A Recovery Blog

This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Shenpa = Getting Hooked

Shenpa is the Tibetan word for attachment, but Pema Chodron calls it getting "hooked" linking it much more directly with addictions of all sorts.  In her book Taking The Leap:  Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears she writes, "In terms of the poison-ivy metaphor -- our fundamental itch and the habit of scratching -- shenpa is the itch and it's also the urge to scratch.  The urge to smoke that cigarette, the urge to overeat, to have one more drink, to say something cruel or to tell a lie."  When we scratch the itch we get temporary relief, but then the infection spreads until it begins to cover us and makes us extremely uncomfortable.  All of us, without exception, feel the pull of shenpa in our daily lives.  For some of us we can still manage without totally falling apart, for others we spiral down into an addictive hole, but either way the essential quality of the pull, the pain and sometimes strange pleasure of it, is the same for everyone.  Lately, I've been awake enough to identify three main shenpa triggers in my life.  They are worry, eating and smoking cigarettes.

Monday I bought a pack of cigarettes and smoked them.  I felt the itch and I scratched it.  The first cigarette tasted horrible, but soon I was puffing away as I knew I would.  By two in the morning I had finished with them and threw away all the remnants, silently making the vow to not indulge in them again.  Today I took comfort in Pema's words:  "We can rejoice when we are able to acknowledge and refrain, and also we should expect relapses.  Sometimes it's one step forward, one step back.  Then maybe one step forward, a half step back."  Three years ago, I quit smoking cigarettes and in the interim I have returned and quit several times more.  I have heard that the more times you try to quit, the closer you get to a full quit.  Up until Monday, I had been clean for over six months and now I plan on going for another six months.  If I wind up smoking two packs in one year, I'll be doing all right.  It is a small blessing that a pack of cigarettes costs around $8 because I know I literally cannot afford to be a smoker.

Though the pull of wanting to smoke can be strong at times, my other two problems, worry and eating, are even more challenging because they are more deeply rooted into my life.  Worry quickly turns into a generalized anxiety which is hard to shake, but I have been sitting with it and not running from it.  And then it dissipates and I'm left without anxiety.  Those are the times when I feel good and relaxed.  Of course, the anxiety returns, but I'm trying to teach myself to breath into it for at least a few moments.  Even that short interruption noticeably strengthens me and gives me some courage to keep working at it. I have also been teaching myself to put off thinking about problems until my calm has returned.  Before I would latch onto the problem and scratch and scratch and frighten myself with visions of being overwhelmed and doomed.

As for eating, there is no way around that.  I have decided that I would rather be too fat than to be anorexic or bulimic.  I see eating disorders as a kind of death to the spirit.  But, of course, that's not the only choice.  I could start a healthy diet and gradually lose the weight that I've put on.  It's not that I eat so much, it's that I eat a little more than I should here and there and with my middle aged metabolism that means I keeping putting weight on a bit at a time.  Still I need to work with the shenpa of eating when I don't need to eat, the way I have been working with the worry, when I don't need to worry.  I have to learn renunciation, in Tibetan it is called "shenluk."  I have experimented a bit with this and there is a kind of freedom in turning away from the pull to eat that extra bowl of cereal, turning instead to nice mug of tea or to meditation.  I believe that it is possible to cultivate healthy attitudes and behaviors.  It's not easy, but it can be done.

Pema Chodron also talks about the shenpa of a prejudiced mind.  She says you should watch yourself closely when you begin to get self righteous because it is just another form of fundamentalism.  Recently I was reading a left wing blog that attacked a right wing media figure.  There were five comments and all the comments were backing up the blogger's point of view.  Now I myself am a liberal Democrat, but the feel of all this made me think of fascist Germany.  It doesn't matter whether you are on the left or the right, both sides are sick when they give into the pull of intolerance.  It's not the fighting spirit that's needed, it's the bridge of communication that is needed.  Polarization is just another form of war and war is not the solution to anything.  It's not an easy thing either to see your enemy as actually your brother or sister, but that's a lot closer to the truth.  In Taking The Leap, Pema Chodron tells the story of an American soldier in Iraq who after witnessing his fellow soldiers being blown up found some Iraqi men who might have been responsible.  He and his group wanted revenge and began to beat up the men, but it was nighttime and when they aimed a flashlight at them they saw one of the men was actually a boy with Down's syndrome.  The American soldier happened to have a son with Down's syndrome and was so disturbed by this situation that he stopped the violence right then and there.

Pema has said that we are all addicts of one sort or another, be it in our hateful attitudes or with particular substances or any number of things.  The process some of us are going through is called waking up.  The way to wake up is to interrupt habitual patterns and do something different in a non harming way.  The importance of waking up has to do with peace on earth, has to do with taking care of this planet.  It starts with each of us as individuals.  Too many people don't believe that there can be peace on earth and too many people don't believe that we can take care of this earth or worse, don't even care.  That means each person who steps forward and starts working on him or her self is a precious commodity.  I for one believe peace is possible, which is why I'm working towards taking the leap.  Seeing where I'm hooked and being honest about it is a good place for me to begin.  What about you?
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