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Most of us are uncomfortable with boredom and feel as if we have to do something to lighten the uneasiness. This “sticky feeling” is what Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, refers to as shenpa. Shenpa is a Tibetan word which is typically defined as “attachment,” but she believes that really doesn’t get it and it’s more than that. Shenpa is that hooked feeling which she likens to the urge to scratch an itch. The urge to smoke. The urge to eat. The urge to watch TV. The urge to check Facebook. The urge to do anything other than just be with the present moment and sit with the feelings whatever they may be.

In the teaching, Habituation and Karmic Momentum, Chodron writes:

We think happiness is going to come from always leaving that place, that tender, shaky place that we call boredom or fear or anxiety, or whatever we call it, and filling up the space with entertainment, with fun, with movement, with action. And maybe it’s not even fun, but at least at least it fills up the space with worrying, with churning ourselves up, working ourselves up with anger, and so forth.

How often have you finally gotten some time in your day to have a little peace of mind (you might say, well, that never happens, but…), but how often has that happened when it stretched a little longer than was comfortable and you made a phone call? You just, somehow, wanted to not be there with that fundamental restlessness. So you make a phone call. Or, how often are you with somebody and they’re not talking very much, and then you just start talking more and more and more and more and more. Like silence becomes very threatening and awkward, and you begin to feel every hair on your head and you begin to feel where arms are and everything’s itching, suddenly you’re scratching all over, and wiggling and moving.

This is a description of this underlying karmic wind that you’re always wanting to move away from. And the shenpa is very much in there, someplace. There’s not always shenpa involved in this. But the momentum of moving away usually involves shenpa of some kind. You get hooked by something because it represents comfort for you —making the phone call, avoiding the boredom, avoiding the restlessness, avoiding this uneasy, underlying uneasiness.

Rather than try to push this boredom away and fill up the space with something, she advises us to stay with the present moment, the feeling, and to learn to relax into the space of nothing happening. Learning to stay present, Chodron says, is “like being willing to endure the short-term pain of an injection in order to be free of the disease altogether.”

We learn to stay present through conscious observation of our mind and feelings. Meditating is great training for becoming comfortable with this boredom. In meditation, as a person resists popping up to jot something on the grocery list, remains seated and comes back to the breath, just letting the thought go – hopefully, to be remembered later – they learn to sit with these feelings.

I used to be terribly uneasy with quiet, calm, and boring. So, I created a life that was anything but that. After a tumultuous marriage followed by years of legal drama, I found a subsequent relationship that was equally turbulent. Even though I strongly disliked all the chaos, I, unknowingly, was hooked on the emotional excitement of it all and was used to being on the roller coaster. Anything else just didn’t feel right – b-o-r-i-n-g. Through meditation and mindfulness, I’ve turned this pattern around and no longer need the adrenaline rush that accompanies this kind of drama.

A serious brain injury forced me to HAVE to be still and quiet and slow way down. I totally isolated myself and wasn’t social at all for years out of absolute necessity, and I’ve been gradually adding more activity and socialization back into my life lately. Being at the point where I’m craving something more now, I have to ask myself “Is this shenpa or natural evolution and growth for me having gone too far to the other side?” I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

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  1. It’s a worthwhile process to practice this intent toward balance, isn’t it? I believe it encourages peace on Earth to become more peaceful yourself.

    Because I also grew up uneasy with boredom, I had to find a way to accept ceasing activity to allow myself to deepen and get more centered. I respond well to humor, so I began by framing it as a choice, to “do nothing – on PURPOSE” (eek!) Over the years, doing nothing (on purpose) helped me learn more how to be instead of doing. The experience of existence appears clearer to me as a result. I have gotten to really look forward to walking slowly, without allowing thoughts to “stick”, just encountering whatever I run into.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      I like it! “Doing nothing – on purpose” I think you may have a whole philosophy there!

      As with most everything, finding the delicate, just right balance in this situation is the challenge. I have had a really hard time with it. In the past, I tended to always feel I had to be accomplishing something. This attitude has allowed me to achieve many great things, but it also led to stress and lots of self criticism.

      I am learning to be more gentle with myself while still being productive. I am finding that I can do both. Who knew?! 🙂

  2. And here I thought I was just lazy? I love just being in the moment, doing nothing. Maybe having been a workaholic for so long I just appreciate the opportunity for peace and quiet. Gtreat article. Thanks for the info.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      It is all in your perception, isn’t it?! I do think it is all too easy, in this culture, to feel as if we always have to be productive. I tend to fall into this thinking fro time to time. Then, I remind myself that just allowing myself to be and extending myself some compassion IS being productive.

  3. Debbie,

    What a great discussion of fundamental restlessness! This is the first time I’ve heard the idea of “shenpa” being connected with karmic wind, but that does make sense. Yes, when the karmic winds are stirred up, they cloud over the wisdom.

    That’s an interesting personal question you are facing in your life. I will be curious to see your conclusion. Although there may not be one final conclusion. It seems like great spiritual masters can spend endless time in retreat and be fully content and satisfied. But most of them do come out either due to their compassionate wish to help others or because it’s good to test the fruit of one’s practice.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Sandra, I am finding that I vacillate between wanting to do more and, then, when I do it, wanting to get back to my focus and solitude. Maybe it is just the transition phase. Right now, I am trying to honor myself and go where my energy takes me that day.

  4. Fundamental restlessness-a life long struggle.
    I’m not comfortable with the juxtaposition of “being” and not being busy. I find that “being” often requires much more work on my part. When I am in the chaos of the world, I am letting the world fill the space create by the fundamental reatlessness; an act which, like sugar, provides the quick burst, yet soon leads to a greater need than the original vacancy. “Being,” paradoxically, requires much more effort on my part. Assumingthe responsibility for my own feelings of contentment and satisfaction??? Don’t they have a pill for that??
    Allowing the world to fill or satisfy my restlessness is easy; learning to control this for myself is damn difficult.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Yes, filling the restlessness with unconscious busyness is easier than just being with the stillness, boredom and space. This is exemplified by the prevalence of mindless over eating, watching TV, taking drugs, and excessive drinking. However, once a person learns to be comfortable in the boredom and to just be, one is never bored and does not need these things for distraction. Funny how that works.

  5. Great article, thanks. I personally have found that as I become more and more healthy I don’t get bored as much. I think that boredom is needing external stimulation to be happy. If I feel happy and healthy from the inside then I don’t need that stimulation and don’t really get bored. Just my thoughts anyway.

  6. Angel Johnson Reply

    A good read! I find myself with the antsy gotta do something feeling and I know that it can get me in trouble from past experience because I wanna hang with someone thats doesnt mean me much good. Sitting still and being in the present moment can be hard and like tortue sometimes. Though I have went to a slient meditation retreat one time and enjoyed it because it pushed me to think to releieze, to be in the present moment….

    • Angel,

      Thank you for sharing your experience. Yes, I think all too often we just think we need t fill the time because we’re just used to it. When we become mindful, the space sand time can take on a whole new meaning!

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