August 30, 2007

Practicing Peace - Shenpa

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.


greenfrog said...

For what you use the term shenpa to denote, I understand to be "karma," an action (whether physical, mental, or emotional) that plants a seed that ripens into a karmic pattern later. The only ways I know of to change karma are those you offer: through mindfulness, to perceive and interrupt the pattern; and through small actions of compassion (maitri), planting different seeds.

Or, just maybe, actions free of karmic seeds, altogether.

Monica said...

Hmmm...I don't think shenpa is karma, but it does kinda sound like it, huh?

The way I understand it is: I get a notice in the mail saying my account is overdrawn. Shenpa! I'm hooked and fly into a worried, tense, fearful, angry diatribe, even if only in my head. "I've been trying so hard! I don't buy anything! I can barely afford groceries! I don't know why I haven't gotten my funding from the University yet! Don't they understand the problems they are causing!" Etc, etc, etc. This story line goes on and on. It feeds the shenpa which grows and grows and makes me feel worse and worse. Then, I can realize what is going on, say to myself "Shenpa!" and stop. I breathe, one, two, three breaths, and then examine the feeling. I feel tense and ugly, fearful and resentful. My stomach is tight, my jaw is clenched, I feel tired, my eyes are blind. I don't see where I am or what is around me or who is near; I'm on autopilot just going through the motions of my life while my mind goes off on a rant. When I stop and start to take stop, I start to notice my surroundings again, and they pull me back out of the shell I've retreated into. I've noticed, when I can do this, I immediately feel some relief. Then I just go on with my day.

The karma is the fact that my account was overdrawn. It is the action that resulted in the letter. That exact same action could have caused that exact same result, but without the shenpa. If, that is, I was an enlightened being. But since I'm not that far, I can't really avoid the shenpa. I can just try to recognize it the moment it happens and start the intervention process then, instead of ten minutes into my storyline, before it gets big.

That's my shenpa. That same karma, action and result, for someone else, may not be that traumatizing at all. Some people have shenpa when they hear the word 'mouse' or 'cornbread' or 'purple' or 'Republican.' *gasp!* My shenpa is about money, college, career, and competency (and so, so much more.) But 'purple' doesn't affect me at all. I'm neutral on purple, whereas my friend hates the color purple and as a result, doesn't even like the word. That's her shenpa, not mine.

That's how I understand shenpa.

greenfrog said...


Obviously, I need to understand more.

But I don't immediately see the difference between karmic actions that produce an empty bank account and those that produce a reaction to an empty bank account. Both are causally linked to prior actions, but both are equally subject to alteration by an engaged and aware mind. Granted, one occurs in a world we typically interact with as "objective" and the other occurs in a world we typically interact with as "subjective," but aren't both the results of prior actions, whether mental, physical, or emotional?

I'm just thinking out loud here, so it may be that I'm glossing over important differences between the conditions. I don't put much confidence in ideas that we control all of existence through our desires and subjective imaginings, but I do think that our fundamental consciousness enables us to act within a context with a degree of freedom. The constraints on that freedom can be subjective ones or physical ones, but both are, to some degree, subject to my ability to act.

Not sure that suggest more difference or more similarity.

At any rate, I like your articulation of shenpa. Learning to see it when it happens (or shortly thereafter) has been one of the most important developments that has occurred in the last decade of my life. While I'm still not entirely sure of how meditation has led to that increase in my awareness of shenpa, I've been able to trace the increases and decreases in awareness to increases and decreases in my meditation practice. That correllation brings me back to my zafu again and again, even when the sitting, itself, isn't particularly illuminating, enjoyable, or even remarkable.


Monica said...

Well, as we explore it more, I think it could be said that shenpa is a part of karma, or perhaps related to it, though I never made that connection. It would make sense, though. Pema said we can't stop shenpa from occurring, we can just deal with it when it does pop up. This jives with the teachings on how we can't avoid our own karma. I probably don't understand it well enough to explain it proporly, anyway.

I think we could both use her audiobook "Don't Bite the Hook."

greenfrog said...


Thanks for the further thoughts and the recommendation. I've added the audio book to my amazon list. I usually let the list build up until I've exhausted my current supply of reading materials, then I hit "order". That lets me save on shipping charges. I'll probably get it sent in the next month or so.


Monica said...


I usually order from Barnes & Noble Online. The prices might be a few cents higher (unless you have a B&N member card, then everything is 10% off all the time) but there is always free shipping for orders over $25.

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ND said...

The Yogacara school describes it like what arises when karmic seeds in the store consciousness meets perceptions.

It is like 'karmic results + new perceptions = new feelings'.

So the same 'input' can cause different 'output' for different beings, very simplified.

Or: we can train ourselves to react differently to the same input.

Furthermore: karma, results, feelings etc are all without any real existence, it is all mental play - placebo pills in a way...


Anonymous said...

"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."

This is truly useful.

Thank You.

Jenny Eliuk @ Stay on Path said...

I just found your blog, it's great. I love your blog description, it's hilarious. New Pema junky here, or maybe shenpa junky is a better description.