---“Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali
Throughout our day we can pause, take a break from our usual thoughts, and wake up to the magic and vastness of the world around us. Pema Chödrön says this easy and spacious type of mindfulness practice is the most important thing we can do with our lives.
One of my favorite subjects of contemplation is this question: “Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” You know you will die, but you really don’t know how long you have to wake up from the cocoon of your habitual patterns. You don’t know how much time you have left to fulfill the potential of your precious human birth. Given this, what is the most important thing?
Every day of your life, every morning of your life, you could ask yourself, “As I go into this day, what is the most important thing? What is the best use of this day?” At my age, it’s kind of scary when I go to bed at night and I look back at the day, and it seems like it passed in the snap of a finger. That was a whole day? What did I do with it? Did I move any closer to being more compassionate, loving, and caring—to being fully awake? Is my mind more open? What did I actually do? I feel how little time there is and how important it is how we spend our time.
What is the best use of each day of our lives? In one very short day, each of us could become more sane, more compassionate, more tender, more in touch with the dream-like quality of reality. Or we could bury all these qualities more deeply and get more in touch with solid mind, retreating more into our own cocoon.
Every time a habitual pattern gets strong, every time we feel caught up or on automatic pilot, we could see it as an opportunity to burn up negative karma. Rather than as a problem, we could see it as our karma ripening, which gives us an opportunity to burn up karma, or at least weaken our karmic propensities. But that’s hard to do. When we realize that we are hooked, that we’re on automatic pilot, what do we do next? That is a central question for the practitioner.
One of the most effective means for working with that moment when we see the gathering storm of our habitual tendencies is the practice of pausing, or creating a gap. We can stop and take three conscious breaths, and the world has a chance to open up to us in that gap. We can allow space into our state of mind.
Before I talk more about consciously pausing or creating a gap, it might be helpful to appreciate the gap that already exists in our environment. Awakened mind exists in our surroundings—in the air and the wind, in the sea, in the land, in the animals—but how often are we actually touching in with it? Are we poking our heads out of our cocoons long enough to actually taste it, experience it, let it shift something in us, let it penetrate our conventional way of looking at things?
If you take some time to formally practice meditation, perhaps in the early morning, there is a lot of silence and space. Meditation practice itself is a way to create gaps. Every time you realize you are thinking and you let your thoughts go, you are creating a gap. Every time the breath goes out, you are creating a gap. You may not always experience it that way, but the basic meditation instruction is designed to be full of gaps. If you don’t fill up your practice time with your discursive mind, with your worrying and obsessing and all that kind of thing, you have time to experience the blessing of your surroundings. You can just sit there quietly. Then maybe silence will dawn on you, and the sacredness of the space will penetrate.
Or maybe not. Maybe you are already caught up in the work you have to do that day, the projects you haven’t finished from the day before. Maybe you worry about something that has to be done, or hasn’t been done, or a letter that you just received. Maybe you are caught up in busy mind, caught up in hesitation or fear, depression or discouragement. In other words, you’ve gone into your cocoon.
For all of us, the experience of our entanglement differs from day to day. Nevertheless, if you connect with the blessings of your surroundings—the stillness, the magic, and the power—maybe that feeling can stay with you and you can go into your day with it. Whatever it is you are doing, the magic, the sacredness, the expansiveness, the stillness, stays with you. When you are in touch with that larger environment, it can cut through your cocoon mentality.
On the other hand, I know from personal experience how strong the habitual mind is. The discursive mind, the busy, worried, caught-up, spaced-out mind, is powerful. That’s all the more reason to do the most important thing—to realize what a strong opportunity every day is, and how easy it is to waste it. If you don’t allow your mind to open and to connect with where you are, with the immediacy of your experience, you could easily become completely submerged. You could be completely caught up and distracted by the details of your life, from the moment you get up in the morning until you fall asleep at night.
You get so caught up in the content of your life, the minutiae that make up a day, so self-absorbed in the big project you have to do, that the blessings, the magic, the stillness, and the vastness escape you. You never emerge from your cocoon, except for when there’s a noise that’s so loud you can’t help but notice it, or something shocks you, or captures your eye. Then for a moment you stick your head out and realize, Wow! Look at that sky! Look at that squirrel! Look at that person!
