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THE SHENPA SYNDROME

Learning to Stay
City Retreat | Berkeley Shambhala Center
September 2002

Let's just talk about critical mind, it's a major shenpa. It all starts because you walk into a room, or someone does something, and you feel this tightening. It's triggering some kind of old habituated pattern. You're not even thinking about it at all, but basically what's happening is you don't want to feel that. It's some kind of really deep uneasiness. Your habituation is to start dissing them, basically, criticizing them... how they don't do it right, and you get a kind of puffed up satisfaction out of this. It makes you feel in control. It's this short-term symptom relief. On the other hand, the more you do it you also begin to feel, simultaneously, like you're poisoning yourself.

There's a fairy tale about whenever this princess would start to say mean words, toads would come out of her mouth. You begin to feel like that's what's happening. Or you're poisoning yourself with your own mean mindedness. And yet, do you stop? No, you don't stop, because why? Because you associate it with relief from this feeling. You associate it, basically, with comfort. This is the shenpa syndrome.

I'll talk about shenpa to positive experience and shenpa to negative experience in meditatation. If you've meditated at all before this weekend, you will recognize yourself here. This is why the word attachment doesn't quite translate shenpa. It's just like when someone says, "That's attachment, that teaching was very superficial to me." Shenpa is not superficial. It just goes to the heart of the matter, the guts of the matter. We're less inclined to turn it against ourselves. We see our shenpa, and there's some sort of gladness to see it. Whereas with almost any other words I've ever tried using in meditation, people use it as ammunition against themselves. For some reason with shenpa, I don't know, there's something about, "Oh, there it is." Maybe it's because we've never heard this word before. But it seems to be helpful. A way of acknowledging, with clear seeing, without it turning against yourself.

There's shenpa to positive experience, shenpa to negative experience —shenpa to everything, really. Say, for instance, you meditated and you felt a sort of settling and a sort of calmness, a sense of well-being. And maybe thoughts came and went, but they didn't hook you, and you were able to come back, and there wasn't a sense of struggle. Afterwards, to that actually very pleasant experience: shenpa. "I did it right, I got it right, that's how it should always be, that's the model." It either builds arrogance or conversely it builds poverty mind because next session is nothing like that.

Next session, the bad one, which is even worse now that you had the good one —and you had the shenpa to the "good" one. Do you see what I'm saying about the shenpa? In other words, is there something wrong with that meditation experience? Nothing wrong with it, but the shenpa. This is what, as practitioners, we have to get at.

Then you have the "bad" one, which is not bad. It's just that you sat there and you were very discursive and you were obsessing about someone at home, at work, something you have to do— you worried and you fretted, or you got into a fear or anger. Anyway, you were wildly discursive, and you were trying to rope in this wild horse who refused to be tamed, and you just felt like it was a horrible meditation session. At the end of it you feel discouraged, and it was bad and you're bad for the bad meditation. And you could feel hopeless.

That's why I told the story about my meditation last night, because really, someone like me, I'd say, would have taken my own life long ago based on if I had been trained in good and bad —that it's supposed to be like this and not this. But from the beginning, even though it took ten years to even start to penetrate, I was always told not to judge yourself. Don't get caught in good or bad, it's just what it is.

So you have this meditation that, by your standards, is bad, and it isn't bad, it's just what it was. But then the shenpa... That's what where we get caught, that's where we get hooked, that's where it gets sticky. To use Buddhist language, as long as there's shenpa it's strengthening ego-clinging. In other words, good experience, ego get's stronger; bad experience, ego gets stronger.

Ego is sort of an abstract word to us but with shenpa, maybe we can resonate: good experience, shenpa gets stronger about good; bad experience, shenpa gets stronger about bad.

Do you see what I'm saying? Somehow addressing things are just what they are. You may have heard that expression before, and you will hear it again in the future.

It doesn't have anything to do with this world. It has to do with shenpa. Hooked: imbuing things with a meaning that they don't inherently have. They give us comfort and then they develop an addictive quality.

All we're trying to do is something actually innocent and fine, which is not always feeling that uneasiness. But now someone is saying, "Well, then the way to do it is to experience the uneasiness completely and fully— without the shenpa. Go into the present moment and learn to stay. Learn to stay with the uneasiness. Learn to stay with the tightening. Learn to stay with the itch of shenpa. Learn to stay with the scratching —wherever you catch it— so that this chain reaction of habituation just doesn't rule our lives, and the patterns that we consider unhelpful aren't getting stronger, stronger, stronger."

This is really a subtle point because when I said last night, "Whatever arises in the confused mind, or whatever arises is fresh, the essence of realization," that is the basic view. So how do you hold that view, that whatever arises is the essence of realization, with the fact that we have work to do? Shenpa is our magic teaching, our magic practice.

The work we have to do is only about coming to know, coming to acknowledge that we're tensing or that we're hooked. At the Abbey they called it all kinds of things, they'd say, "Well, at one level it's a tightening, at another level it's hooked, at another... Usually, when I catch it," a lot of people would say, "is when I'm all worked up." They were calling "all worked up" shenpa —and it is. So that's where we usually catch it, we're all worked up.

The earlier you catch it, the easier it is to work with it but if you catch it when you're already all worked up, that's good enough. Hard to interrupt that momentum, because the urge is pretty strong when you're already all worked up.

