Scratching the itch

I wanted to view the three months of comp preparation as if it were a spiritual retreat and so it was. I didn’t have to try too hard to make the leap. Just as on a spiritual retreat, everyday life recedes, as well as some of the sleep-walking involved in that mode. Start messing around with eating patterns, new levels of physical and mental exertion and soon everyone begins coming face-to-face with themselves.

Many days, I walked to the gym, the path dark and cold at 6am, and to keep myself company I’d listen to one of my favourite Buddhist audiobooks by the wonderful nun, Pema Chödrön. The teaching that had the biggest impact on me during this time is shenpa.

Shenpa is a Tibetan word that can be (poorly) translated as “attachment”. Pema says it’s much better to translate it as “being hooked” as it gives a more vivid and accurate picture of this experience that is common to all human beings.

Shenpa is the involuntary reaction – the tightening, the contraction, the itch – that occurs when something hooks us. It could be a look, a word, an absence of a word, a thought, and boom we’re hooked. What normally happens is that we then scratch the itch. We scratch using one of our habitual ways of scratching; Buddhist thought proposes three of them: we numb out, we crave or we use aggression (against others or ourselves).

My habitual ways of scratching are numbing out and blaming myself (an example of aggression towards myself). During comp preparation, I also saw I use spending money as a way of scratching; something about the handing over of money lessens the itch for a fleeting moment. With my newly shenpa-attuned eyes, I could also see many examples in my team members of the different styles of scratching.

Addictions of all kinds – food, alcohol, drugs, blame, criticism, gambling, and thousands more – are examples of shenpas.

Of course, each time we scratch the itch we make the shenpa stronger. There’s a momentary lessening of the original discomfort, the original unpleasantness or unsatisfactoriness we were trying to get away from, but then the itch returns stronger and more insistent.

What is there to do? Pema says we can train ourselves to stay with the itch instead of scratching and trying to get away. We can train our nervous systems to be with the discomfort or unsatisactoriness, while at the same time being gentle and friendly towards ourselves and our inclination to flee, to scratch. This is essentially what sitting or walking meditation is doing: training one in staying.

This is the training within the training that I’ve taken on during this comp preparation period and that I want to share with everyone.

To read more about shenpa and Pema’s wonderful teachings, I recommend starting with her audiobook, Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality. With her lovely, easy voice, she’s at her best in audiobook form.

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