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Know Your Inner Hooker: 5 Ways to Work with Shenpa

We all get set off from time to time--we think, hear, see, smell or taste something that we really, really like or we really, really dislike...and suddenly we’re hooked. 

Once we’re hooked, it feels as if the armor we normally try to hide behind has been stripped away and now we’re left wide open, exposed, and vulnerable. This tender place makes us feel uneasy, restless, and grasping for something solid to hold onto, and as a result we tighten up and shut down because whatever’s happening around us is way to uncomfortable to just be with directly. Who wants to feel tender, vulnerable, or open when it’s safer and more familiar to feel on guard, protected, and strong?

It's at this point that the shenpa storm hits.

Shenpa is a Tibetan word meaning “attachment” (and we know what the Second Noble Truth has to say about that!) but Pema Chodron often describes shenpa as “being hooked.”

What normally accompanies shenpa is a desperate urge to alleviate the shaky feeling that’s arisen by engaging in a particular behavior we hope will bring about some relief. So we scramble to produce something pleasurable that can counteract the extreme sense of unease and discomfort that makes us want to bolt away or disappear.

It tends to happen very suddenly and without warning, and when it’s happening it’s as if we’re being visited once again by one of our least favorite people in the world, someone we’ve been acquainted with for a long, long time. Too long in fact.

You know you’re experiencing shenpa when you have an almost uncontrollable urge to run away from what’s going on right now. The wanting-to-run feeling is an instinctual reaction to an otherwise innocuous sense of groundlessness and unease. This uneasiness arises whenever something takes place that makes us feel as if one of our buttons has been pushed and we’ve been exposed somehow.  And while this wide-openness and vulnerability is in fact nothing to be afraid of, it feels so unnerving when we resist it that our brains search desperately for ways to quench the flames that arise from our fearful and doubtful minds.

The ways in which we do this can vary tremendously. Once we feel hooked we might resort to cigarettes, alcohol, passivity, sex, food, enabling, harsh speech, laughter, violence, defensiveness, or even getting sleepy as a way of withdrawing. I know someone who, whenever he feels anxious or awkward, repeatedly asks “What?”, and “What did you just say?” even though he can hear perfectly well what’s being said. Usually one or more of the senses either gets dulled or exaggerated in an attempt to blunt the power of this underlying insecurity that is in fact nothing but the true nature of reality being viewed through delusional colored glasses.

What makes this process so tricky to work with is that the behaviors we normally engage in to appease the demands of our shenpa really do seem to work...initially. But the short-term relief brought about this way is just a temporary bandaid for a deeper, ongoing mind state that will continue to arise so long as we refuse to deal with it directly and not be so beholden to our triggers.

There are five ways we can work with shenpa so that instead of closing ourselves us off from our lives, we can engage them with more intimacy, clarity, and effectiveness.

1. Know what hooks you. The triggers that cause us to want to shut down and run away may seem endless, but the more aware we are of what puts us in these states, the better equipped we are to deal with them in the future. For some of us it could be any form of criticism, a scratch on the car, sexual attention, a raised voice, a cloudy day, compliments, large crowds or short gaps in a conversation. It’s easiest to identify what our form of shenpa is by noticing that familiar, timeless feeling that arises quite suddenly in response to something we’ve just experienced. It’s usually characterized by a sense of uneasiness that is so great we want to withdraw completely or act out in some habitual way that we think will bring about more security, more ease, and a more solid sense of ourselves and the world around us. The problem with indulging our habitual response patterns is that doing so only serves to magnify the sense of uneasiness we want so desperately to avoid.

2. Know what you tend to do once you’re hooked. The more clear we are on what habitual behaviors we engage in as a response to feeling groundless, insecure, or uneasy, the less likely we are to engage in those unproductive and potentially harmful auto-responses again in the future. If I really get that hammering my thumb repeatedly will lead to pain and discomfort, I will eventually stop hammering my thumb. So the next time the urge arises to run away or enable or smoke or lash out or appease or eat or defend or overcompensate or buy those shoes you don’t need, you can identify that potential behavior as your hook-response rather than a viable solution to the underlying unease. Do this of course without any harshness or criticism towards yourself.

3. Practice sitting with uneasiness. Meditation practice is a wonderful method for observing impermanence and groundlessness up close and personal. Although it may seem boring at times, the act of sitting, walking, or making a practice out of every aspect of our lives is the greatest way to fully understand what the true nature of reality really is. When we understand fundamental groundlessness through a direct experience of it, it becomes a source of gratitude rather than resistance. When we are able to cultivate grace within groundlessness by fully settling into things as they are, no matter what they are, the underlying changeability of things that initially seemed so frightening becomes the ultimate tool for awakening and being fully alive.

4. Abstain from the habitual response. This is a tough one but the more we do it, or don’t do it I should say, the less likely we’ll be to repeat the counterproductive behavior pattern again in the future. Any long time habit can be undone by simply refraining from it. Then over time, not indulging in the compulsive, reflexive behavior becomes the new habit. Just be sure not to develop another avoidance mechanism in it’s place.

5. Sit through the shenpa storm and wait for the sky to clear. A lot of our mind states have very intense qualities that are so compelling it’s as if they demand some sort of instant resolution. When when we’re experiencing anger, anxiety, or whatever version of shenpa happens to come our way, it’s as if we’re caught in the middle of a storm and we want to seek shelter as quickly as possible, no matter how faulty a structure it might be that we try to hide under. When we’re hooked, we can simply practice just sitting with all of the thoughts and physical sensations that arise instead of giving in to the usual urge to flee. It’s possible to observe the visceral quality of this experience with the same sense of wonder and interest we might have towards a thunder storm happening at a great distance. When viewing the dark clouds, the lightening, and the rain from a distant vantage point, the whole experience can shift from being a terrifying one that demands immediate action to a wondrous event we know will have a beginning, a middle, and ending. 

By realizing that our experiences of shenpa aren’t going to last forever and therefore don’t have to take us over, we can cultivate a different way of relating to whatever hooks us so that we’re no longer quite so beholden to our triggers.

- Lawrence Grecco

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