The great fourteenth-century Tibetan teacher Longchenpa talked about our useless and meaningless focus on the details, getting so caught up we don’t see what is in front of our nose. He said that this useless focus extends moment by moment into a continuum, and days, months, and even whole lives go by. Do you spend your whole time just thinking about things, distracting yourself with your own mind, completely lost in thought? I know this habit so well myself. It is the human predicament. It is what the Buddha recognized and what all the living teachers since then have recognized. This is what we are up against.
“Yes, but…,” we say. Yes, but I have a job to do, there is a deadline, there is an endless amount of e-mail I have to deal with, I have cooking and cleaning and errands. How are we supposed to juggle all that we have to do in a day, in a week, in a month, without missing our precious opportunity to experience who we really are? Not only do we have a precious human life, but that precious human life is made up of precious human days, and those precious human days are made up of precious human moments. How we spend them is really important. Yes, we do have jobs to do; we don’t just sit around meditating all day, even at a retreat center. We have the real nitty-gritty of relationships—how we live together, how we rub up against each other. Going off by ourselves, getting away from the people we think are distracting us, won’t solve everything. Part of our karma, part of our dilemma, is learning to work with the feelings that relationships bring up. They provide opportunities to do the most important thing too.
If you have spent the morning lost in thought worrying about what you have to do in the afternoon, already working on it in every little gap you can find, you have wasted a lot of opportunities, and it’s not even lunchtime yet. But if the morning has been characterized by at least some spaciousness, some openness in your mind and heart, some gap in your usual way of getting caught up, sooner or later that is going to start to permeate the rest of your day.
If you haven’t become accustomed to the experience of openness, if you haven’t got any taste of it, then there is no way the afternoon is going to be influenced by it. On the other hand, if you’ve given openness a chance, it doesn’t matter whether you are meditating, working at the computer, or fixing a meal, the magic will be there for you, permeating your life.
As I said, our habits are strong, so a certain discipline is required to step outside our cocoon and receive the magic of our surroundings. The pause practice—the practice of taking three conscious breaths at any moment when we notice that we are stuck—is a simple but powerful practice that each of us can do at any given moment.
Pause practice can transform each day of your life. It creates an open doorway to the sacredness of the place in which you find yourself. The vastness, stillness, and magic of the place will dawn upon you, if you let your mind relax and drop for just a few breaths the storyline you are working so hard to maintain. If you pause just long enough, you can reconnect with exactly where you are, with the immediacy of your experience.
When you are waking up in the morning and you aren’t even out of bed yet, even if you are running late, you could just look out and drop the storyline and take three conscious breaths. Just be where you are! When you are washing up, or making your coffee or tea, or brushing your teeth, just create a gap in your discursive mind. Take three conscious breaths. Just pause. Let it be a contrast to being all caught up. Let it be like popping a bubble. Let it be just a moment in time, and then go on.
You are on your way to whatever you need to do for the day. Maybe you are in your car, or on the bus, or standing in line. But you can still create that gap by taking three conscious breaths and being right there with the immediacy of your experience, right there with whatever you are seeing, with whatever you are doing, with whatever you are feeling.
Another powerful way to do pause practice is simply to listen for a moment. Instead of sight being the predominant sense perception, let sound, hearing, be the predominant sense perception. It’s a very powerful way to cut through our conventional way of looking at the world. In any moment, you can just stop and listen intently. It doesn’t matter what particular sound you hear; you simply create a gap by listening intently.
In any moment you could just listen. In any moment, you could put your full attention on the immediacy of your experience. You could look at your hand resting on your leg, or feel your bottom sitting on the cushion or on the chair. You could just be here. Instead of being not here, instead of being absorbed in thinking, planning, and worrying, instead of being caught up in the cocoon, cut off from your sense perceptions, cut off from the power and magic of the moment, you could be here. When you go out for a walk, pause frequently—stop and listen. Stop and take three conscious breaths. How precisely you create the gap doesn’t really matter. Just find a way to punctuate your life with these thought-free moments. They don’t have to be thought-free minutes even, they can be no more than one breath, one second. Punctuate, create gaps. As soon as you do, you realize how big the sky is, how big your mind is.
When you are working, it’s so easy to become consumed, particularly by computers. They have a way of hypnotizing you, but you could have a timer on your computer that reminds you to create a gap. No matter how engrossing your work is, no matter how much it is sweeping you up, just keep pausing, keep allowing for a gap. When you get hooked by your habit patterns, don’t see it as a big problem; allow for a gap.
