Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about something that Tibetan Buddhists call “shenpa”. Shenpa is typically translated to mean attachment and it’s from this translation that we hear the phrase, “Attachment is the root of all suffering”. Certain schools within Tibetan Buddhism teach a somewhat broader translation, however, and it is this different translation/idea that I’d like to discuss in this article.
According to Pema Chödrön, shenpa would better be translated as “something that hooks us”. That hooked quality can be a good feeling or it can be a bad feeling. Your partner says something to you, perhaps, and your ire immediately rises. Shenpa. Or perhaps you’re having a really bad day at the office and you can hardly wait for a couple of doubles to take off the edge. Shenpa. Shenpa can express itself in a myriad of ways.
I’ve been going through a lot of that lately. In fact, it’s safe to say that we all do, each and every one of us, each and every day. To be human, it seems, is to be hooked in some fashion. Whether it be shutting down with your partner over the argument you just know is coming, judging yourself harshly for failing to succeed, or maybe even just seeing somebody come into the room and your hackles raise in dislike, it’s all shenpa.
Yeah, I’ve been going through a lot of that lately. I’ll awaken in the morning to the realization that I just spent all night dreaming of my ex-. Again. Absolutely hooked. The tightness comes and I have to work hard to breathe through it and let it go. Thankfully, I’m mostly successful. Until the next time.
We all deal with shenpa. It can be an addiction with which we numb out and run away from something inside. It can be an emotional closing down in order to protect ourselves from hurt. It can be an emotional lashing out, usually for the same purpose. Many of us spend a lot of time experiencing all three varieties.
Over the last few years, I’ve worked very hard to cultivate clear sight, something the Tibetan Buddhists call “prajna”. You can think of prajna as the anti-shenpa of sorts, for it is our ability to see our stuff clearly and honestly, without deceiving ourselves in any way, shape or form. Such honesty is a true blessing. It is through this ability to see the Self clearly that we can grow and become something greater.
In Western culture, we have a rather horrible tendency to beat down the Self in a barrage of guilt and denigration. Interestingly enough, this tendency is missing from Eastern cultures. This difference is often misunderstood and maligned by Western thinkers as indicative that the moral fibre of those in the East is somehow lacking compared to their Western brethren. My own personal perspective is that the greatest difference is that those in the East have a wonderful shortcut available to them to learn and grow from an experience. They don’t waste any time berating themselves for their supposed sins. They just learn from the experience and move on.
Those of us from a Western upbringing can learn from this capacity and develop it to our advantage. The simplest expression I can think of would be to celebrate our ability to detect our shenpa instead of laying on the guilt for failing to contain it. If we can learn to cultivate the former approach, we’ll have given ourself a wonderful tool with which to grow.
Guilt is a wholly wasted emotion. While we tend to describe it merely as recognition of wrong-doing and the subsequent feeling bad about that, our culture has raised it from simple recognition to a means of emotional beating and control. In essence, we’re programmed to believe not that we did something wrong, but that we’re horrible people for having done it. And generation after generation pushes forth that mode of thinking by berating their child: “You’re a bad, bad girl!” It would be so much less damaging to a pure soul to hear the words, “What you did wasn’t good, son.”
Do you see the difference? Can you feel the difference?
Now, think about how you talk to yourself about those things about which you’re unhappy. Do you malign and denigrate yourself to induce that huge wave of guilt that proves you to be unworthy? That’s shenpa.
Learn to recognize how shenpa expresses itself in your experience. Cultivate prajna and truly celebrate that you have the wisdom to see your shenpa for what it is. The more you practice seeing and celebrating, the less control over your life shenpa will have on you. You’ll be less hooked. And in being less hooked, you’ll be free.