Understanding Shenpa

Working with Shenpa

I have read and listened to a few of Pema Chödrön’s audio books, some are “When things fall apart” or “the places that scare you”. There are many more and as with many of the Buddhist / meditation teachers I like to listen to or read, I regularly return to Pema Chödron when the moment is ripe.

Pema Chödron is an American Buddhist nun, teacher, writer who has, for many years, been the director of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada. When I first heard about her, I was immediately drawn to her style of writing, talking and bringing Buddhist ideas to a western audience with clarity, kindness and humor. Her storytelling encouraged me to consider her as one of my favorite teachers.

About two weeks ago I came across a youtube video of a retreat talk by Pema which I listened to in its entirety (see below). In this talk, Pema talks about Shenpa (go to minute 6 if you want to skip to that part), a word I had never heard of before. It is a Tibetan word that is usually translated as attachment. Pema, however, uses different words to describe it: “being hooked”, “getting stuck”. Here are a few things I jotted down while listening to her audiobook called “getting unstuck” as well as some of my thoughts:

– Shenpa is like an itch that you need to scratch. The itch is the involuntary and uncomfortable feeling that arises without warning. It is an urge you may have that you can not “control”. A person says a mean word to you, criticizes you and you have a reaction to it, a tightening inside you: this is shenpa. Shenpa is different for each individual based on his/her history. You and I may receive the same criticism, but we could react completely differently. I may not like it much, but it doesn’t affect me, I may make a comment that it’s not fair or nice, but it passes through me and is not much of an issue. You, on the other hand, may react in a very sensitive way, your face flushes, you freeze, you feel horrible inside, a sore spot has been touched. You are hooked. This is shenpa. We can react differently to an interaction, a story, a look. The one who gets hooked is suffering from shenpa.

– What happens then? you might shut down, or get very angry and aggressive towards the person or yourself. In other words, you overreact and you are caught in a drama. Your reaction is the habituation, the conditioning you are so familiar with, even it if doesn’t feel good or does harm. You need to scratch (habit) that itch (sticky feeling/shenpa). Analyzing it is no longer necessary or helpful because you are already scratching it. There is a non-verbal drama happening. If you are an addictive person, you may immediately act upon your addictions (drinking, sex, shopping, working…). Shenpa is a familiar feeling and even if it “hurts” you, you return to it because you know it so well.

– Through meditation, you learn to open up the space. You need to learn to stay with it, go to your breath. The first step is to see it (prajna) with the goal to stop the chain reaction. You need to acknowledge what’s happening and refrain from your habits (scratching).

– Don’t get caught in the content, go to the underlying hooked quality, the urge, the attachment. Recognize it.

– Pema uses four words that describe the process of opening up the space:

“Drop the storyline , stay with the energy. The thoughts themselves are not the problem – it’s the identity with them, that they hook us and that we believe them which is the problem.”

Miles Neale talks about “recognition and choice”. The lessons are the same, the story is told in different languages, anecdotes, forms. What Pema and Miles are saying is the same: when that moment arises and you are hit, affected, hooked, there is a gap. It is the moment between reaction and action. Our many years of habitual conditioning makes this gap very short, a split second, maybe even less. We don’t even know it exists. We know nothing different. This is who we are, we think. But then people come around and tell us a different story. A story handed down through generations lucky enough to want to hear it, live it and in turn pass it on. In my opinion, it is a good story, an important message which hurts no one and makes you grow. As a matter of fact it heals, it embraces, it connects. I feel very fortunate to have been told this story.

In one of the many stories, I am given an explanation to something I had never even thought about, let alone realized. But as soon as I hear the story, it is as though I had read this book a long long time ago yet forgotten it. It explains something I always longed to understand. In this story, Pema not only explains in utmost detail an experience I go through which brings suffering, but shows me what I can do to stop the cycle. And because it all makes sense, I follow her instructions:

I meditate
I observe
I open up the space
I fall and fall again
I get angry, blame, self-shame
I observe some more
I get up
I meditate
I listen
I learn
I open the space then I forget until it’s behind me
I improve, I fail, I get up
I don’t give up

And I repeat this cycle.