When you are completely wound up about something and you pause, your natural intelligence clicks in and you have a sense of the right thing to do. This is part of the magic: our own natural intelligence is always there to inform us, as long as we allow a gap. As long as we are on automatic pilot, dictated to by our minds and our emotions, there is no intelligence. It is a rat race. Whether we are at a retreat center or on Wall Street, it becomes the busiest, most entangled place in the world.
Pause, connect with the immediacy of your experience, connect with the blessings; liberate yourself from the cocoon of self-involvement, talking to yourself all of the time, completely obsessing. Allow a gap, gap, gap. Just do it over and over and over; allow yourself the space to realize where you are. Realize how big your mind is; realize how big the space is, that it has never gone away, but that you have been ignoring it.
Find a way to slow down. Find a way to relax. Find a way to relax your mind and do it often, very, very often, throughout the day continuously, not just when you are hooked but all the time. At its root, being caught up in discursive thought, continually self-involved with discursive plans, worries, and so forth, is attachment to ourselves. It is the surface manifestation of ego-clinging.
So, what is the most important thing to do with each day? With each morning, each afternoon, each evening? It is to leave a gap. It doesn’t matter whether you are practicing meditation or working, there is an underlying continuity. These gaps, these punctuations, are like poking holes in the clouds, poking holes in the cocoon. And these gaps can extend so that they can permeate your entire life, so that the continuity is no longer the continuity of discursive thought but rather one continual gap.
But before we get carried away by the idea of continual gap, let’s be realistic about where we actually are. We must first remind ourselves what the most important thing is. Then we have to learn how to balance that with the fact that we have jobs to do, which can cause us to become submerged in the details of our lives and caught in the cocoon of our patterns all day long. So find ways to create the gap frequently, often, continuously. In that way, you allow yourself the space to connect with the sky and the ocean and the birds and the land and with the blessing of the sacred world. Give yourself the chance to come out of your cocoon.
This teaching is based on a talk given to the monks and nuns at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where Pema Chödrön is resident acharya (senior teacher). It has been adapted for a lay audience.
Waking Up to Your World
By Pema Chödrön (from the Shambhala Sun Website)
Waking Up to Your World, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, September 2008.
---Drawing by Trapdoor Studio
Shenpa is the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down. We get hooked in that moment of tightening when we reach for relief. To get unhooked we begin by recognizing that moment of unease and learn to relax in that moment.
You're trying to make a point with a coworker or your partner. At one moment her face is open and she's listening, and at the next, her eyes cloud over or her jaw tenses. What is it that you're seeing?
Someone criticizes you. They criticize your work or your appearance or your child. At moments like that, what is it you feel? It has a familiar taste in your mouth, it has a familiar smell. Once you begin to notice it, you feel like this experience has been happening forever.
The Tibetan word for this is shenpa. It is usually translated "attachment," but a more descriptive translation might be "hooked." When shenpa hooks us, we're likely to get stuck. We could call shenpa "that sticky feeling." It's an everyday experience. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That's the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.
Remember the fairy tale in which toads hop out of the princess's mouth whenever she starts to say mean words? That's how being hooked can feel. Yet we don't stop—we can't stop—because we're in the habit of associating whatever we're doing with relief from our own discomfort. This is the shenpa syndrome. The word "attachment" doesn't quite translate what's happening. It's a quality of experience that's not easy to describe but which everyone knows well. Shenpa is usually involuntary and it gets right to the root of why we suffer.
Someone looks at us in a certain way, or we hear a certain song, we smell a certain smell, we walk into a certain room and boom. The feeling has nothing to do with the present, and nevertheless, there it is. When we were practicing recognizing shenpa at Gampo Abbey, we discovered that some of us could feel it even when a particular person simply sat down next to us at the dining table.
Shenpa thrives on the underlying insecurity of living in a world that is always changing. We experience this insecurity as a background of slight unease or restlessness. We all want some kind of relief from that unease, so we turn to what we enjoy—food, alcohol, drugs, sex, work or shopping. In moderation what we enjoy might be very delightful. We can appreciate its taste and its presence in our life. But when we empower it with the idea that it will bring us comfort, that it will remove our unease, we get hooked.
