Drawing the circle ever bigger: Accepting the unacceptable

Well, I was hoping not to have to write yet about shenpa arising when we get triggered by a political or social issue or a tragic event because I really don’t know for sure how Buddhism treats our reactions to things of this magnitude. Today’s mass murders in a Colorado movie theater ending with at least 12 dead cry out for attention, though, because “guns and violence” is a serious and highly provocative issue in our country.

I suppose this kind of shenpa hook is like anything else: instead of getting swept away by the storyline, we need to become aware of how we are reacting so that we can insert a breath, a pause, into our usual dynamic. Even doing something that small can create helpful space in our minds and conversations with others.

When a gunman mows down folks in a public place, for example, it provokes my habitual knee-jerk reaction around gun control/availability. For the sake of the present discussion, I will say that I support strong gun-control measures and think that something is very wrong in our culture where we continue to tolerate “the routine massacre of our children [as] the price we must pay for our freedom to have guns,” as Adam Gopnick wrote in his New Yorker article today. Personal opinions on guns aside, though, we all know this feeling of being hugely hooked by an event or issue about which we have strong emotions and beliefs.

One thing Zen teacher Cheri Huber suggests is imagining drawing a circle around yourself. Now, it’s easy to draw a circle big enough to include the people and things you like and agree with. But what about someone we dislike? Or a deeply troubling event? Or someone with a diametrically opposed view on, say, ease of gun availability or some other hot-button social issue? Can we draw the circle big enough to include them as well? Our egos will strongly resist doing so. No, I can’t possibly include Uncle Norman who carries a concealed weapon everywhere he goes in case he gets mugged. No, it’s not right that the Boy Scouts don’t permit boys identifying as gay to become or stay members. No, that political candidate has Neanderthal views on women’s access to contraception. There is no end to the things, people, and groups we fear, don’t like, or even hate. However, it takes an enormous amount of physical and emotional energy to resist and hate anything.

“Love anything. Hate anything. The effect you have on the thing you hate might be negligible, the effect on you, monumental,” Huber says. “When we learn to accept everything that comes into our lives, we are free from the pain and suffering of resistance.”

Can I draw a circle of acceptance around the NRA and Uncle Norman? Oh, god, please don’t make me do that. I can’t, I just can’t. But I expend an enormous amount of energy in resisting and hating the reality of the NRA and Uncle Norman’s guns. “Resistance does not work,” says Huber. “We have two choices: #1. We can accept what is. #2. We can resist what is. Results of our choice: #1. None. #2. None, except suffering.”

“If you find something unacceptable, draw a bigger circle of acceptance. Just keep drawing a bigger circle until nothing is excluded,” she says. Well, notice that she didn’t say it would be easy. Sometimes it takes a long time to include something “unacceptable” in our circle. Months. Years, maybe. What we want to do is to watch how things move into or remain outside of our circle of acceptance over time.

I hasten to say that acceptance of the unacceptable does not mean that we become passive, resigned, uncaring, wishy-washy people. Far from it. When we release the resistance to what is — I mean, the NRA exists and operates, whether I like it or not! — we free up the energy it takes to hate or push against, to do something (or not) about the issue. We stop fighting our resistance so that we are more free to work on behalf of peace, LGBTQ rights, and women’s health care with much less draining, emotional reactivity. And if we do not choose to put energy into doing something about an issue, then our acceptance of, rather than resistance to, the current reality of the situation brings us greater peace.

That said, the grief we feel around the loss of life in this gun-related massacre should not be repressed or skipped over. We need to experience and honor the grief in our hearts while withdrawing our attention from the tired old story of how much we hate guns and violence in the US. Unfortunately, we know the story so very well. Maybe this time, though, we could do a new thing: drop the resistance to reality and see how much energy and peace are released for deeper thinking, calmer conversation, and more effective work. May it be so.

PS – I will be pondering and reading about how to deal with shenpa in reaction to social and political issues and writing about it in the future. Drawing a bigger circle is only one thing we can do. There is more.

(Quotes by Cheri Huber are taken from her 1984/1998 book “The Key and the Name of the Key is Willingness.” It is not her best book by a long shot, but I appreciate her take on acceptance, resistance, and change.)

Photo credit: http://www.wma.com/jim_denevan/summary/

“I wish you weren’t so…”

Lest you think that this “Adventures in Shenpa” blog is about griping, let me assure you that it’s about something very different. The aim is to learn to see clearly, to peer through the dramas and difficulties that our minds use to create anything from mild irritation to emotional havoc for ourselves and others.

