What is Mindfulness and Shenpa?

Mindfulness is a way of being – an awareness process. It is not a thinking process. The human mind – our ego mind – has taken over from our pure awareness. By practising mindfulness, we get in touch with our direct experience. When we do this, every moment is new and fresh and not tainted with memories of the past or fearful thinking.

Mindfulness is the perfect state to be in. If you are wanting to grow and work on yourself, or if you are seeking healing and self-development from others, mindfulness is the route through which you will evolve, because it is the state of awareness and it is only through awareness that we can recognise what is happening and bring about change.

We all have triggers – times when we may feel a strong emotional reaction – and we get hooked. These feelings and the impulse to react to them can be very strong and seductive  These triggers are known in Buddhist terms as Shenpa. Your shenpa may be anger, or the urge to run from something; it may be the temptation to reach for an addiction, or to do something that feels good at the time, but in the long-run sabotages us.

We all get set off from time to time – we think, hear, see, smell or taste something that we really, really like or we really, really dislike…and suddenly we’re hooked.

Once we’re hooked, we feel uneasy, restless, and grasping for something solid to hold onto, and as a result we tighten up and shut down because whatever’s happening around us is way too uncomfortable to just be with directly. Who wants to feel tender, vulnerable, or open when it’s safer and more familiar to feel on guard, protected, and strong?

It’s at this point that the shenpa storm hits!

Shenpa is a Tibetan word meaning “attachment” but let’s just refer to it as “being hooked”.

What normally accompanies shenpa is a desperate urge to alleviate the shaky feeling that’s arisen. You know you’re experiencing shenpa when you have an almost uncontrollable urge to run away from what’s going on right now, or if you explode in anger or indulge in an addiction. We feel the urge to do something – anything – but feel the discomfort that’s come up in us. And while this discomfort is nothing to be afraid of, it feels so unnerving  that our brains search desperately for ways to quench the flames that arise from our fearful and doubtful minds.

The ways in which we do this can vary tremendously. Once we feel hooked we may resort to cigarettes, alcohol, passivity, sex, food, enabling, harsh speech, laughter, violence, defensiveness, or even getting sleepy as a way of withdrawing. In fact all that is really happening is the true nature of reality being viewed through our delusional coloured glasses!

What makes this process so tricky to work with is that the behaviors we normally engage in to appease the demands of our shenpa really do seem to work…initially. But the short-term relief brought about this way is just a temporary bandaid for a deeper, ongoing mind state that will continue to arise as long as we refuse to deal with it directly and not be so beholden to the trigger.

In short, the more we give in to our shenpa, the more we re-create shenpa-inducing situations! We create a negative pattern.

There are five ways we can work with shenpa so that instead of closing ourselves us off from our lives, we can engage them with more intimacy, clarity, and effectiveness.

  1. Know what hooks you. This is where awareness comes in – the triggers that cause us to want to shut down and run away may seem endless, but the more aware we are of what puts us in these states, the better equipped we are to deal with them in the future.
  2. Know what you tend to do once you’re hooked. The more clear we are on what habitual behaviors we engage in as a response to feeling groundless, insecure, or uneasy, the less likely we are to engage in those unproductive and potentially harmful auto-responses again in the future.
  3. Practice sitting with uneasiness. Meditation practice is a wonderful method for observing impermanence and groundlessness up close and personal. When we understand fundamental groundlessness through a direct experience of it, it becomes a source of gratitude rather than resistance. When we are able to cultivate grace within groundlessness by fully settling into things as they are, no matter what they are, the underlying changeability of things that initially seemed so frightening becomes the ultimate tool for awakening and being fully alive. Learning to simply stay and not respond is where the healing is.
  4. Drop the story, stay with the energy. Feel the physical sensations of your shenpa. Notice the stickiness of the thoughts that come up and go back to the physical feeling.
  5. Breathe into the heart chakra. As you feel the sensations, focus on your breath and breathe into the heart. This creates a feeling of space around the shenpa.
  6. Give yourself compassion and gratitude. Rather than berate yourself for having shenpa, practise compassion for yourself and others. The more you become aware of your own shenpa and have compassion for yourself for having it, the more compassion you can cultivate for others and their shenpa, because we all have shenpa. Be thankful for your awareness that has noticed the shenpa, because without the awareness you wouldn’t be able to change.
  7. Be kind to yourself, expect relapses and remember it’s all a journey. This isn’t easy! It is the hardest thing to master. You will have good days and bad days, five steps forward and five steps back, then five steps forward and four and a half steps back. It’s all a process and you’re going to have slip-ups.

Many Buddhists monks who have been meditating for years are still working on their shenpa. Over time, not indulging in the compulsive, reflexive behavior and thoughts becomes the new habit. Just be sure not to develop another avoidance mechanism in its place.

If you’re experiencing a shenpa storm, whether it be anger, anxiety, temptation or whatever version of shenpa happens to come your way, just learn to STAY. There is no need to flee or to react. It’s possible to observe the visceral quality of this experience with the same sense of wonder and interest we might have towards watching wild waves in the ocean from a distance. We can observe, but not be in it.

By realizing that our experiences of shenpa aren’t going to last forever and therefore don’t have to take us over, we can cultivate a different way of relating to whatever hooks us so that we’re no longer quite so beholden to our triggers.

This leads to healing our negative patterns and sabotages, relationships and our lives in general.