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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