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.

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