In working with the concept of shenpa the past few months, I have found that it boils down to one simple thing: something happens or doesn’t happen, and we don’t like it. Another action or the absence of it, we think, would make us quite a bit happier. Examples from everyday life: Your partner demonstrates a habitual behavior. You are annoyed because it is an action that you don’t like.   You wish a family member were more this or less that because you don’t like what s/he is doing or not doing.   You wish all these people in this room were different so that you could be happier in this moment.   You want your job to be more or less of something so that you could be happier.  If it doesn’t have those characteristics, you don’t like it.   You wish it wouldn’t rain so much in Seattle because you don’t like it.   You wish your parent were less this, more that, so that you could be happy.   You wish members of a particular political party would not believe what they believe so that you could be happy, but they do and so you are not.   You wish a certain special someone loved you, but s/he doesn’t, so you are unhappy.  You wish things were different.  You wish they were different.   You wish you were different.

Basically, when we feel the hook of shenpa, it is because we want the world to adjust itself so that we can be happy, and when it doesn’t, which is nearly all the time, we feel unhappy, depressed, annoyed, impatient, unfulfilled, irritated, angry, disappointed, let down… or just vaguely empty. Intellectually, no one expects to be happy all the time. Of course not! We know that. Duh. Get over yourself. It is a fact of life that “you don’t always get what you want.” Grow up. The world doesn’t revolve around you. Get a life. Get real.

Yeah, we know that. Of course. And yet we still get pissed off, depressed, or long-suffering. That person driving too slowly, taking too long, leaving crumbs on the counter? They still bug us. Things aren’t the way we want them to be.

Becoming curious about this tendency rather than swept away offers us a way to step out of the story line (the content) of what is happening and into the process of how it is happening. “What is this unhappiness? This upset? How does it feel in me–in my body? my mind?–and what does that show about how ego is operating?” We want to become so curious that we leave the ego no place to hide. We become honest with ourselves. Not brutally so, no. With kindness and compassion for our human condition.

I thought I’d start to take a look at some of the 59 lojong (“mind-training”) slogans from the Shambhala tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Supposedly, patient practice over time with them helps us see how our egos consistently pull the wool over our eyes about ourselves. We won’t necessarily look at all of them, and I’m not going to move lock-step through the list, checking them off. They will just provide some food for thought, applied to everyday life at home, at work, at school, and in our common life. I hasten to say that I am not a formal student or teacher of Buddhism and that I will inevitably get things wrong here. I am just a person who wants to learn to see more clearly, so I read about these things, meditate, practice, talk about them with others, and muddle through the best I can. I invite you along for the ride.

“Shenpa to the Shoe Department! Shenpa to the Shoe Department!”

One night this spring, my daughter K. and I went shopping for the prom, and she shenpa‘d me in JCPenney’s shoe department. Twice. There were tons, verily, of customers yet only two salespeople who seemed to keep going on their dinner break. We must have been in there over an hour. I didn’t think the shoes K. wanted were so fabulous (though you may beg to differ, see picture) that we needed to wait that long, and my patience had long since begun to unravel. “Let’s go, already. There’s a whole mall full of shoes, K.! It’s silly to wait this long! We’ll find something great elsewhere!”

Shenpa, Mom!”

Okay, okay. It was like being told to “heel.” We ended up getting those shoes after all. Go figure. The “shenpa!‘ admonition really helped, though. I settled right down the second time. 😉  Of course, the real test of patience would have been if the shoes hadn’t fit after all that waiting.

When K. shenpas me (it’s not a verb, but I’ve made it one), my small-self—the voice of ego—almost always protests that the particular incident does not truly qualify for shenpa-ing. Small-self tries to show how the incident under examination is actually excluded from the “impatience” selection criteria because small-self does not like to be found out. That small-self is pretty laughable sometimes. So now, in addition to patience, I am learning how to submit and accept, something at which I am so not good! This ego wants full rein.

Because I want to make my struggles more apparent to my young shenpa partner, I told K. about my ego’s reaction, that is, not wanting to accept her shenpa warnings. She nodded and smiled at this. She then told me that at school she has a tendency to get irritated with people in her small groups who don’t do their work or do it in a way she doesn’t like, and she goes off on them. Since learning about shenpa, she said, she is catching herself before exploding at her fellow students, breathing, and letting the irritation go more often now. Need I tell you how satisfying it was for this mom to hear?

