Session 4: Pema Chödrön: The Three Difficulties.

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Here Pema talks about “becoming hooked” and “Shenpa, the quality of being hooked.” If we don’t feed the energy of being hooked by adding thoughts and scenarios about what hooked us, if we can recognize that we are hooked by a situation, a person, a conversation, and just sit with this feeling and let it pass through us, it will dissipate. Thoughts and stories that we tell ourselves fan the spark of shenpa into a raging forest fire. So recognizing shenpa, and not scratching the itch, or not turning the spark into a raging fire by our stories and thoughts can then help us go through the hooking.

The best sentence in this lecture to me is this (I made the letters bold): “It is very possible to drop the storyline and let this energy pass through you, tasting the freedom from suffering and the natural joy of experiencing exactly what is there. When the hook arises, it’s like a bell going off that you can begin to see as an opportunity to not feed the chain reaction of suffering. This is the great gift of these teachings.”

Yes, that is what I am looking for, the freedom from suffering for myself as well as not subjecting my friends and family to suffering because of my words and actions. That to me, would be a miracle! And I am determined to get to this freedom for my self and my friends and family, therefore I will. I am on my way! It is not easy, but like I said in my last post, I have been catching myself getting hooked, and then choosing to do something different than becoming anxious, sad, and ranting, raving, and being upset.

My dear friends and family, a new and improved version of Samina is on its way, the model S, lol! And this me is going to be kind, understanding, loving, and open to you. This me is going to listen to you when you talk, not just to say something back, but just to listen to what you are saying. Because what you are sharing with me is valuable and deserves to be listened to, and deserves my understanding. Without becoming reactive and getting hooked by what you are saying, I want to listen and understand and know the freedom from suffering and the natural joy of the experience of being with you. How amazing it would be if we could all do that! Come along with me on this journey of choosing to do something different, and freedom from suffering and natural joy!

Below is the whole text of the introduction of session 4.

“Pema begins section two with a review of the Three Difficult Practices: recognizing that you’re stuck or hooked, doing something different, and making this new response a way of life.

In this section, we’ll be focusing on the first of the difficult practices: acknowledging how we become hooked. Pema introduces a Tibetan term, shenpa, which refers to the quality of being “hooked” or “caught.” Pema then lays out for us the typical shenpa scenario: You’re in a conversation with someone and everything is going just fine. All of a sudden, they say or do something that just doesn’t sit right with you. You feel yourself tighten, perhaps your jaw or your stomach. You feel defensive or angry or resentful, but you don’t know why; things start to speed up. You start spinning stories in your mind. You are hooked.

Shenpa is not conceptual, teaches Pema. It occurs at a pre-thought level. Something in this other person or in some circumstance triggers you, and you react. It always begins at a subtle level, but has a very distinct quality nonetheless. You can really feel it.

Shenpa does not always occur in conversation. For example, you might be sitting in a park or at the dentist’s office or even standing in line at the grocery store. Then suddenly, someone you don’t know walks by or sits near you and just the way they look or talk causes you to start to shut down; there is a knee-jerk tightening that you feel throughout your entire being. Or, when someone sees you walk by, it happens to thim. You two don’t even know one another, and still the shenpa is there.

The mere arising of shenpa is a natural experience for human beings and, in this sense, is in no way problematic in and of itself. What happens, however, is that along with the shenpa there is usually an urgency to do something as a reaction—to escape, to say something, to somehow flee the discomfort of the feeling. It’s not natural for us to simply rest in the hooked feeling, and fully experience what is there. Instead, we get carried away by its momentum.

Another analogy for shenpa is an “itch” as a result of poison ivy or allergies. The simple truth of the matter is that when we have an itch, scratching it feels really good; while we’re scratching the itch, it feels so wonderful! But, as we all know, scratching only worsens the itch and spreads the rash.

For example, you might have a slight dislike for someone. Not a big deal—you can sit with it, everything’s okay. But then you might start to build a case against him—about how he’s wrong or unkind, or something is just not right about him. You go into your thoughts and create a whole atmosphere around the person and the situation. Or, you might do the same about yourself, about how neurotic or bad you are. In this way, the situation escalates from being minor and no big deal to being more difficult and even like a raging fire.

