Over the course of our lives, we have spend many years learning how to defend ourselves. Sometimes, we do so in self-defense classes, with instructors and students. We learn Karate, defensive driving, even “the gentle art of verbal self defense.” We place passwords on our computers, use firewalls and anti-virus software. We lock our doors and windows and, for women at least, we don’t walk alone at night. But the depth to which defend ourselves is much greater than this and much more subtle.
When we see something or someone we don’t like, understand, or want to deal with, we withdraw from our direct experience. We pull into ourselves, our own little version of reality, where we feel safe. We are no longer fully present. In the present moment there is groundlessness, which is frightful, and we pull away from that and build strong walls around “our world.”
It is easy to pull away, to pull back into ourselves, we have done it a million times before. It is a well work path. But what causes us to do so? What become hooked by this thing or that thing, and then we start reeling in, building up, or constructing our reality. That initial quality, that feeling of being hooked by something, that is shenpa.
Shenpa is not the situation. It is not the person or thing which triggers our building of walls. Shenpa is the quality of being hooked. I become immediately angry when I hear the word ‘cunt.’ I become immediately interested when I hear the word ‘dualistic.’ Shenpa is the charge behind the words, not the words themselves. It is behind the emotions which are spurred by the words, be they anger, annoyance, interest, or curiosity.
When shenpa is behind certain words it dehumanizes the object of those words. Over the centuries many, many words have been used to dehumanize various groups of people. “Oh, she’s only a woman,” as though ‘woman’ were somehow something less than the speaker, a human person, therefore less than human. This dehumanization is what allows violence to be done. If we see the other person to be the same as ourselves, harming them becomes as unthinkable as harming ourselves.
Shenpa is the propensity to be bothered. It is a seed already sown. It has the quality of being difficult to let go of. Shenpa can be both aversion and desire. It clouds our wisdom. Not learning a lesson – that is shenpa.
Shenpa is the spark which lights the candle. We cannot stop the spark. The candle, which can become a raging bonfire, is fed by the storyline we have in our minds. All the history and “baggage” we carry with us about a certain topic, object, person, or place. When someone says ‘dentist’ we may feel fear which comes from our association with have between the dentist and pain. We have a narrative in our head about ‘dentist;’ what happened the last time we went there, what happened to our friends and relatives, the reputation dentists have in popular culture, etc. No imagine, you didn’t have any of that, or, if you did, you did listen to it. That is not feeding the ember of shenpa.
Our natural intelligence sees the storyline for what it is. It has an undertow which can pull you away in an effort to feel better, but our intelligence has been down that road before. We know exactly where it leads. When we recognize that there will be consequences of following that path, we begin to lessen the pull. We can rouse lungta, or Windhorse, and use this energy to stay fully open and present. It is hard to detox from our habits, and painful, but it is possible.
Pema prescribes the practice of transmuting suffering into wisdom. First, Acknowledge that you are hooked. This sows the seeds of nonaggression because you see that nothing worthwhile will follow if you act on your shenpa. Second, Pause for one to three conscious breaths. Third, Lean In to the feeling. Don’t feed the story line, just notice what it is be hooked. Feel it within your body, taste your emotions, accept that feeling with loving kindness, maitri, feel the energy and question it, and know that it is workable. Finally, Go On with your day. Disown that feeling. You don’t have to reject that energy, but you can acknowledge you don’t have to feel it or follow it.
Start small. “Putting up with little cares, I’ll train myself to work with great adversity.” – Shantideva Try it in your life and practice it. Understand it won’t completely work right away. Don’t reject your own energy. We are all basically good and so is the energy of our emotions and feelings.
”Nothing has to be rejected except ignorance.” – Pema Chodron.