What I have learned is that the more I repeat this cycle the longer the length of the gap, the opening of that space. The longer the opening, the better chance to improve awareness, to recognize from a place outside of myself, to question the self-told narrative. I am given the chance to make a choice, to stop and understand what is happening. Sometimes I make the wrong choice because my habits hold too much power, but what I am also learning is to be kinder to myself. And in this kindness, I develop a healthy distance from the hurt, fear and insecurity.

What is my goal? It is to always recognize and make the right choice. To be free from the pain I inflict upon myself and others. To be more kind and generous while maintaining my integrity, my rights, my opinions. I don’t want to be passive, I want to be active in the most conscious manner. I am encouraged and motivated by the lessons I learn from Pema and all the other good teachers. It is a long road, I know that now, but it is well worth it. I know that too.


As one gets older…

It’s really a strange thing. I have never been the kind that freaks out about getting older. And I am still not that kind of person. BUT… When I turned 50 i did my simple calculations in order to figure out how much time I still had to get it right. Assuming i don’t get sick or hit by a bus or have to say bye bye early of one of 8 million ways to die, I theoretically could have 30 to 40 more years to go. That’s generous, of course. Of those 40 years, 10 to 15 could be quieter and more challenging (you get the picture, I don’t need to describe any of them, just look around you for plenty of examples). So let’s say 20 to 25 really “good” years? Wow, that sounds like a lot!

Right. We are already at the end March of 2017! January 01st feels like 3 days ago.

The more I think about it, the more confused I am. What exactly do I even mean when I say I want to “get it right”?

This morning at 4:30am the buzz of my phone woke me up because I’d gotten a few message. At first I ignored it, then decided to see who had written to me at that time of the night. It was one of my nieces who is currently living and working in North Carolina. She’s in her late 20s. I have a decent relationship with her, not too much contact, but we like each other and I get regular updates about her from her father. The last time we saw each other, he told me that she had met a few new (German) people whom she liked. The wife is taking an online nutrition coaching course which got my niece inspired to get back to her original and constant passion: nutrition and fitness. She has a regular job in a company which flew her there and pretty much gave her all the benefits she would have in Germany. Good going! And even though she is doing very well, we all know she’s not passionate about that job or company. And she is a “searcher” (what do you expect, she’s my niece!).

Her recorded letter was in response to a longer email I had recently written to her after hearing the latest from her father. I saw a familiar picture that can go either way: dreams, motivation, youth, freedom (not yet married with children, if ever), visions of a bright future, hope to do what you love. The result of remaining loyal to yourself on this path is what I mean by “getting it right”. I so much want her and so many young people to get it right. A passion of my own has, for a long time, been to be the cheerleader, the voice of encouragement and reminder that keeps them on track. I know young women and men who are admiringly skipping along their personal road to inner freedom and connection. It’s not always an easy road, but they are loyal and they work hard. Most of all they have an ability to know when to say yes or no, where and when to take a turn. What they don’t do is get off track. Some know their goal, others know the path but not the goal. It’s wonderful to watch. And it’s just as sad to witness those who are lost or frightened or thrown obstacles or boundaries which limits their freedom to remain loyal.

