Shenpa and the pause:
Welcome to the new GDRP blog. I will be posting here as often as I can, so please come often!! I thought for this first entry I would post a piece that I wrote several years ago, which really seems to me to go to the heart of things, and is a useful model to remind and inspire me about what is possible in a practice of mindfulness-informed, experiential psychotherapy. Though written in an academic context, and presented in the language of Buddhist teaching, it refers to possibilities that are inherent in human nature. I believe it speaks to us where we live!
In a lecture given at the Omega Institute in May of 2004, Pema Chodrin speaks about the Buddhist teaching regarding “Shenpa”. She suggests that Shenpa is to Buddhism, what “hook” or “trigger” is to our more Western ways of speaking about suffering. Shenpa is the “seed” or “spark” that arises in that moment when we are hooked or triggered by something that has come into our awareness. The important characteristic of this experience is that the Shenpa arises spontaneously, carrying with it a potent form of energy that tends to lead us into reactivity, and reactive patterns of behavior. Pema speaks of the “habitual chain reaction” that usually follows immediately after the shenpa or “hook” is sensed. As we follow through in this old way, we not only remain stuck in habitual patterns, but think and act in ways that reinvest, in and strengthen these patterns.
The positive alternative that may be possible for us in this experience of shenpa arising can be understood as consisting of three stages of mindful awareness and choice. The first stage or step in attempting to work with habitual patterns of reactivity is simply the awareness of the hook or shenpa, at the moment that it arises. For many of us, this in itself is something new, a capacity of self awareness that we have not been taught or encouraged to develop…a capacity that can be enormously helpful in our journey toward well being.
The second step, having become aware of the presence of the reactive energy, is to choose to not follow the usual chain reaction, or the habitual pattern of defense and reactivity, but instead to simply: pause, notice the shenpa, …breathe, and relax.
Invariably, sitting with the shenpa, not reacting but simply breathing and relaxing into the underlying energy is uncomfortable. Our awareness of the energy that is pushing us toward reactivity, and our willingness to resist temptation, places us in the ‘fire’ that is a kind of conscious abstinence.
The desire to react can be very powerful. But the fire of our abstinence is also the process of our healing. It is the ‘heat’ of this fire, as we open into and observe closely, without acting, the shenpa energy, that actually fuels our transformation. As we resist the temptation drawing us toward our habitual patterns of reactivity, it is the ‘fire’ of our conscious abstinence that works to reduce the power of shenpa over us, and ultimately eliminate it from our experience.
Finally in the third step, we can learn to accept, and even welcome this discomfort, knowing that each time we feel the trigger, and the ‘push and pull’ of shenpa energy, we also recognize a new opportunity for healing, gradually learning to approach what is difficult with a new attitude of compassionated resolve.
Gordon Dalziel, April, 2009