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/)

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)