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According to Chodron,
Usually translated as “attachment” or “fixation,” it is the… charge behind emotions… Shenpa is the feeling of getting “hooked” [by]…aversion or attraction… It’s that sticky feeling that arises when we want things to go our way.
The problem isn't our emotions themselves, but rather that tendency to get “hooked,” unable to let go of the feeling and allowing it to build up until it ruins our moods or we take it out on other people.
It may be easier to understand through a specific example:
We were having a pleasant chat with a neighbor--let’s call her Mrs. Haines. Well, you wouldn’t believe how quickly and dramatically Mrs. Haines' whole demeanor changed when my husband mentioned a mutual acquaintance of theirs, “Mr. Bradley.”
Her body tensed, her smile turned into a frown, and she launched into a lengthy diatribe against Mr. Bradley, ending with: “When I heard that he had died, I said, ‘It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person.’ Huh huh huh.”
I goggled at her.
My husband calmly pointed out that death happens to all of us, deserving or not.
I asked, “How long ago did Mr. Bradley die?”
“About twenty years ago.”
Wow. That sounds like a pretty bad case of shenpa to me! And something I certainly don’t want to emulate. (For the record, my husband told me some stories about both the Bradleys and the Haines being very difficult neighbors, so I suspect they kept feeding each other's shenpa rather than one person being entirely at fault.)
Like the rest of us, you can probably think of some people who rub you the wrong way, who really get your hackles up when you’re forced to interact with them.
But imagine that much bitterness triggered simply by hearing a person’s name, someone who hadn’t done anything to annoy you in more than two decades.
Ever since then, I try to catch myself at the moment of being “hooked” and let negative feelings go as quickly as possible.
One thing that helps is to simply say “shenpa” to myself, perhaps with a brief description of what’s hooked me. For example, I keep catching myself in “DMV shenpa.” I have to go to the DMV tomorrow, and I haven't always had a rollicking good time there. Ironically, I want to avoid a replay of the handful of bad experiences I’ve had over the years, but I'm the one who keeps replaying them in my head.
Another thing I find helpful is to externalize my shenpa, thinking of it as some sort of mythical creature. I mean absolutely no disrespect for traditional teachings, but the first time I heard the word, I thought it sounded like a cross between a shar pei and an oompa loompa… which I imagine would come out looking like either a lion sculpture (see image above) or one of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things.
So, if this image works for you, as soon as you start feeling “hooked,” imagine that you’ve been visited by your shenpa . That might be just enough to shift your focus away from what’s nagging you, which will help keep you from sinking into negativity or responding in a way you regret.
For more on shenpa, see Pema Chodron's article How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked at Shambala Sun.
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