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The Shenpa Syndrome

Article Index


Learning to Stay

By: Pema Chodron

Berkeley Shambhala Center

I'm going to introduce you to a Tibetan word, and if you went and looked for teachings on this, you wouldn't find any — unless you have listened to the taped teachings of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche,whom I'm studying with. Or, if you had heard my talks from yarne last year— the Gampo Abbey winter retreat, I taught on this subject. But,other than that, I don't think it exists anywhere. It does exist, but in the way that I'm going to teach it I give full complete credit to Dzigar Kongtrul because he's the one who has given lots of teachings on this, continues to do so, and it's had a very strong influence on my life and on my teachings. But, most importantly, on my own life.

This is a teaching on a Tibetan word: shenpa. The usual translation of the word shenpa is attachment. If you were to look it up in a Tibetan dictionary, you would find that the definition was attachment. But the word "attachment" absolutely doesn't get at what it is. Dzigar Kongtrul said not to use that translation because it's incomplete, and it doesn't touch the magnitude of shenpa and the effect that it has on us.

If I were translating shenpa it would be very hard to find a word, but I'm going to give you a few. One word might be hooked. How we get hooked.

Another synonym for shenpa might be that sticky feeling. In terms of last night's analogy about having scabies, that itch that goes along with that and scratching it, shenpa is the itch and it's the urge to scratch. So, urge is another word. The urge to smoke that cigarette,the urge to overeat, the urge to have one more drink, or whatever it is where your addiction is.

Here is an everyday example of shenpa. Somebody says a mean word to you and then something in you tightens— that's the shenpa. Then it starts to spiral into low self-esteem, or blaming them, or anger at them, denigrating yourself. And maybe if you have strong addictions,you just go right for your addiction to cover over the bad feeling that arose when that person said that mean word to you. This is a mean word that gets you, hooks you. Another mean word may not affect you but we're talking about where it touches that sore place — that's a shenpa. Someone criticizes you — they criticize your work, they criticize your appearance, they criticize your child — and, shenpa: almost co-arising.

At Gampo Abbey it's a small community. We're thirty monks and nuns there. You have a pretty intimate relationship there, living in community. People were finding that in the dining room, someone would come and sit down next to them and they could feel the shenpa just because this person sat down next to them, because they had some kind of thing going about this person. Then they feel this closing down and they're hooked.

If you catch it at that level, it's very workable. And you have the possibility, you have this enormous curiosity about sitting still right there at the table with this urge to do the habitual thing,to strengthen the habituation, you can feel it, and it's never new. It always has a familiar taste in the mouth. It has a familiar smell. When you begin to get the hang of it, you feel like this has been happening forever.

Generally speaking, however, we don't catch it at that level of just open space closing down. You're open-hearted, open-minded, and then... erkk. Right along with the hooked quality, or the tension, or the shutting down, whatever... I experience it, at the most subtle level, as a sort of tensing. Then you can feel yourself sort of withdrawing and actually not wanting to be in that place.

It causes you to feel a fundamental, underlying insecurity of the human experience that is inherent in a changing, shifting, impermanent, illusory world, as long as we are habituated to want to have ground under our feet.

So someone says this thing, which obviously triggers our conditioning and so forth. We don't really have to go into the history of why it happens so this is not self-analysis of why, or what the trauma was, or anything. It's just, "Oh." And you feel yourself tightening. Generally speaking, it's more common that you are already well into the scratching by the time you notice it.

In terms of shenpa itself, there's the tightening that happens involuntarily, then there's the urge to move away from it in some habitual way, which is usually initially in the mind, and it's something you say to yourself about them. Usually it's accompanied by this bad feeling. In the West, it is very, very common at that point to turn it against yourself: something is wrong with me. Maybe it's still non-verbal at this point, but it's already pregnant with a kind of little gestalt, little drama.

Mostly we don't catch this. First of all, we don't catch shenpa at all until you start hearing teachings on it and start to work with it although you may have been working with it from different disciplines. But, mostly, you're already scratching.