So we could also call shenpa "the urge"—the urge to smoke that cigarette, to overeat, to have another drink, to indulge our addiction whatever it is. Sometimes shenpa is so strong that we're willing to die getting this short-term symptomatic relief. The momentum behind the urge is so strong that we never pull out of the habitual pattern of turning to poison for comfort. It doesn't necessarily have to involve a substance; it can be saying mean things, or approaching everything with a critical mind. That's a major hook. Something triggers an old pattern we'd rather not feel, and we tighten up and hook into criticizing or complaining. It gives us a puffed-up satisfaction and a feeling of control that provides short-term relief from uneasiness.
Those of us with strong addictions know that working with habitual patterns begins with the willingness to fully acknowledge our urge, and then the willingness not to act on it. This business of not acting out is called refraining. Traditionally it's called renunciation. What we renounce or refrain from isn't food, sex, work or relationships per se. We renounce and refrain from the shenpa. When we talk about refraining from the shenpa, we're not talking about trying to cast it out; we're talking about trying to see the shenpa clearly and experiencing it. If we can see shenpa just as we're starting to close down, when we feel the tightening, there's the possibility of catching the urge to do the habitual thing, and not doing it.
Without meditation practice, this is almost impossible to do. Generally speaking, we don't catch the tightening until we've indulged the urge to scratch our itch in some habitual way. And unless we equate refraining with loving-kindness and friendliness towards ourselves, refraining feels like putting on a straitjacket. We struggle against it. The Tibetan word for renunciation is shenlok, which means turning shenpa upside-down, shaking it up. When we feel the tightening, somehow we have to know how to open up the space without getting hooked into our habitual pattern.
In practicing with shenpa, first we try to recognize it. The best place to do this is on the meditation cushion. Sitting practice teaches us how to open and relax to whatever arises, without picking and choosing. It teaches us to experience the uneasiness and the urge fully, and to interrupt the momentum that usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to come back to the present moment. We learn to stay with the uneasiness, the tightening, the itch of shenpa. We train in sitting still with our desire to scratch. This is how we learn to stop the chain reaction of habitual patterns that otherwise will rule our lives. This is how we weaken the patterns that keep us hooked into discomfort that we mistake as comfort. We label the spinoff "thinking" and return to the present moment. Yet even in meditation, we experience shenpa.
Let's say, for example, that in meditation you felt settled and open. Thoughts came and went, but they didn't hook you. They were like clouds in the sky that dissolved when you acknowledged them. You were able to return to the moment without a sense of struggle. Afterwards, you're hooked on that very pleasant experience: "I did it right, I got it right. That's how it should always be, that's the model." Getting caught like that builds arrogance, and conversely it builds poverty, because your next session is nothing like that. In fact, your "bad" session is even worse now because you're hooked on the "good" one. You sat there and you were discursive: you were obsessing about something at home, at work. You worried and you fretted; you got caught up in fear or anger. At the end of the session, you feel discouraged—it was "bad," and there's only you to blame.
Is there something inherently wrong or right with either meditation experience? Only the shenpa. The shenpa we feel toward "good" meditation hooks us into how it's "supposed" to be, and that sets us up for shenpa towards how it's not "supposed" to be. Yet the meditation is just what it is. We get caught in our idea of it: that's the shenpa. That stickiness is the root shenpa. We call it ego-clinging or self-absorption. When we're hooked on the idea of good experience, self-absorption gets stronger; when we're hooked on the idea of bad experience, self-absorption gets stronger. This is why we, as practitioners, are taught not to judge ourselves, not to get caught in good or bad.
What we really need to do is address things just as they are. Learning to recognize shenpa teaches us the meaning of not being attached to this world. Not being attached has nothing to do with this world. It has to do with shenpa—being hooked by what we associate with comfort. All we're trying to do is not to feel our uneasiness. But when we do this we never get to the root of practice. The root is experiencing the itch as well as the urge to scratch, and then not acting it out.
If we're willing to practice this way over time, prajna begins to kick in. Prajna is clear seeing. It's our innate intelligence, our wisdom. With prajna, we begin to see the whole chain reaction clearly. As we practice, this wisdom becomes a stronger force than shenpa. That in itself has the power to stop the chain reaction.
Prajna isn't ego-involved. It's wisdom found in basic goodness, openness, equanimity—which cuts through self-absorption. With prajna we can see what will open up space. Habituation, which is ego-based, is just the opposite—a compulsion to fill up space in our own particular style. Some of us close space by hammering our point through; others do it by trying to smooth the waters.