(Photo credit: http://www.jcpenney.com/dotcom/month-long-values/shoes/jacqueline-ferrar-carrie-wedge-sandals/prod.jump?ppId=1da26ff&catId=cat100250191&deptId=dept20000018&selectedLotId=0234124&selectedSKUId=02341240067&navState=navState-:catId-cat100250191:subcatId-:subcatZone-false:N-100250191:Ns-:Nao-0:ps-96:pn-1:Ntt-:Nf-:action-pagination&topDim=null&topDimvalue=null&currentDim=null&currentDimVal=null&searchCount=58&sortType=Featured)

He made lunch for himself and left everything on the counter?

You cleaned up the kitchen so nicely after breakfast. The floor is swept, the counters and table are wiped smooth and clean, the dishes are washed, and the food is put away. You come back a few hours later to find that your partner made himself lunch and left all the sandwich fixings on the counter, the dirty dish and glass in the sink, and two cupboards and one drawer standing open… and he is nowhere to be seen. Do you feel the burn? Are you tightening up? Do you want to close down? Shenpa!

Pema Chödrön says that in situations like these, we feel the hook and wham! We are yanked out of awareness and into the story in our heads. Mine tends to go something like this: “Argh! IJUST cleaned this place up and NOW look at it! He couldn’t have put all this stuff away? If you open it, close it! If you make it dirty, clean it up! Does he think I’m his servant or something? And did he even think to make a sandwich for ME while he was at it? NooooOOOOOoooo!” and other lovely thoughts. The irritation is bad enough, but our expression of it, either inside our heads or out loud, which can feel like a much-needed release, instead tends to exacerbate the unpleasant feelings.

Instead of getting caught in the content of the story–stuff on the counter, not put away, I don’t like when he does that, why do I always have to clean up after everyone else, they’re so self-centered and thoughtless–we swing out of the story about what is happening and become curious about how we are experiencing it. We become present to the hooked feeling and study it, getting to know how it feels and what feeds it. We feel the tightness without doing anything about it, without “scratching the itch.” As we continue to be present to it, we begin to see more clearly rather than get yanked down the road of anger, martyrdom, complaining, and resentment.

Pema says: “We could think of this whole process in terms of four R’s: recognizing the shenparefraining from scratching, relaxing into the underlying urge to scratch, and then resolving to continue to interrupt our habitual patterns for the rest of our lives. What do you do when you don’t do the habitual thing? You’re left with your urge. That’s how you become more in touch with the craving and the wanting to move away. You learn to relax with it. Then you resolve to keep practicing this way. Working with shenpa softens us up. Once we see how we get hooked and how we get swept along by the momentum, there’s no way to be arrogant. The trick is to keep seeing.” Recognize, refrain, relax, and resolve. (Boy, that Pema, huh? She’s pretty good.)

“But what about the dirty kitchen?” you may ask. Well, Pema doesn’t talk about that so much. I think that by learning to see ourselves more clearly, we can see our choices more clearly as well. We could scratch the itch and do what we usually do (fume or complain). We could just clean up the kitchen again, with or without annoyance. We could leave everything exactly where it is. We could talk with our partner about expectations on both sides. But that’s not really Pema’s point. She’s encouraging us to do the more fundamental work of studying ourselves, getting to know intimately what hooks us and how, and putting our efforts into eliminating self-inflicted suffering. Less content, more process. Less what, more how.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/siennapictures/7032537505/)

Drama behind the wheel

Every time we get behind the wheel of a car, we have countless opportunities to “get hooked” by other people’s choices while driving. Too slow! Too fast! He’s swerving! She cut me off! Could you possibly turn any slower? He took the parking spot I wanted! Stop tailgating!  What shade of green would you prefer before going? Did you see her run that red light? Why are you stopping all the way back here? Get out of “my” lane! Oh, SURE you have two or more people in the car in that HOV lane! What, are they lying on the floor?

What all these examples have in common, in addition to demonstrating impatience or intolerance, is the unconscious belief that driving should proceed smoothly and optimally at all times for one’s convenience and peace of mind. Sometimes, we have legitimate concerns that our or other drivers’ safety is endangered, but we still may erupt in comments like these, out loud or in our heads. The impatience or fear can cause us to suffer, often unnecessarily.

But if driving provides countless opportunities for us to “get hooked,” it also provides just as many for us to practice patience and remove ourselves from the center of our own world, to not make it personal.

