For anyone like myself who is multiply addicted, it pretty soon stops being about our substance of choice and becomes a question of what is the nature of this addictive quality? What is this thing behind each and every one of my addictions? What is this thing that is ruining my life?
Well it turns out that the Tibetans have a word for it. And the word is shenpa.
Pema Chödrön introduces the term in an article on the shambhala.org site:
"The usual translation of the word shenpa is attachment... But the word "attachment" absolutely doesn't get at what it is. Dzigar Kongtrul said not to use that translation because it's incomplete, and it doesn't touch the magnitude of shenpa and the effect that it has on us.
If I were translating shenpa it would be very hard to find a word, but I'm going to give you a few. One word might be hooked. How we get hooked.
Another synonym for shenpa might be that sticky feeling. In terms of last night's analogy about having scabies, that itch that goes along with that and scratching it, shenpa is the itch and it's the urge to scratch. So, urge is another word. The urge to smoke that cigarette, the urge to overeat, the urge to have one more drink, or whatever it is where your addiction is. "
Any kind of addict knows that urge to scratch the itch all too well. Mostly we don't recognise our itchiness until we already are chemically dependent in some way (if only to the adrenaline buzz we get from a repetive behaviour like shopping or gambling) but actually the itch comes before the scratching that is our addiction.
Currently I'm on meditation retreat... deprived of some of the ways I normally distract my addictive mind. Unable to play computer games, watch the Dog Whisperer on TV or hide in fantasy fiction, I'm face to face with my shenpa in all its glory. Not surprisingly, old addictive thoughts that have been quiet for years are also resurfacing. Drugs, alcohol and food all appear to have a charm that has been noticeably lacking in recent years... until my opportunities to scratch that old itch of shenpa were limited by retreat conditions.
Pema Chödrön goes on to say:
"That's why I think this shenpa is really such a helpful teaching. It's the tightening, it's the urge... it's this drive, too. This drive. It really shows you that you have lots of addictions, that we all have addictions. There's this background static of slight unease, or maybe fidgetiness, or restlessness, or boredom. And so, we begin to use things to try to get some kind of relief from that unease.
Something like food, or alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or working, or shopping, or whatever we do, which, perhaps in moderation would be very delightful... But these things become imbued with an addictive quality because we empower them with the idea that they will bring us comfort. They will remove this unease.
We never get at the root... The root in this case is that we have to really experience unease. We have to experience the itch. We have to experience the shenpa and then not act it out. "
Or, as we say in 12 Step fellowships, we have to be willing to live life on life's terms. We need the willingness to just sit with all that unbearable itchiness and not act on it. We need to stop fantasising that there's an "easier softer option" and face up to our shenpa. If and when we're willing, we will be finally living life on life's own terms. Living in the moment... just for today.
Paradoxically, accepting our itch is the only thing that can make it go away.