We're taught that whatever arises is fresh, the essence of realization. That's the basic view. But how do we see whatever arises as the essence of realization when the fact of the matter is, we have work to do? The key is to look into shenpa. The work we have to do is about coming to know that we're tensing or hooked or "all worked up." That's the essence of realization. The earlier we catch it, the easier shenpa is to work with, but even catching it when we're already all worked up is good. Sometimes we have to go through the whole cycle even though we see what we're doing. The urge is so strong, the hook so sharp, the habitual pattern so sticky, that there are times when we can't do anything about it.
There is something we can do after the fact, however. We can go sit on the meditation cushion and re-run the story. Maybe we start with remembering the all-worked-up feeling and get in touch with that. We look clearly at the shenpa in retrospect; this is very helpful. It's also helpful to see shenpa arising in little ways, where the hook is not so sharp.
Buddhists are talking about shenpa when they say, "Don't get caught in the content: observe the underlying quality—the clinging, the desire, the attachment." Sitting meditation teaches us how to see that tangent before we go off on it. It basically comes down to the instruction, "label it thinking." To train in this on the cushion, where it's relatively easy and pleasant to do, is how we can prepare ourselves to stay when we get all worked up.
Then we can train in seeing shenpa wherever we are. Say something to another person and maybe you'll feel that tensing. Rather than get caught in a story line about how right you are or how wrong you are, take it as an opportunity to be present with the hooked quality. Use it as an opportunity to stay with the tightness without acting upon it. Let that training be your base.
You can also practice recognizing shenpa out in nature. Practice sitting still and catching the moment when you close down. Or practice in a crowd, watching one person at a time. When you're silent, what hooks you is mental dialogue. You talk to yourself about badness or goodness: me-bad or they-bad, this-right or that-wrong. Just to see this is a practice. You'll be intrigued by how you'll involuntarily shut down and get hooked, one way or another. Just keep labeling those thoughts and come back to the immediacy of the feeling. That's how not to follow the chain reaction.
Once we're aware of shenpa, we begin to notice it in other people. We see them shutting down. We see that they've been hooked and that nothing is going to get through to them now. At that moment we have prajna. That basic intelligence comes through when we're not caught up in escaping from our own unease. With prajna we can see what's happening with others; we can see when they've been hooked. Then we can give the situation some space. One way to do that is by opening up the space on the spot, through meditation. Be quiet and place your mind on your breath. Hold your mind in place with great openness and curiosity toward the other person. Asking a question is another way of creating space around that sticky feeling. So is postponing your discussion to another time.
At the abbey, we're very fortunate that everybody is excited about working with shenpa. So many words I've tried using become ammunition that people use against themselves. But we feel some kind of gladness about working with shenpa, perhaps because the word is unfamiliar. We can acknowledge what's happening with clear seeing, without aiming it at ourselves. Since no one particularly likes to have his shenpa pointed out, people at the Abbey make deals like, "When you see me getting hooked, just pull your earlobe, and if I see you getting hooked, I'll do the same. Or if you see it in yourself, and I'm not picking up on it, at least give some little sign that maybe this isn't the time to continue this discussion." This is how we help each other cultivate prajna, clear seeing.
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 like this 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. Don't let the softening and humility turn into self-denigration. That's just another hook. Because we've been strengthening the whole habituated situation for a long, long time, we can't expect to undo it overnight. It's not a one-shot deal. It takes loving-kindness to recognize; it takes practice to refrain; it takes willingness to relax; it takes determination to keep training this way. It helps to remember that we may experience two billion kinds of itches and seven quadrillion types of scratching, but there is really only one root shenpa—ego-clinging. We experience it as tightening and self-absorption. It has degrees of intensity. The branch shenpas are all our different styles of scratching that itch.
I recently saw a cartoon of three fish swimming around a hook. One fish is saying to the other, "The secret is non-attachment." That's a shenpa cartoon: the secret is—don't bite that hook. If we can catch ourselves at that place where the urge to bite is strong, we can at least get a bigger perspective on what's happening. As we practice this way, we gain confidence in our own wisdom. It begins to guide us toward the fundamental aspect of our being—spaciousness, warmth and spontaneity.
Pema Chödrön is a fully-ordained Buddhist nun and the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are, When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, and Comfortable With Uncertainty, published by Shambhala Publications.