Sometimes, when we look at the tasks ahead of us in mindfulness and cultivating the paramitas, or the perfections in Buddhism it can seem confusing. The paramitas/perfections are the wholesome qualities of mind we have the potential for by virtue of having a mind. We have the negative qualities that have been practiced and modeled for us for a long time but we have the potential for the stress-free beingness of light and acceptance, too. Does it mean I have to tackle those pesky negative thoughts, wrestle them into submission?
The answer is NO. We are not in the business of suppressing anything and I am setting out in this essay to get clear once and for all, in laymen’s terms, what it is we are trying to do so we see the path for what it is.
Aversion is an internal reaction to something unwanted. The trick here is that there is a moment where this reaction occurs, it’s an urge to label something good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant – and what I am getting at here is that it’s not just aversion to unwanted but it is also labeling something good then clinging to that and hoping to keep it going. The ever so subtle moment when the clinging arises is called shenpa. This is soooo important that if we can get this we will be way ahead of the game. Because I don’t know about you, but I definitely want to get on with the business of allowing wisdom to arise…but first we have to understand the mechanism of how clinging to good or bad, aversion, shenpa and more clinging works.
Look at this dopey fish. It's a great illustration as to how easy it is to get hooked. We are not being vigilant about mindfulness so we are primed to go for the bait - the thought that I like/dislike, want/don't want - and then get hooked. One way I like to counter this is to affirm "everything is fine" because literally, everything is fine because everything just is. So, if the "I want" train of thought starts we can be like, ok, that's fine, and not immediately react to it by saying something or doing some behavior but allowing space. Only then can wisdom arise. Just because you can does it mean you should?
I think of shenpa as “getting hooked.” Another definition, used by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, is the “charge”—the charge behind our thoughts and words and actions, the charge behind “like” and “don’t like.” Here’s an everyday example: Someone criticizes you. She criticizes your work or your appearance or your child. In moments like that, what is it you feel? It has a familiar taste, a familiar smell. Once you begin to notice it, you feel like this experience has been happening forever. That sticky feeling is shenpa. And it comes along with a very seductive urge to do something. Somebody says a harsh word and immediately you can feel a shift. There’s a tightening that rapidly spirals into mentally blaming this person, or wanting revenge, or blaming yourself. Then you speak or act. The charge behind the tightening, behind the urge, behind the story line or action is shenpa. ~Pema Chodron
So, that’s one example and a description of the urge that is shenpa. From my own experience, it is a feeling of wanting comfort and not wanting discomfort. Do you know what I mean? This can take the form of not wanting to be cold, not wanting to hear loud noises and not wanting to deal with rude people (or people that come off as self-important or know-it-alls). Those are my triggers. They seem reasonable, right? The problem is that if one of these situations present themselves and when the shenpa arises, and you know it will, it is my inner reaction that I am working with changing – not the shenpa itself. Tricky, yes? Impossible, no.
You can actually feel shenpa happening. It’s a sensation that you can easily recognize. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. Someone looks at us in a certain way, or we hear a certain song, or walk into a certain room, and boom—we’re hooked. It’s a quality of experience that’s not easy to describe but that everyone knows well. ~Pema Chodron
Shenpa happens. The solution is simple but does not seem to be easy because of our habitual nature. We have patterns of reacting to shenpa and the way to begin to observe our reaction is meditation and mindfulness. In meditation we learn to still the mind and observe it’s contents. Then we take that skill we are developing off the cushion and we practice mindfulness in every waking moment. And I guess into your dreams if you’re into lucid dreaming. Hey, who said I wasn’t open minded?
By practicing meditation we learn to slow that reactive habit energy in us so we can to the point where we notice when the feeling rises up and hooks us which then gives arise to a predictable series of thoughts or feelings like
• This shouldn’t be happening
• [Such and such] should be happening instead of this
• This person just doesn’t “get it”
• “How stupid”
• I wish I was [some other place]
• Not this again…
• When is this going to end?
And so on. What is happening here is just that these thoughts and associated feelings like disapproval, disgust, dislike – they happen. We are very practiced with these kinds of things. Human beings have a negativity bias that helped our species survive and our ancestors be suspicious of everything because they could have been wiped out by the elements or become prey for some hungry animals. Getting things right, being right (not being stupid) and creating comfort literally meant the difference between life and death so these reactions are hardwired into us. But there is a potential within us that is beyond good and bad, right and wrong, like and dislike.
