Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Shenpa and Changing Patterns

Do you ever find yourself suddenly in the throes of an argument with someone and the more you talk, the more he or she talks and the deeper the two of you go into misunderstanding, offense, anger and hurt? What happens after this? You walk away feeling frustrated, angry and hurt; feeling like this person is self-centered, unsympathetic and ignorant. You vow to end the friendship, or just lock away a little piece (or maybe a big piece) of yourself in a desperate attempt to get along with that person, and avoid further painful episodes of trauma and drama. If this is done, then the relationship is sure to suffer permanent damage.

Later, when you reflect on the argument, you might be able to locate the exact point in which the conversation turned from friendly and engaged, to something that felt tight and uncomfortable, like suddenly being hit in the face by a strong forceful wind. You are left metaphorically gasping for air as though the natural, comfortable, in and out breath was suddenly pinched off. In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a word for this moment when we feel hooked or triggered in a negative way. It is called Shenpa. At the moment of Shenpa, we feel a gut reaction to revolt, to react in a way that will make the other feel and understand our discomfort. We suddenly feel a boiling need to pounce and tear apart who we now suddenly see as our opponent rather than the ally that stood before us moments before. Whether we say a cutting comment in response to the Shenpa, or we shut down mentally and emotionally, or we cry, shake or whimper, the fact is that this event has the power to suddenly change the course of the conversation in ways that are detrimental.

Once Shenpa is engaged, it can be extremely difficult to gain control and get the conversation back on an even keel. It has been said that with repeated mental and emotional patterns, the grooves in our brain can grow deeper, only reinforcing the negative behavior the more we “play” it. Literally, the only way we can reprogram our behavior is to cut off the old patterns and replace them with new ones. Then those negative grooves that were formed will begin to smooth over and we will have replaced an old pattern with a new, healthier one.

In order to start the process of rewiring your brain, you must first be aware to the Shenpa. That involves keying in to the sensations of the body; keeping your experience in the body rather than in the mind. A great way to practice this is through meditation. Sit in a quiet room, close your eyes and focus your attention on your out breath. Breathe naturally and become aware of your exhale breath. Soon your mind will start to drift off, thinking about the chores you have to do, when the kids need to be picked up, what you will have for dinner, etc. When you catch yourself thinking, just return your focus to the breath, in a non judgmental way, and lovingly label your thoughts, “thinking.” With practice you will be able to feel more attuned to your body rather than dwelling in your mind. With this practice you will start to become aware when you are triggered, as it is first felt in the body. You may feel tightness in your gut, or a feeling like you’ve been hit in the chest or throat. Your cheeks might colour or your fists might clench. With awareness practice you will get to know your moment of Shenpa.

Now, let’s come back to the moment of the conversation where you’ve suddenly become aware that you are hooked. You feel that familiar “slap in the face” feeling. You are ready to pounce. You are poised on the precipice of that cliff, where it would feel really good to leap into the chasm of retaliation. Where do you go from here? The answer is, you stay. Yes. You just stay on the edge of that cliff. Your mind will be racing, thinking of all the things you want to say to that person to let them know how they have offended you. You want to fill that space with words, preferably explicatives. But you’ve done that before haven’t you, and did it solve the problem? Did it promote peace and harmony? No, it didn’t.

The key to uncoiling from your ready-to-pounce state is to slow the mind. This can be accomplished by first slowing the body. Focus on your breath. With the out breath, breathe out the ill feelings, let them purge from your soul. Take in the clean, pure air and let it fill up the aching spot. Slow the mind down. It wants to talk a mile a minute. It wants to hold forth, defend, defame, maybe yell, break down or lament “it’s not fair!” Stay present with your self. Stay in the body, slow it down. Think of your brain like a giant sieve about to strain crushed fruit for its concentrated life-giving nectar. At the top of the sieve lies all the detritus; the peels, the seeds and all the other inedible parts that will spoil the nectar. These represent the hurtful words that are circulating your mind. These words could be intended for your partner, such as “What a jerk, I can’t believe he’s being such a prick again!” “He always thinks he’s so right.” “Who does he think he is anyway?” Or they could be aimed inwardly, “I guess I’m stupid.” This just proves I’m unlovable.” Or whatever it is we tell ourselves. Now, imagine that the nectar of truth is filtering down through the muck. Those distorted thoughts get left in your mind, while you allow the truth to drip down. You soften your thoughts and turn them into softer words. “You jerk! You are hurting me on purpose;” becomes “I’m feeling that your comment was unfair.” Keep breathing and filtering the nectar. What is the truth of what you wish to say? What is the heart of it? Soon it becomes “I’m having difficulty with the conversation. I feel some hurt bubble up and I don’t know what to say. I feel I might say something hurtful. Can we pause for a minute and slow down and catch our breaths?”

Asking your partner for a pause break is one of the best things you can do to derail the situation. If you put forth the request in a non judgmental way, it can evoke compassion in your partner. You can agree to return to the topic at a later time or just spend a few moments together in mutual silence. When you choose to do that, you can tap into the other person’s basic goodness. Try to imagine you are them. Have you ever felt how they do? What were your feelings at that time? Try to picture that you are the one having the issue they seem to be having with you? We are All ONE and it is not hard to imagine the basic human emotions of jealousy, self consciousness, doubt, unworthiness, fear and hurt that drive the Shenpa. You can spiritually connect with your partner if you realize that you are both caught in the hook; that you are staring into the eyes of someone who, right at the moment is going through the exact same phenomenon as you are. They feel the same punch in the stomach feeling as you, the same fears and doubts. Then you can extend compassion to your partner knowing that you are actually experiencing a state of Oneness as opposed to a duality.

Armed with the tools of slowness of mind, cleansing breaths, filtered and purified speech and a feeling of compassion and Oneness, you can then return to the topic of conversation with a renewed vision. It now becomes amazingly easy to reconcile and raise each other up.

This process takes a lot of practice before you become skilled at effective communication and problem solving, but with patience you will start to see improvements. Those deep grooves will start to lessen and you will form new, healthier patterns and your relationships will begin to improve. Don’t expect to get rid of the Shenpa. It is a part of life and a part of who we are, but we can experience it, and yet not let it hold a power over us. With patience and practice we can tame this pouncing lion.

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