I know another young woman in her late 20s whom I met when I was living and working with International students at a community college in the US. She is Japanese and studied there between the ages of 18 and 22. These 4 years not only changed her life, but completely changed her view of the place she grew up in. When she innocently returned to Japan carrying a bag full of experiences, friendships and hard learned but powerful lessons, the fire that burned inside slowly went out. She got married and had two children. She soon realized that because of the cultural difference she no longer could be the person she was when she lived in the US. There she had the freedom, was encouraged and “allowed” to be outgoing, to smile and say good morning to complete strangers. She was a strong and independent young woman whose ideas and personality were respected and given attention. She received feedback and this encouraged her to  grow like a flower. People were creative, individualistic, brave, free. No one really cared how she dressed. She even started playing in a band and when I went to watch her perform, I was in awe of the growth and confidence I witnessed. And now she tells me that all that is gone and remains a distant memory which fills her days with sadness. People give her strange looks or don’t react to her when she smiles and says good morning. No one cares what her ideas and dreams are, she is expected to be a good mother and to follow the rules set by her society. She is not able to tell or show why she is or feels different. In a recent letter to me she wrote: “I went to a Starbucks near the language school after the interview and there were many foreign visitors.  They looked happy. Of course they were…  I was sitting on the chair with the smallest table, and felt so tiny.”

I was sitting on the chair with the smallest table, and felt so tiny.

This made me want to cry. How hard one has to work at being oneself. Some people never know what that “being oneself” means. They are not so lucky or motivated. They abidingly live their lives by the rules set by the societies or families they are born into. Others drink from the cup of universal possibilities and either suffer or take the leap.

I know another young woman who, since she was a small girl, knew that she wanted to be a circus artist. How many little girls and boys have such outrageous and “unrealistic” dreams? This fire could have been shut off within a short time. Instead, with the strength of her character and the support of her societal and family environment she is now, at the age of 24, a successful circus artist living the life she had envisioned. There seems to be no limit to her abilities and continued growth. She is happy.

And so I return to my niece who has been given the freedom and stands at a crossroads.

But what really distinguishes those who do it, live it, breathe it from those who are stuck? It is this: having the confidence, strength, courage, discipline, persistence, “I don’t give a damn what people think” attitude and fearlessness to fall and get up again. This is the hard work and key ingredient to personal success (success, not in the material sense, but simply in the sense of connecting with your essence).

I have already confessed that I myself have not (yet) succeeded and I am sad about it. I lacked some of these ingredients. But I understand it well and recognize it in others. This is why I respond to the young. I used to have the image of standing at the edge of a cliff and having the courage to take the leap. But it does not need to be so dramatic or sensational (I believe I misunderstood that part). Just a little step. And then another one, as long as the direction is your own with a capital Y. And I hope to assist and remind others not to become lazy.

{Another blog post will have to be dedicated to HOW this is done. But for now I leave you with this: take the time to look inside and listen to that little voice which knows and just needs to be heard. Find your way to listen and find those that resonate to your voice. And then, go.}

As for getting older and having 20-25 years to go for “getting it right”, I am trying hard to convince myself that even for me it is not too late. I need not be afraid that it is a cliff I need to jump off, but a step with conviction and bravery.


Back from silence…

Of course I wish I didn’t always let months or even years pass before I write something again. It comes across as less believable or caring. Or at least it looks like I do / think / accomplish nothing during those silent times.

What is really happening is that I have mixed feelings about blogging. Lately I have become more  tired of observing all the narcissism on twitter, facebook, instagram. I know it just is that way, it is nothing new to me, but it gets worse with time and generations growing. Generations that don’t know what it was like without selfie-ness. For a longer time I have not had any interest in posting photos on facebook, even creative ones that have nothing to do with my face or my dish or my feet in front of a beach. Every time I think of sharing, I am overwhelmed with shame and disgust as it reminds me of all that I abhor: look at me! Love me! Admire me! I abhor it and am saddened because it exposes in an obvious way the deep need that so many have for love and confirmation of their existence. The other day while waiting for the bus I observed three teenage girlfriends sitting next to each other. While two of them were looking at a cell phone, the third one spent at least 5 minutes holding her phone in front of her pouting and tilted head in order to capture the perfect selfie. I could not stop staring at this modern phenomenon. And then I wonder what I would be like if I was 16 today. I don’t even know if I’d do things differently even though I like to describe myself as always having been a bit different. I will never know and prefer not to.

