Diffusing The Power Of Shenpa

Indeed

Yesterday I wrote about learning to deflect when something or someone triggers me to act in ways that run counter to what is healthy for me. And then, in a wonderful act of serendipity as I was doing homework for the Midlife Mindfulness class I attend, I discovered that our topic completely ties in with the work I did yesterday in therapy and then in my blog post from last night. Talk about the Universe wanting me to succeed! Everything is lining right up.

This meeting’s focus was on the concept of shenpa, which Pema Chodron, world-renowned Buddhist nun, describes as “the hook.” The hook is what I would call a trigger; it’s the sound, the person, the scent, the comment, the situation, the whatever, that sets you off into a negative pattern of self-censure, jealousy, blame, anger, or frustration, which leads you to actions or words that may seem to comfort you in the moment but that ultimately lead you away from peace rather than towards it. I feel this is my life in a nutshell. I grew up in a highly reactive household, so I learned to be reactive to everything. Because of this, I have long admired people who seem to roll with things, who accept the reality of the situation without an emotional meltdown. I have not known many people like this, though, so I am certain that reacting to shenpa is common for most of us.

The experience of shenpa immediately removes us from the present moment and sends us into a spiral of destructive thoughts and behaviors. The way I most often experience shenpa in my life is through my verbal outbursts or my desire to escape a situation that troubles me. Both are an overreaction, usually as a result of a comment or action taken by another person. Instead of quietly sitting for a moment with the thing that has hooked me and deciding how or even if it requires reaction from me, I am off and running and the hook sets. So, this is my next big challenge: I need to recognize the hook before taking the bait. Pema Chodron says the best way to stop this cycle is through meditation because it is only by observing our thoughts that we are able to change them and our actions around them. Through meditation, we slowly gain control of the monkey mind that will make off with us if we don’t see its little game.

I am setting my alarm for 6:20 tomorrow morning so I can get in ten minutes of meditation before I begin my day. Ten minutes doesn’t sound like much until you have to make sitting still with yourself and chasing away distractions a priority. It’s more difficult than you might imagine. I was thinking I can still use the Wonder Woman golden wrist cuffs, which I wrote about yesterday, to deflect what triggers me. I can still cross my arms in defiance of the shenpa that appear. And then I can use my meditation skills to stay present, experience my discomfort, and then either let it go or react calmly from a place of peace in the present moment. I am already better at putting distance between myself and many of the people and stimuli that trigger me. I am also better at seeing where things are going, even if I can’t always find the brakes. I’m heading in the right direction.

I’m grateful for the small things in life that line up for me when I am on the right path. I suspect, though, that it is less about messages lining up than about my openness to seeing them as they fall in my lap.

Treat Your Thoughts Like Clouds

Art credit to @phoebenewyork, photo by Elizabeth Schoettle

A friend posted this artwork to her Instagram this morning. This art piece sums up what I am working to achieve for myself through therapy and meditation. I strive to get to a place where I am able to put space between my thoughts about reality and reality itself. The thing about being a thought-filled introvert is that I spend a lot of time in my brain. My brain, unfortunately, was wired from a young age to view pretty much anything having to do with my appearance, my personality, my choices, and my desires negatively. I am working hard to acknowledge that my thoughts can be like a funhouse mirror, distorting reality and leaving me feeling horrible about myself without sufficient evidence to back up that view. So, the idea of treating my thoughts as clouds, recognizing that they come and go and take shape and lose shape because they are fluid and not at all concrete, is genius.

Like many people, for most of my life I have let my thoughts run away with me without understanding I can control them. When a negative or fearful or self-defeating thought pops into my head, what happens to it depends on my reaction to it. Say I look into a mirror and think, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you look like hell,” I have a choice how I react to that thought. I can let that thought define me and spend the rest of my day self-conscious and sad, with that thought gaining more weight and getting heavier the more I pay attention to it, so that by the end of the day that cloud says, “Your best days are over. You should just go crawl in a hole where no one has to look at you.” I do have another option, though, which is to do some cloud busting. I can reply to that funhouse thought with a hearty “No one believes that, and neither should you,” and move on with my day unencumbered by that knee-jerk, knuckle-headed self talk.

