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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.
If we're willing to practice this way over time, prajna begins to kick in. Prajna is clear seeing. It's our innate intelligence, our wisdom. With prajna, we begin to see the whole chain reaction clearly. As we practice, this wisdom becomes a stronger force than shenpa. That in itself has the power to stop the chain reaction.
Prajna isn't ego-involved. It's wisdom found in basic goodness, openness, equanimity—which cuts through self-absorption. With prajna we can see what will open up space. Habituation, which is ego-based, is just the opposite—a compulsion to fill up space in our own particular style. Some of us close space by hammering our point through; others do it by trying to smooth the waters.
We're taught that whatever arises is fresh, the essence of realization. That's the basic view. But how do we see whatever arises as the essence of realization when the fact of the matter is, we have work to do? The key is to look into shenpa. The work we have to do is about coming to know that we're tensing or hooked or "all worked up." That's the essence of realization. The earlier we catch it, the easier shenpa is to work with, but even catching it when we're already all worked up is good. Sometimes we have to go through the whole cycle even though we see what we're doing. The urge is so strong, the hook so sharp, the habitual pattern so sticky, that there are times when we can't do anything about it.
There is something we can do after the fact, however. We can go sit on the meditation cushion and re-run the story. Maybe we start with remembering the all-worked-up feeling and get in touch with that. We look clearly at the shenpa in retrospect; this is very helpful. It's also helpful to see shenpa arising in little ways, where the hook is not so sharp.
Buddhists are talking about shenpa when they say, "Don't get caught in the content: observe the underlying quality—the clinging, the desire, the attachment." Sitting meditation teaches us how to see that tangent before we go off on it. It basically comes down to the instruction, "label it thinking." To train in this on the cushion, where it's relatively easy and pleasant to do, is how we can prepare ourselves to stay when we get all worked up.
Then we can train in seeing shenpa wherever we are. Say something to another person and maybe you'll feel that tensing. Rather than get caught in a story line about how right you are or how wrong you are, take it as an opportunity to be present with the hooked quality. Use it as an opportunity to stay with the tightness without acting upon it. Let that training be your base.
You can also practice recognizing shenpa out in nature. Practice sitting still and catching the moment when you close down. Or practice in a crowd, watching one person at a time. When you're silent, what hooks you is mental dialogue. You talk to yourself about badness or goodness: me-bad or they-bad, this-right or that-wrong. Just to see this is a practice. You'll be intrigued by how you'll involuntarily shut down and get hooked, one way or another. Just keep labeling those thoughts and come back to the immediacy of the feeling. That's how not to follow the chain reaction.
Once we're aware of shenpa, we begin to notice it in other people. We see them shutting down. We see that they've been hooked and that nothing is going to get through to them now. At that moment we have prajna. That basic intelligence comes through when we're not caught up in escaping from our own unease. With prajna we can see what's happening with others; we can see when they've been hooked. Then we can give the situation some space. One way to do that is by opening up the space on the spot, through meditation. Be quiet and place your mind on your breath. Hold your mind in place with great openness and curiosity toward the other person. Asking a question is another way of creating space around that sticky feeling. So is postponing your discussion to another time.
At the abbey, we're very fortunate that everybody is excited about working with shenpa. So many words I've tried using become ammunition that people use against themselves. But we feel some kind of gladness about working with shenpa, perhaps because the word is unfamiliar. We can acknowledge what's happening with clear seeing, without aiming it at ourselves. Since no one particularly likes to have his shenpa pointed out, people at the Abbey make deals like, "When you see me getting hooked, just pull your earlobe, and if I see you getting hooked, I'll do the same. Or if you see it in yourself, and I'm not picking up on it, at least give some little sign that maybe this isn't the time to continue this discussion." This is how we help each other cultivate prajna, clear seeing.
We could think of this whole process in terms of four R’s: recognizing the shenpa, refraining from scratching, relaxing into the underlying urge to scratch and then resolving to continue to interrupt our habitual patterns like this for the rest of our lives. What do you do when you don't do the habitual thing? You're left with your urge. That's how you become more in touch with the craving and the wanting to move away. You learn to relax with it. Then you resolve to keep practicing this way.
Working with shenpa softens us up. Once we see how we get hooked and how we get swept along by the momentum, there's no way to be arrogant. The trick is to keep seeing. Don't let the softening and humility turn into self-denigration. That's just another hook. Because we've been strengthening the whole habituated situation for a long, long time, we can't expect to undo it overnight. It's not a one-shot deal. It takes loving-kindness to recognize; it takes practice to refrain; it takes willingness to relax; it takes determination to keep training this way. It helps to remember that we may experience two billion kinds of itches and seven quadrillion types of scratching, but there is really only one root shenpa—ego-clinging. We experience it as tightening and self-absorption. It has degrees of intensity. The branch shenpas are all our different styles of scratching that itch.
I recently saw a cartoon of three fish swimming around a hook. One fish is saying to the other, "The secret is non-attachment." That's a shenpa cartoon: the secret is—don't bite that hook. If we can catch ourselves at that place where the urge to bite is strong, we can at least get a bigger perspective on what's happening. As we practice this way, we gain confidence in our own wisdom. It begins to guide us toward the fundamental aspect of our being—spaciousness, warmth and spontaneity.
Pema Chödrön is a fully-ordained Buddhist nun and the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are, When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, and Comfortable With Uncertainty, published by Shambhala Publications.
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