By Leo Babauta

If you’ve been doing our Grounded Challenge and practicing our first method (or an evolved method) … and working with troubles that come up with the challenge … you might be wondering how you can shift out of the difficulties you’re facing.

One practice to try is choosing a “fresh alternative,” as Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron calls it.

In this practice, you notice when you’ve gotten hooked … when you’re stuck in a story about another person (or yourself, or a situation) … and then in that moment of noticing, you can choose a different alternative.

What’s the fresh alternative to staying hooked? Being with your shakiness, staying with the feeling of difficulty or pain, being friendly with this part of your experience … and in the process, being transformed.

In this way, our pain and difficulty can become the very source of our transformation and growth.

Let’s look at the idea of being hooked and being stuck in a story, and then look at how this transformative practice works.

Getting Hooked Into a Story

When we are frustrated with someone, complaining, angry, lonely, sad, hurt, disappointed with ourselves … these are examples of when we’ve “gotten hooked,” in Pema’s language.

So someone says something that hurts us in some way … this is like a little prick of pain in our heart. In this small moment of uncertainty, groundlessness, insecurity, pain … we get hooked. It’s like a hook tugging our heart, and all of a sudden, our minds are spinning around a story about this pain or uncertainty.

A story might be, “I don’t know why they always do this, they’re so inconsiderate, they should respect me more, I didn’t do anything to deserve this, I should tell them off, god why are people such jerks!” One little pin prick of pain in our hearts, and we’re hooked into a story. The story might be a thousand other stories, but in essence, we’re stuck in this narrative in our heads. True or not, doesn’t matter, this is where we’re stuck.

We all do this, myself included. We get caught up in our stories, hooked by a pin prick.

But there’s a way to choose a different path. A fresh alternative.

Practice: Choose a Different Alternative

We don’t have to stay hooked in the stories in our heads. We have a choice, and it’s transformative. It’s not necessarily easy, though — we have to practice.

Here’s the practice you might try with this:

  1. Notice when you’re hooked. The sooner you notice, the sooner you can catch it, the easier it is to become unhooked. We can catch it soon after the first prick of pain happens: someone says something to you that causes you a bit of pain, and you can notice that feeling of being hooked, of being yanked into a narrative about the person and what they did. If you find yourself justifying why it’s correct to have that narrative, then this is further sign that you’re hooked. For now, just notice, as soon as you can in the process.
  2. Notice how being hooked hurts you. When we’re hooked, we’re stuck in a narrative in our heads about something we don’t like. We can stay in that story, but it’s not very helpful. In fact, it can lead to great pain, lots of anger, lots of lashing out at others in painful ways, lots of being unhappy with others (or ourselves) and resentful towards them. This is all poison to our happiness and to our relationships. Start to notice the effects that being hooked and being stuck have on you and your relationships and life.
  3. Pause, and consider a different path. When you see yourself being hooked, can you pause for just a second and consider a new alternative? If you know that it has difficult effects on you, can you consider shifting?
  4. The new alternative: dropping in. The alternative starts with dropping into your body, and being with the pin prick of pain in your heart. What does this feel like in your body? What sensations are present there? By now, you might have a much bigger effect in your body, now that you’ve spun an entire narrative in your head. It magnifies the pin prick into a storm. But no matter how unpleasant and unwanted the sensation might be, just drop in and be present with it. Feel it.
  5. Continue the alternative: stay with the feeling, with friendliness & gentleness. Now that you’ve dropped in, try staying with the shakiness, the unpleasantness, the hurt. Be present with it, with curiosity and gentleness. See if you can even develop a sense of friendliness towards it. The longer you can stay with it, the more it will transform you.

The pain or anger won’t necessarily go away. That’s not the goal. But you will be developing a courage to be with your difficulty, a friendliness towards your experience, an openness that wasn’t there before. Maybe you’ll feel more compassion towards the other person, who after all is hurting just as you are. In fact, this pain you’ve gotten in touch with connects us all to each other, as it is a core part of the human experience.

By choosing this fresh alternative, to be with whatever is arising in you, instead of stuck in your story, you are getting in touch with this human experience with a new courageous openness.