me, since lately I’ve been obsessed with snapping photos of the farm. Often, when I’m in nature, the little kid in me kicks into high gear and I find myself doing things like holding onto a tree, lifting all my other limbs and pretending that I’m a tree, too. It was with this type of exuberance that I snapped this funny photo, in which the long blue shadows of the trees mix with my own, and I appear to be waving a scarf in celebration.

I liked this photo so much, in fact, I made it my new profile image. The next morning, I was confronted with the big ICK!, along with two “likes.”

Of course, I barely glanced at the "likes." The sheer awfulness of the word ICK! bit me as if it were a spider: At first I was a little dazed, then found myself becoming more and more entangled in the Eight Worldly Dharmas—four pairs of opposites that in the Buddhist teachings are what keep us stuck in samsara (or suffering): praise/blame, gain/loss, pleasure/pain, and fame/disgrace.

After quickly deleting the ICK!, my thought process went like this: The two friends who had clicked “like” valued me (not simply my photo, but me), and were wise, good, honest, likeable people themselves. This other woman, obviously, was mildly insane. Who would be so rude? I would never write something so mean. And why say anything if you have nothing nice to say?

My stories didn’t end there, though. Right off the bat, I started searching for reasons to blame her, even though the sane part of me knew this woman to be kind, intelligent, and rational. In that emotionally-charged moment, though, I considered a variety of explanations: Evidently, she had some sort of mental disorder and hadn’t taken her meds. Or maybe she was drunk when she wrote it. Or maybe she was a little blind and thought she saw something horribly phallic and inappropriate in my photo. Maybe she was so delusional, she thought she could decipher a nasty word in the shadow of the trees.

Then, as is my habit, I started to blame myself: Oh, no. Maybe there IS something phallic in there, and I’ve now presented myself to all of Facebook as a huge penis! Or maybe she thinks I’m incredibly narcissistic for posting a photo of nature that includes me, like I’m somehow worthy of the glorious trees.

Within minutes, I’d clothed myself in the shameful identity I thought this woman had placed on me, and began to think: you know, maybe she’s right. I AM narcissistic. And sick, too, since clearly I’d taken a photo of myself as some sort of reproductive organ, and hadn't even realized it! In a moment of awareness, I also recognized with great sadness that these thoughts felt familiarly like the ones my father had clothed me in as a child, and I tried to push this sharp pain away by blaming my church friend again. For several more minutes, my thoughts went back and forth like this: “How mean!,” followed by, “No, wait, she’s right, I must be totally icky . . . ”

Because I was on shaky ground, I experienced the strong urge not only to push my feelings away, but to solidify my identity by reaching out through email to a couple of close friends I thought could A) assure me my photo did not include a penis, and B) shore me up by agreeing that this woman was off base and incredibly rude—which eventually, they did.

In the meantime, I’d finally slowed down enough to recognize my need to sit, breathe, and confront my feelings about the ICK!, and to allow myself to remain present with the initial sting of old wounds. This included investigating some well-grooved, ancient beliefs, and the feelings that always seem to arrive with them—the sharp pain in my chest, a queasiness in my stomach, and a sort of shakiness throughout my whole body, along with other sensations. While I was doing this, some tears appeared briefly, and I allowed myself to feel them while they were present, and to dry when they were finished, without conjuring up more stories or beliefs that would invite them to keep flowing. Then, I reminded myself that the beliefs my father had once tried to clothe me in weren’t real, and that I didn’t need to keep the ones I thought this woman had given me, either.

I was also mindful enough to stop myself from posting some covert diss of my accused taunter on my Facebook status in an attempt to gather even more support for my ego. I did, however, at the suggestion of my wise husband, send her an email to ask if she wouldn’t mind explaining the ICK! I was thoughtful to be kind about this request, and to nurture compassion towards her, since the calm, saner part of my mind had finally settled in, and I realized there could have been some mistake.

Which, of course, there had been. In less than an hour, I received an extremely sweet letter from her that included “profuse apologies!” - and an explanation. My friend had meant to comment on another friend’s post about importing Chinese chickens, and must have accidentally commented on mine instead. Ah ha! As if someone had tapped a magic wand to my mind, my image of this woman as the kind, lovely, talented person I know from church was instantly restored, and so was my ego.

But, wait. Hold on a second. What if she’d written, “Yeah, that’s right! I thought your photo was disgusting!” What then? Would I have spiraled even further into blame, of both her and myself? Would I have tried to gather an army of allies to disparage her reputation and build up mine? And what type of story would I further formulate about her, to pin her down with an identity I could then hate? It’s so interesting to notice how quickly we feel threatened, and can then blame and make up stories about someone—or another political party, culture, or even an entire country—when we don’t have all the facts.

Also, I began to wonder: who am I when people “like” my status updates or photos? Do I construct an entire self around the issue of them liking or not liking these posts? Or can I drop these judgments entirely and just let the posts and photos be, without trying to create a solid self that seizes onto an identity for some sense of grounded-ness. Praise, for example, seems like a great thing to enjoy, but I need to remember that, along with blame, it’s one of the Eight Worldly Dharmas, and can cause me to suffer if I grasp onto it and create an inflated identity out of it, or expect it and don’t receive it.

One of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chödrön, writes in When Things Fall Apart, “We have a concept of ourselves that we reconstruct moment by moment and reflexively try to protect. But this concept that we are protecting is questionable. It’s all ‘much to do about nothing,’- like pushing and pulling a vanishing illusion.”

Throughout the years, my meditation practice has taught me to keep an open mind about things—to realize that most of my stories are completely made up and constructed from my own misguided perceptions, beliefs, and history. It’s also taught me to become acutely aware of both my mind and body when I experience that first sting, and to work with the Eight Worldly Dharmas when they arise instead of trying to push them away. Then, they become my greatest teachers, and can let me know when I’ve constructed an entire novel out of something as simple as Chinese chickens.

Questions to Consider:
1 In what ways do you make up stories about things when you don’t have all the facts?
2. In what ways do you run away from your pain when it arises?
3. In what ways do you try to solidify your identity when someone criticizes or blames you?
4. What stories do you make up about other people when they’ve hurt you?

1 comment:

  1. This is a fantastically clear picture of how the mind works, and how --if we react to the input--it can propel us into strings of emotions and stories.
    I've seen it even in something as neutral as stubbing my toe on a table leg--immediately my mind can jump to "who moved the table so that i got hurt?", and then --bam! i'm off and running (mentally) with a string of pick-pick-picking at whoever the imagined culprit is. Argh!

    Thanks very much for this, Shell.

    Oh and thanks for the L. Yeshe quote (hadn't seen that one) and the formulation of the 'worldly winds' with the last one as fame/disgrace (which I find more helpful than 'honour/dishonour' in The Mirror of the Dhamma).