My attitude towards my thoughts creates the difference between a quiet, sunny day with light cirrus clouds and a tumultuous, dark day punctuated by growing cumulonimbus storm clouds. So my task is to put some air space between myself and my thought clouds and to accept that my thoughts don’t always know what they are saying. Many times my thoughts are way off base. The faster I am able to acknowledge that my negative thoughts are just thoughts and not necessarily reflective of reality, the better job I can do clearing them from my head and making room for better thoughts, creative thoughts, thoughts filled with self-love.

Eventually, I hope to become a more effective cloud buster. I would love to be able to set my thought griefcase down and work on sunnier self-reflections.

Grab Your Monkey Mind By The Tail

Look, Ma! I’m on top of the world!

“Worrying is using your imagination to create something you don’t want.” ~Abraham Hicks

A few months ago, I joined a women’s midlife mindfulness and meditation group in my neighborhood. I had been meaning to get into meditation to rein in my monkey mind for at least the past 8 years and had even started practicing a few times, but I never stuck with it. When I saw the post on our local Facebook page, it was a sign. Now there would be some accountability. Even if I didn’t become a master at meditation, I reasoned, I might acquire more control over my thoughts and keep them from running away from me unnecessarily.

Last night our group met in the shade outside our local community center and discussed the “Don’t-Know Mind.” The don’t-know mind, I learned, is a central concern of Korean Zen, and it’s a representation of our enlightened mind before preconceived ideas, thoughts, judgments, and opinions create needless anxiety and suffering in our lives. Many of us spend our entire lives borrowing trouble that doesn’t yet exist. You have your negative life experiences and memories of bad news and you apply them to events that haven’t occurred yet. It happens all the time, and it’s a waste of precious life energy because we can’t possibly know how things are going to work out before they occur. We humans are not as all-knowing as we like to think we are. How many times have you imagined the worst only to later live a completely or mostly seamless experience? How much time have you wasted catastrophizing for nothing?

I can recount dozens of times I have borrowed trouble when I had no reason to believe an event would end badly. It happened last night. My sons decided yesterday to climb Mt. Bierstadt, one of the 53 peaks in Colorado over 14k feet. This is a well-traveled hike with a well-marked ascent. It is one of the easiest of these climbs. Hordes of people climb this mountain every day in the summer, and you rarely hear anything about it other than the trail was too busy. Still, my 18 and 20 year old sons would be leaving before dawn with a friend, traveling up the interstate into the mountains on little sleep to ascend to 14k feet alone for the first time. Their momma bear was anxious. Although I fell asleep quickly, I woke up with my mind racing and imagining the worst. I pulled out the don’t-know mindset.

You don’t know what will happen tomorrow. You don’t know that there is any reason for concern. What if nothing bad happens? What if there is no traffic at all and they arrive safely? What if they packed the perfect amount of snacks, water, warm clothing, and safety gear? What if all that happens is that they make it to the top to view a cloudless Colorado morning with 360-degree breathtaking views? What if they make a memory together they will cherish forever? What if this gives them the confidence to climb other mountains, both physical and mental? What if they arrive home, beaming with accomplishment, and share photos from their adventure? You don’t know.

I took a few deep breaths, relaxed into the mattress, and fell back asleep, confident that the likelihood things would work out was far greater than the likelihood they would not. I slept so well I didn’t hear them getting ready and I didn’t wake up in time to say goodbye to them. When I finally awoke at 7:10, they were long gone. And when I checked my phone I noticed Joe had already sent a photo of them safely at the trailhead ready to begin their upward journey.

