"shenpa" - the hook

What Is Suffering?

by MK LeFevour

The nurse sticks me four times before she finds a vein in my hand to start the IV drip.  It takes 30 minutes for enough saline to get into my system so they can hook up a bag of leucovorin.  Another 45 minutes later the nurse comes back to start the part I hate the most called “the push”.   A hypodermic of 5FU is attached to my IV and the nurse literally pushes the chemical into the line.  It only takes a minute but each second feels like an hour.  I keep a close eye on the progress of the leucovorin left in the bag because the second my IV stops dripping I can get hell out of the cancer center and go home.  Only 2 hours pass during a chemo session but it is an eternity of suffering for me.

Recently I read a story about the great philosopher Krishnamurti that blew my mind. One day during a lecture, Krishnamurti asked his audience if they wanted to know his secret to happiness.  Of course they did!  They leaned forward in anticipation of his answer.  He proceeded to tell them – “My secret to happiness is I don’t mind what happens.”  How can anyone have that kind of equanimity to be able to say “I don’t mind what happens.”  If I had heard this secret to happiness while in the chemo chair, I would have cursed Krishnamurti quite roundly.  

So, here we have two beings on opposite ends of the human spectrum – Krishnamurti who has achieved the ultimate equanimity that he doesn’t mind what happens to him and me watching the minutes count down until I’m released from the IV and my suffering.  How can anyone achieve Krishnamurti’s level of being so solidly present in each moment that nothing moves him out of that moment – that he doesn’t mind what happens to him.

The Buddha gave us a path to getting from me suffering in the chemo pod to Krishnamurti’s equanimity by understanding the root cause of suffering.  Suffering is a result of a monkey mind where we can’t accept what happens to us—we mind very much what other people say, how much money we lost in the stock market, the pain in our bodies. It’s almost inconceivable to think that we might live in a way where these things didn’t rattle us—make us suffer. Within the Eightfold Path, Buddha’s guide to enlightenment, He describes how to practice vipassana or insight meditation — a powerful tool to help release us from this continual round of suffering.  Vipassana is meant to help us tame our minds so that we can stay centered in the Now, to be open and nonjudgmental – to step off the roller coaster of up-down, good-bad, like-dislike.  It’s not that we can eliminate life’s pain – physical or emotional but we can stop adding to the suffering by how we react to that pain.

In one of her dharma talks, the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön describes those moments that trigger our suffering with the Tibetan word “shenpa.”  She describes shenpa as the hook that triggers our habitual tendency to close down when confronted with discomfort.  When shenpa hooks us we begin to tense and tighten and feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are.  But resisting the present moment and what it brings only amplifies our suffering.  If we can watch what is happening and not judge it, not analyze it, not push it away nor hold it close, we begin to release ourselves from the suffering that aversion or grasping brings.  We may not be able to avoid discomfort, physical pain or challenging events, but we can control how we react and in that there is equanimity or the release from suffering brought by wanting a different present moment.

Previously I’ve described my inner hell of sitting in the chemo chair but let me describe that scene from another (equally valid) point of view – There’s me in a comfy reclining chair with my beloved wife sitting next to me, tucking me in with a blanket crocheted by loving volunteers, while nurses like Gina and Carla come by to hug me, give me heat packs for my hands, and tell me the latest jokes they’ve heard.  Within easy reach on the counter of the nurses’ station are chocolates, bagels, popcorn and other snacks brought in by patients who want to soften the experience for others while they sit through chemo.  In my lap is a DVD player with episodes of “Sports Night” to make the time fly.  So where’s the suffering here?  Only in my mind!  Other than the IV needle being put into my hand, there is no physical pain.  The entirety of my suffering is self-manufactured.  For me, chemotherapy was my shenpa – the hook that closed me down to What Is.  At the few times when I wasn’t inwardly focused on my suffering, I could look around at my chemo companions in their recliners and see one deeply ensconced in a book, one taking a nap, a woman knitting despite the IV in her hand or another surrounded by friends laughing while eating take-out.  I would wonder at their ability to use this time as respite instead of time to be endured or suffered through.

Chemo ended for me six years ago, but what I learned about suffering has been a continual gift. The more I practice vipassana, the more I catch the moment when shenpa is waiting for me to take its bait. In those moments I can choose to amplify my suffering by resisting “What Is” or I can lessen suffering by simply being in the present moment – abiding in whatever reality brings.

I hope to the gods and goddesses that I never sit in a chemo chair again, but if cancer does come back, I’m counting on my practice of vipassana to not let shenpa hook me and instead of taking shenpa’s bait, I’ll take a chocolate from the nurse’s station, grab my wife’s hand, and enjoy the next two hours by simply being in the present moment.