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.



The sanity we are born with

I’m reading The Sanity We Are Born With: A Buddhist Approach to Psychology by Chögyam Trungpa. In my view, Trunga is a genius and his genius lays in understanding human being. The incisiveness, freshness and audacity of his insights is extraordinary, and it’s communicated in language the great prose stylists of literature would envy.

When he first arrived in the West in 1959 aged 20 after fleeing Tibet, Trungpa saw that Buddhist thought and practice would come to the West through psychology, and he had an enduring commitment for the rest of his relatively short life to the meeting of Eastern meditation practice and the Western psychological paradigm.

I’m going to be sharing some of his insights, and today I kick off the series with the following gem, one that disrupts the standard Western view of health professionals at a single stroke.

“The basic work of health professionals in general, and of psychotherapists in particular, is to become full human beings and to inspire full human-beingness in other people who feel starved about their lives.” (p137)

That is, the basic work is not the so-called patient, it’s the health professional themselves.


The bus driver

This morning I created the intention of waking up in every moment. I was on a bus in the city, the only passenger, when the bus driver started making annoyed comments about pedestrians not crossing the road at the right place, and would-be passengers not signalling him clearly, and so on.

I didn’t make any response but started thinking about him instead and trying to see more clearly what he looked like.

A bit later, I felt OK to ask him a question about how he liked the new bus route. “It’s better for us drivers,” he said, and we chatted for a while. He didn’t quite give up being annoyed at the people we passed, but it lessened. A few minutes later he started talking about his daughter and how she was a teacher, and then out of the blue, he said she’d recently had a nervous breakdown. After that, there was no barrier. He talked about his worries for her, and about he and his wife, and so on. I just listened mostly.

At the end of our trip together, I went up close to him to get off and saw he had the face of a kindly Santa Claus. I realised that if I’d stuck with the initial impression created by his comments about pedestrians, I’d never have seen him at all.


Image: Detail of Berlin Buddha by Zhang Huan, photo from 2014 installation at Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart, Australia

The teachings of Buddha in one sentence

“The Buddha once said that the core message of all his teachings could be summed up in one sentence. On the off chance that that is so, it might not be a bad idea to commit that sentence to memory. You never know when it might come in handy, when it might make sense to you, even though it didn’t the moment before. That sentence is: ‘Nothing is to be clung to as I, me, or mine.’ In other words, NO ATTACHMENTS – especially to fixed ideas of yourself and who you are.”

~ from Arriving at your own Door by Jon Kabat-Zinn


The teachings of Buddha in three words

“Shortly after the Buddha was enlightened, there’s a story that he was walking down the road, met some people who saw him and he was in a very happy state.

He was supposed to have been a very handsome prince before his going off to be a monk. So here’s this handsome prince and now wearing golden robes and recently enlightened and … very happy and very special from all accounts.

And they saw him and they said, ‘You seem very special. What are you? Are you some kind of an angel or a deva? You seem inhuman.’

‘No,’ he said.

‘Well, are you some kind of a god then?’


‘Are you some kind of a wizard or a magician?’


‘Well, are you a man?’


‘Then what are you?’

And he answered, ‘I am awake.'”

~ as told by Jack Kornfield in the audiobook, The Power of Meditation


When you suspect your life depends on it

“Only if you suspect that your life does indeed depend on your practice will you have sufficient energy and motivation to wake up earlier than you normally would so you can have some uninterrupted time for yourself, a time for just being, a time outside of time – or to make a time for formal practice at some other hour of the day that works better for you; and to practice even on days when you have a lot going on and don’t feel like it.”

~ From Arriving at your own Door by Jon Kabat-Zinn


You do not have to look for God

“There is a Buddhist teaching that might seem strange to you. This is the teaching of aimlessness (apranihita in Sanskrit). Aimlessness means not setting an object or goal in front of you and running after it. That is exactly what everybody does. We want this, we want that, and as long as we haven’t got it, we think happiness will be impossible.

We must bring about a revolution in our thinking: we must stop. We must do as the flower does. The flower is aware of the fact that it contains everything within it, the whole cosmos, and it does not try to become something else. It is the same for you. You have God within you, so you do not have to look for God.”

~ From Your True Home by Thich Nhat Hanh