In Tibetan there is a word that points to the root cause of aggression, the root cause also of craving. It points to a familiar experience that is at the root of all conflict, all cruelty, oppression, and greed. This word is shenpa. The usual translation is “attachment,” but this doesn’t adequately express the full meaning. 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 criticises you. She criticises 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.
You can actually feel shenpa happening. It’s a sensation that you can easily recognise. 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.
Now, if you catch shenpa early enough, it’s very workable. You can acknowledge that it’s happening and abide with the experience of being triggered, the experience of urge, the experience of wanting to move. It’s like experiencing the yearning to scratch an itch, and generally we find it irresistible. Nevertheless, we can practice patience with that fidgety feeling and hold our seat.
YOU CAN ACKNOWLEDGE THAT IT’S HAPPENING AND ABIDE WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING TRIGGERED, THE EXPERIENCE OF URGE, THE EXPERIENCE OF WANTING TO MOVE.
In these moments, we can contact the underlying insecurity of the human experience, the insecurity that is inherent in a changing, shifting world. As long as we are habituated to needing something to hold on to, we will always feel this background rumble of slight unease or restlessness. We want some relief from the unease, so when shenpa arises we go on automatic pilot: without a pause, we follow the urge and get swept away.
Mostly we don’t catch shenpa at an early stage. We don’t catch the tightening until we’ve already indulged the urge to scratch our itch in some habitual way. In fact, unless we equate not acting out with friendliness toward ourselves, this refraining can feel like putting on a straitjacket and we struggle against it.
Staying Fully Present with Shenpa
The best way to develop our ability to stay fully present with shenpa and to equate that with loving-kindness is in meditation. This is where we can train in not getting swept away. Meditation teaches us how to open and relax with whatever arises, without picking and choosing. It teaches us to experience the uneasiness and the urge fully and to interrupt the momentum that usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to return again and again to the present moment. We train in sitting still with the itch of shenpa and with our craving to scratch. We label our story lines “thinking” and let them dissolve, and we come back to “right now,” even when “right now” doesn’t feel so great. This is how we learn patience, and how we learn to interrupt the chain reaction of habitual responses that otherwise will rule our lives.
THIS IS HOW WE LEARN PATIENCE, AND HOW WE LEARN TO INTERRUPT THE CHAIN REACTION OF HABITUAL RESPONSES THAT OTHERWISE WILL RULE OUR LIVES.
You can also begin to notice shenpa in other people. You’re having a conversation with a friend. At one moment her face is open and she’s listening, and the next you see her eyes glaze over or her jaw tense. What you’re seeing is her shenpa, and she may not be aware of it at all. When peace is your goal, this is an important observation.
From your side, you can keep going in the conversation, but now with a kind of innate intelligence and wisdom called prajna. This is clear seeing of what’s happening.
Without being blinded by your own story line or trying to get some ground under your feet, you simply recognise your friend’s shenpa and you practice patience—you give the situation some space. You have the innate intelligence to realise that when you’re discussing something that needs to happen in the office, or trying to make a point with one of your children, or your partner, that nothing is going to get through right now because this person has just been hooked.
Our Wisdom Becomes Stronger
So simply by recognising what’s happening we can nip aggression or craving in the bud—our own and that of others. As we become more familiar with doing this, our wisdom becomes a stronger force than shenpa. That in itself has the power to stop the chain reaction. One method of doing this is to bring your awareness to your breath, strengthening your ability to be there openly and with curiosity. You might also change your way of talking at that point and ask, “How do you feel about what I just said?” The other person might say, curtly, “It’s fine, no problem.” But you know enough to be patient and maybe non-aggressively say something like, “Let’s talk about this again later,” understanding that even simple words like this can avert two people from going to war.
Our training is to acknowledge when we’re tensing, when we’re hooked, when we are all worked up. The earlier we catch it, the easier shenpa is to work with; but nevertheless, if we catch it even when we’re all worked up, that’s good enough.
Sometimes we even have to go through the whole cycle and end up making a mess. The urge is so strong, the hook is so sharp, the habit is so entrenched, that there are times we can’t do anything about it.
But what you can always do is this: after the fact, you can self-reflect and rerun the story. Maybe you start with remembering the all-worked-up feeling and get in touch with that. You can re-experience the shenpa very vividly and experiment with not getting carried away. This is very helpful.
We could think of this process in terms of the four Rs: recognising the shenpa, refraining from scratching, relaxing with the underlying urge to scratch, and then resolving to interrupt the momentum like this for the rest of our lives. What happens when you don’t follow the habitual response? You’re left with the underlying energy. Gradually you learn to relax into that shaky, impermanent moment. Then you resolve to do your best to keep practicing this way.
I once saw a cartoon of three fish swimming around a hook. One fish is saying to the others, “The secret is non-attachment.” That’s a shenpa joke: the secret is don’t bite that hook. If we can learn to relax in the place where the urge is strong, we will get a bigger perspective on what’s happening. We might come to see that there are two billion kinds of itch and seven quadrillion types of scratching, but we just call the whole thing shenpa.