Trapped in the shenpa: how to stop biting the hook?

Trapped in the shenpa: how to stop biting the hook?

We have all, at times, lost control. We gave in to that impulse that grew inside, devouring the reason and moderation behind it, pushing us to act without thinking. And we don't always need strong provocations to fall into that trap.

Sometimes a sarcastic comment from a colleague is enough. A reproach from the partner. A slightly out of place look or tone. A prohibition, or a temptation. At certain times, any situation can make us bite, pushing us to the point of no return.

Obviously, our adult and rational "I" is aware that we are overreacting, but despite this, we can't do anything about it. It's like when we try to hold back a sneeze. There is a word in Tibetan Buddhism 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 the word goes further and implies "grasping for experience", like fish taking a hook. It is also used to refer to a "burden", the burden that often hides behind our thoughts, words and actions, that burden that prompts us to react impulsively.

Shenpa is also an impulse. In fact, we can recognize and experience it easily. It is that moment when we feel an irrepressible desire to smoke a cigarette or eat a cake. The urge to have another drink, even though we know we've gone further. Or to take out our anger and frustration against someone.

The psychological mechanism that makes us bite continuously

When an impulse arises, there is usually a pause in which we decide whether to release or contain it. However, when we fall into a shenpa state, the impulse grows uncontrollably, until we can no longer contain it. It is as if we cannot free ourselves from the experience that originated it and the emotions it generated, we remain attached to the hook that the world has thrown at us, even if we are aware that this attitude harms us or hurts others.

In practice, the situation in which we are immersed generates continuous and intense waves that prevent the mind from quieting down and taking the psychological distance necessary to contain the impulse. The ego begins to take over, there is an involuntary narrowing of consciousness, we lose perspective and feel anxiety grow.

Then we feel the urge to move in the direction that the impulse indicates, not only to respond to the situation that originated it, but to try to calm unpleasant emotions. When we feel discomfort, restlessness or even boredom, instead of identifying those feelings, observing them and letting them go, without doing anything to get rid of them as soon as possible, we look for tranquilizers such as food, work, compulsive shopping, drugs, sex, alcohol or even complaining and scolding, thinking that this will eliminate our discomfort.

When this mechanism is perpetuated, we end up falling into a negative spiral that causes us to succumb faster and faster to anger, cravings and bad habits. We let ourselves go and start living on autopilot, without realizing that it hurts us.

The 4-Rs to overcome the shenpa

To overcome shenpa we must maintain awareness and a deep connection with ourselves. This work requires constant communication and, above all, knowing how to listen to each other, paying attention to what our "I" wants to tell us.

We must learn to distinguish spaces of change, such as pauses in music or the moment between an inhalation and an exhalation. When we become aware of those little 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 erupts, the thought that generates the anxiety attack or the temptation that leads us to light a cigarette or eat some chocolate, we can change the old patterns and 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, whether we like it or not, we have taken the bait and fallen into a vicious circle, both because of the situation and the emotions and thoughts it generated. If we are unable to be aware of that state, we cannot stop it. Therefore, it is about observing the seeds we have planted in our mind. Do we tend to react with anger to circumstances that disturb us? Can't we control certain impulses? What events cause us to lose control? When we detect situations where we usually "bite the hook", we need to activate our "shenpa alarm" to stop them in time.

2. Hold back. Shenpa is not just an impulse, it is "grasping for experience". So, we have to make sure we don't go that route. Indeed, in Tibetan Buddhism it does not mean expelling something from ourselves, but rather seeing clearly through that something to act accordingly. This means not holding on to the situation or emotions that generated the impulse. Don't keep thinking about the words that made us angry or about the situation that triggered fear or jealousy. Whatever we are dealing with, we simply have to curb the urge to keep reproducing that situation or emotion in our mind by stopping before we reach the point of no return.

3. Relax. Knowing that we don't have to succumb to the impulse is easy, the hard part is doing it. However, breathing exercises can be our best allies for calming and clearing the mind. Deep breathing is a very powerful technique because it not only brings us inner peace and calm, but activates the parasympathetic nervous system to effectively slow and 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 little window of peace, to try to find the source of the insecurity or face the provocative experience to analyze where it comes from, without judging it. Learning to be calm and control the shenpa will help us feel more comfortable with those who are 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. In 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 do it well. We may pass some tests, but we will fail others. The shenpa will point us to the deeper layers within us that require attention and healing.

Therefore, this inner seeking process must be marked by kindness towards ourselves and self-empathy. Without these qualities, any attempt to hold 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 hear this background hum of mild discomfort or uneasiness that will propel us into the shenpa,” writes Chödrön.

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