Feeding the Right Wolf
There was a story that was widely circulated a few days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, that illustrates our dilemma. A Native American grandfather was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about. He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart. One wolf was vengeful and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind. The young man asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart. And the grandfather answered, “The one that wins will be the one I choose to feed.”
So this is our challenge, the challenge for our spiritual practice and the challenge for the world—how can we train right now, not later, in feeding the right wolf? How can we call on our innate intelligence to see what helps and what hurts, what escalates aggression and what uncovers our good-heartedness? With the global economy in chaos and the environment of the planet at risk, with war raging and suffering escalating, it is time for each of us in our own lives to take the leap and do whatever we can to help turn things around. Even the slightest gesture toward feeding the right wolf will help. Now more than ever, we are all in this together.
Learning to Stay
The primary focus of this path of choosing wisely, of this training to de-escalate aggression, is learning to stay present. Pausing very briefly, frequently throughout the day, is an almost effortless way to do this. For just a few seconds we can be right here. Meditation is another way to train in learning to stay, or, as one student put it more accurately, learning to come back, to return to being present over and over again. The truth is, anyone who’s ever tried meditation learns really quickly that we are almost never fully present. But for sure we need tremendous encouragement and some practical advice for how to stay right here and open ourselves to life. It’s definitely not our habitual response.
Buddhist teachers Chögyam Trungpa and Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche both used a helpful analogy to describe the challenge of staying present to life’s discomfort. They said that we humans are like young children who have a bad case of poison ivy. Because we want to relieve the discomfort, we automatically scratch, and it seems a perfectly sane thing to do. In the face of anything we don’t like, we automatically try to escape. In other words, scratching is our habitual way of trying to get away, trying to escape our fundamental discomfort, the fundamental itch of restlessness and insecurity, or that very uneasy feeling: that feeling that something bad is about to happen.
We don’t know yet that when we scratch, the poison ivy spreads. Pretty soon we’re scratching all over our body and rather than finding relief, we find that our discomfort is escalating. In this analogy, the child is taken to the doctor to be given a prescription. This is equivalent to meeting a spiritual guide, receiving teachings, and beginning the practice of meditation. Meditation can be described as learning how to stay with the itch and the urge to scratch without scratching. With meditation we train in settling down with whatever we’re feeling, including the addictive urge to scratch, the addictive urge to avoid discomfort at any cost. We train in just staying present, open, and awake, no matter what’s going on.
The Habit of Escape
There’s a very useful teaching from Dzigar Kongtrül, that allows us to take a closer look at knee-jerk pattern of moving away from being present. This is the teaching on shenpa. Generally the Tibetan word shenpa is translated “attachment,” but that has always seemed too abstract to me, as it doesn’t touch the magnitude of shenpa and the effect it has on us.
An alternate translation might be “hooked”—what it feels like to get hooked—what it feels like to be stuck. Everyone likes to hear teachings on getting unstuck because they address such a common source of pain. 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.
If we catch it when it first arises, when it’s just a tightening, a slight pulling back, a feeling of beginning to get hot under the collar, it’s very workable. Then we have the possibility of becoming curious about this urge to do the habitual thing, this urge to strengthen a repetitive pattern. We can feel it physically and, interestingly enough, it’s never new. It always has a familiar taste. It has a familiar smell. When you begin to get in touch with shenpa, you feel like this has been happening forever. It allows you to feel the underlying insecurity that is inherent in a changing, shifting, impermanent world—an insecurity that is felt by everyone as long as we continue to scramble to get ground under our feet.
When someone says something that triggers you, you don’t really have to go into the history of why you’re triggered. This is not self-analysis, an exploration of what the trauma was. It’s just, “Uh-oh,” and you feel yourself tightening. Generally speaking, we don’t catch it when it first arises. It’s more common to be well into acting out or repressing by the time we realize that we’re caught.
Dzigar Kongtrül says that shenpa is the charge behind emotions, behind thoughts and words. For instance, when words are imbued with shenpa, they easily become hate words. Any word at all can be transformed into a racial slur, into the language of aggression, when it has the force and charge of shenpa behind it. You say the shenpa word and it produces shenpa in others, who then respond defensively. When left unchecked, shenpa is similar to a highly contagious disease and it spreads rapidly.
The Natural Movement of Life
Life’s energy is never static. It is as shifting, fluid, changing as the weather. Sometimes we like how we’re feeling, sometimes we don’t. Then we like it again. Then we don’t. Happy and sad, comfortable and uncomfortable alternate continually. This is how it is for everyone. But behind our views and opinions, our hopes and fears about what’s happening, the dynamic energy of life is always here, unchanged by our reactions of like and dislike.
How we relate to this dynamic flow of energy is important. We can learn to relax with it, recognizing it as our basic ground, as a natural part of life; or the feeling of uncertainty, of nothing to hold on to, can cause us to panic, and instantly a chain reaction begins. We panic, we get hooked, and then our habits take over and we think and speak and act in a very predictable way.
