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Dustin LindenSmith

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Pema Chödrön on shenpa and addictions

The Mark Otter-edited Issue #4017 of the Nonduality Highlights contains quite a lengthy selection from a talk by Pema Chödrön, the wonderful Tibetan Buddhist nun and senior student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The excerpt deals mostly with something called shenpa, which is usually translated as attachment, but which she imbues with a meaning related to that which triggers our tendency to close down or withdraw for whatever reason.

She lists many reasons and examples for why we might close down, such as someone saying something insulting to us or our children, whatever. The parts of this passage which resonated so strongly with me relate to addictions, both to drugs and to food and binge eating. She talks about how we all feel this tension or unease about different situations in our life, especially those dealing with reminders of past traumas, and that when we get these feelings of unease, we react to them by trying to remove that unease in the fastest way possible.

I've done that with drugs and with food for years. With drugs for 10 years, and with food for more than 25 years. This constant and habitual drive I have had to dull negative emotions with food or drugs has made me tremendously unhealthy from a physical and mental perspective, and the solution as she sees it is to simply learn how to experience those emotions and then let them pass through you without hanging on to them. When we do that, when we just stop and breathe in and check in with ourselves and let ourselves really feel whatever the emotion is that's trying to make itself felt, then we don't have to fight against it anymore by zoning out with drugs or food or whatever else our addiction is (TV, the internet, sex, whatever).

This is really ringing some bells with me right now, because it also sits directly in line with what Geneen Roth teaches in her books about overcoming emotional or compulsive eating. She teaches that the only way to overcome the urge to overeat compulsively is to face directly whatever it is in our lives, our past, or our emotions that is driving us to escape from the moment by eating. When we do that, and when we do it in a very gentle and friendly and loving way towards ourselves, we will discover that the feelings we're trying to escape from are most likely very ordinary and understandable and justifiable human emotions or reactions to something in our lives, and that if we allow ourselves to actually experience those emotions, that they'll pass on through us and leave us relatively unscathed.

In other words, it's our attachment to the idea that we have to avoid these feelings at all costs which inspires us to overeat or to overindulge in any addictive behaviour we might have. Pema goes on in a similar vein in the selection I mentioned above, and I've copied the most relevant parts of that selection below:
That's why I think this shenpa is really such a helpful teaching. It's the tightening, it's the urge... it's this drive, too. This drive. It really shows you that you have lots of addictions, that we all have addictions. There's this background static of slight unease, or maybe fidgetiness, or restlessness, or boredom. And so, we begin to use things to try to get some kind of relief from that unease.

Something like food, or alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or working, or shopping, or whatever we do, which, perhaps in moderation would be very delightful -like eating, enjoying your food. In fact, in moderation there's this deep appreciation of the taste, of the good fortune to have this in your life. But these things become imbued with an addictive quality because we empower them with the idea that they will bring us comfort. They will remove this unease.

In the Buddhist teachings, it's really not about trying to cast something out but about seeing clearly and fully experiencing the shenpa.

If there's the willingness to see clearly and experience, then the prajna begins to click in. It is just innate in us. Wisdom mind is our birthright. It's in every single living being down to the smallest ant. But human beings have the greatest chance of accessing it.

There's this prajna so then you don't have to get rid of the shenpa. It begins to see the whole chain reaction. To use modern language, there's some wisdom that is based on a fundamental desire for wholeness or healing- which has nothing to do with ego-grasping. It has to do with wanting to connect and live from your basic goodness, your basic openness, your basic lack of prejudice, your basic lack of bias, your basic warmth. Wanting to live from that. It begins to become a stronger force than the shenpa and itself stops the chain reaction.

Those of you who have had, or still have, strong addictions and are working all the time with that urge, with that craving, with that drive to do something self-destructive yet again, you know that there has to be the willingness to fully acknowledge what's happening. Then there is the willingness to refrain from having just one more drink, or refrain from binge eating or whatever it is.

It has to be done in some way that you equate it with loving kindness towards yourself, friendliness and warmth towards yourself, rather than equating it with some kind of straight jacket that you're putting on yourself, because then you get into the struggle.

You do know that if you're alcoholic, or have been alcoholic or are a recovering alcoholic, you do know that you have to stop drinking. In your case, one little sip doesn't quite do it in terms of ending the cycle. There are different degrees to how much you have to refrain. There has to be something, some pattern of habituation of strengthening the ignorance around shenpa and the ignorance that the chain reaction is even happening, the ignorance that you're even scratching, the ignorance that it's spreading all over your body, the ignorance that you're bleeding to death.

You know when addiction gets really strong. My daughter-in-law... at the age of thirty-five, they gave her two months to live from alcohol poisoning, cirrhosis of the liver. She was here last night. She lived. She's sober. It's five years later. But, she had to really hit bottom. And, I'll tell you, she was blown up like a blimp. She was this horrible yellow-green color, and her eyes were bright orange, and she would not stop drinking. I would get her to the hospital and they would drain her fluid - bottles and bottles and bottles of fluid - and soon as they would allow her to go, she'd go home and drink again.

Sometimes people never pull out of it. Why do we do those things? We all do those things to that degree or lesser. Why? It's stupid. But the reason we do it is because we imbue that drink or that scratching in whatever form with comfort. In order to move away from the basic uneasiness, we find comfort in certain things, which in moderation could enhance our life, but they become imbued with addictive quality. Then what could have enhanced our life, or brought delight to our life - like a taste, or a smell, or an activity, or anything - begins to make our life into a nightmare. All we're getting is this short-term symptom relief.

We are willing to sometimes die to keep getting short-term symptom relief. That's what it came down to [with my daughter-in-law], short-term symptom relief even when she took those sips, even though her life was more out of control every day and she was dying. But when she got paralyzed so she couldn't move and they took her child away, then she changed. And she had some friends who were there for her through the whole thing and that was helpful too. For her AA has been a savior. It doesn't work for everyone, but for her it's been a savior.

That's the story of how you are so habituated and the habitual pattern of imbuing poison with comfort. This is the same thing. It doesn't have to be substance abuse. It can be saying mean things. Maybe you never say mean things, but you think them all the time.

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iamom September 29th, 2010
That's fantastic! Thanks for letting me know. I'm really happy to hear that. It was good timing for me, too.

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