Shenpa – Unhooking Habitual Patterns

Synopsis – Have you ever been in a heated argument and you have no idea how you got to this angry place? If you trace back far enough you’ll see that initially there was an instance when something irritated you. And that irritation triggered a response for some immediate relief. Almost immediately that response triggers another response and so on until pretty soon you have a full scale argument on your hands. This trigger is what the Tibetan Buddhist call Shenpa. Shenpa is usually translated as attachment but the meaning is more akin to trigger, stickiness, or hooked. Getting hooked is what gets us into trouble over and over and over again. 

In our every day lives, we run the gamut of emotions from happy to sad, but for the most part, we’re completely unaware of the Vaudeville hookthoughts behind these emotions. A particular thought hooks us at some point and we feel as though we have to do something about it. This hooked feeling is what Tibetan Buddhists call Shenpa. Pema Chödrön in her book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears, compared Shenpa to “scabies”, a condition in which we can’t leave an open wound to heal by itself but continue to scratch it because it’s so itchy. Of course, with Shenpa like scabies, the more you scratch, the more it itches.

Shenpa is the origin of our habitual patterns that lead us into so many awkward situations in life. For example, when we enjoy food, alcohol or sex, initially our response to this stimulus is one of delight. But when we are habituated to using these stimulations over and over to mask our discomfort, this delight diminishes. Eventually the pleasure becomes a nuisance. On the face it, this description seems quite bleak, since this habitual pattern is going on almost beyond our awareness. Fortunately, there is a method for allowing ourselves to fully experience the discomfort, fear or sadness and to let the feeling settle by itself. This method is meditation.

When we meditate, we are doing ourselves a kindness and affording ourselves an opportunity to sit in a quiet and safe place so that we can begin to see how and when we get hooked. Pema offers a set of reminders that she calls the four R’s, which are:

  1. Recognition. This is how in meditation we see the first glimmer of a thought, feeling or sensation that causes us to want to scratch that itch.
  2. Refraining. Once we see the possibility of being hooked, we also see that we can refrain from taking the next step. For example, when we feel criticized by someone, we notice that we consistently tense up. Noticing this reaction allows us to stay with the situation and refrain from being defensive or to display any variety of default responses. Pema advises us to do this always with a light touch so that the reminders themselves do not become a hammer that we use to beat ourselves over the head.
  3. Relaxing. After we have clearly seen the mechanics of our habitual patterns, we can relax into the situation and let it unravel naturally in our mind.
  4. Resolving. This step is for us to resolve to keep working this way with our mind and our emotions.

In working with this path of meditation and the four R reminders we uncover our three basic human qualities, which are natural intelligence, natural warmth, and natural openness without struggle. Pema Chödrön explains that these qualities have always been with us but perhaps have gotten buried and almost forgotten because we are in a constant struggle with Shenpa.

Bibliography – Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears by Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Publications

The Shenpa Syndrome by Pema Chödrön,

The Shenpa Syndrome by Pema Chödrön,

by Kai Yee