I like to think that we are responsible of our actions, actors of our lives. I like to think that we are free, that we have the priviledge to choose what we want our lives to be like, because even in the face of adversity, we always get to decide how we will react to whatever happens to us. We can indeed choose happiness, and if we have the courage to stand up for ourselves, eventually be free.
But something’s holding us back. Something inevitably gets in the way between us and happiness, us and freedom. I had a glimpse on what that might be as I was following Pema Chodron’s course “The Freedom To Choose A Fresh Alternative”. This thing that keeps us from happiness I believe is shenpa.
Shenpa is a Tibetan word that usually translates as attachment, but Pema refers to it as getting hooked. You’re happy, doing whatever you’re doing, walking on the street let’s say, and then someone bumps in to you unintentionally and boom! you’re hooked. You’re chilling in your home, relaxing and having a great Sunday morning, when you take out of the dryer your favorite shirt your boyfriend put in while doing the laundry and boom again! you’re hooked.
Physically, it may feel like a tightness, a tensing sensation, a “sense of closing down” as Pema says. You start feeling that tingling feeling in your heart, that tension in your belly. You might even notice your jaw clinching.
Nothing’s wrong with getting a physical response to something we might perceive as a threat. Or maybe an opportunity. Shenpa works both ways. It gets us hooked when we fear something, when we feel attacked, insecure, uneasy, but it also gets us hooked when we feel pleasure. We can get easily, even more easily, attached to things that we like.
So shenpa does not only occur when we feel trigger by something we perceive as negative. But no matter how or why we start getting that itch feeling that something’s triggering us, the thing about shenpa that eventually leads us to suffering is not in the shenpa itself, but more in our reaction to it.
That’s because most of us do not simply notice shenpa, and then move on.
As we start feeling uncomfortable, we often have the tendency to justify this discomfort, to find a reason for it, to believe that we are right to react in such a way to simple things that aren’t real threats. That’s when we start creating a story around our shenpa, a story that has the power to get us hooked into feelings of anger, blame, self denigration, or whatever emotion that leads us to act in an unauthentic way.
The stories of our lives
Take the favorite shirt in the dryer. It is simply a shirt put in the dryer by mistake by someone who loves you very much and wanted to do something good. But you would never imagine how creative I can get when I get hooked. I can go on and on, inventing a complete story on how my boyfriend never listens to me, linking that event to others in the past, to almost everything that he does or does not in the house, thinking about how I have to watch everything he does, starting to believe he takes me for his mom, and that’s because he’s the youngest of his family, and that he is still a kid, such a baby I have to take care of. I’ll stop here, you get the picture, but that story can go on and on forever.
Why do we create such stories? I believe it is to relieve some of the tension of shenpa. As we tell ourselves the story, we forget that uneasiness shenpa brought, and we are not feeling anymore that uncomfortable sensation. The stories we tell ourselves are keeping us from being in the moment, which is exactly what we are looking for, since shenpa is not that fun to experience.
Other ways to escape shenpa
If some people choose to get creative and create stories to escape shenpa, others might choose to simply bury that uneasiness and stickiness shenpa underneath whatever comforting action they enjoy. Work, television, food, alcohol, drugs, sex are all ways we often choose to get away from that hooked feeling that something’s not going the way we want it to go. We choose to act in a way to relieve as soon as possible the itch brought by the shenpa. We turn to our usual habits to get away as soon as possible from it. And here again, it works.
If creating stories or distracting ourselves with leisure works, why would we have to look for a fresh alternative, as Pema suggests in our course? Because moving away from shenpa comes with a price. As we escape the discomfort caused by a triggering event, we also get away from our experience, and are no longer present to our lives. Our usual response to getting hooked, no matter what it is, is so anchored into ourselves that it has become a habit, which often leads us to go through life on autopilot.
We don’t want that, don’t we? In case you’re not sure, I’ll tell you right away: we don’t. I want my life to be an adventure, and I want yours to be too. When we choose to break the habit, to not get into our usual way to respond to shenpa, that’s when we start living.
“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
How do we move on then?
So what do we do with shenpa? What to do when we start feeling that tension, that itch, that discomfort, when we feel that tightness in our belly? Pause, and breathe. That’s it. As simple as it is, this instruction is quite challenging, believe me. As you start feeling the ache of shenpa in your body, try not to let your mind get you away from it by creating a story, or escape through some distraction. Simply accept that you are triggered, and let go of it.
There will be times when this will work. And then there are the times when you feel like in that precise situation, in that moment, or with that person, you are so right, your shenpa is justified. Be careful : that’s a catch. You do not want to go down that path, you already know where it’s taking you right? Choose a fresh alternative, do something new, react in a unusual way to that hook.
Don’t know yet how to apply this advice to your daily life? You can start practicing it on the meditation cushion as Pema suggests, training yourself not to get hooked to any thought or emotion, by simply noticing with loving kindness the moment you are starting to think, and bringing yourself back to the present moment by saying “thinking”, softly, with care.
Just like you can’t prevent yourself from thinking, you can’t prevent yourself from getting triggered. Life happens. But as we grow into a more conscious form of human beings, shenpa gives us the opportunity to live your live fully, in an authentic way, day after day. We will get triggered, but everytime it happens, we can choose to simply notice it and let go. That’s when the magic happen, that’s when we become the human beings we aspire to be, living consciously, present to ourselves and to others.