Maybe you've already said the mean word. Or you've already said, "No, you can't have that last piece of bread," which are just words, but they're charged with a whole. . . panic, really. The urge to move away from that place. That's all I can say. Move away from that insecure... let's just call it that bad feeling.

The scratching itself is part of the shenpa, too, although we're beginning to move out further. It's all part of a chain reaction that starts with a tense tightening when they say that word, or they say that thing.

What's very interesting is you begin to notice it really quickly in other people. You're having a conversation at work with somebody. Their face is sort of open and they're listening, and you say something—you're not quite sure what it is you just said, or maybe you know what it is you just said, it doesn't necessarily have to be mean,or anything — but you see their eyes cloud over. Or you see their jaw tense. Or you can feel them... you know, you touched something. You're seeing their shenpa, and they may not be aware of it at all. From your side, you can, at that point, just keep going and get into it with them, but with a kind of prajna, this clear seeing of what's really happening, not involved with your story line and trying to get ground under your feet. You see that happening to them.

There's some kind of basic intelligence that we all have. If you're really smart and you're not too caught in your shenpa, you somehow give the situation some space because you know that they've just been triggered, they've just been hooked. You can just see it in their eyes or their body language, maybe nothing even verbal yet. And you know that if you're trying to make a point about something that needs to happen in the office, or trying to make a point with one of your children or your partner, you know that nothing is going to get through at this point because they're shutting down. They're closing off because of shenpa: they've been hooked.

Your part of it could be completely innocent. You didn't really do anything wrong, but you just recognize what's happening there. This is a situation in Buddhist meditation where you can actually learn how to open up the space. One method is to be quiet and start to meditate right on the spot, just go to your breath and be there openly with some kind of curiosity about them and openness to them. You might have to change your way of talking at that point and say, "How do you feel about that?" And they may curtly say, "It's fine... No problem." But you just know enough to try to shut up and maybe say, "Let's talk about it this afternoon or tomorrow, or something, because now is not the time."

If there's someone who's a practitioner and they're working on themselves, such as at the monastery, we have a wonderful situation, because everybody is working with this. You don't have to say, "I see your shenpa !" In which case, they'd probably sock it to you. No one particularly likes to have it pointed out.

Although some people would start, they'd say, "When you see it in me, just pull your earlobe, or something"— and often partners will do that with each other— "and if I see in you I'll do the same. Or, if you see it in yourself, and I'm not picking it up, have some little sign so that we know that maybe this isn't the time to continue this discussion." You don't always have this luxury to not continue the discussion, but at least you have some prajna, some clear seeing that's not ego involved, about what will heal the relationship and open up the space.

Habituation, which is ego-based, is just the opposite. It makes matters worse. This is one of the definitions of ego: it makes matters worse. Because you feel a compulsion in your own particular style to fill up the space, and either push your point through, or my style is that I would try to smooth the waters, and everything makes it worse at that point, usually.

Somehow, learning how to open up the space without putting particular form of scratching into the equation is important.

That's why I think this shenpa is really such a helpful teaching. It's the tightening, it's the urge... it's this drive, too.This drive. It really shows you that you have lots of addictions, that we all have addictions. There's this background static of slight unease, or maybe fidgetiness, or restlessness, or boredom. And so, we begin to use things to try to get some kind of relief from that unease.

Something like food, or alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or working, or shopping, or whatever we do, which, perhaps in moderation would be very delightful—like eating, enjoying your food. In fact, in moderation there's this deep appreciation of the taste, of the good fortune to have this in your life. But these things become imbued with an addictive quality because we empower them with the idea that they will bring us comfort. They will remove this unease.

We never get at the root, which last night I was calling the scabies. The root in this case is that we have to really experience unease. We have to experience the itch. We have to experience the shenpa and then not act it out.