Our energy and the energy of the universe are always in flux, but we have little tolerance for this unpredictability, and we have little ability to see ourselves and the world as an exciting, fluid situation that is always fresh and new. Instead we get stuck in a rut—the rut of “I want” and “I don’t want,” the rut of shenpa, the rut of continually getting hooked by our personal preferences.
When we pause, allow a gap, and breathe deeply, we can experience instant refreshment. Suddenly we slow down, look out, and there’s the world. It can feel like briefly standing in the eye of the tornado or the still point of a turning wheel. Our mood may be agitated or cheerful. What we see and hear may be chaos or it may be the ocean, the mountains, or birds flying across a clear blue sky. Either way, momentarily our mind is still and we are not pulled in or pushed away by what we are experiencing. Or we may experience this pause as awkward, as fearful, as impatient, as embarrassingly self-conscious.
The approach here is radical. We are encouraged to get comfortable with, begin to relax with, lean in to, whatever the experience may be. We are encouraged to drop the storyline and simply pause, look out, and breathe. Simply be present for a few seconds, a few minutes, a few hours, a whole lifetime, with our own shifting energies and with the unpredictability of life as it unfolds, wholly partaking in all experiences just exactly as they are.
There are three things about shenpa. One, our storyline fuels it. Two, it comes with an undertow. And three, it always has consequences—which frequently are not pleasant. For instance, we feel lonely and automatically shenpa is there—that neutral moment of shenpa is right there. But instead of recognizing what’s happening, instead of waking up and riding the energy, we bite the hook and overeat, go on a binge, or strike out at others aggressively. Then there’s the post-shenpa shenpa. We become hooked by guilt and self-denigration for having been taken over once again. The story can go on and on for years, with one shenpa setting off a chain reaction that gives birth to further shenpa and so on and on.
In meditation we’re instructed to acknowledge when we’re thinking and then to let the thoughts go and come back to being fully present—back to what Chögyam Trungpa called square one. Just keep coming back to square one, and if square one feels edgy and restless and filled with shenpa, still you just come back there. The shenpa itself is not the problem. The ignorance that doesn’t acknowledge that you’re hooked, that just goes unconscious and allows you to act it out—that’s the problem. To counteract it, we try to bring our full compassionate attention to being hooked and what follows—the familiar chain reaction. We train in letting the storyline go, letting the fuel of shenpa go.
This is hard to do because then for sure you’re left in a very uncomfortable place. When you don’t do the habitual thing, you’re bound to feel some pain. The author calls it the detox period. You’ve been doing the same predictable thing to get away from that uneasy, uncomfortable, vulnerable feeling for so long, and now you’re not. So you’re left with that queasy feeling. This requires some getting used to and some ability to practice kindness and patience. It requires some openness and curiosity to see what happens next. What happens when you don’t fuel the discomfort with a storyline? What happens when you abide with this shifting, fluid, universal energy? What happens if you pause and embrace the natural movement of life?
What you learn very quickly in this process is what happens when you don’t abide with the energy. You learn that the storyline feeds the shenpa, that it comes with an undertow, and that there will be consequences. The undertow can be very strong. As Dzigar Kongtrül says, one of the qualities of shenpa is that it’s very difficult to let go of. The urge to get even, the power of craving, the potency of sheer habit is like a magnetic force pulling us in a familiar direction. So we opt again and again for short-term gratification that in the long run keeps us stuck in the same cycle. If you’ve done this enough—especially if you’ve gone through this cycle consciously—you know that the consequences are easily predictable.
When we pause and breathe and abide with the energy, we can foresee quite clearly where biting the hook will lead. Gradually this understanding, this natural intelligence, supports us in our journey of abiding with the restless energy, our journey of fully partaking in our experience without being seduced by the shenpa of “I like it” or “I can’t bear to feel this.” Dzigar Kongtrül once pointed out that you may find a particular feeling intolerable, but instead of acting on that you could come to know intolerableness very, very well. Shantideva, the eighth-century Buddhist master, compares this to willingly undergoing a painful medical treatment in order to cure a long-term disease.
There is a formal practice for learning to stay with the energy of uncomfortable emotions—a practice for transmuting the poison of negative emotions into wisdom. It is similar to alchemy, the medieval technique of changing base metal into gold. You don’t get rid of the base metal—it isn’t thrown out and replaced by gold. Instead, the crude metal itself is the source of the precious gold. An analogy that’s commonly used by Tibetans is of the peacock who eats poison with the result that its tail feathers become more brilliant and glowing.
This transmutation practice is specifically one of remaining open and receptive to your own energy when you are triggered. It has three steps. Step One. Acknowledge that you’re hooked. Step Two. Pause, take three conscious breaths, and lean in. Lean in to the energy. Abide with it. Experience it fully. Taste it. Touch it. Smell it Step Three. Then relax and move on. Just go on with your life so that the practice doesn’t become a big deal, an endurance test, a contest that you win or lose.