Image © Michael S. Wertz
Image © Michael S. Wertz

In Tibetan there is a word that points to the root cause of aggression, the root cause also of craving. It points to a familiar experience that is at the root of all conflict, all cruelty, oppression, and greed. This word is shenpa. The usual translation is “attachment,” but this doesn’t adequately express the full meaning. I think of shenpa as “getting hooked.” Another definition, used by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, is the “charge”—the charge behind our thoughts and words and actions, the charge behind “like” and “don’t like.” Here’s an everyday example: Someone criticizes you. She criticizes your work or your appearance or your child. In moments like that, what is it you feel? It has a familiar taste, a familiar smell. Once you begin to notice it, you feel like this experience has been happening forever. That sticky feeling is shenpa. And it comes along with a very seductive urge to do something. Somebody says a harsh word and immediately you can feel a shift. There’s a tightening that rapidly spirals into mentally blaming this person, or wanting revenge, or blaming yourself. Then you speak or act. The charge behind the tightening, behind the urge, behind the story line or action is shenpa.

You can actually feel shenpa happening. It’s a sensation that you can easily recognize. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. Someone looks at us in a certain way, or we hear a certain song, or walk into a certain room, and boom—we’re hooked. It’s a quality of experience that’s not easy to describe but that everyone knows well.

Now, if you catch shenpa early enough, it’s very workable. You can acknowledge that it’s happening and abide with the experience of being triggered, the experience of urge, the experience of wanting to move. It’s like experiencing the yearning to scratch an itch, and generally we find it irresistible. Nevertheless, we can practice patience with that fidgety feeling and hold our seat.

In these moments, we can contact the underlying insecurity of the human experience, the insecurity that is inherent in a changing, shifting world. As long as we are habituated to needing something to hold on to, we will always feel this background rumble of slight unease or restlessness. We want some relief from the unease, so when shenpa arises we go on automatic pilot: without a pause, we follow the urge and get swept away.

Mostly we don’t catch shenpa at an early stage. We don’t catch the tightening until we’ve already indulged the urge to scratch our itch in some habitual way. In fact, unless we equate not acting out with friendliness toward ourselves, this refraining can feel like putting on a straitjacket, and we struggle against it.

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