In Tibet there’s a word for the feeling we have when we get stuck, or hooked, or close down. Maybe it’s an addiction, or an attachment to something or someone, or maybe it’s a simple annoyance that takes us there. The end result being a feeling that we don’t want to be where we are right now, and we withdraw, or get angry, or reach for that comforting habit. It’s a familiar feeling we all know but it’s hard to describe in our culture. In Tibet, it’s shenpa.
Pema Chödrön says the root of it is the fact that the world around us is always changing and in order for use to sooth the uneasiness we reach for relief and comfort. But when that thing brings us comfort, we’re hooked. We have the urge for that comfort, and we want to indulge in it, we’re addicted.
But we can refrain from the shenpa. We can acknowledge that moment, see it, feel that initial tightening, uneasiness, urge, whatever you may call it. You have to recognize it first, and then decide not to act on it. That’s how you break a habit, and you do it over and over again.
When you move past the habitual reaction to shenpa, you begin to see clearly the chain of events, the bigger picture. That’s called prajna, it’s our wisdom, or innate intelligence taking over and interrupting the cycle.
I’ve quit a lot of things, and I’ve been practicing moderation. In the process I’ve had to see very clearly what triggers me. I’ve learned to identify shenpa the moment it begins, and make another choice. It’s the most freeing and liberating feeling to overcome addictions, break habits, and reprogram my mind to respond instead of react.
I’ve also found it’s much easier to do when it involves an addiction, like smoking, drinking, or eating. It’s when it’s an emotional reaction that it’s harder to break. It gets easier with experience, wisdom, and attention, but it’s still much harder than just quitting a physical addiction. It’s kind of like a chain reaction.. we get triggered, by someone else’s actions or words, or by an event in our lives, or by loneliness… we have our emotional reaction… or shenpa. Then we reach for comfort, whatever form it takes for you.. it could be food, drugs, alcohol, sex, anger, or just bad choices in general (also shenpa). I’ve found that those are part of the first step, and you must break the habit of comfort.
With that addiction broken, the shenpa associated to those things disappears. But it’s still there with the initial reaction to the root trigger. This is where I’m learning I still have control. I may continue to always react the same way to my triggers, but I am still in charge of how I choose to respond. That choice is what makes that shenpa disappear. It’s a lot harder, it runs so much more deeply, and I have to sit with how I feel a lot more than I used to, but I am still in control.
Last week I had a day. One of those days where everything seems to be falling apart.. one thing after another. None of them big, everything was maneagable, but the simple fact of it all stacked on top of each other made it seem inbearable. I got to a point at the end of the day that I felt that deep feeling of neediness. I’ve been here before in relationships.. an incredibly toxic feeling with horrific repercussions. But I felt it, I saw it, and I recognized it as such. I said it outloud that I was about to spiral into all of those old habits I used to do as a result of this feeling not being addressed. This time I was lucky enough to have someone there to help me dive into it and figure out what was going on and fix what could be fixed.
It turns out that although there were a lot of things piling up on my shoulders that day, there was one thing that apparently had a much larger emotional impact than I thought. I didn’t realize it until I tried to talk about it and instead all that came out were tears.
Although I’m all about sharing, that is not my story to tell, so I will only speak to how it made me feel. I was terrified. When I had gotten the news I brushed it off, and I didn’t think of it as a big deal, even though it is a big deal, and I was just trying to tell myself it wasn’t. You can only do that for so long. So when I tried to share that news as one of the things on my shoulders that day, its full impact revealed itself and I had to let it out.
What amazes me is how I can sit and talk through things as I’m on the edge of spiraling now, when just 3 years ago I would have drank until I couldn’t remember. I am so grateful for taking the time to work through my shenpa, and for having a partner who can sit and work through my shit with me. The empty pit in my stomach vanished, the neediness was gone, the weight on my shoulders diminished, and the terrifying thing… well it’s still terrifying… but it’s no longer weighing on me because I acknowledged the fear. It’s ok that it still exists, but it’s no longer controlling how I react to the rest of the small annoyances of my day.