I’ll give you an example. I took a break while writing this to make lunch and realized I was out of tomatoes so got ready to walk down to Whole Foods. While I was putting my jacket on all of a sudden I felt shenpa…this sick feeling that I was about to walk outside and be accosted by catcalling and leering men and I wasn’t even out the door yet! Is this a problem? Usually it is because this usually ruins my walk experience down to the store. Then I got another shenpa – it’s so nice out I should be able to enjoy this walk! Are you seeing how this works? On way hand I am feeling aversion on the other hand I am feeling joyful anticipation.
Neither of these are true.
What is true is I am going to walk out there door, I am going to put one foot in front of the other, I am going to feel the sunshine on my head and face, I am going to walk by all kinds of people of various genders doing various things, I am going to look at the selection of tomatoes and I am going to decide which ones I want for my sandwich and make my purchase then walk back the same way I walked down.
Guess what? Because I was ready to look out for shenpa and aversion some wisdom arose because it had the space to. I had been forgetting to pick up lemonade and sparkling water which is my go to drink, I like to mix them together. Recently, I keep forgetting to pick these items up when I go to the store and I have also been forgetting to put them on my list. Why? Being distracted by runaway thought processes that start with shenpa!
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and righting,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
The Field Beyond Right and Wrong
While my previous example may seem somewhat simplistic it is good to start simply so we can get to see how shenpa works at it’s very root so later when we start to get more skilled with observing this when we get hooked in more intense situations. Then we just might be able to start creating a gap between observing shenpa and our inner reactions that start thought processes that cloud our judgement therefore blocking the ability for wisdom to arise. Wisdom cannot arise in a mind that is filled with duality thinking good/bad, right/wrong, like/dislike. When we get to the point where we are skilled at stilling our minds and not getting hooked by shenpa then we have the space for wisdom to arise. It is that simple.
So, some of the things that really bug us we, with practice, can get to a point where we start seeing things for what they really are – human beings, including ourselves always, really just trying to be happy but maybe just not going about it in a skillful way because we weren’t taught how to cultivate good habits of thinking. But, as adults, we can still learn and we can even instill these values in our children so they have a head start in life that we didn’t. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
"Only when we are in right relationship can we hang in with one another long enough to come to a rough consensus about “what is” and “what ought to be.”
"It’s part of the human condition that few of us will meet in Rumi’s field. But we must never stop working for the day when we understand that our fates are intertwined, that “We’re all in this together,” and that “even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”
~ Parker J. Palmer, columnist for On Being, Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal
When we begin to understand the right view that there is really nothing separating us we can begin to drop our habitual reactions and slow down to see the beauty in the effort people are putting forth to try and figure out how to be happy. It’s the same beauty that is in the view of observing a baby learning how to walk. We are all “fumbling towards ecstasy” to quote singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan. When we make a commitment to keep practicing, meditating and cultivating the right views of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path we can get to a place where grace is revealed …for ourselves and everyone around us.
Grace is the “isness’ of life. It’s the recognition that everything is connected and sacred. The more in touch we are with this natural abundance of life, the less we need. ~ Lama Surya Das
@soulsistashakti is a musical artist and writer based in NYC as well as a practitioner of Buddhist teachings. You can check out my music on my FB artist page at https://www.facebook.com/soulsistashakti
Check out my blog for other essays on Buddhism and meditation
Buddhism: Five Buddha Families Part 5 – AMITABHA – RED Buddha of Infinite Light - Compassion for All
Buddhist Psychology Part 4: Transform Yourself With Buddha RATNASAMBHAVA - Gold Buddha of the South - Generosity
Transform Your Life With the Five Buddha Families - Part 3- AKSHOBYA – THE DEEP BLUE BUDDHA "Immovable One"
THE FIVE BUDDHA FAMILIES PART 2 - Green Buddha of the North - AMOGHASIDDHI – Fearless Energy and Action
Buddhist Psychology: What Are the Five Buddha Families?
Awaken Your Creativity/Writing With Morning Pages and Buddhist Mindfulness Practices
My First 10 Day Buddhist Samatha-Vipassana Meditation Retreat in NYC