Shenpa – Don’t bite the hook!

I have read several first-person accounts of life with multiple sclerosis (they are listed and linked there on the right margin), and found each of them, in their own way, informative and, dare I say it, educational. Each story is unique, a further example of how people can be diagnosed with the same disease but have wildly varying reactions to it and experiences of it. There are several more books of this kind that I know of, and probably dozens that I don’t.

Oddly enough, “Taking the Leap,” by Pema Chodron, has taught me the deepest lessons about how to live fully with MS – and it isn’t even a book about MS. Pema Chodron, for those who might not know of her, is an ordained nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She is a prolific writer and respected teacher, leading workshops, seminars and retreats around the world. “Taking the Leap,” subtitled, “Freeing ourselves from old habits and fears,” offers insight into the concept of shenpa, which she describes as, “the itch and the urge to scratch.” She likens it to biting a hook that is dangled tantalizingly in front of you. Chodron writes, “Somebody says a mean word to you and then something in you tightens— that’s the shenpa.” She seeks to teach us to recognize the hook, and offers a healthier way to deal with it, to not bite it. If you have a reaction to poison ivy, the resulting rash is itchy, but scratching the itch only makes it worse. Shenpa.

I won’t attempt to delve further into the concepts and teachings Chodron lays out in her book – it’s the kind of stuff that will require a few more reads to fully understand. But boiled way down, she teaches how to recognize the hook and suggests that, when you find one dangling in front of you, rather than biting it, you can take three conscious breaths, and allow yourself to fully experience the shenpa – anger, frustration, even joy – allowing it to be just exactly what it is, without snapping at it and allowing yourself to get hooked. In the calm space the those breaths can open up, you can experience the emotion without having to get attached, or hooked, by it. It is a concept that Chodron herself says is difficult to explain. She understands it more fully than I, and is far better suited to write about it.

My point here is that, “Taking the Leap,” while it is not specifically about coping with disease, illness, or any chronic condition, has taught me a great deal about how to recognize the various hooks that MS dangles in front of me. When I find my wandering mind wandering into areas of darkness, anger, sadness, and depression, I do my best to take those three conscious breaths, recognize the hook, fully feel the emotion, and let it go. It’s not a matter of avoiding or ignoring or escaping from emotional pain and discomfort. It is a matter of fully experiencing and understanding those emotions, without getting tangled up in them. Anger and frustration and depression need not be as overwhelming as they sometimes are.

I read studies that show how mediation can help people with chronic diseases, such as MS, and I wonder why they had to do a study to find this out. It makes complete sense to anyone with even a passing understanding of mediation. The study of shenpa offers a focused and simple (though not easy) meditative technique that can be employed at any moment of your life. I find that with a little attention, I can begin to recognize hooks there for the biting all through my day. And by learning how not to bite them, my day goes immeasurably better. I highly recommend “Taking the Leap,” but for a little taste of these concepts, and an introduction to the writing of Pema Chodron, read “The Shenpa Syndrome.”

(Also recommended is this nifty little online tool, “Do Nothing.” Take a look, and try it every day.”)


Author: Stephen

Stephen Harris is a writer, painter and a photographer who lives with his family in Maine.

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