This Is Your Brain On Shenpa 2/10/18
If you were old enough to have watched TV in the 80s, Reagan era stuff, you’ll remember that public service announcement where a man’s gruff voice says, “ok” (a chunk of butter begins to sizzle in a frying pan) “This is drugs,” (an invisible hand drops a raw egg into the pan) “and this is your brain on drugs,” (egg curdles, crisps, splatters and fries.)
Shenpa, the Buddhist term for a special kind of attachment, fries you like an egg if you let it- or can’t help it- because shenpa is the stuff that hooks and cooks you til you’re slipping off the pan: the stuff that generally launches you right into fight, flight, freeze.
What happens when we stumble off that hard won equanimity we had a few moments ago? I picture an old-fashioned shepherds crook sticking out from behind a curtain to pull me off stage abruptly, mid-performance. Right when I’m singing my loudest and getting a grip on the choreography, the crowd starts booing and I feel the drag. I may not even know it happened, but then- I’m somewhere else.
Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart was pressed into my hand years ago by a friend, but I didn’t read it right away. When I did, I knew I’d found My Thing. The Work. My frame of reference, this-moment-is-the-perfect-teacher way of thinking about the world and resurrection of a childhood ideal: because you know who my super heroes were when I was a kid? Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch watchmaker who ferreted holocaust-escaping hiding jews into her closet, and Elie Weisel, Anne Frank (bit of a theme) and Maya Angelou. Penultimate re-framers. Fighters. Opportunists. Fierce, willful survivors. People who bucked the reigns of abuse and conditioning by family, culture, war. People whose hardship actually made them BETTER. So much could have derailed them, but it didn’t.
Shenpa is attachment and conditioning that marches right in front of war and strife, edging it on, paving way for repeat-suffering, because our brain understands by searching the files for something familiar. We’re comparison machines. Predictors, contextualizers, subjectifiers, seeing through prisms unique as fingerprints.
When I get hooked, sometimes I have to backtrack. Why am I eating another bowl of cereal and ordering something online and checking my phone as if to run around panting to get away from a feeling? What is the feeling even? I’m so good at running I often don’t even know I’m doing it. Usually I’m avoiding, numbing or distracting before I can even glimpse the thing that caused it in the first place.
If we know our tendencies, say to get snagged into taking things personally (I've had a lot of practice/difficulty with this lately-- Miguel Ruiz refers to subjective experience as “the dream” in his book The Four Agreements and cautions not to take anything personally) then we are fortunate. We come to expect it. We know surely we’ll get caught up in loops of old recycled stories. We know shenpa will seduce us into feelings we may want to quell, sideswipe. Shenpa paves the way to leave. Or act in dissonance with who we want to be.
What can we do?
We can cultivate curiosity. Recognition. Employ a light touch as we gather some padding between stimuli and reaction, hook and addiction/rage/shame/action not in line with principles. This can be worked in sitting meditation for sure, but also right amidst the drama. Anytime we change the way we typically react, we build new neural pathways rather than fortify the old ones.
Here are some techniques to cope with stressful triggers, on the spot, in no particular order:
- Change venues: go to another room, or go outside and look up at the sky.
- Breath into a paper bag for a few minutes to allow for more carbon dioxide which acts as a muscle relaxant and helps oxygen unload from cells into organs.
- Self-massage your ears, head, around eyes, and/or hands
- Splash cold water or cold cloth on face to tone the vagus nerve.
- Forward fold or squat with head down below heart.
- Hum/chant- also tones vagus nerve
- Think about your mortality. It will always put things into perspective
- Walk in a figure 8 pattern while focusing eyes on one spot (infinity walk)
- Dance. Even if there’s no music.
- Breath in, then completely out and hold it until you build up some air hunger at which point breath in again through nose.
- Lie belly-down on the ground and focus on breath expanding against the floor.
- Cover the eyes with palms to make a complete seal for 30 seconds.
- Shake it out. Animals shake to process stress.
- Remember than hunger (hanger) and tiredness exacerbate reactivity so the better we care for ourselves, the bigger our resources.
Contending with shenpa will not be easy, so it’s good to keep a light touch because we're guaranteed to fuck it up. It’s easy to judge ourselves when we know what to do intellectually but can’t always meet our standards. Forgiveness is easier said than done, but it's worth remembering. Surely we’ll feel amorphous uneasiness in our guts or hear angry words coming out of us and all we can do is keep working at slowing it all down..
Buddhism shines because it speaks to how we are already whole, universally safe and holding inner rightness, basic goodness, inner light and Buddha-nature. We have only to unearth and clear the path to inhabit three intrinsic birthright qualities: natural intelligence, natural warmth, and openness without struggle.
My kid whined and demanded in the most unpleasant tone for ninety percent of the day last week (because parenting gives you plenty of practice). The volume. The arguing. About everything.The next morning on our way to school listening to a Daft Punk song in the car, chorus “we’re up all night to get lucky,” he laughed and said, “Mommy, why is he saying, ‘we’re making Mexican cupcakes?’” I un-gripped from struggle into laughter, and life went on. When we’re coming out of shenpa, we can’t believe we got so waylaid, leaked so much energy, ruminated so blindly with such conviction.
Below, in spite of, or enduring alongside shenpa, is the Tibetan Buddhist word, Ripka. Herein lies our freedom. In Sanskrit the word is vidya whose root means “to know, understand, perceive, experience.” It described as the true nature of the mind, stripped of collected biases, inclusive enough to examine an experience from all angles; expansive, spacious, allowing for mystery. To quote dear Pema: “Ripka means intelligence or brightness. Behind all the planning and worrying, wishing and wanting, picking and choosing, the unfabricated wisdom mind of rikpa is always here. Whenever we stop talking to ourselves, rikpa is continually here.”
Hooks are as fleeting as all of life and so is the humor and levity we know will wiggle into the mix. It’s all a dream. As long and we’re alive we’ll keep getting chances to try again and again to highlight ripka, to let it lead us up and out and be our rudder.
Ripka is true north, best version of our human selves.
Under the rise and fall of breath and moon and sun and daily aggravation there lives the heartbeat drum of ripka. It keeps time to the way we are; our bedrock foundation of being.