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Learning to Stay :

The Shenpa Syndrome


by Pema Chodron

 

 

In the late 1960s, Deirdre Blomfield-Brown was an elementary school teacher in New Mexico, going through a painful divorce. Searching for answers, she found a wisdom path in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and in 1974 was ordained as a nun by His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa. Today she is known as Pema Chödrön—one of the world’s most beloved authors, and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia—the first Tibetan monastery for Westerners. Here, she shares a rare teaching she received from Dzigar Kontrul Rinpoche, and one that has become critical to her personal practice.


You’re trying to make a point with a coworker or your partner. At one moment her face is open and she’s listening, and at the next, her eyes cloud over or her jaw tenses.


What is it that you’re seeing?

Someone criticizes you. They criticize your work or your appearance or your child. At moments like that, what is it you feel? It has a familiar taste in your mouth, it has a familiar smell. Once you begin to notice it, you feel like this experience has been happening forever.

The Tibetan word for this is shenpa. It is usually translated “attachment,” but a more descriptive translation might be “hooked.” When shenpa hooks us, we’re likely to get stuck. We could call shenpa “that sticky feeling.” It’s an everyday experience. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy, and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.


Remember the fairy tale in which toads hop out of the princess’s mouth whenever she starts to say mean words? That’s how being hooked can feel. Yet we don’t stop—we can’t stop—because we’re in the habit of associating whatever we’re doing with relief from our own discomfort. This is the shenpa syndrome. The word “attachment” doesn’t quite translate what’s happening. It’s a quality of experience that’s not easy to describe but which everyone knows well. Shenpa is usually involuntary and it gets right to the root of why we suffer.


Someone looks at us in a certain way, or we hear a certain song, we smell a certain smell, we walk into a certain room and boom. The feeling has nothing to do with the present, and nevertheless, there it is. When we were practicing recognizing shenpa at Gampo Abbey, we discovered that some of us could feel it even when a particular person simply sat down next to us at the dining table.

Shenpa thrives on the underlying insecurity of living in a world that is always changing. We experience this insecurity as a background of slight unease or restlessness. We all want some kind of relief from that unease, so we turn to what we enjoy—food, alcohol, drugs, sex, work or shopping. In moderation what we enjoy might be very delightful. We can appreciate its taste and its presence in our life. But when we empower it with the idea that it will bring us comfort, that it will remove our unease, we get hooked.

So we could also call shenpa “the urge”—the urge to smoke that cigarette, to overeat, to have another drink, to indulge our addiction whatever it is. Sometimes shenpa is so strong that we’re willing to die getting this short-term symptomatic relief. The momentum behind the urge is so strong that we never pull out of the habitual pattern of turning to poison for comfort. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve a substance; it can be saying mean things, or approaching everything with a critical mind. That’s a major hook. Something triggers an old pattern we’d rather not feel, and we tighten up and hook into criticizing or complaining. It gives us a puffed-up satisfaction and a feeling of control that provides short-term relief from uneasiness.


Those of us with strong addictions know that working with habitual patterns begins with the willingness to fully acknowledge our urge, and then the willingness not to act on it. This business of not acting out is called refraining. Traditionally it’s called renunciation. What we renounce or refrain from isn’t food, sex, work, or relationships per se. We renounce and refrain from the shenpa. When we talk about refraining from the shenpa, we’re not talking about trying to cast it out; we’re talking about trying to see the shenpa clearly and experiencing it. If we can see shenpa just as we’re starting to close down, when we feel the tightening, there’s the possibility of catching the urge to do the habitual thing, and not doing it.


Without meditation practice, this is almost impossible to do.

 

Generally speaking, we don’t catch the tightening until we’ve indulged the urge to scratch our itch in some habitual way. And unless we equate refraining with loving-kindness and friendliness toward ourselves, refraining feels like putting on a straitjacket. We struggle against it. The Tibetan word for renunciation is shenlok, which means turning shenpa upside-down, shaking it up. When we feel the tightening, somehow we have to know how to open up the space without getting hooked into our habitual pattern.

In practicing with shenpa, first we try to recognize it. The best place to do this is on the meditation cushion. Sitting practice teaches us how to open and relax to whatever arises, without picking and choosing. It teaches us to experience the uneasiness and the urge fully, and to interrupt the momentum that usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to come back to the present moment. We learn to stay with the uneasiness, the tightening, the itch of shenpa. We train in sitting still with our desire to scratch. This is how we learn to stop the chain reaction of habitual patterns that otherwise will rule our lives. This is how we weaken the patterns that keep us hooked into discomfort that we mistake as comfort. We label the spinoff “thinking” and return to the present moment.

What we really need to do is address things just as they are. Learning to recognize shenpa teaches us the meaning of not being attached to this world. Not being attached has nothing to do with this world. It has to do with shenpa—being hooked by what we associate with comfort. All we’re trying to do is not to feel our uneasiness. But when we do this we never get to the root of practice. The root is experiencing the itch as well as the urge to scratch, and then not acting it out.



  

Pema Chodron is a leading exponent of teachings on   

meditation  and how they apply to everyday life.

She is widely known for her charming and down-to-earth 

interpretation of Tibetan Buddhism for Western audiences

 

www.shambhala.org

 

 

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