In listening to several of Pema Chödrön’s audiobooks over the holidays (Walking the Walk and Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality, both available here) I have noticed a gentle opening in my mindfulness practice. As I learn about the Tibetan concept of shenpa, I am feeling myself lightening up in my daily practice.
In Getting Unstuck , Pema Chödrön describes the shenpa as the sticky quality of our thoughts, but not the thoughts themselves. She says we can work with the content of the thoughts in therapy but in meditation practice we work with the sticky quality and try to dissolve it. In Walking the Walk, she describes the mind caught in shenpa as the fixed mind. It is biased, inflexible, worked up, stubborn and would have you believe that you are right and others are wrong, so it is blind to others’ views. She says it is the opposite of having an open and spacious mind. I have been searching for a concrete example or some metaphor with which to imagine shenpa, this fixed quality of mind. And as I jotted down notes, I thought about a simple analogy for working with shenpa.
About two months ago we were preparing to bring a small kitten into our home and introduce him to our young dog. I was extremely anxious that the dog’s hunting instinct would take over her ability to obey our verbal commands and that she would attack the kitten. I was also worried that our dog would play with the kitten and handle her too roughly, hurting him that way.
After much research I came upon a technique of slowly introducing the two animals while one remains in a pet carrier or crate. After a few days you allow both animals to interact. You then work with the dog to break its fixed gaze. Over and over, you entice the dog to look at you or come to your side and get a treat. Over and over, you interrupt the dog’s fixed gaze. Through conditioning, the dog begins to associate interacting with you and getting treats as being more rewarding than fixating on (or worse stalking) the kitten. And over time, the dog stops fixating on the kitten and gets to a point that it sees him as just another part of the family (or pack, I suppose). Now or course this does not always work and some dogs’ prey drive is simply too strong to ever safely introduce a kitten or a cat. But fortunately, it worked for us, and we now have a dog who is mildly amused and slightly enamoured with the new kitten but no longer fixates on him.
Perhaps this basic dog training is similar to working with the shenpa. It’s not likely that we humans could convince our loved ones to entice us with sweet words and chocolates or some other treat whenever our minds become fixated. Yet this is what parents do with their toddlers in distracting them from danger. And perhaps we can do this for ourselves – notice when our mind becomes fixed and closed, rigid or righteous, then gently call to ourselves to break the trance and slow the momentum. I would be willing to venture that we do not need the physical reward; that breaking the grip of shenpa is reward in and of itself.
So there is a glimmer of hope. If my dog, who loves nothing more than to chew on sticks and romp in the grass, can learn to drop her fixations, then maybe I can learn to work with my fixed mind as well! And I feel another glimmer of hope when I note that it is not the thoughts that catch us up but the stickiness of the thoughts. I can have my thoughts, and my goodness do I ever! My job is to allow the thoughts to drift by and notice when I get stuck and the thoughts are no longer flowing. Then I know I’m in shenpa territory and I need to find my way back into a flow.