So much of human reactivity boils down to whether we like something or not or how it affects our own agenda in a single moment of time. You’re driving along on a road with little traffic at a speed that is comfortable, things are all right with the world, and then someone pulls out in front of you from a side street and wants to go, say, even just 5-7 mph slower than you do along the same route. Maybe it’s a day when you just don’t want someone going slower in front of you, or you’re in a bit of a hurry, or have a little impatience in you. Hey, I was really enjoying that driving experience until YOU pulled out and died, slow poke! You couldn’t have waited a couple more seconds for me to pass?

But someone pulling out and driving at a much slower pace than I prefer is just the nature of driving. Someone driving recklessly across five lanes of highway traffic really fast is just in the nature of driving. Basically, these experiences entail someone doing something in a car that I don’t like here and now. I can not like that and let it burn awhile, or I can not like it for that inescapable shenpa moment, see that it’s my small self wanting things to be  “perfect” or “my way,” breathe, and release the irritation, knowing it’s all happening because I unconsciously but mistakenly believe driving should unfold the way I want it to. When we accept what happens, the suffering that is caused by resistance to it diminishes or disappears.

On my way to pick up my daughter at the bus stop recently, I pulled up behind a car at a stop sign, and the driver was talking out the passenger window to a couple of boys, asking for directions. It took quite awhile in car years, where 45 seconds seem like eons, but I could see what was obviously going on, and for once I just waited. No tension, no annoyance or impatience. Nothing but blank, peaceful waiting. Then three cars pulled up behind me, and one driver immediately and repeatedly hit the horn, and the driver ahead of me jumped and roared out from the stop. I started driving again, for a change completely calm and kind of bemused. The weird thing was that I didn’t force myself to be patient–it just happened because I recognized the shenpa when it happened, breathed, and released the impatience.

If it happened once, it could happen again. Really. It could.

(Photo credit: http://collisionmax.com/MaxTrax-Auto-Body-Shop-Blog/bid/63420/Here-He-Comes-Here-Comes-Road-Rager-Aggressive-Drivers)

My Shenpa Partner

This spring, my younger daughter had noticed that I often get very impatient behind the wheel of a car. One day during a time when I was thinking a lot about shenpa, someone was driving painfully slowly in front of me, and I was getting myself bent out of shape about it. I exclaimed impatiently, thus providing my daughter with yet another golden opportunity to criticize me from the back seat. Her tone sounded kinda harsh to me, and I reacted defensively by saying something like, “Don’t be so critical of me all the time, K.!” She backed off. After I dropped my other daughter off at an activity, K. climbed into the front seat for the next leg of our errands trip. As I started driving again, I said, “You know, you’re right about me being impatient, K. I know I’m impatient in some situations, like driving.”

She said, surprised, “Well, thank you, Mom, for saying that!”

“I’ve told you before that I think you’re very observant and insightful, and you are,” I said.  “Thank you, Mom!” Smiling.

Then I said, “It’s something that I’ve been trying to work on recently, but I could use some help, and maybe you could help me. There is something in Tibetan Buddhism called shenpa. I love that word. It’s that moment when something happens or someone says something to you, and you get ‘hooked.’ You have an instant reaction of impatience or hurt or anger or deep sadness or whatever emotion, and the next thing you know, your thoughts have taken you racing down the usual path, and you end up feeling furious, upset, depressed, or bad about yourself.”

“Hmm. That’s very interesting. I know what you mean,” K. said.

“This Buddhist teacher I’ve been reading [Pema Chödrön] says that in the moment of getting hooked, you want to be able to recognize it and then allow just enough space to feel whatever emotion you are feeling in your body, but without getting caught up in all the thoughts in your mind that come as a result,” I said. “And then we have a better chance of stopping all that stuff playing out and feeling so bad. This teacher says that if you have a partner who can gently tell you ‘shenpa‘ in a kind way when they notice you getting hooked, you’re better able to break the habit and bad feelings. I would love to have someone to do that for me. Would you be my partner in helping me become more patient?”

She promptly agreed. Wow, permission to point out some undesirable characteristic in your mother, over and over? What’s not to love? So, I’m going to let her see how I wrestle with impatience over time when she tells me I’m hooked so that she will become aware of this very important concept in Life. I really like the idea of this partnership, but it can be challenging, especially coming from a 16-year-old in my face every day!