It’s quite uncomfortable—almost unbearable—to sit with the shenpa, with the poison ivy, without scratching. Our habit of following the chain reaction into the storyline and away from our direct experience is very ancient and well-established. It’s not as if we stop and are then left with a relaxed, peaceful feeling. At first, we will feel the underlying uneasiness, the insecurity, and the positive groundlessness Pema spoke about in section one. Facing this requires practice, real courage, and commitment.

Next, Pema introduces the Buddhist teaching on the Eight Worldly Dharmas, the various ways in which we get caught in hope and fear. Through careful observation, we begin to see precisely how we get hooked in certain habits, all arising as a way to find comfort and security. Despite the depth at which these habits are entrenched, Pema offers the possibility for all of us to go beyond hope and fear altogether.

At its initial arising, Pema teaches, shenpa is a like a tiny spark. In response to this spark, however, we scramble to do whatever we can to move away from its discomfort, from the hooked feeling. In this process of moving away, we tend to “throw kerosene” on the spark, and unconsciously ignite it into a full-blown fire. Through this course, Pema will help us to heighten our awareness of how we escalate the spark in our lives.

Our main method for throwing kerosene on the spark of shenpa, we learn, is by going into the mind and talking to ourselves. We tell ourselves stories about other people and about the situations in our life, and then believe the stories and proceed as if they were completely true. One of the most important reasons we train in meditation and other practices is to recognize when we’re thinking, and to let that thinking go and then return to our immediate experience. With the shenpa practice, it is these thoughts that are the kerosene which turns the little spark into a full-blown forest fire; it is these thoughts that most often make matters worse. We start to see that the difficult emotions we experience cannot be kept alive unless we are talking to ourselves, telling stories about our lives and those around us.

In reality, shenpa is there underneath the thinking process; that small spark exists at a pre-verbal level. It is there in a way that we could say is pregnant with the possibility of a forest fire. But, if we can just pause at the point when we notice the shenpa, and experience its non-verbal energy instead of feeding it with our thoughts, we find ourselves standing at the doorway to true freedom. Instead of throwing kerosene on the fire, we start to discover the inexpressible wisdom and goodness of our own hearts and minds. But we cannot access this depth of experience when we keep going with the chain reaction of habitual response.

Pema then offers us the shenpa instruction, in its simplest form: notice that you’re hooked, and pause. Just notice that you’re breathing in and breathing out. Simply pause and relax, in the awareness that you’re hooked. And then keep letting the thoughts go, and come back to the body. Go beneath the thoughts and the verbal discussion about what’s happening and have a direct, immediate experience of “hooked.” What is this “hooked”? What is it that is being experienced in the most direct and immediate way? What is really there below the storyline about who said what and who hurt you and how bad you are and so forth?

When we observe carefully in this way, we can start to see that every state of mind is impermanent, fluid, and passing; all thoughts and emotions in fact have an amazingly short duration when we’re not throwing kerosene on the fire. However, we tend to make them last a long time, remaining hooked weeks after a difficult conversation or even after a glance that someone gave us. But if we do not feed the shenpa, it will just dissolve on its own, sometimes surprisingly quickly.

We begin by looking at shenpa in its subtlest form, as this heat, tightening, and subtle tension. Very often, we will not catch this very subtle level, or this first movement of the hook. More often, in the drama of our everyday life, we won’t catch it until we’ve already said something, acted in a particular way, or found ourselves quite worked up. Obviously, it is much more difficult to rein in the momentum once it’s taken off. But the truth is that it’s never too late to see the shenpa and choose something different. Even if you can just say “shenpa,” Pema tells us, you can at least realize it’s there, recognize what is happening, and to some degree interrupt the momentum of a further chain reaction.

As you become more familiar with this process, you will start to recognize what Pema refers to as “shenpa speak”— how you talk to yourself in order to justify the shenpa logic. You get hooked and you believe you have the right to be hooked, with a particular person or situation: “I have the right to have shenpa! In this situation, I have the right to be hooked! This is the exception!” This is shenpa-speak. We can learn to acknowledge that we’re caught when we notice ourselves speaking in this way, to ourselves or others.

The purpose of this course is to help you to see that when you’re hooked, you actually have a choice. You can choose shenpa logic and follow the momentum of the chain reaction, or you can go in the direction of practice, pausing and relaxing into the energy of your underlying experience. It is very possible to drop the storyline and let this energy pass through you, tasting the freedom from suffering and the natural joy of experiencing exactly what is there. When the hook arises, it’s like a bell going off that you can begin to see as an opportunity to not feed the chain reaction of suffering. This is the great gift of these teachings.”

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