We all have lost the control sometime. We have all given in to that impulse that grew within, devouring reason and restraint in its wake, pushing us to act without thinking. And we don’t always need so much provocation to fall into that trap.
Sometimes a sarcastic comment from a co-worker is enough. A reproach from our partner. A slightly look or tone out of place. A prohibition. Or a temptation. At certain times, any situation can make us take the bait, pushing us to that point of no return.
Obviously, our rational, adult “self” is aware that we are overreacting, but despite this, we cannot help it. It’s like when we try to hold back a sneeze. In Tibetan Buddhism there is a word to describe this state: Shenpa.
What does Shenpa mean?
According to Pema Chödrön, the most common meaning of Shenpa is usually “attachment”, but in reality that word goes much further and implies “hooking on the experience”, like the fish that bites the hook. It is also used to refer to a “burden”, the burden that is often hidden behind our thoughts, words and actions, that burden that pushes us to react impulsively.
Shenpa is also an impulse. In fact, we can easily experience and recognize it. It is that moment when we experience an irrepressible desire to smoke a cigarette or eat a sweet. The urge to have one more drink, even though we know we are over. Or to spit our anger and frustration at someone.
The psychological mechanism that makes us bite the bait continuously
When an impulse arises, there is usually a pause in which we decide whether to unleash it or contain it. However, when we fall into a Shenpa state that urge grows uncontrollably, until we can no longer contain it. It is as if we could not get rid of the experience that originated it and the emotions it generated, we remain clinging to the hook that the world has thrown at us, even though we are aware that this attitude damages us or the others.
In practice, the situation in which we have submerged generates continuous and intense waves that prevent the mind from quieting down and assuming the psychological distance necessary to contain the impulse. The ego begins to take control, there is an involuntary narrowing of consciousness, we lose perspective and feel the anxiety growing.
Then we experience the urge to move in the direction that this impulse marks us, not only to respond to the situation that originated it but to try to calm the unpleasant emotions. And it is that when we feel a slight discomfort, restlessness or even boredom, instead of identifying those sensations, observing them and letting them go, without doing anything to get rid of them as soon as possible, we look for painkillers such as food, work, compulsive shopping, drugs, sex, alcohol or even complaints or reproaches, thinking that this will eliminate our discomfort.
When that mechanism is perpetuated, we end up falling into a negative spiral that makes us succumb faster to anger, cravings and bad habits. We just let ourselves go and start living on automatic pilot, not realizing that it hurts us.
The 4Rs to overcome the Shenpa
To overcome the Shenpa we need to maintain mindfulness and a deep connection with ourselves. This work requires constant communication and, above all, to know how to listen to ourselves, paying attention to what our “self” wants to tell us.
We have to learn to distinguish those spaces of change, such as the pauses that occur in music or the moment between an inspiration and an exhalation. When we become aware of these small windows of time we have the power to change the course of events, relationships and our inner state. When we learn to stop before anger explodes, that thought that generates the anxiety attack or the temptation that leads us to jump on a cigarette or chocolate, we can fix the old patterns and change the way we live.
Chödrön gives us the clues to overcome the Shenpa state:
1. Recognize the Shenpa. The first step is to recognize that, like it or not, we have taken the bait and have fallen into a toxic loop, either because of the situation or because of the emotions and thoughts that it has generated. If we are not able to be aware of that state, we cannot interrupt it. Therefore, it is about observing the seeds that we have planted in our mind. Do we tend to react with anger to circumstances that upset us? Can’t we control certain impulses? What events usually make us lose control? When we detect the situations in which we usually “bite the hook”, we must activate our “shenpa alert” to stop them in time.
2. Hold back. Shenpa is not just an impulse, it is “clinging to experience.” So , we must make sure we don’t go down that path. In fact, in Tibetan Buddhism it is not about expelling something from ourselves but rather about seeing clearly through that something to act accordingly. That means not holding on to the situation or the emotions that generated the urge. Do not keep turning in our minds to the words that made us angry or to the situation that triggered the fear or jealousy. Whatever we have to deal with, we simply have to restrain the urge to keep replaying that situation or emotions in our mind so that we are able to stop before reaching the point of no return.
3. Relax. Knowing that we should not succumb to the impulse is easy, the difficult thing is to achieve it. However, breathing exercises can become our best allies to calm and clear the mind. Deep breathing is a very powerful technique because not only does it bring us inner peace and calm, but it activates the parasympathetic nervous system to slow down and effectively lower heart rate and blood pressure. So our body and mind can slow down. This allows us to focus on the present moment to free ourselves from the Shenpa.
4. Solve. Once we are calm, we can take advantage of that moment of serenity, that small window of peace, to try to find the source of insecurity or “sit down” with the experience of provocation to analyze where it comes from, without judging it. Learning to be calm and control the Shenpa will help us to feel more comfortable with the uncomfortable. It will allow us to become less reactive, to be able to decide how to act, instead of simply letting ourselves be carried away by events. This way we will be able to dance to our own rhythm, instead of dancing to the rhythm set by others or by circumstances.
Of course, we cannot restore inner peace overnight. We need to be patient, compassionate, and persistent. We must be aware that we will not always get it right. We may pass some tests, but we will fail others. Shenpa will indicate deeper layers within us that demand attention and healing.
Therefore, this inner search process must be marked by kindness towards ourselves and self-empathy. Without these qualities, each attempt to restrain the shenpa will feel like a straitjacket, from which we will try to free ourselves, to bite the hook again.
“As long as we are used to needing something to hold on to, we will always feel this background rumble of mild discomfort or unease that will push us into shenpa”, Chödrön wrote.
Chödrön, P. (2011) Libérate: Abandona tus temores y descubre el poder del ahora. Madrid: Ediciones Oniro.
Chödrön, P. (2009) Don’t Bite the Hook. In: The Buddhist Review: Tricycle.