Shenpa is the Tibetan word for attachment. According to Pema Chödrön, shenpa would better be translated as “something that hooks us”.
There are two levels of shenpa, the reaction to a pain that surfaces within us and the escaping of pain that is within us. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, refers to shenpa as the charge behind our thoughts, words and actions, and the charge behind our likes and dislikes. Shenpa is what motivates our habitual patterns and our addictions.
Shenpa is also vibrant in the moment when someone puts you down, says something you don’t like, or even makes an innocent remark which is misinterpreted by your inner lens of pain, and you erupt forth like a volcano. We can even feel the eruption coming, and see the moment of choice; that split second where the forked road appears and we can choose which pathway to follow, and yet we usually take the volcanic one, regretting our reaction after.
So Why do we Get Hooked?
We all experience shenpa. It’s at the root of our escapism from our own suffering. It’s what we turn to in order to ease our pain; distract ourselves from the world. It’s also how we react when someone pushes the button holding our pain hostage.
I have been having my own shenpa journey with my ex-partner. Mostly I’m good at ignoring the barbed comments, or negative stories about me that my children tell me when they arrive back from being with their Dad, but sometimes I succumb. And even as I drag myself into what I know will be an energy draining conflict I’ll regret, I go racing along that silver pathway. And of course, it always ends badly. I regret wasting my time or my energy either defending myself or falling into the trap of believing something will be different and it never is. So why does this happen? It is the peculiar field of the involuntary response of shenpa. We take the bait while swimming along nicely in life, even though we know we’ll be caught and in the frying pan pretty damn soon.
Pema Chodron says we could also call shenpa ‘the urge.’
[It is] the urge to smoke that cigarette, to overeat, to have another drink, to indulge our addiction whatever it is. Sometimes shenpa is so strong that we’re willing to die getting this short-term symptomatic relief. The momentum behind the urge is so strong that we never pull out of the habitual pattern of turning to poison for comfort. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve a substance; it can be saying mean things or approaching everything with a critical mind.
This is the addictive nature of shenpa we all know so well. Our escape from reality and voyage into mindless practices, like eating an entire box of chocolates, or binge drinking. It sets us on a cycle that ends with negative consequences.
At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us. ~ Pema Chodron
Interestingly, shenpa is also present in the so-called ‘good’ addictions. You know the yogi who does two-hour ashtanga classes daily and loses their ananda (bliss) if they’re not on the mat. We all have attachments, that’s human nature.
Pema Chodron says that shenpa thrives on the underlying insecurity of living in a world that is always changing. We get caught in wanting things to be a certain way, to always be that way. Our partner is especially loving towards us and then we expect and want every experience to be just like that. But that’s not how life works. We get caught in the desire for sameness. It can happen with meditation practice too. We have a wonderful, transcendent and beautiful meditation and we then measure all subsequent meditations against this one practice, feeling disappointed or disillusioned when the mind won’t rest and we can’t reach that same state again.
Shenpa brings us back to the ever-changing present moment. As we accept whatever comes at us, with unconditional acceptance, we become unattached and life flows more gracefully.
Learning to recognise shenpa teaches us the meaning of not being attached to this world. Not being attached has nothing to do with this world. It has to do with shenpa — being hooked by what we associate with comfort. All we’re trying to do is not to feel our uneasiness. But when we do this we never get to the root of practice. The root is experiencing the itch as well as the urge to scratch, and then not acting it out. ~ Pema Chodron
Overcoming Our Attachments
To overcome shenpa is to have radical mindfulness, integrity and a deep connection with yourself. It requires constant communication and most of all – listening. It is a wonderfully powerful practice.
It is like the spaces in music, the pause between the in-breath and the out-breath. The exceptional moment that can change everything. And when we bring awareness to this moment, we can change the course of relationships, events and our personality. When we catch ourselves before the angry outburst, or in that thought that comes before reaching for a cigarette or the next block of chocolate, we can heal old patterns and change the way we experience our lives.
Pema Chodron says the Tibetan word for renunciation is shenlok, which means turning shenpa upside-down or shaking it up.
In practicing with shenpa, first we try to recognise it. The best place to do this is on the meditation cushion. Sitting practice teaches us how to open and relax to whatever arises, without picking and choosing. It teaches us to fully experience the uneasiness and the urge, and to interrupt the momentum that usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to come back to the present moment. We learn to stay with the uneasiness, the tightening, the itch of shenpa. We train in sitting still with our desire to scratch. This is how we learn to stop the chain reaction of habitual patterns that otherwise will rule our lives. This is how we weaken the patterns that keep us hooked into discomfort that we mistake as comfort.
We won’t always get it right and there will always be charges and more layers, but basically shenpa is pointing us to the places deep within us that are calling out for healing and loving attention, so we can return to the self. Gathering yourself up like an old friend, and reaching for a cup of tea and a cookie, you can welcome those long forgotten places and begin the journey back to wholeness and inner peace.