"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Prajna and Shenpa

I recently read an article by Pema Chodrin titled "How We Get Hooked".  In it she talks about shenpa, that unease and insecurity related to living in an unpredictable world.  We get hooked on shenpa, obsess about it, try to dissect it, control it, or we attempt to alleviate it by distracting ourselves with alcohol, drugs, food, sex.  Chodrin says "it helps to remember that we may experience two billion kinds of itches and seven quadrillion types of scratching, but there is really only one root shenpa - ego clinging.  We experience it as tightening and self absorption."

Being a mother means engaging in a completely selfless act; the ego is virtually ignored.  It doesn't like to be ignored, so it will make itself known through shenpa.  This shenpa comes in two parts,  fear of losing oneself and fear of being a failure as a parent.  It's important to acknowledge when the mind, high on shenpa, indulges in exaggeration, because it is precisely this exaggeration that causes depression and anxiety. 

I've looked at depression though a literary/artistic lens and now I am looking at it through a mindful/psychoanalytic lens.

In meditation, we learn to sit with shenpa, be with it and breathe.  Sometimes this isn't easy, especially if the shenpa is relatively new and intense.  But with time, it will soften enough so that one can deal with it.  When this happens, prajna kicks in.  Chodrin says, "Prajna isn't ego-involved.  It's wisdom found in basic goodness, openness, equanimity - which cuts through self absorption."  I have witnessed this prajna; it is a deeper voice than the haggard ramblings of shenpa, almost like an underground spring.  It is honest and soothing, as if a grandmother were whispering wisdom in your ear.  At one point during this depression when I was feeling especially anxious about socializing and preoccupied by uncomfortable feelings, crediting them with being insurmountable, my prajna-grandmother whispered "you're just out of practice, that's all."  That made a lot of sense to me; I'm home with the kids most of the time and I am definitely out of practice.  "So practice," prajna-grandmother said, and I did.

In meditation we learn that striving will bring on expectation, which is another type of shenpa.  In the article, Chodrin talks about how we think we have a good meditation practice when we are open and thoughts come and go, shift and transform like clouds; we compliment ourselves on remaining unattached and open and feel that we "did it right".  Afterwards, we compare every meditation practice to this one, judging if it is wrong or right and expecting it to be right and comfortable.  This is shenpa, as well, being attached to an outcome.  Prajna says, "it is good enough" no matter what the experience is.  This takes the pressure off. 

When I was a child, I felt as if I moved through shenpas a bit more swiftly and easily than I do now.  Perhaps there was less drama surrounding them.  Perhaps my mind was more malleable back then because it was less jaded.  If someone were to ask me what I want most in this life, for myself, it would be to get back to that mindset.


  1. This is so easy to understand with the way you've written it. I can immediately understand what you are saying, and how it feels. Thank you for writing this. We can all relate to it.

    1. I replied through email, but I don't think it went through. If it did, pardon the redundancy. Thanks for reading and I'm glad you found the essay helpful. It's always good to hear what people are thinking.