This and other phenomenon (emotional, social, political) make me angry, sad and impatient. They discourage me from writing because SO many people write or record themselves and their messages. As soon as I sense a need for self-aggrandizement, I turn it off and stop reading. But then I tell myself to get over it unless i want to get into analyzing why I react so strongly, i.e. classic “it angers you because it is a reflection of yourself that you don’t like”. Being pissed off is a another great way to kill your own dreams, a distraction from what matters.

Ok. Got that off my chest! Write, girl, just get over it, shut up and write!

Behind the scenes of silence on this site I have been thinking about:
The act and definition of being “creative”. Creativity as a means for connecting with self and others.
Plant-based diet for preventing disease and death.
Researching in order to help myself and people around me either tweak or make a life changing choice to live a healthier life.
The role and type of exercise that accompanies the above goal.
Spring and planning for a pretty and self-sustaining garden.
Meditation as savior for emotional and social vulnerabilities (anxiety, depression, fear…).
Societies / politics becoming more and more conservative and filled with hate.
The nagging question of my role in this world.
The cultivation of my own garden. (as in “il faut cultiver notre jardin” Voltaire, Candide).

I don’t have the answers for you, my reader. Perhaps this is the false reason for my silence here, thinking I should only write if I have something concrete to say or teach. There are plenty of people with authority out there whom we go to for advice, for direction, for lessons on “how to”. They have studied, researched, experimented and experienced. They too are growing and learning, sometimes they even change their minds. As for me, I am always in learning mode plus a desire to sit in the classroom of life with you. So take none of what I write you as fact or proven. It is the door I choose to walk into, and I am willing to put my lessons out there along with their successes and failures.


after 20+ years marriage…

Last week I had dinner with C. She tells me about having been with her husband for 23 years and the desire to be alone. Why? Because she’s never been there, done that. I have, so my perspective is different than hers. I neither talk her out of it nor encourage her. I listen and watch. I understand her 100% and tell her so. It’s a familiar itch, a question she has as she is approaching the official middle age of her life. What would it be like to live alone, to do whatever she wants without having to think about him? To have total freedom.

And there it is again, that unbearable longing for freedom. I wish I had the answer(s) for her, but of course I don’t. I’ve for one never been with anyone for so long. I’ve never had such an intense longing to live alone, to be “free” in this way. 7 years ago I made the conscious choice to walk out of a marriage that was not right for me. It was painful for both. He was a good man, but our differences were too great. He had no dreams, no desire to grow, to learn, to have social contacts. For several reasons I understood it, could live with it for years, but eventually I could no longer accept that life for myself. I was still too young and not willing to sacrifice all of it. I have no regrets.

C. cares for her husband, they have a lot in common, they get along, she has an active life with him and with herself. But the relationship with herself lacks intimacy, it screams for more attention, she wants to explore the attractive unknown. And for now this picture does not include him.

How do I help a friend who has a realistic need when I know the enormous risk involved. She knows that too. Once she was very close to leaving it all behind – the nest of familiarity, habit, comfort, and even freedom. The first dinner we had together, I saw it. As she talked about friendships with men, there was a twinkle in her eyes. They shone over to the side as though fantasizing. It was quick, almost unnoticeable, but I caught it. There was an aura looming around her. I didn’t ask her because we were just getting to know each other and I was still testing the waters of a new friendship. I first needed to find out what type of German woman she was. You see, Germans are good conversationalists, but they are masters at self-control. Being overly cautious when it comes to showing emotions, vulnerabilities and weaknesses is deeply engrained in their psyche. When I later concluded that she was not that typical German woman, I lured it out of her and my suspicion was confirmed. It was a quick thing: affair, move out for a short time, return, end the affair, realize she didn’t really want to leave her husband. It was not worth it. Not for another man. After much analysis, we both concluded that she had handled a tricky and precarious (to the relationship) situation with dignity and respect for all involved. Case closed.

