Denise Evans, Clinical Counsellor

Three Steps to a Calmer Life

Posted by Administrator on May 14 2010

Have you ever reacted to something someone said or did and later wished you hadn’t? This reactivity causes numerous problems in our lives, so learning how to recognise and handle it is one of the tasks of psychotherapy. This is also one of the central concepts in Pema Chodron’s new book, “Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears.” Reactivity is called “shenpa”, which is the process of being hooked by our own thoughts or emotions and reacting in ways that continue the cycle of suffering—our own or someone else’s. When shenpa is activated you experience a tightening in your body, a drawing towards or away, and you act in order to escape that feeling of discomfort. That reaction creates the subsequent problems. Examples might be as simple as a teenager snapping at a parent who wants to know where they are going, which creates an escalating argument; to someone using drugs to escape their feelings; or as complicated as a nation lashing at another with warfare or acts of terrorism. We can all think of times in our own lives when we acted out shenpa and created pain.

The good news is that there are ways to break the cycle. Pema Chodron is very clear that we always have a choice in how we respond. The first step is to accept that we all struggle with shenpa. It is part of our humanity. Rather than trying to escape from whatever our feelings are, she suggests that we stay present and accept them—and she includes staying present for shenpa itself. Acknowledge that you are hooked and allow your natural curiosity to examine whatever you are feeling. The key here is to be gentle and compassionate in your examination and allow yourself to really know and be humbled by your humanity, linking you to everyone else who has the same struggles. Once you have examined it, relax and let it go. That is it.

In her words:
“Step one: acknowledge that you are hooked (with humour if possible). Step two: pause, take 3 conscious breaths and lean into the energy. Experience it fully, get curious about it. How does it feel in your body? What thought does it give birth to? (with kindness). Step 3, let it go, relax and move on.”

Like many Buddhist practices, it is simple, but it isn’t easy to do. However, can you imagine what the world would be like if we all practised this, even imperfectly?

We have opportunities to practise managing shenpa every day. For those of you who decide to try, good luck. Remember managing shenpa even once is worth celebrating. Focus upon any success you have in stopping your own strongly held, habitual reactions. After all, you’ve been practising those for years.

If you would like to read the book, which I highly recommend, it is available at the Squamish Public Library.

Read article in Squamish Chief

Last changed: May 14 2010 at 5:10 PM

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