This business of not acting out I will call refraining . It's also called "renunciation" in the spiritual teachings. It's interesting because the Tibetan word for renunciation is shenluk and it means turning shenpa upside-down. Renunciation isn't about renouncing food, or sex, or work, or relationship, or whatever it is. There's this term: not attached to this life, not attached to worldly things. It's not really talking about the things themselves, it's talking about the shenpa . What we renounce or what we refrain from is the shenpa.

Renunciation, shenluk, means turning shenpa upside-down, or shaking it up. The interesting thing is that there is no way to really renounce shenpa. Someone looks at you in a certain way or, let's just face it, you hear a certain song, you have a certain smell, you walk into a certain room and boom. Especially trauma-based. And you know it has nothing to do with the present. Nevertheless, there it is: it's involuntary.

In the Buddhist teachings, it's really not about trying to cast something out but about seeing clearly and fully experiencing the shenpa.

If there's the willingness to see clearly and experience, then the prajna begins to click in. It is just innate in us. Wisdom mind is our birthright. It's in every single living being down to the smallest ant. But human beings have the greatest chance of accessing it.

There's this prajna so then you don't have to get rid of the shenpa. It begins to see the whole chain reaction. To use modern language, there's some wisdom that is based on a fundamental desire for wholeness or healing- which has nothing to do with ego-grasping. It has to do with wanting to connect and live from your basic goodness, your basic openness, your basic lack of prejudice, your basic lack of bias,your basic warmth. Wanting to live from that. It begins to become a stronger force than the shenpa and itself stops the chain reaction.

Those of you who have had, or still have, strong addictions and are working all the time with that urge, with that craving, with that drive to do something self-destructive yet again, you know that there has to be the willingness to fully acknowledge what's happening. Then there is the willingness to refrain from having just one more drink, or refrain from binge eating or whatever it is.

It has to be done in some way that you equate it with loving kindness towards yourself, friendliness and warmth towards yourself,rather than equating it with some kind of straight jacket that you're putting on yourself, because then you get into the struggle.

You do know that if you're alcoholic, or have been alcoholic or are a recovering alcoholic, you do know that you have to stop drinking. In your case, one little sip doesn't quite do it in terms of ending the cycle. There are different degrees to how much you have to refrain. There has to be something, some pattern of habituation of strengthening the ignorance around shenpa and the ignorance that the chain reaction is even happening, the ignorance that you're even scratching, the ignorance that it's spreading all over your body, the ignorance that you're bleeding to death.

You know when addiction gets really strong. My daughter-in-law... at the age of thirty-five, they gave her two months to live from alcohol poisoning, cirrhosis of the liver. She was here last night. She lived. She's sober. It's five years later. But, she had to really hit bottom. And, I'll tell you, she was blown up like a blimp. She was this horrible yellow-green color, and her eyes were bright orange, and she would not stop drinking. I would get her to the hospital and they would drain her fluid —bottles and bottles and bottles of fluid — and soon as they would allow her to go, she'd go home and drink again.

Sometimes people never pull out of it. Why do we do those things? We all do those things to that degree or lesser. Why? It's stupid. But the reason we do it is because we imbue that drink or that scratching in whatever form with comfort. In order to move away from the basic uneasiness, we find comfort in certain things, which in moderation could enhance our life, but they become imbued with addictive quality. Then what could have enhanced our life, or brought delight to our life —like a taste, or a smell, or an activity, or anything — begins to make our life into a nightmare. All we're getting is this short-term symptom relief.

We are willing to sometimes die to keep getting short-term symptom relief. That's what it came down to [with my daughter-in-law],short-term symptom relief even when she took those sips, even though her life was more out of control every day and she was dying. But when she got paralyzed so she couldn't move and they took her child away, then she changed. And she had some friends who were there for her through the whole thing and that was helpful too. For her AA has been a savior. It doesn't work for everyone, but for her it's been a savior.

That's the story of how you are so habituated and the habitual pattern of imbuing poison with comfort. This is the same thing. It doesn't have to be substance abuse. It can be saying mean things. Maybe you never say mean things, but you think them all the time.

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