And now, after several years have passed, that aura shines again. What was is then that has returned today? A longing, a fantasy, curious entertainment not for another man, but for complete freedom from a too comfortable, stagnant relationship. She talks about her inability to blend her own personal growth with the seemingly lethargic status quo of her marriage.

I refuse to encourage her to run away. Perhaps 10 years ago I would have, but not today. I’ve seen and learned too much about fantasies turned to disappointment and boredom. My choice was the right one because I knew it for years and tried all the tricks (these were very creative years for me).

I tell her this instead: you have blocked and restricted energy that needs to move. This is a fact. You need to find an opening…. Not the quick fix and “easy” way, which seems to be the default solution for most people facing such a wall (break up, find a lover, move out, live it up etc…), but by unlocking a door for that energy to flow through and out of you. Try this first. Make it a ritual and buy yourself a notebook and pen. Whenever that energy arises, find yourself a quiet space and write down your feelings, your longings, your questions. Let your imagination go wild on paper, release the pressure. See what it does to you, where it leads. Talk to me when you need to. Figure out what exactly you are missing. Imagine living that life with all that it entails. Whatever you do, don’t lock that energy into a dark and damp room in the corner of the house of you.

While talking, I noticed her eyes glowing with every word and her body relaxing. I don’t know if this will be the solution, but it may stall a drastic decision that she may deeply regret. I am not saying that her leaving is the wrong choice. What I am saying is that it’s what too many people nowadays do too quickly because they think there is no other option. If she didn’t love her husband anymore, I would probably suggest otherwise. But she tells me that she loves him and that she would probably never feel fully free because she couldn’t live with the knowledge of how many people (including herself) she’d be hurting.

Perhaps this is a short term solution, but what is an alternative to leaving a marriage after so many years? There are people who have never regretted it, others don’t leave but have affairs, others stay but are miserable… the list of unsatisfactory actions is endless. Where are the books that address acceptable actions in a healthy and realistic manner?

I’d love to hear, dear reader, your stories, ideas, suggestions…

Swimming with genius

It inspires me to read morning pages from 2006/2007. I was 40 then. In this phase of my life, I was touching on a creative streak. I longed to accept the desire I had to “be an artist”, to write, to see what magic awaited me if I was open enough. The words did flow at times, but I also too often struggled with fear and resistance. Reading this from the future, I am amazed (and pissed) at how much internal worrisome dialogue holds you back, how difficult it is to be free from harmful chatter. The truth though is that despite all that worry and negative chatter, the longing and conviction never abandoned me. I never really gave up. Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book “Big Magic” talks about being visited only once by genius. Since then, she keeps the faith and writes, even if it never reaches the level she had once been lucky enough to encounter:

If my plan is to sit around waiting for another such unadulterated and impassioned creative visitation, I may be waiting for a very long time. So I don’t sit around waiting to write until my genius decides to pay me a visit. If anything, I have come to believe that my genius spends a lot of time waiting around for me – waiting to see if I’m truly serious about this line of work. I feel sometimes like my genius sits in the corner and watches me at my desk, day after day, week after week, month after month, just to be sure I really mean it, just to be sure I’m really giving this creative endeavor my whole-hearted effort. When my genius is convinced that I’m not just messing around here, he may show up and offer assistance. Sometimes the assistance will not arrive until two years into a project. Sometimes that assistance will not last for more than ten minutes.

When that assistance does arrive — that sense of the moving sidewalk beneath my feet, the moving sidewalk beneath my words — I am delighted, and I go along for the ride. In such instances, I write like I am not quite myself. I lose track of time and space and self. While it’s happening, I thank the mystery for its help. And when it departs, I let the mystery go, and I keep on working diligently anyhow, hoping that someday my genius will reappear.

I work either way, you see — assisted or unassisted — because that is what you must do in order to live a fully creative life. I work steadily, and I always thank the process. Whether I am touched by grace or not, I thank creativity for allowing me to engage with it at all.

Because either way, it’s all kind of amazing — what we get to do, what we get to attempt, what we sometimes get to commune with.
Gratitude, always.
Always, gratitude.

