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On Shenpa, Part II by Pema Chödrön

Pema

“If we are willing to acknowledge our shenpa and to experience it without sidetracks, then our natural intelligence starts to guide us. We begin to foresee the whole chain reaction and where it will lead. There’s some wisdom that becomes accessible to us – wisdom based on compassion for oneself and others that has nothing to do with ego’s fears. It’s the part of us that knows we can connect and live from our basic goodness, our basic intelligence, openness, and warmth. Over time, this knowledge becomes a stronger force than the shenpa, and we naturally interrupt the chain reaction before it even starts. We naturally become able to prevent an epidemic of aggression before it even begins.

In my own training, I have always been instructed not to get caught up in accepting and rejecting, not to get caught by biased mind. Chogyam Trungpa was particularly emphatic about this. At one time, this presented a question for me: Did it mean I should not have preferences such as liking one kind of flower or one kind of food far better than another? Was it problematic not to like the taste of raw onions or the smell of patchouli oil? Or to feel more at home with Buddhism than with another philosophy or religion?

When I heard the teaching on shenpa, my dilemma was resolved. The issue isn’t with my preferences but with the shenpa behind them. If I get worked up when presented with raw onions, if the very sight of them triggers aversion in me, then the bias is deep. I’m clearly hooked. If I start an anti-raw-onion campaign or write an anti-patchouli-oil book or begin to attack another philosophy or religion, then it’s shenpa, big time. My mind and hear are closed. I’m so invested in my views and opinions that those who think differently are my adversaries. I become a fundamentalist: one who feels strongly that I am right and who closes my mind to those who think otherwise. On the other hand, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi are both examples of how we can take a stand and speak out without shenpa. As they demonstrated, being without shenpa does not lead to complacency, it leads to open-mindedness and compassionate action.

Of course, we get hooked by positive experiences as well as negative experiences. When we really want something, shenpa is usually there. This becomes a fairly common experience for meditators. You meditated and you felt a settling, a calmness, a sense of well-being. Maybe thoughts came and went, but they didn’t seduce you, and you were able to come back to the present. There wasn’t a sense of struggle. So, ironically, then you get attached to your success. “I did it right, I got it right, that’s how it should always be. That the model.” But it wasn’t ‘right’ or ‘good,’ it just was what it was. Because of shenpa, you get hooked on positive experience.

Then the next time you meditate, you obsess about someone at home, some unfinished project at work, something delicious to eat. You worry and you fret, or you feel fear or craving, and when you try to rope in your wild-horse mind, it refuses to be tamed. At the end you feel like it was a horrible meditation and you condemn yourself because you’ve failed. But it wasn’t ‘bad.’ It was just what it was. Because of shenpa, you get attached to a self-image of failure. That’s where it gets sticky.

The sad part is that all we’re trying to do is not feel that underlying uneasiness. The sadder part is that we proceed in such a way that the uneasiness only gets worse. The message here is that the only way to ease our pain is to experience it fully. Learn to stay. Learn to stay with uneasiness, learn to stay with the tightening, learn to stay with the itch and urge of shenpa, so that the habitual chain reaction doesn’t continue to rule our lives, and the patterns that we consider unhelpful don’t keep getting stronger as the days and months and years go by.

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Once you see what you do, how you get hooked, and how you get swept away, it’s hard to be arrogant. This honest recognition softens you up, humbles you in the best sense. It also begins to give you confidence in your basic goodness. When we are not blinded by the intensity of our emotions, when we allow a bit of space, a chance for a gap, when we pause, we naturally know what to do. We begin, due to our own wisdom, to move toward letting go and fearlessness. Due to our own wisdom, we gradually stop strengthening habits that only bring more pain to the world.”

~ Pema Chödrön, “Taking The Leap”