There’s a very useful teaching, which I heard from Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, that allows us to take a closer look at this knee-jerk pattern of moving away from being present. This is the teaching on ‘shenpa.’ Generally the Tibetan word shenpa is translated “attachment,” but that has always seemed too abstract to me, as it doesn’t touch the magnitude of shenpa and the effect it has on us.
An alternate translation might be “hooked” – what it feels like to be hooked – what it feels like to be stuck. Everyone likes to hear teachings on getting unstuck because they address such a common source of pain. In terms of the poison-ivy metaphor – our fundamental itch and the habit of scratching – shenpa is the itch and it’s also the urge to scratch. The urge to smoke that cigarette, the urge to overeat, to have one more drink, to say something cruel or to tell a lie.
Here’s how shenpa shows up in everyday experiences. Somebody says a harsh word and something in you tightens: instantly you’re hooked. That tightness quickly spirals into blaming the person or denigrating yourself. The chain reaction of speaking or acting or obsessing happens fast. Maybe, if you have strong addictions, you go right for your addiction to cover over the uncomfortable feelings. This is very personal. What was said gets to you – it triggers you. It might not bother someone else at all, but we’re talking about what touches your sore place – that sore place of shenpa.
The fundamental, most basic shenpa is to ego itself: attachment to our identity, the image of who we think we are. When we experience our identity as being threatened, our self-absorption gets very strong, and shenpa automatically arises. Then there is the spin-off – such as attachment to our possessions or to our views and opinions. For example, someone criticizes you. They criticize your politics, they criticize your appearance, they criticize your dearest friend. And shenpa is right there. As soon as the words have registered – boom, it’s there. Shenpa is not the thoughts or emotions per se. Shenpa is preverbal, but it breeds thoughts and emotions very quickly. If we’re attentive, we can feel it happening.
If we catch it when it first arises, when it’s just a tightening, a slight pulling back, a feeling of beginning to get hot under the collar, it’s very workable. Then we have the possibility of becoming curious about this urge to do the habitual thing, this urge to strengthen a repetitive pattern. We can feel it physically and interestingly enough, it’s never new. It always has a familiar taste. It has a familiar smell. When you begin to get in touch with shenpa, you feel like this has been happening forever. It allows you to feel the underlying insecurity that is inherent in a changing, shifting, impermanent world – an insecurity that is felt by everyone as long as we continue to scramble to get ground under our feet.”
~ Pema Chödrön, “Taking The Leap”