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 shenpa, refraining 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/)