Excerpted from “Getting Unstuck” by Pema Chodron, from teachings on Shenpa that she attributes to her current teacher Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche
So this is a teaching on a Tibetan word – Shenpa. S-H-E-N-P-A, Shenpa.
And actually its taught about a lot in Buddhism but not quite in the style that Dzigar Kongtrul has been presenting it.
The usual translation of the work Shenpa is “attachment”. If you were to look it up in a Tibetan dictionary, you would find that the definition is attachment. But the word attachment absolutely doesn’t get at what it is, and so Dzigar Kongtrul said lets just not use that translation, its incomplete and it doesn’t touch the magnitude of shenpa and the effect that it has on us.
So, if I were translating Shenpa it would be very hard to find a word, but I am going to give you a few. One word might be “hooked”. How we get hooked. We get hooked, and then we get “stuck”. Everyone likes to hear teachings on getting stuck and how to get unstuck because it is so common to feel stuck.
Guess what: you can meditate for a long, long time, and you can still get stuck.
In terms of [the example previously described of] having scabies and the itch that goes along with that, and scratching it, shenpa is the itch and its the urge to scratch. So “urge” is another word. The urge to smoke that cigarette, the urge to overeat, have one more drink, or whatever your addiction is.
And it gets into everyday experience. Somebody says a mean word to you… and then something in you tightens. That’s the shenpa. And then it starts to spiral into low self-esteem or blaming them or anger at them or denigrating yourself, and then words or actions, maybe if you have strong addictions you just go right for your addiction to cover over that bad feeling that arose when someone said this mean word to you. This is a mean word that gets you. Hooks you. Another word might not affect you, but we’re talking about when it touches that sore place. That’s a shenpa.
The fundamental root shenpa is what in buddhism is called ego, or ego-clinging. And we experience it as this tightening and self-absorption that gets very strong at that point. So the fundamental root shenpa is ego-clinging, or self-absorption, or “cocoon”*, and then the branch shenpas are all the different styles of scratching and so forth, like that.
So someone criticizes you, they criticize your work, they criticize your appearance, they criticize your child and – shenpa – almost co-arising. As soon as those words have registered – boom, its there, and its like a tightening.
Shenpa is not the thoughts. Dzigar Kongtrul made a big thing about it’s closer to an emotion, it’s pre-verbal and then it breeds thoughts really quickly, but shenpa is not the thoughts. He said it’s more like an emotion, but I think its even pre-emotion in a way, its kind of that (makes gasping sound)… so that you can feel it happening, which often, people just starting with this can – you feel it happening sometimes.
Say like at the monastery, at Gampo Abbey, people were finding someone would come sit next to them, and of course you have a kind of intimate relationship with everyone there living in community, and they can feel the shenpa just because this person sat down next to them, because they have some kind of thing going about this person, and they’re hooked.
Now if you catch it at that level, its very workable and then you have the possibility to have this enormous curiosity about this urge to do the habitual thing, to strengthen the habituation. You can feel it.
One thing about shenpa is it’s never new, it always has a familiar taste in the mouth. It has a familiar smell. It’s like when you begin to get the hang of it, you feel like this has been happening forever.
It causes you to feel the fundamental underlying insecurity of the human experience that is inherent in a changing shifting impermanent illusory world as long as we are habituated to want to have ground under our feet.