The Crappy Floor Factor: Using small irritations to wake up

So, when shenpa hits, what can you do? Pema Chödrön, in an article from this month’s Shambhala Sun, offers us some small but powerful steps to take when we get hooked.

First, she mentions the kleshas, which are the “strong conflicting emotions that spin off and heighten when we get caught by aversion and attraction.” (Here, it might help you to know that in Buddhism, human suffering is attributable to one or more of the Three Poisons: (1) aversion or hatred, (2) attraction, desire, or greed, and (3) delusion or ignorance.) We get hooked, we go through our whole unconscious rigmarole of a reaction, and then maybe we end up judging ourselves unkindly for reacting impatiently or harshly. Result: klesha. We feel bad.

When something happens that we don’t like, and the body tenses and hardens and the mind reacts, Chödrön then encourages us to notice and soften. No judgment, like, “Damn! There I go again!” We should be compassionate toward ourselves, noting what arises, dropping out of the story in our head about what is happening, meeting the moment with gentleness and openness, over and over, throughout the day. We are to ask ourselves, “What’s happening inside?” and not judge what we find but, rather, become curious about it: “It is far more helpful to have as our goal becoming curious about what increases klesha activity and what diminishes it, because this goal is fluid. It is a goal-less exploration that includes our so-called failures. As long as our orientation is toward perfection or success, we will never learn about unconditional friendship with ourselves, nor will we find compassion.” This is how the kleshas begin to diminish, Chödrön says.

Yesterday, I experimented with noticing, softening, and dropping the story in what I think of as the Crappy Floor Factor. My partner has a long-time habit of working in the yard and then walking through the house, leaving bits of leaves, dirt, petals, or grass behind him. He refuses to take off his shoes when he comes in the door, and it doesn’t occur to him to look to see if he’s leaving a mess behind him. As a result, I have become unwholesomely fixated on the state of the floors in the house. When I enter a room, without even thinking I immediately look at the floors, get a hit of shenpa when I see all this crap where I just swept up half an hour before, and fume. I am not a meticulous housekeeper by a long shot, so believe me, I’m not being a perfectionist in reacting this way. We have discussed this situation often over 20+ years of living together, but it somehow doesn’t change.

And it’s not just my partner’s actions that provoke my reaction. Other family members contribute unconsciously to the Crappy Floor Factor as well. In the bathroom, the teenagers leave long hair in the bathtub, on the sink, on the floor. In the entryway and dining room, I find all those little tiny bits of artificial turf that fall out of soccer cleats. In the kitchen, we all contribute to the Factor, with a motley array of things, like cereal flakes, stray nuts and Goldfish crackers that didn’t make it into the mouth when a handful was tossed faceward, bits of lettuce, sawdust, you name it. It’s gotten to the point that when I enter any room, I immediately check out the Factor, and then I “get hooked,” the irritation hits, and the cranky thoughts go tumbling around in my head, sometimes emerging snarkily from my mouth. Trying not to sweat it hasn’t worked. (Okay, okay, we have a communication problem here, but that’s not the point of this post!)

So, yesterday, I spent a little time just noticing, not the crap on the floor but rather my constant tendency to look at the floor upon entering any room… the hit of shenpa… the parts of my body that tense up, other physical sensations arising, what my mind does, and which emotions follow. I dropped the story — “Jeez! Look at all these sticky old deadheaded rhody flowers on the floor!” — and just noticed what was happening. I felt the hardness and irritation, and then I softened… dropping the comments in my head, over and over, with no judgment of the situation, other people, or myself. I drew no conclusions. I just noticed. Kindly.

We’ll see what happens. The goal here is neither to repress nor indulge emotion, but to use it to awaken. Chödrön says that “to acknowledge that we are doing all these things is in itself an enormous step; it is reversing a fundamental, crippling ignorance.” (Wow.) And we are to do all this with the utmost gentleness and compassion for ourselves.

So, I invite you to notice. Notice when you feel that shenpa hit during the next hour about a small thing, but one that you experience almost every day — whatever is your equivalent of the Crappy Floor Factor. Notice the tension, the hardening in your body and mind. Stop. Take a conscious breath or two with no thoughts. Soften. Check out your emotions. Soften again. Relinquish the story in your head. Keep breathing. Get curious. Above all, be kind to yourself.

(Photo credit: http://grubbylittlefaces.blogspot.com/2012/06/how-to-entertain-3-children-under-5-dry.html)