I think the trick is to grab your monkey mind’s tail as soon as you notice it. Once you have it in your grasp, tell that monkey to back off because it doesn’t know what it thinks it knows. The more often you catch that damn monkey, the more practice you have stopping its useless chatter. Eventually, you realize there is no benefit in determining an outcome you don’t want to have and likely won’t experience. You begin find stillness, peace, and positivity can fill the space in your head and give the monkey no room for running and jumping and bouncing around. I’m not there yet, but my monkey catching skills are improving.

The friends you meet along the way

Putting A Lid On My Monkey Barrel

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Bowls so full they almost look solid

(Snapped this photo quickly on my way out of my first Buddhist meditation class tonight. It’s not an impressive photo or anything, but I was drawn to these glass offering bowls from the moment I saw them. How did they fill them so precisely? They remind me a bit of the offering candles in the Catholic church we attended while I was growing up. I’m not sure if the intentions are the same behind both, but I find it intriguing where different traditions intersect.)

The idea of physically attending meditation classes, rather than attempting to learn meditation solely through an iPhone app I bought, came to me through my incredible drum instructor, who also happens to be a Buddhist monk. He is a calm, centered person who listens intently, thinks before he speaks, and is a perfect antidote to my nervous personality. He has talked to me about how mindfulness can help me get into a better mental state for my drumming, and I certainly could use any help I can get. But, beyond that, I noticed recently that I have been letting my mind run away with me too often. It’s embarrassing what the lawless monkeys in my head will get into if I leave them unattended.

Before Christmas, I was speaking with my father about world religion and he said, “Buddha is good for personal improvement, but I don’t need it.” While I appreciate his self-assurance about not needing help with personal improvement, I don’t have that same certitude. I openly admit that my head is a mess in need of a maid. If I want to overcome negativity and increase happiness, if I want to foster the mental fortitude for writing a book, then I need to rein in those damn monkeys and harness their energy for later use. Given how active they’ve been lately, this may prove a harder task than I imagined. And given that I was also born in the Year of the Monkey, perhaps I was doomed from the start?

Still, hope springs eternal so Steve and I drove to the Kadampa Meditation Center downtown where tonight’s theme at the beginner’s class was New Year, New You. Ruth first spoke a bit about New Year’s Resolutions and how people (myself included) think that by changing external things in our lives, like getting a new job, finding a significant other, or getting fit, for example, we will find happiness. She then burst our bubble by telling us something we probably already knew…happiness only comes from within. So, all our work running around trying to establish new habits or make changes to create a better sense of self are more or less worthless if we don’t change our minds at the same time. We can create the illusion of happiness externally but, the minute something derails, our minds will still freak out and remind us we aren’t really happy after all.

After speaking to us for a while about meditations and Buddhist teachings, she guided us through a short meditation. I have meditated before, mostly for short periods of time, and I’ve some experience with conscious breathing courtesy of yoga practice, so I didn’t find the exercise altogether impossible. I was able to redirect the monkeys that began jumping around when my legs got twitchy and even shut up the ones that started chattering when my phone vibrated in my bag courtesy of an unexpected, ill-timed Facetime call from my sister, although Steve did mention he could hear my yoga breathing get louder during that episode. Hey…wait a minute. He shouldn’t have been focusing on my breathing. He was supposed to be paying attention to his own breath and keeping his mind on his meditation. Hmmmmm….guess it’s a good thing we both attended this class.

Before we left, I took a moment to notice where my mind was. I felt relaxed, focused, and confident, which is the way I usually feel after a yoga class. I thoroughly enjoyed my evening and learned a thing or two as well. I’m ready to train my mind not to fly off the handle or to become overwhelmed by negative thoughts. I think I’ve got the timing right on this journey too. If the current media reporting is any indication, this country is on the precipice of major upheaval. I’d best begin taking lots of meditation classes and getting a lid on my monkeys. 2017 may be a bumpy ride.