Sometimes you go through the whole cycle. Maybe you even catch yourself all worked up, and you still do it. The urge is so strong, the craving is so strong, the hook is so great, the sticky quality is so habituated, that basically —most of us have this experience— we feel that we can't do anything about it.

But what you can do then is, after the fact, you go and you sit down in meditation and you re-run the story, and you get in touch with the original... Maybe you start with remembering the all worked up feeling and then you get in touch with that. So you can go into the shenpa in retrospect and this is very helpful. Also, catching it in little things, where the hook is actually not so great.

Somewhere where I was staying... I stay in a lot of different places, so I'm not sure where it was, but I just saw this cartoon of three fish swimming around a hook. And one fish says to the other fish, "The secret is non-attachment." So that's a shenpa cartoon: the secret is don't bite that hook.

The thing is if you can catch it at that place where the urge to bite it is so strong. You know fish, they don't learn. I always wonder if the ones that you throw back, who just cut their mouth but they don't die because you throw them back, if they learn. I always wondered. Well, in our case, let's hope we do learn when they throw us back.

These teachings help us to at least get a perspective on what's happening, a bigger perspective on what's happening. In this case, there could be two billion kinds of itch and seven quadrillion types of scratching, but we just call the whole thing shenpa.

This is what Buddhists mean when they say, "Don't get caught in the content, go to the underlying hooked quality, the sticky quality, the urge, the attachment." I think "attachment" just doesn't get at it.

In meditation you can expect, you will see, that you have shenpa to good experience, shenpa to bad experience. But, maybe, this teaching will help you to see that and have a sense of humor. This is the first step: acknowledging or seeing. Because you can't actually, you don't have the basis to stay if you don't first see.

We also just train in staying all the time. Like in situations where you're out in nature and you just train in staying. And today, are we on silence here? Yeah. So, it's a good day to work with this. In your lunch break, when you're not talking to each other... then you have an opportunity to notice, probably, at least one shenpa —maybe more than you could fill a notebook with. Something about the food, or another person who you know or don't know, or my talk —anything. Maybe you'll feel that hook.

Rather than get caught in the story line or the content, take it as an opportunity to be present with the hooked quality. Just use it as an opportunity to practice staying, which is to say, let that be your base, whatever your style is. Maybe you like nature and birds and things, so you go some place quiet and sit. Just practice coming back to the present moment, coming back.

If we train in staying, where it's kind of easy and pleasant to do so, then we're preparing ourselves for when the "bad" things happen, like all worked up.

Maybe your thing is to want to sit right in the middle of people and people watch, but stay present people watching. Maybe just do one person at a time or vignettes, and stay present. Just practice coming back and staying. And then with that as your basis, then you might be intrigued to see yourself... [makes grimacing sound], close down or shut down, involuntary, and then just you see that.

What to do about it? Really, at this point, let's just say, just see it. Then if you feel you have the tools or ability to not follow the chain reaction, it comes down to "label it thinking." Not going off on that tangent, which is usually —especially when you're silent —mental dialogue, right? Talking to yourself about badness or goodness, or me-bad, they-bad, something. This right, that wrong. Something.

So, free from the labels of right and wrong, and good and bad. It has to be that you just keep letting those labels go, and just come back to the immediacy of being there.

So far I've introduced the idea that you recognize it. And I also have introduced this refraining from strengthening the shenpa, which is usually doing the habitual thing, your style of scratching. That's when the practice really gets interesting. What do you do when you don't do the habitual thing? You're kind of left with that urge much more in your face, and that craving and the wanting to move away, you're much more in touch with it then.

If you want to think of it in terms of four R's, it's recognizing, refraining —which simply means not going down that road —relaxing into the underlying feeling, and then something called resolve, which means you do this again and again and again. It's not a one shot deal. You resolve that in the future you'll just keep working this way.

If you just had to do it once and that was it, that would be really wonderful. It would be so wonderful because we all can do this a little bit. If we just had to do this a little bit, and that was it, oh, wow... But it comes back. Because we've been habituating ourselves to move away and really strengthening the urge and strengthening the whole habituated situation for a long, long, long time. And it's not an overnight miracle that you just undo that habituation. It takes a lot of loving kindness, a lot of recognition with warmth. It takes a lot of learning how to not go down that path, learning how to refrain, and it takes a lot of willingness to stay present.

And you do it over and over and over.

In the process you learn so much humility... it softens you up just enormously. As someone said, "Once you begin to see your shenpa, there's no way to be arrogant." It's completely true.

The trick is that the seeing, instead of turning into softening and humility, doesn't become self-denigration. That's the real trick.

But once you see what you do —how you get hooked and how you follow it and all of this —there's no way to be arrogant.

The whole thing sort of softens you up. It humbles you in the best sense and also begins to give you a lot of confidence in that you have this wisdom guide, Sogyal Rinpoche calls it. Your wisdom guide is your own mind, the fundamental aspect of your being —this prajna, or buddha nature, basic goodness— that begins to be more and more activated. That you, from your own wisdom, begin to go more towards spaciousness and openness and unhabituatedness, but it doesn't happen quickly.

The four R's are helpful to remember —of recognition, refraining, relaxing into the basic feeling, and then resolving to continue this way throughout your life, to just keep working this way with your mind and your emotions.

There is only one shenpa but you've already seen that it has these degrees of intensity. The fundamental, root shenpa is what in Buddhism is called ego, ego-clinging. We experience it as this tightening and self-absorption gets very strong at that point. Then the branch shenpas are all the different styles of scratching.


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