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 open up the space
I fall and fall again
I get angry, blame, self-shame
I observe some more
I get up
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.