Don't Bite the Hook

Resisting the urge to react in a rapidly changing and uncertain world.

Posted Jan 16, 2021

I think most of us have had the experience of someone saying or doing something to us and then having this immediate urge of what feels like piping hot lava climb up our body like a volcano on the verge of a colossal eruption. And, it doesn’t always take much.

 Photo by Cottonbro/Pexels
Source: Photo by Cottonbro/Pexels

A colleague criticizes our work on a project. Someone makes a snide remark about a comment we made in a conversation three weeks ago. Our parent questions our adult-self when we reach for that last chocolate left over from the holidays, or why our high school child hasn’t quite honed in on a career yet, especially with all of this extra time on her hands during a pandemic. In fact, depending on our mood on any given day, all this may need is a glance or tone that is slightly off-kilter. Then, pow!

Our rational adult-self knows that we are reacting, possibly way-over-reacting but we can’t help it. It’s like trying to hold in a sneeze, a really big sneeze that has been building for seconds and has now reached the point of no return. 

There is a Tibetan word for this and it is called shenpa. According to Pema Chodron, shenpa is the root cause of aggression as well as craving. It points to the common feelings of cruelty, greed, and oppression that seem to be the root cause of all conflict. Shenpa is the feeling of “getting hooked,” the charge behind what we like or don’t like, and who we like or don’t like.

Once we become aware of shenpa, it becomes easier to notice and we can feel this has been happening for a long time. It also becomes easier to see in others. Shenpa is a sticky feeling that is accompanied by a very seductive urge to react and dig in. When someone makes a salty comment about us, someone we care about, or our political beliefs, we get this immediate sensation of tightening that spirals us into a cycle of blame and possibly revenge.

The good news is that once we become aware of shenpa, we can notice it begin to surge and catch it before it builds too much momentum and we can no longer hold it in. If we catch shenpa early enough it is very workable.

I suppose this is just like anything else in that we can’t do what we don’t know. However, once we become aware (the lightbulb goes on) we then have a responsibility to do better. For myself, I have made a conscious decision to be on “shenpa-alert” every day and I have set the bar at Do My Best, as this is one I can always reach. If I happen to fall off the shenpa-wagon, I will simply dust myself off and get back on, and hopefully, be wiser for the wear.

In a mindful way, we can simply acknowledge what is happening and sit with this experience of being triggered, this volcanic urge to react, without judgment. It’s like having that relentless and often unreachable itch that we generally find nearly impossible to resist. Nevertheless, we can learn to keep this fidgety feeling at bay by practicing patience. When we feel the shenpa-surge beginning to take hold of us, we can breathe deeply and hold our seats.

Image by Openclipart-Vectors/Pixabay
Source: Image by Openclipart-Vectors/Pixabay

It is during this in-between moment that we can zoom in on the source of insecurity in us, and the bigger sense of insecurity in the changing and uncertain world we are living in. Training ourselves to sit still with the shenpa-itch without scratching, teaches us to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. We then become less reactive and better able to change our own dance, rather than trying to change others.

By making an effort to become shenpa-aware, and practicing patience to sit still with it when it arises, we interrupt the automatic chain reaction of conditioned reactivity that governs our lives (Chodron, 2006).

And, when we practice patience, in essence, we are practicing inner peace, and peace on the inside often leads to peace on the outside.

Especially given the state of things in the world, the pandemics of COVID, ongoing racism, and now the recent siege on Capitol Hill, just imagine what a little shenpa-awareness could do for us all. Happy New Year.


Chodron, P. (2006). Practicing peace in times of war. Boston, MA: Shambhala Productions.