In reading my words from 2006, I do feel as though this friend, genius, has been patiently waiting and watching me as the years of my mediocre life pass and I desperately attempt to give it meaning. I could accuse it of lacking pro-active initiation, but I don’t because this is not its purpose. It is I who must be pro-active. For decades I’ve remained secretly loyal to my desire for depth and the dissection of my soul. But today I wonder if genius was not always the loyal one, watching me go through life as an impostor, a make-believe slice of the average.

Looking at it from this angle, I find it (after sweeping away the tragedy of it) quite amusing. Age does that to you, I have been told. You realize that no one really cares how good or bad you are, so why should you? I am less afraid and worried today. What do I have to lose if what I make / write / photograph is mediocre? Is it my goal to be published or become a world famous photographer? I don’t deny that that would be pretty cool, but of course this is not really my goal. Therefore, thank you logic, I consciously take off my clothes and jump into the icy waters of creative liberation. Actually have some fun with it, see where it takes me, play on the surface and dive to its depths with playful curiosity. If the water turns dark and murky, don’t turn back, but swim right through it. Discover the gift of the unknown. And if genius touches you, if you should be so fortunate, shut up and swim with it — let it flow through you. And if it doesn’t, still keep on swimming. Because there is some feeling you get when it flows through and out of you. It is like ecstasy, it is wonderful, it makes you feel connected and gives you a high. Perhaps this is what happiness is.

Not so coincidentally, I came across this video last night:

about attachment

On December 15th 2010 I wrote: “I have a goal now. I know what my focus is: clearing my mind from attachment”. This was during a time of transition when I had moved back to Germany after 25 years of living in the US, after my divorce, after saying goodbye to the physical closeness of my friends. A time when I often felt lonely and desperately tried to fill that loneliness with men. I needed intimacy, warmth, love. I’d find it in small doses. Thrilling at times, horribly painful at others. Meditation and buddhist teachings were a welcomed consolation and answer to all my new and confusing questions. I had chosen to be lost in order to find a new and authentic path out of the forest.

Today, five years have passed and I am on some path that promises direction. I live somewhere, in a “real” home, a “real” relationship with a responsible, committed and loving man, a job, a relatively small social circle (if you can even call it a circle). I’ve been meditating and studying Buddhism ever since. Damn! 5 years is a long time to work on a goal of freeing the mind from attachment. But really? Freeing the mind of attachments in only 5 years? Of course, I have not reached that goal. I am at a better place than I was then, but attached I still am. To attention, to connection, to love, to acknowledgement, to belonging, to identity, to playing an important role, to being treated with kindness and respect, to being admired. Attached to being connected with some people (including strangers), to my center. I am attached to the desire for people to like me, to leaving a legacy, to helping others, to being smart and (still) attractive and funny.

It seems I have failed, but perhaps I haven’t. It takes many many years to perfect a skill and this lesson is not finished. I am still attached to so many things, but my success lies in knowing it better and, most importantly, being at peace with it.

Rigdzin Shikpo says in “Never turn away”:

The truth has a satisfying quality. We feel there is something to be discovered, but don’t know what it is, which is very unsatisfactory. It’s only by discovering the truth that we become truly at ease and at peace with the world. there is no one ordinary word that covers this. Perhaps we could say there is a transcendent peace to be found in the nature of truth, because it is the truth that moves us to search in the first place, and it is the truth that we are searching for. Because we only find genuine peace when we realize truth, the truth is peace.”

This is my truth. I suffer from needs and wants — and I am fully aware of it — my truth is that the awareness drives me to keep learning, keep falling, keep getting up and looking at what just happened with a perhaps frightened yet open heart. Keep seeing it as it is and being ok with it. Ok means accepting, recognizing and then moving on with all intense awareness to change, grow and improve.

I set myself a new goal and challenge: Accept this truth, be at peace with it and be willing, with pain, resistance and openness, to let go and move on in an instant.